If This Is Close Reading, Count Us Out

Dan Willingham recently addressed close reading in a column at Real Clear Education, in which he noted that ““Close reading” has become strongly associated with the Common Core State Standards, as it’s touted as the reading technique that will allow students to get out of texts what they are meant to (and hence, score well on Common Core-aligned assessments).”

Willingham’s commentary focuses on close reading treating texts as if they are self-contained, ultimately concluding:

Still, it seems a valid question to ask whether this artificial type of reading is likely to be useful in students’ ongoing work in and out of the classroom. Except in very restricted academic settings — that is, among people who like close reading — it’s not obvious to me how this sort of reading will serve students well.

Careful study of language, focus on the author’s words, assumption that rereading pays off: yes. Excluding knowledge outside of the text: no.

So I was interested to find a video and other materials on close reading in an online collection of professional development materials meant to assist teachers in implementing the Common Core. Unfortunately, user agreements for that collection prohibit sharing of those materials on any other websites. Fortunately, the owners of the video have also made it available on YouTube, making it possible to share it with you here.

This video shows portions of a lesson devoted to a close reading of the story of the inventors of Magic Rocks. Comments during the lesson, and in the companion video showing the class during an earlier close reading lesson (embedded below), indicate that the students have been closely reading a series of stories on the inventors of toys including Silly Putty, Twister, Lego, Mr. Potato Head, and Slinky. Students are apparently (according to the companion video) supposed to be determining “what character traits are essential to being an inventor” in addition to using their close reading skills.

I don’t disagree with Willingham’s conclusion above that there are problems with treating texts as self-contained and, as I was reviewing the videos, I was particularly struck by this image from the first video:

close reading unknown words

Although the teacher acknowledges the use of background knowledge during several points in these videos, these students are not being directed to use dictionaries (or glossaries, for that matter) to determine the meaning of unknown words (perhaps because they exist outside of the text?). This strikes me, as a person who still keeps dictionaries conveniently located near the places I tend to sit and read, as an enormous disservice to these students. This disservice is evident in the second video (1:34 to 4:33) in which the teacher pretends not to understand the word stabilizing but guesses at its meaning through the root “sta-” meaning to stand or to stay and the reading of several more sentences of the text indicating that ships pitch, plunge, and rock every which way. It is also evident in the nonsensical discussion she has with a student in the first video (beginning at 1:10) in which she leads the child to explain that he has determined that the word composition (used in the phrase “chemical composition”) means formula because the other words nearby include “study” and “microscope.” Umm, obviously.

In any case, skilled use of a dictionary could resolve the matter of unknown words in short order while the students could be reminded to use context to choose which definition of a word the author meant (see, for example, the use of the word “pitch” above).

But these videos raise other issues for me as well.

First, if reading logs didn’t already make your child think reading is a tedious chore, close reading just might convince them. My eight year old couldn’t look away from the first video but also commented throughout, “I could not go to that school. It is like a meeting, a boring meeting.”

Second, the fact that the students in these videos appear to be absolutely engaged by close reading seems to me to be a testament to the capacity of many children to be compliant. But these children are engaged with the close reading of what strikes me as absolutely trivial material. Multiple class periods devoted to the study of toy inventors is a waste of instructional time that could be devoted to much less trivial content. This is a real problem when skills are elevated over content. It may also be a sign of disrespect to child readers, who may have been assumed to be incapable of interest in more substantial topics in history, including the biographies of inventors whose inventions have substantially affected human history and/or civilization.

Smarter Balanced Assessments 28

College Content Readiness

While preparing to draft yet another long overdue and perhaps forthcoming soon Smarter Balanced Assessments post, I stumbled upon Comments on Revised Achievement Level Descriptors dated February 21, 2013. This document contains comments from faculty at the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University, and Hawkeye Community College regarding the SBAC achievement level descriptors.

I have no idea if any of these comments have been, or will be, adequately addressed by SBAC as they work on setting cut scores for achievement level descriptors this fall, but they raise important issues about the value of the SBAC “college content readiness” designation.

The comments indicate that there is a significant mismatch between the SBAC definition of college content readiness in math (prepared for College Algebra, designated as Math:1005 (22M:008) at the University of Iowa) and Iowa regents institutions, at which many majors have higher level mathematics courses as expected entry-level, first year coursework (see a listing of here for the University of Iowa). The college content readiness mismatch is so great that UNI suggested that the term “high school fluent” be used instead (Comments, p. 9); ISU suggested that students be designated “proficient for 12th grade work” rather than college ready, at least until Smarter Balanced Assessments have been in use long enough to determine whether the assessments are in fact accurately predicting readiness for entry-level, credit bearing coursework (Comments, p. 18).

Another issue highlighted in the comments is that the Smarter Balanced Assessments will not be assessing the “Plus Standards”, which are the additional Common Core standards intended to prepare students for coursework in calculus, advanced statistics, or discrete mathematics (SBAC Math ALDs, p. x). Even if the Smarter Balanced Assessments level 3 and 4 achievement level descriptor cut scores accurately predict readiness for college algebra (which remains to be seen), they will provide no guidance to parents and students as to whether the student is adequately prepared for the higher level mathematics courses STEM/business majors are expected to be prepared to take their first semester in order to graduate in four years.

Your Robocall Needs Work

Scott McLeod is celebrating the 8th anniversary of his blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, with Leadership Day 2014. Last year I contributed a post on school and district websites, Your Website Needs Work.

I know that there are a lot of interesting discussions to be had about technology in the classroom, but as a parent, I would urge school administrators–as technology leaders in their buildings and districts–to allocate some time to thinking about how technology can be used to facilitate (or hamper!) communication with parents and the broader community.

Dear School Administrator,

Last night, for the first time since my child has been enrolled in your school, I hung up on a robocall from you. I hated to do it, but it was the third time in a week that you had called to remind me about the ice cream social and experienced technical difficulties with recording or transmitting your message. Specifically, part way through your message, the message began again at the greeting. Earlier in the week, I listened to your message restart twice(!) so that I could hear it all the way to the end. But last night, I’d had enough and suspected that there was no new information I would miss out on if I hung up.

I am genuinely sorry that it has come to this, that your number popping up on my caller-id screen is starting to leave me with the same feeling of dread with which I face calls from telemarketers and well-meaning campaign volunteers reminding me to get out and vote.

So I want you to know that my child has had a great experience at your school and we are looking forward to another great school year, which is another way of saying that we have positive feelings about you and your school and we want to keep it that way! Improving your robocall (and other technology-facilitated communication) skills should be on your to-do list this year, and here’s why: because my child is doing well at your school (and because I use Twitter but not Facebook and you use Facebook but not Twitter!), robocalls are the only communication I have ever had from you.

Even before the recent technical difficulties, your robocalls were overly long and overly frequent (though I admit, my perspective on this may have been colored by the sheer number of weather-related delays, early outs, and cancellations we had this past school year).

The length, quality, and frequency of robocalls seems like an ideal topic to take up with your PLN (you do have one, don’t you?). Perhaps they would be willing to listen to a few of your recordings and give you constructive feedback on how they might be improved. From my perspective, I will offer that while I appreciate your efforts to sound warm, friendly, and welcoming, that robocalls should probably be approached like all other voice mail messages–because this is essentially what they are–so please, be short and to the point.

Perhaps they would also be willing to share how often and for what purposes they find it effective to use robocalls to communicate with parents.

Perhaps, they could offer other suggestions for using technology to communicate with parents, like effective use of e-mail and Twitter, neither of which you use to communicate with me. (Hint: you can use Twitter to post links to the school’s Facebook page and e-mail is good for longer, more detailed messages).

Don’t overlook teacher-librarians, either, if you don’t have any in your PLN. The ones in our district are tech-savvy and probably could offer some suggestions for improving your technology-facilitated communication with parents–I know, because I follow several of them on Twitter!

Finally, without delay, please talk to someone to resolve your technical difficulties with robocalling before you record your next message. Then I can look forward to answering my phone to find out from you what’s going on at school.

Sincerely, Karen W

Follow Leadership Day 2014 on Twitter at #leadershipday14

Comments on Common Core

Cranberry on Common Core at Joanne Jacobs:

I think the ed reformers perceived the nation’s school system to be a unified whole, which could be ruled from above. That’s not true, as they’re now discovering. From a great height, lowering the standards for the most able children may seem to be an adequate tradeoff for raising the standards for the struggling and neglected.

Unfortunately, they didn’t try to get parent buy-in on that point. Do you think it would have been possible to get parents to agree to short-change their children? I don’t. All the condescending assertions in the world can’t cover up the fact that the Common Core does not raise standards for the children for whom the current system works. And assertions that schools are not required to treat the Common Core standards as a ceiling, that they are free to offer more advanced courses, ignores the pragmatic facts that schools will never have enough money, and that the very idea of tracking is anathema to many school personnel.

The most advanced children tend to have the most educated parents. The most educated parents pay attention to their children’s curricula and school systems. They know how to organize. They know how politics work. All politics are local.

Steve H on Common Core at Kitchen Table Math:

Unfortunately, there are a number of very different reasons why people don’t like CC and that confuses the national discussion. It’s stuck. Nobody wants to go back and study the philosophy and assumptions of CC.

The biggest flaw of CC is that it’s one-size-fits all – “college readiness”. Staring them in the face are all of the high schools that offer different levels of courses where college readiness is not just one thing. In fact, now that everyone is supposed to go to college, college readiness really only means graduating from high school so that you don’t have to take remedial courses in college. Gates (etal) can provide the “and beyond” to their kids, but not worry about others because they get “college readiness.”

I think there is an awful national mindset towards relative improvements in education. Educational leaders see the job as improving average statistics, not providing individual opportunities. This is a control and status quo issue. They don’t want to let parents into the process, but parents care about individuals while others care about statistics.

Smarter Balanced Assessments 27

Iowa has withdrawn from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Now what?

Aside from the fact that Iowa will not be participating as a governing state in establishing achievement level cut scores this fall, as a practical matter, not much has changed.

Neither the Governor nor the Director of the Iowa Department of Education has the authority to choose the statewide accountability assessment. The Iowa Legislature has retained the authority to choose the statewide accountability assessment and is awaiting recommendations from the Assessment Task Force, established by HF215, which are due by January 1, 2015.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments and the Next Generation Iowa Assessments, being developed by the Iowa Testing Program, are the two assessments that remain under consideration by the Task Force.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments item bank can be used by non-member states; withdrawal from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium does not preclude the Iowa Legislature adopting either the Smarter Balanced Assessments or an assessment created using Smarter Balanced items.

As a political matter, it seems that something has changed, it just isn’t yet clear to me what. Has executive branch support for the Smarter Balanced Assessments actually weakened or is something else going on? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

Shane Vander Hart at Caffeinated Thoughts broke the news on Iowa withdrawing from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. He plans to update his blog post as new information comes in.

EdWeek reported on this story at Iowa Announces Withdrawal From Smarter Balanced Testing Group.

See the Iowa House Republican Newsletter (page 6) for additional coverage.