Have Fun, Start Now

Have fun, start now are the guiding principles in Dan Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

Willingham focuses on three foundations of reading: decoding easily, comprehension, and motivation. These foundations are addressed by age groups, birth through preschool, kindergarten through second grade, and third grade and beyond. Willingham discusses what you might expect to be happening at school and what you can do at home. And, because it is Willingham, there are references to research, both what we already know and where further study could be helpful.

This book is aimed at helping you help your child to see the value and pleasure in reading for enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, kids who read have a self-concept of themselves as readers (“reading is one of the things that I do”) and Willingham offers suggestions for helping your child build that self-concept as well as positive encouragement (it’s never too late to start!).

Willingham also cautions about relying too much on your child’s school. From the Introduction:

If you want your child to value reading, schools can help, but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility. You can’t just talk about what a good idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader.

I found myself nodding along throughout much of this book, though there were two points at which I was stopped short. The first was at this passage, from Chapter Five:

I encourage you to be very cautious about providing reading instruction at home. There are studies showing that such teaching can help children learn to read, but in these studies, parents are trained in specific techniques by the researchers. If you’re not trained by researchers (or your child’s teacher), you’re either going to go with your gut instincts about how to teach (which is dicey) or you’ll choose one of the many products out there for parents to work on phonics with their kids. Many of these products are not sound in how they approach reading instruction, and most are terribly boring. (Emphasis in the original.)

I agree that many products (and advice) sold to parents may not be sound in how they approach reading instruction, but I am confident that that statement may too often be true with regard to materials (and advice) sold to schools as well. In other words, I’m less optimistic than Willingham that schools are mostly getting systematic phonics instruction right.

In addition, I think parents either trying to evaluate the quality of their child’s school’s reading instruction or listening to their child’s early efforts at decoding and offering effective corrective feedback may need to study up on systematic phonics instruction anyway, in which case, you’re most of the way to being prepared to teach reading to your own child (one-on-one). So while I might agree that there’s no reason to intervene if you are satisfied with your child’s reading instruction, I wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if I had concerns; just be careful who you take advice or purchase materials from.*

Case in point: here’s a portion of a literacy consultant’s blogpost, on the Iowa Reading Research Center website blog, highlighting a video, “Reading Solution: Don’t Give Me the Answer”, from the IRRC Family Resources page.

The video also shares that if a child is stuck on a word after a few tries, a parent can support the child by asking some questions. The parent in the video encourages the child to use the pictures in the book to see if the word makes sense. I decided to try this and it worked! Griffin stumbled on the word “tickets” in the sentence “Mom gets tickets.” I asked him to look at the mom and see what could be in her hand and to think about what they needed to get into the fair. Since he had figured out the first part “tic”, he was able to guess the rest of the word correctly. (Emphasis added.)

Let me suggest something different this parent could have said to her child instead. How about, “Griffin, each syllable in a word has a vowel sound. Let’s see if we can divide this word into syllables and try sounding it out again?” Having assisted Griffin in dividing “tickets” into two syllables (tick-ets), Griffin should have been able to sound out this word, not guess the word from the pictures (which, it should go without saying, won’t be a particularly good reading strategy in the long run).

The other passage that stopped me short was this one, from Chapter Six, following a discussion of the importance of broad general content knowledge:

In chapter 5, I encouraged you to count on your child’s teacher to get him reading, but when it comes to knowledge building, you can’t exhort the schools and hope for the best. This work will fall to you.

In this case, it wasn’t so much disagreement as discouragement about the general state of schools with regard to content knowledge that would cause Willingham to write this and what it means for local efforts to address the achievement gap. As we add more time to the elementary school day, I hope local school officials will take note that making time for building content knowledge (history, civics, science, art and more) is vital for supporting later reading comprehension (Chapter Six).

One other topic of particular interest to me is the role of electronic devices in reading and in schools. Willingham notes that it probably doesn’t matter if your child reads on an e-reader or not (Chapter Eight). However, in Chapter Eight, Willingham notes:

There is one qualification to that conclusion. If your child’s school is considering moving to electronic textbooks, be at least a little wary. Publishers are working to improve electronic textbooks, but with the current offerings, the research is pretty consistently negative.

Willingham discusses digital technology more extensively in Chapter Ten:

The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to listen to, watch, or read and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort. . . . We’re not distractible. We just have a very low threshold for boredom.

But it’s not all bad news (e-readers can help make appealing reading material easily accessible) and Willingham offers a number of suggestions to encourage kids to choose to read.

All in all, a worthwhile and engaging read, and a book I’d like to see local teachers and school administrators find time to read.

*FWIW, I like the Montessori preschool writing to reading sequence of materials and activities. I also like Sound Steps to Reading (plus storybook) by Diane McGuinness.

New Administrative Rules Site

A new Iowa Administrative Rules website was launched today.

The website explains the administrative rulemaking process, including an explanation of the petition for rulemaking process which allows “any interested person to request that an agency adopt, amend or repeal a rule.”

The website provides an opportunity for viewing and commenting on noticed (proposed) rules prior to adoption, which should be more convenient than following or searching multiple agency websites to look for noticed rules.  In my experience, public comments (or lack thereof) are noted and noticed rules are sometimes changed prior to adoption based on public comments received. In other words, it may be worthwhile to comment on noticed rules.

The website also provides a Frequently Asked Questions page and a list of state government organizations, including links to the websites, agency chapters, and agency rules. These last two links should make finding rules easier. Here’s the Department of Education organization overview page. If the DE had any Notices of Intended Action (noticed or proposed rules open for comment), they would be listed on the left side of the page (where it currently reads “No Publications Found”).

I’ve added links to the open notices and DE pages near the top of the right sidebar under Admin Rulemaking, and a link to the website home page (Iowa Administrative Rules) under Iowa Government.

21st Century Math Education

Barry Garelick has published a second collection of blog posts, Teaching Math in the 21st Century, based on his experiences as a long term substitute math teacher in California. It’s been out for a few weeks, but I’m just now getting around to reading it in book form, having read the posts previously as they originally appeared on the blog Out In Left Field.

Given my service on the Assessment Task Force and that Iowa is still on the long and winding road to adopting the Smarter Balanced assessments, I was interested to be reminded that Garelick had written about administering the practice Smarter Balanced assessments to his students. (Chapter 12: Teaching to the Authentic Assessment).

At the end of sixth period, I dismissed the students, and went back to my classroom. I realized that when Common Core kicked in students would be “taught to the test” for all of these particular types of questions. I have no problem with teaching to a test if the test covers material that should be mastered. I do have a problem when part of this is learning how to write explanations that will pass muster according to scoring rubrics that more than likely will be questionable.

Garelick, and Out In Left Field blogger Katharine Beals, have more to say about SBAC/PARCC in a new article at Education News, Math Problems: Knowing, Doing, and Explaining Your Answer. Opening with a middle schools student’s complaints about being required to explain her answers on the Smarter Balanced assessments (“Why can’t I just do the problem, enter the answer and be done with it?”) and ending with their answer to the question: what is really being measured?

Measuring understanding, or learning in general, isn’t easy. What testing does is measure “markers” or byproducts of learning and understanding. Explaining answers is but one possible marker.

Another, quite simply, are the answers themselves. If a student can consistently solve a variety of problems, that student likely has some level of mathematical understanding. Teachers can assess this more deeply by looking at the solutions and any work shown and asking some spontaneous follow-up questions tailored to the child’s verbal abilities. But it’s far from clear whether a general requirement to accompany all solutions with verbal explanations provides a more accurate measurement of mathematical understanding than the answers themselves and any work the student has produced along the way.  At best, verbal explanations beyond “showing the work” may be superfluous; at worst, they shortchange certain students and encumber the mathematics for everyone.

I enjoyed this collection, Teaching Math in the 21st Century, as much, perhaps even more, than the first, Letters From John Dewey/Letters From Huck Finn: A Look at Math Education From the Inside. [Note: both books are currently available for the Kindle at low prices at Amazon.] Garelick writes knowledgeably about teaching 21st century math with an appealing mix of seriousness and humor, as well as obvious affection for his students. My only complaint is being left feeling vaguely disheartened about the likely near future of math education in Iowa, if Garelick’s experiences are any guide.

Assessment Update and Discussion

I don’t have anything new, but State Board of Education members will be getting an assessment update and discussion at their May 14th meeting (from Tab L):

This is a continuation of the conversation on the State Board’s priority on assessment. Current events related to the Legislature’s deliberations will be presented. Opportunities for interaction around these topics will be provided throughout.

That’s not much to go on, but if the State Board is going to discuss moving ahead with adopting the Smarter Balanced assessments without any further legislative action, this would seem to be the agenda item during which they might have either that discussion or a discussion about legal authority to take action.

Given the technical glitches being experienced by some other states using statewide online assessments this spring and the potential expense for Iowa school districts still waiting on (low) supplemental state aid numbers for the next two school years, it would be nice to see some reporters cover this agenda item. If any reader attends this meeting, please share with the rest of us what you hear.

Best and Proper, Notwithstanding

The as yet unspecified legal theory that the DE has the authority to select a new assessment adopt the Smarter Balanced assessments if the Legislature fails to act may be gaining traction behind the scenes if Thursday’s Advocacy Alert from the IASB and withdrawn amendment H-1294 can be taken as indicators.

The person or persons behind the legal theory remain a mystery, but the theory seems to be a relatively new one:

Exhibit A: This statement in the proposed assessment recommendations provided to the State Board of Education by the DE at the February 11, 2015 meeting:

The Board further recommends the Legislature restore authority to select the accountability assessment given to all K-12 students to the Iowa Department of Education with appropriate oversight from the Board.

Exhibit B: Uncontradicted statements at the Assessment Task Force presentation to the Iowa Senate Education Committee in March 2015 that we, the Task Force, understand that this is a recommendation on assessment and not a decision, the Legislature makes the decision on assessment. [Note that this issue came up at Task Force meetings and the DE was not shy about bringing in DE staff attorneys to offer opinions.]

We might also throw in the failure of Governor Branstad and DE Director Buck to sign a new MOU last July (does perceived lack of authority seem a more plausible reason than honoring the work of the Task Force?) and assessment shell bills being filed in both houses of the Iowa Legislature to preserve the issue past the first funnel deadline, but I think Exhibits A and B are pretty good evidence of the DE’s understanding of the state of the law. After all, if they understood that they had the power to act, why wouldn’t they have acted already? [More on this later.]

The Iowa Constitution, adopted in 1857, is an interesting document and is as good a place as any to start. It created an elected Board of Education to manage “[t]he educational interest of the State, including Common Schools and other educational institutions.” It also provided that the Board may be abolished:

SEC. 15. At any time after the year One thousand eight hundred and sixty three, the General Assembly shall have the power to abolish or re-organize said Board of Education, and provide for the educational interest of the State in any other manner that to them shall seem best and proper.” (Emphasis added.)

As it happens, it didn’t take too long for a General Assembly to exercise said power and the elected Board of Education was abolished in 1864.

[Question: What do elections and the education policy debate look like in alternate universe Iowa where the General Assembly has not abolished an elected State Board of Education? Better, worse, or about the same?]

The codified Iowa Constitution directs us to chapter 256 for statutory provisions.

I have heard it suggested that the DE has broad authority to act unless specifically limited and that the requirement to report is not a specific limitation. I think it would be difficult to argue that the Legislature has not limited DE authority in recent years.

In 2011 the relevant portion of Iowa Code Section 256.7(21) read as follows [note: the linked pdf is over ten thousand pages long, see the two relevant pages only here]:

21. Develop and adopt rules incorporating accountability for, and reporting of, student achievement into the standards and accreditation process described in section 256.11. The rules shall provide for all of the following:

b. A set of core academic indicators in mathematics and reading in grades four, eight, and eleven, a set of core academic indicators in science in grades eight and eleven, and another set of core indicators that includes, but is not limited to, graduation rate, postsecondary education, and successful employment in Iowa. Annually, the department shall report state data for each indicator in the condition of education report.

The relevant portion of Iowa Code Section 256.7(21) now reads as follows:

21. Develop and adopt rules incorporating accountability for, and reporting of, student achievement into the standards and accreditation process described in section 256.11. The rules shall provide for all of the following:

b. A set of core academic indicators in mathematics and reading in grades four, eight, and eleven, a set of core academic indicators in science in grades eight and eleven, and another set of core indicators that includes but is not limited to graduation rate, postsecondary education, and successful employment in Iowa.

(1) Annually, the department shall report state data for each indicator in the condition of education report. Rules adopted pursuant to this subsection shall specify that the approved district-wide assessment of student progress administered for purposes of the core academic indicators shall be the assessment utilized by school districts statewide in the school year beginning July 1, 2011, or a successor assessment administered by the same assessment provider.

(2) Notwithstanding subparagraph (1), for the school year beginning July 1, 2016, and each succeeding school year, the rules shall provide that all students enrolled in school districts in grades three through eleven shall be administered an assessment during the last quarter of the school year that at a minimum assesses the core academic indicators identified in this paragraph “b”; is aligned with the Iowa common core standards in both content and rigor; accurately describes student achievement and growth for purposes of the school, the school district, and state accountability systems; and provides valid, reliable, and fair measures of student progress toward college or career readiness.

(3) The director shall establish an assessment task force to review and make recommendations for a statewide assessment of student progress on the core academic indicators identified pursuant to this paragraph “b”. The task force shall recommend a statewide assessment that is aligned to the Iowa common core standards and is, at a minimum, valid, reliable, tested, and piloted in Iowa. In addition, in developing recommendations, the task force shall consider the costs to school districts and the state in providing and administering such an assessment and the technical support necessary to implement the assessment. The task force shall submit its recommendations in a report to the director, the state board, and the general assembly by January 1, 2015. The task force shall assist with the final development and implementation of the assessment administered pursuant to subparagraph (2). The task force members shall include but not be limited to teachers, school administrators, business leaders, representatives of state agencies, and members of the general public. This subparagraph is repealed July 1, 2020.

(4) The state board shall submit to the general assembly recommendations the state board deems appropriate for modifications of assessments of student progress administered for purposes of this paragraph “b”. (Emphasis added.)

The question is what effect does subparagraph (2) have on the express limitation in subparagraph (1)? As I have noted previously, there is no factual conflict between these subparagraphs because the assessment provider referenced in subparagraph (1) is developing an assessment that meets the minimum requirements specified in subparagraph (2). They are additional requirements to be specified in the rules and, without a conflict between subparagraphs to be resolved, the Legislature need not take any further action on assessments for the Iowa Testing Programs to remain the assessment provider for the State of Iowa.

The “notwithstanding” language makes more sense if we understand that an earlier draft of HF215 contained additional language that would have required the rules to specify that the assessment also be “developed by a consortium in which the state of Iowa is a participant” (an oblique reference to SBAC). This would have been in conflict with the rules specified in subparagraph (1) however, this language was stripped out in conference committee and additional language creating the Assessment Task Force was added.

See also subparagraph (4) which directs that the State Board shall submit recommendations for modifications of assessments rather than shall report modifications of assessments.*

All of this suggests intent by the Legislature to retain authority over choice of assessments rather than return it to the DE, which could more easily be accomplished by sunsetting or striking subparagraph (1) and forgoing subparagraphs (3) (the Assessment Task Force) and (4) (the State Board submitting recommendations).**

It makes no sense to read these subparagraphs as creating authority for the DE to act if the Legislature doesn’t, because the authority was either already returned to the DE or it wasn’t.

Maybe the DE is Dorothy, who just wants to get back home to SBAC, and, having followed the yellow brick Assessment Task Force road to the Great and Powerful Iowa Legislature only to find herself disappointed by the legislators behind the curtain, learns, with the help of the (in our story, publicity shy) Glinda the Good Witch, that she had the power to get herself home to SBAC all along.

Maybe we’ve had front row seats to governance theater without knowing it, where the executive branch plays along with the legislative branch as long as they are getting what they want, but if not, they’ll do what they wanted to do anyway.

Maybe the DE thinks that Iowa students (as young as third grade) should just toughen up and learn to get through much longer assessments. Maybe the DE thinks that more expensive computer-based assessments are better for Iowa students than music and art programs. Maybe the DE thinks that longer assessments are a more valuable use of instructional time than instruction. And maybe the DE thinks that these assessments are worth pretending that other states aren’t having problems with statewide computer-based assessments and that pretending that those problems aren’t happening and that Iowa districts need no further planning and spending to prepare for statewide computer-based assessments is enough to avoid those problems here.

And maybe a majority of the Legislature agrees that the DE is right about all of those things and that the best and proper manner for providing for the educational interests of Iowa is to adopt the Smarter Balanced assessments, in which case they need to vote for it.

*Paragraph added after initial publication.

**Paragraph modified after initial publication.

Legislative Update 4/30 [updated]

Surprise! After several quiet weeks on assessment, the issue may be debated as part of the HF 658 Education Appropriations bill being debated this evening.

The Iowa Association of School Boards sent out an Advocacy Alert today, somewhat ridiculously sub-titled “Contact Your Legislator ASAP–Future of Student Assessment Being Threatened“.

I have written previously about the Assessment Task Force process and recommendations, but it apparently needs to be repeated that the Task Force identified not just one, but TWO assessments that meet the minimum legislative requirements: the Smarter Balanced assessments and the Next Generation Iowa Assessments.

I hardly think that the Iowa K-12 students and taxpayers will be short-changed by using the less expensive of the two adequately good assessment options. But they will be short-changed by shifting scarce resources of money and instructional time away from instructional programming and to the more expensive of the two adequately good assessment options.

You would think that the day many of us are wearing pink in support of adequate funding for public education might be a day for supporting efforts to keep more of that money in the classroom, but I guess you’d be wrong.

In any case, the amendment doesn’t prevent the Legislature from adopting the Smarter Balanced assessments, perhaps next year, but in the event the Legislature actually takes that vote, let’s hope they also vote to fully fund both the assessments and the necessary technology infrastructure to administer them.

It’s hard not to enjoy the irony of professional lobbyists sending out advocacy alerts warning of the danger of professional lobbyists trying to influence the Legislature. But there’s another really interesting part of this sentence:

It short­-changes each Iowa student, and every Iowa taxpayer, to pull back now and have this decision made by the legislature, especially when assessment vendors have hired professional lobbyists to influence the decision in their favor.

Arguably the decision was already meant to be made by the Legislature. I’ve got more to say on this in a lengthy post I’ve been meaning to finish. But for now, I’d characterize amendment H-1294 as reaffirming legislative authority over this decision rather than pulling it back.

So, watch for amendment H-1294 during tonight’s debate. I will have to catch up later as I am off to enjoy an elementary performance music concert while we still have elementary performance music programs at our local public schools.

Update: While I was out, amendment H-1294 was withdrawn but amendment H-1298 was adopted by voice vote. H-1298 would add the following new paragraph to Iowa Code 256.7(21):

d. The state board and the department shall not enter into an agreement with any entity that has or has had an agreement with any federal governmental agency or with a third party that has or has had an agreement with any federal governmental agency, to share personally identifiable student data, or that is working with any federal governmental agency to develop a strategy to make available, on an ongoing basis for research, personally identifiable student data that results from services provided by the entity to the state.

I believe this is aimed at being a roundabout prohibition on ever working with SBAC, but I will have to rely on people more knowledgeable about the specifics of SBAC’s agreements with the with the federal government. Hopefully some of them will weigh in with an opinion.

HF 658 was passed, as amended by multiple amendments, on a 55-42 vote.

Update: H-1294 included the language above, but also this language that would have been added to 256.7(21)(b)(2):

However, if the state board proposes rules providing for a statewide assessment other than the assessment approved pursuant to subparagraph (1), the state board shall submit its proposed rules to the general assembly and shall not adopt such rules unless the proposed rules are specifically authorized by a constitutional majority of each house of the general assembly and approved by the governor.

Smarter Balanced Assessments 36

Nevada has also experienced technical issues with the Smarter Balanced assessments, and EdWeek reports that the state superintendent of public instruction, Dale Erquiaga, has now determined that SBAC and Measured Progress are in “breach of contract” for having “failed to deliver upon existing state contracts to guarantee reliable tests.”

“The system clearly cannot handle the full extent of our student population,” Erquiaga stated, in reference to the breakdowns so far.

Nevada may seek monetary damages or to terminate contracts with both SBAC and Measured Progress.

There is more SBAC-related unhappiness in California as, EdWeek reports, Pearson is challenging the process used to award Educational Testing Service a three year contract to administer the Smarter Balanced assessments. “Pearson claims the process was skewed in favor of the ETS” and “has accused reviewers of missteps that include sloppy scoring and improperly discarding records of their deliberations.”

The lesson for Iowa being, I suppose, to not only choose the vendor carefully, but to be very careful to be absolutely fair and follow all the rules during the selection process.