Saturday, September 22, 2012

Constructivizing the Common Core

I've long been skeptical about whether the Common Core Standards, however well intentioned, can spur positive education reform. As I argued earlier on the Core Knowledge blog, the vagueness of these standards leaves way too much room for interpretation:

Given the dominant Constructivist paradigm, there’s way too much room, in particular for a Constructivist interpretation and implementation of the Common Core standards, and, thereby, for even further Constructivist penetration of America’s K12 classrooms.
An article in the latest Edweek on the common core English standards, for example, teems with Constructivist buzzwords: "inquiry;"  "habits of mind;'" "cross-disciplinary."  It also describes a hypothetical assignment, inspired by the core standards, that reeks of Constructivism's fuzzy open-endedness, "real life" relevance, personal connections, and interdisciplinary sprawl:
Students might be asked what it means to live in a globally interdependent world. They could be sent home with an assignment to examine the labels on their clothing and food and note their countries of origin. As a class, they can graph those nations and examine the emerging portrait of importers and exporters. Each student could dive into his or her country's place in that system and write about the perils and promises of that role. Then, imagining themselves as ambassadors at the United Nations, they would have to figure out what issues are most pressing for their country and how best to plead for funding.
A look through the 66-page Common Core Standards for English, Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects shows a couple of occurrences of cross/inter-disciplinary, a couple of occurrences of "inquiry" (though not in a particularly Constructivist sense), and no occurences of "habits of mind." There's certainly plenty of room for a Constructivist interpretation of the core standards, but there's also room for much more.

In particular, there's apparently room for a rather bizarre conclusion about what sorts of texts to assign, at least according to the Edweek article:
The common standards have prompted school librarians to "take a hard look" at their collections to weed out dated material and bolster challenging fiction and nonfiction resources, said the AASL's Ms. Ballard. In doing so, they are looking especially closely at the rigor of the readings they offer, since the standards emphasize assigning students "on-grade-level" texts, even if that means extra supports are needed to help them.
"Rigor," apparently, is defined entirely by the Lexile rating system:
Many 9th and 10th graders read Agatha Christie's mystery And Then There Were None, which Lexile rates as appropriate for 2nd and 3rd graders. Ms. Jaeger is encouraging teachers to consider instead The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about an autistic boy's attempt to solve a dog's murder. Instead of The Catcher in the Rye, which Lexile pegs to the 4th grade level, she suggests sophomores could read The Stone Diaries, which Lexile places at the 11th and 12th grades.
But Lexile is not designed to be the sole basis for determining rigor. Lexile ratings are based on just two factors: word frequency and sentence length. From Lexile's own website:
Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered.
Who in their right mind would think that "The Catcher in the Rye" should be read by fourth graders--let alone "The Sun Also Rises" and other works by that author so well-known for his simple sentences and vocabulary?

Second, where does Edweek get the idea that all students should be assigned "on-grade-level texts"? This idea--in the same spirit as Constructivism's half-baked "differentiated instruction" paradigm--is nowhere in the common core document. Nor is it a good way to teach the many students who are reading substantially below grade level. (Their schools' insistence that all students be taught on-grade-level texts was one of the biggest complaints of my TFA students).

Interestingly, crude word counting along the lines of Lexile rating seems to be the basis for some of this Constructivist exegesis of the Common Core Standards. For example, librarian Paige Jaeger, who proposed the clothing label/UN ambassadors' project above as a rigorous, "inquiry-based" project, was inspired in part by having counted:
more than 700 "power verbs" in the standards, such as "analyze," "integrate," and "formulate," that press students toward more rigor and inquiry-based learning.
But true reading comprehension is much more than word counting, and before anyone can "analyze," "integrate," and "formulate," say, a document like the Common Core Standards, he or she must first be able to comprehend full sentences--however short, and however high the frequency of the words they contain. Given how deathly boring the Common Core Standards documents are, this is, however, a very tall order, and one that I myself have no intention of actually following.


Rivka said...

I have a second grader. It never occurred to me that I should be encouraging her to read And Then There Were None, which is full of grisly murders, just because the words themselves aren't difficult.

I recently read a different handwringing article about "American high school students reading on a 5th grade level." That one was based on Accelerated Reading metrics, which rely almost entirely on syllabification. Here are some ratings I pulled up:

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying: 5.4
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises: 4.4
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: 5.8
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: 4.9
John Steinbeck, East of Eden: 5.3
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon: 5.0

Kind of hard to believe that the Nobel Prize kept being awarded to fourth and fifth grade books, isn't it? Why don't they just award one to Beverly Cleary and be done with it? ...OR, maybe there's more to reading than the difficulty of the individual words? Just perhaps?

1crosbycat said...

I noticed this sort of thing with the Olympics, where some panel of people came up with scores for every possible movement, and deductions for every possible mistake, it seems in order to take human judgment out of scoring. There are qualities to gymnastics and high diving that cannot be quantified. It is funny that librarians want to be replaced by computers in determining book grade level, and scary that most public school administrators read EdWeek without utilizing any of those critical thinking skills they value so much in our kids.

Auntie Ann said...

I saw this a while back. It's a blog post referenceing an analysis of the Flesch-Kincaid reading levels of popular adult novels.

>> Smith's results surprised him. Despite deliberately choosing a mix of commercial and literary writers, he found that many of the results fell into the same range. The average in four separate categories was as follows:

>> The amount of passive voice the writers used ranged from 2.3% to 13.43%.

>> The number of characters per word ranged from 3.72 to 4.58.

>> The readability ranged from 72.34% to 91.84%, with an average of 83.1%.

>> Finally, on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale, the range was 2.68 to 6.3, with an average grade level of 4.4.

>> In other words, he found that the bestselling writers were aiming their prose, prose that is read by a majority of adult readers in the country, at a fourth grade level.

lgm said...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is no less gruesome than Agatha Christie. And the sex child was assigned to read this book in 8th grade (ages 12-14 here in NY)'s easy even at this age to realize that mom preferred to satisfy her sexual desires over raising her son....wonderful portrayal of women and great thinking points for a 12 year old, it is not.

lgm said...

>>Second, where does Edweek get the idea that all students should be assigned "on-grade-level texts"?

It's anti-eltism. The thinking is that those of poor socioeconomic status were deliberately tracked in to below grade level reading groups and not allowed to progress. Therefore, these low groups are not allowed. Additionally, no child shall get ahead of any other on the public dime, certainly not by being offered an above grade level reading group, no matter what the child's instructional reading level is. In other words, if you want to teach your child to read before the school does, you need to get thy offspring to private school.

Anonymous said...

You're equating "interdisciplinary sprawl" with constructivism or other failed pedagogical strategies. I wonder how you came to that conclusion, since John Hattie meta-analysis from Visible Learning show an effect of d=.39 (a respectable effect)for "Integrated Curricula". Am I missing something?

Katharine Beals said...

"Am I missing something?"
I believe so. There's a big difference between the "integrated curricula programs" Hattie reports on (in which, say, math is integrated into science, or language arts is integrated into social studies) and the kind of sprawling interdisciplinary project I describe above, which starts with students inspecting label and ends with them "imagining themselves as ambassadors at the United Nations" and "figuring out what issues are most pressing for their country and how best to plead for funding."

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I think what you're really objecting to is not interdisciplinary teaching as such, but personal (i.e. "soft", "emotional") projects. How would you feel about UN budget projects that required only analysis of past UN budgets and an essay/research paper on analyzing trends in or reporting broad sociocultural initiatives ? That would be an integrated assignment of sorts, but lack the kind of personal response features you outlined above.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous, the projects you describe are indeed a lot less "soft and fuzzy" than the one cited in this post--and than the typical projects assigned in today's elementary and middle schools. Your hypotheticals have a lot more substance. However, for students to really benefit from such projects, they first need a lot of background knowledge. That background knowledge is best taught in a more systematic, direct way than project-based learning permits. That does not rule out teaching such background knowledge in an integrated way--e.g., integrating science (e.g., scientific discoveries and inventions) or language arts (e.g., essay writing) into, say, history instruction. Nor does it rule out assigning projects once that background knowledge is attained.