Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Trivializing reading comprehension, Part I

It should be a noncontroversial point: a significant number of kids don't comprehend texts at reading levels based on their calendar age and would do better with reading assignments that meet them at their Zone of Proximal Development.

And yet this point has become the bull's eye for a critique published last week on the Huffington Post by three people affiliated with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, including one whose work "focuses on education policy related to students with disabilities" and one who is the Silvana and Christopher Pascucci Professor of Practice in Learning Differences.

Their critique forms the basis for the claim expressed in the title of their article, "Don't Believe the Hype: Students With Disabilities Should Benefit From the Common Core," and for their claim that one source of this "hype," namely, my recent Atlantic article, is based "on anecdotes and misleading and false information."

They claim, first, that I way overestimate the percentage of kids with significant learning disabilities; second, that "most students with disabilities can meet high academic standards when provided with effective inclusive instruction and appropriate accommodations and supports," third, that "most major disability rights organizations support the Common Core standards," fourth, that the CCSS are "internationally benchmarked to enable students to compete in the global economy," fifth, that "imposing systematically lower expectations can make it difficult for students who are struggling academically to keep pace with their peers and meet the requirements for high school graduation," and sixth, that "lower expectations for some students... disproportionately impact poor and minority students."

Notably absent from this article is any mention of the benefits of basing reading assignments on ability level or Zone of Proximal Development; any appreciation of the variety and prevalence of impairments that affect reading comprehension; any mention of my discussion of the limitations and downsides of "accommodations and supports" for reading comprehension; and any mention of the specific CCSS sample passage I discuss as posing reading comprehension challenges for those who don't read at the calendar-aged-based grade levels assumed by the Common Core. Given that all three authors are supposed to be education experts and at least two of them are supposed to be disability experts, these omissions are rather astounding.

Furthermore, as their Argument by Appeal to Authority suggests, it would appear that many other disability "advocates"/"experts" share their lack of appreciation for the variety of ways in which different disabilities can affect reading comprehension, and for the variety of disabilities that that are implicated in reading comprehension difficulties--not to mention the numerous reports from special education teachers, parents of special education students (I am one of them) and special ed students themselves about just how frustrating and limiting these CCSS standards are proving to be in the actual field.

The armchair quality of this cluelessness also appears in the comments that one of the authors made in response to my follow-up comments:

Essentially, your argument is that it is preferable for students who struggle to read to focus on the remediation of their perceived “deficits” rather than using reasonable accommodations to access high level content. This is the sort of ablest perspective that keeps students with language-based learning disabilities from developing the high order skills they will need to succeed in post-secondary education and the labor force.
The best estimates suggest that approximately 1 out of every 100 children have the types of cognitive disability that preclude them from successfully working at grade level.
I love it: I'm an ablest! As I wrote in response:
Language comprehension disorders that significantly impede comprehension of passages like the Twain passage are far more prevalent than you suggest. Autism alone, according to the CDC, affects 1 in 68 kids, and receptive pragmatics is universally impaired in autism. Then there is Specific Language Impairment, which affects 7 percent of all children. This, too, significantly affects language comprehension. Even ADHD (over diagnosed though it is!) has been implicated in impaired comprehension of complex language.
These issues, again, are subtle, and require a deep understanding both of these (rather prevalent) language challenges, and of the linguistic and cognitive issues that underpin language comprehension, which range from syntactic parsing and working memory to receptive pragmatics and social inferencing, as well as subtle deficits in assumed cultural background knowledge that differentially affect those who tune into the world in non-neurotypical ways.
Beyond all this, it's also important to consider the reading comprehension challenges of those "uncategorized" children who are either ELL students, or have gotten behind in reading comprehension for other reasons (inadequate reading instruction; inadequate instruction in core background knowledge). These children, too, will fail to reach their potential if placed at calendar-age-based reading levels.
The more I look around, the more "education experts" I see who seem to be unable to put themselves in the shoes of developing readers with various challenges that subtly affect comprehension. At the very least, educators should be using standardized, normed assessments to place children at instructionally appropriate levels. Even better would be if at least some of these people showed at least some curiosity about the linguistics of reading comprehension.

To be continued...


lgm said...

Does anyone have data on educational attainment of special needs broken down by the diagnosis and services rec'd?

All I see on NY's website is high school diploma type vs district type (wealthy, average, etc). That does nothing for me, as I know districts like mine short nonsped in order to fund sped, but that fact only shows when splitting per student data out. No where can I find data that says something of the order "Diagnosis X with Accomodations Y, Z allows successful completion of the Regent's Diploma by age 21. " And the number of ineducable isn't listed..although the authors responding to you are claiming that it is very low. Where is the data?

And what are the accomodations needed? We had one family of a medically fragile child sue for a robot that would attend school in place of the child in real time, with audiovisual back to the child's home as well as a teacher to scan in documents at the school that would be handed to the child by another teacher or robot at home..this was to allow emotional as well as academic development. Accomodations like that would require a lot more business than our rural community can generate to pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Actually- it could be done at a lot lower cost---- there is a new invention out there called a WEBCAM. Easy to set up and use- the child could view class from a webcam or a podcast- no robot needed- All the school needs is a computer and cam- all the child needs is a computer and cam. You really don't even need internet- you can record on disk- and the child can do the work (even verbally) on disk and send it back. Why go super high cost if the same can be done with Tech that both likely already own and are using.

lgm said...

The parents wanted the robot to be treated as the child in terms of interaction. The child is to steer it around so the child can interact with others. A skype type of setup can't meet that emotional or social need.

C T said...

"treated as the child"? Hmmm...both my husband and I were sexually assaulted (mild and pretty casually, but it was real) by fellow students in public school. How is a robot going to register that it has been inappropriately touched?