Friday, May 27, 2016

Improving Developmental Education in the Community College

In a post last week, I discussed what I called The College Remedial Course Hoax, which was critical of the system of remedial courses at four-year colleges. In this post I would like to address remedial courses on the community college level. Community colleges face challenges that most four-year colleges do not face because most have open enrollment policies that allow anyone with a high school diploma to enter school. Open enrollment is a good thing, because it opens the opportunity for a college degree to many students who lack either the financial resources or academic credentials to enter a four-year college. This good thing, however, comes with many challenges.

Faced with a large number of students who are not academically well-prepared for college instruction, community colleges have developed elaborate remediation programs designed to get students up to academic speed. Nationally, billions of dollars are spent on these programs, The courses are well-meaning and are developed and taught by people dedicated to helping students improve their ability to learn in a regular college classroom. And yet, just as in four-year colleges, these remedial or "developmental" courses, have proven to have had limited impact on student success in completing a degree.

This does not mean that the courses in themselves do not improve student performance in reading, writing and mathematics. Certainly many of them do, but they also set students up for failure to complete a degree. Students can find themselves locked in a maze of several levels of remedial courses, all costing them money and none providing them with college credits or progress toward a degree. According to Thomas Bailey, writing for the Community College Research Center Brief, fewer than 50% of students who enroll in community college developmental courses ever finish these remedial courses let alone complete a degree. Bailey concludes that the "developmental function in community colleges is not working well."

Bailey makes some sound recommendations for change in remedial programs at the community college level. Suggestions 1-3 come from Bailey, with some of my own thoughts. Suggestion 4 is mine.

  1. Rethink Assessment - A score on a placement test gives us very limited information on what a student needs to excel in college. There is a weak correlation between scores on these tests and student success. Bailey does not state it, but for me a focus on student needs would include an assessment of non-cognitive abilities including such things as student resilience, study habits, social skills and empathy, all of which have been shown to be important factors in student degree completion and all of which can be addressed in a college program (Sparkman, Maulding and Roberts, 2012). Placement in developmental courses should be based on a knowledge of the student gained through a combination of high school records, counseling sessions with community college learning experts and placement testing. In my ideal world, students would bring a portfolio of their high school work to the counseling session to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.
  2. Place More Students in College Level Courses with Learning Supports - Bailey's suggestion here is similar to what I wrote in the previous post. For many, if not most, students, the best way to improve reading and writing skills is in a regular college classroom with an embedded tutor and regularly scheduled group tutoring sessions led by the tutor outside of class. In addition, these early college level courses would be taught by professors who embrace an instructional design that incorporates skill improvement through sound pedagogical approaches.
  3. Explicitly Work to Minimize Remediation Time - For those community college students whose skills are not at a level to allow them to be successful even in a supported college-level course, Bailey suggests speeding up the remedial process and doing away with the layers of remediation so that these students move into credit bearing courses as quickly as possible. Intensive summer programs would be one way to accomplish this.
  4. Provide Instructional Coaches for Professors - Many K-12 institutions use literacy coaches and math coaches as a form of embedded professional development for teachers. A similar model could be used at the community college level. Essentially, a literacy instruction or math instruction expert would be teamed with the content expert professor to help the professor design and deliver instruction in a way that helps students achieve the learning objectives. This would be a more effective way to use staff who are currently providing instruction in de-contextualized reading, writing or math improvement classes. Students would be working to earn credit in a freshman level course, say Psychology 101, and at the same time receiving instruction designed to help them meet the reading and writing requirements of the course.
Some would take issue with the whole idea of developmental instruction in any college setting, whether in non-credit or credit bearing courses. Some might argue that the issue is in the high school and that high school graduates should, by definition, be ready for college. This is the genesis of the whole standards movement culminating in the Common Core. However, history would show us that raising standards does not, in and of itself, raise performance. Improved student performance in high school will require major societal shifts in income inequity, segregation and commitment to funding schools. Until that happens, a more enlightened approach to developmental education on the college level will remain a necessity.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

What is a "Just-Right" Class Size in Public Schools?

This post is adapted from my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, now available in print and Kindle versions.

Class size matters. Class size matters because it is an issue that impacts the lives of the children in the classroom, the work load of the teacher and the school budget. Teachers and their representatives argue for smaller class sizes, while school boards try to balance parent and teacher desires for small classes, with the demands of keeping the budget under control. Apparently, private schools think class size matters. They advertise small class size in an effort to attract students to their schools.

Intuitively, most parents and teachers think class size matters, but from a research standpoint the impact of class size has been harder to pin down.  At the heart of the argument is the question, “Do the academic gains achieved through smaller class sizes justify the cost of hiring more teachers to accommodate those lower class sizes?” Some education reformers have even suggested that children would be better off if schools would identify their best teachers and then pay those teachers more to accept more students in their classes.

A research study done in Tennessee is considered the gold standard of class size studies because of its rigorous experimental design. This so-called STAR study(1995) found that students in small classes learned more than students in larger classes and were more likely to complete school and attend college, but those small classes were so small that the STAR study simply rekindled the cost/benefit debate.

More recently, Northwestern University professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach published a study through the National Education Policy Center that summarized what we know about class size. Considering all the research as a whole Schanzenbach concluded that

·         Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy.
·         The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.
·         The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.
·         Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall (NEPC, 2014).

So, class size does matter and it matters especially for low-income and minority children and it is likely to be worth the taxpayers’ money to attempt to keep class sizes down.

Research does not help us much with what the ideal class sizes should be. The STAR study targeted class sizes of 13-17 children, which may be out of the financial reach of many districts. As a school district administrator several years ago, I was tasked with developing target ranges for class sizes for a suburban school district. After reading the available research and consulting with the budget office, I came up with the following recommendations based on students in an affluent community.

            Recommended Class Sizes by Grade Range 
in Affluent School Districts
K-2                  20-22
 3-8                   23-25
 9-12                 23-27

If I were making these recommendations for a school district with a high concentration of students living at or near the poverty line the guidelines would be different.

 Recommended Class Sizes by Grade Range
 in High Poverty School Districts
K-2                  17-19
 3-8                   20-22
 9-12                 23-25

Courses designed for students with special needs or for students who need focused instruction on certain skills should be smaller, normally about 8-12 students.

I would recommend that school leaders, teachers and parents look at these recommendations as broad guidelines and not set in stone. A variation of a student or two from these numbers does not mean that students are necessarily being disadvantaged, but large deviations may be of concern.

To be effective, smaller class sizes require that teachers use less "stand and deliver" type of instruction. Teachers can take advantage of having fewer students in the class by having more small group work, more one-to-one conferences and more targeted attention to the individual needs of students.

For more information on class size issues, please see Leonie Haimson's wonderful website Class Size Matters.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The College Remedial Course Hoax

This week the New York Times ran an editorial entitled Guess Who’s Taking Remedial Classes? In the editorial the Times cites a study by the “think tank” Education Reform Now that shows that many students from more affluent suburban schools are taking remedial courses in college and claiming that this study is proof that high schools are not doing their job. Diane Ravitch responded by identifying Education Reform Now as an arm of the pro-reform Democrats for Education Reform and chastised the Times for taking their report as gospel. “Jersey Jazzman” Mark Weber eviscerated the report in a thorough analysis on his blog in an article I highly recommend you read. Weber asks all the right questions of this report and of the Times editorial, but I would like to take my own look at the implications of college remedial courses, especially as they relate to four-year colleges. These courses, while initially well-meaning, are a fraud perpetrated on the college student.

The vast majority of four-year colleges accept students based on their qualifications, usually in the form of an SAT or ACT score, a high school transcript, and perhaps a college essay and some other factors like community service or demonstrated leadership ability. Some students who are accepted to college may not meet the academic standards of the institution, but other mitigating factors, including athletic ability, having a parent who attended the institution or having the ability to pay the tuition without financial aid may get them admitted. When a four-year college admits a student, they also should be making a commitment to ensuring that student graduates in four or five years.

With the growing number of students attending college since the 1960s, colleges found that not all students had the skills in reading, writing and mathematics that professors were expecting when they entered the classroom. The colleges responded by creating non-college credit remedial courses that students were forced to take, almost always because of some score they received on a college “placement” test. And so a cottage industry of remedial, non-credit courses was created on campuses across the country, often taught by adjunct faculty of dubious qualifications and most often completely separated from the for-credit courses that other students were taking.

The results were inevitable. Students began collecting huge tuition debt paying for courses for which they did not receive credit. Often these students had to take these remedial courses over and over again because they could not pass the exit exam, which was frequently another standardized test. The students never got the chance to feel like they were regular college students. Within a year or two these students, frustrated with their lack of progress, dropped out of school burdened with student loan debt and without a degree or good job prospects.

Colleges, certainly the four-year colleges, I am addressing here, should not have and did not have to go the remedial course route. The schools could have and should have known that reading and writing courses that are removed from the context of a real course have very limited impact. (I will not address math remedial courses here because it is outside my expertise, but I believe the same principles would hold.) Rather than place students in courses designed for writing improvement or reading improvement, the colleges would have been much better off placing these students in the regular classroom and then providing them with the support they needed to succeed in these courses.

That support can take many forms. The first form it should take is in professional development for college faculty that would help them make their courses more student friendly. Remedial courses were put in place, in part, because professors complained that students did not have the necessary pre-requisite knowledge for their credit bearing course, but often times professors did not have the requisite instructional skills to scaffold student learning; skills that can be learned and used in the classroom to great effect for all learners. Other supports that have proven to be effective include embedded tutors, upper level undergraduates who attend classes with freshman students and who provide group study sessions and learning assistance to the students, writing centers and subject specific tutoring.

When I started out as a freshman in college in 1965, I was not required to take a placement test. I was placed in the credit bearing College Composition 101 like every other freshman in my school. After one week in the class, it was clear to me that I was not yet a college level writer. I got a C- on my first paper. Many of my classmates did much worse. My college did not have a writing center in those days, so I buckled down, sought the help of my more grammatically and rhetorically minded friends and squeezed out a B by the end of the semester. I think any student accepted to a four-year institution should be afforded the same opportunity. Today, I would add that the college writing lab should be a regular part of instruction in College Composition I and that an embedded tutor in the class would be very helpful in providing struggling students with the support they need to perform well in the class.

For students who struggle with reading comprehension and vocabulary, a similar model could and should be followed. Instead of some decontextualized, non-credit bearing “reading improvement” course, students should be enrolled in a typical college freshman course with a heavy reading load like Psychology 101. Again, the professor would be trained in methods like Pre-Reading Guides, Selective Reading Guides, Anticipation Guides and vocabulary development activities to help students with the daunting reading load. Embedded tutors would be available in the classroom to review readings and assist students with understanding difficult concepts at weekly meetings. The writing center would be available to help students with papers for the course.

Professional development for freshman faculty, embedded tutoring and writing centers are three effective ways to help students become college level readers and writers. It is not so much that we should expect our high school graduates to be “college ready”, but that we should expect our colleges to be student ready. Four-year colleges need to recognize that very few students are truly college ready when they walk in the door, unless we consider college ready to be ready and willing to learn in a college environment with the help that the college has the duty to provide.

The existence of college remedial courses is not so much about the quality of the high school, as the New York Times article posits, but a combination of more and more students seeking a college education and colleges coming up with the wrong solution to a perceived problem. Charging students admitted to four year colleges for non-credit bearing remedial courses is fraud. Not only is it fraud, but it is ineffective. More effective approaches are readily available, if these colleges have the will to make them work.

Students have the responsibility to work hard, attend class, seek help and meet the expectations professors lay down for the course. In fact, these abilities have been shown to be much more important to completing college than a score on an SAT or placement test.

Two-year community colleges with open enrollment have a different student population and different challenges. I will address what should happen in these schools in a subsequent post.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Bridging the Gap by Lesley Roessing: A Review

Mark Twain famously said, "Write what you know." Very sound advice for a would be writer. When we are teaching children to write, however, giving them this advice can be both scary and unhelpful. Years ago, after an unsuccessful conference with a young writer, I wrote this poem that I think captures the problem.

                                                           Writer's Block

 I am staring at this blank paper
Because I have nothing to say.
                 "Write what you know", says the teacher.
I guess I know nothing today!

As teachers, we must find ways to help children access what they know, value what they know, examine what they know and shape what they know into a piece of writing. In other words, we must build a scaffold on which children can build a memoir from their memories. For teachers looking for such a scaffold, and who wish to make memoir a central part of their writing instruction, I highly recommend Lesley Roessing's book, Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. Roessing speaks from long experience and deep knowledge. She is a former high school and middle school teacher and is currently the director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. (Full disclosure: Lesley is also a former graduate student of mine and I am uncommonly proud of the great work she has done.)

One "gap" referred to in the title is of course the achievement gap and Roessing makes a persuasive argument that since memoir writing delves into a student's personal memories, all students come to the reading and writing lessons with sufficient background knowledge to be successful. But memoir writing is also a way bridge other gaps including the gap between reading fiction and non-fiction and the gap between reading something and writing something. According to Roessing, "memoir elevates the topics on which writing is based and, in so doing, elevates writing." For those concerned with where memoir fits into the Common Core State Standards, Roessing, as she suggests in the book's title, says that "through writing memoir, writers discover their own passions and convictions, leading them to choose more effective argument topics" and by reading memoir, students learn to "support their claims with logical and relevant evidence."

The heart of the book is a thoughtful and thorough plan for introducing students to memoir, gathering memories, reading memoirs, drafting diverse memoirs and analyzing and publishing memoirs. Roessing provides teachers with a guide to scaffolding the reading and writing experience for students to ensure student success. One key element of this scaffold is helping students to read memoir in a special way, to read memoir like a writer of memoir. In other words, sample memoirs provided in the book, work as mentor texts for students' growing understanding of the genre. Roessing wants the students to, in Frank Smith's term, "read like a writer" in order to bridge the gap between their reading and their own writing.

The instructional design suggested in the book, reflects Roessing's thorough understanding of best practice and the book provides clear direction and suggested resources for each step in the design. I think classroom teachers would find the design helpful, easy to follow.

  • Exposure - including suggested read alouds
  • Teacher Model - Guides the teacher in demonstrating the strategy
  • Scaffolded Practice - helps the teacher guide student work
  • Independent Student Practice - student samples are included in the text
  • Reflection
Appendices at the end of the book provide suggestions for read alouds and mentor texts, suggestions for student reading and a series of black line masters to support the various lessons in the book. Teachers could use the book as a guide for a complete unit on memoir, or select key lessons from the book to enhance their own writing units.

Busy classroom teachers need practical suggestions for writing instruction that are rooted in sound instructional practice and which promise to be engaging and successful with diverse students. With Bridging the Gap, Lesley Roessing has more than filled this need. 

I will give the last words in this review to author and writing teacher extraordinaire, Barry Lane, who wrote the introduction to this book.

When students start to write their stories, when they start to value their experience, something happens that cannot be measured by any test or quantitative assessment...I call it passion, and that is the one thing that will create a lifelong writer.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What Parents Need to Know About Spelling

My colleague, Christine Bittner Agee, who runs the Parents and Educators Preparing OUR Children for the Future Facebook page, recently posted an article from the Institute for Multisensory Learning Journal (IMSE) on spelling. The article is generally on target with its spelling instruction advice. I would like to add my advice to parents on spelling concerns, adapted from my new book from Garn Press, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for my Child. I think this could be useful for teachers looking to provide counsel to parents worried about their child’s spelling development.

What should I do if my kid can’t spell?

Of all the topics of concern I have been asked about by parents over my years as a literacy specialist, spelling is number one by far. I suppose this is because spelling errors are so visible and easy to spot. Reading errors are harder to see because they mostly happen in the reader’s mind, but spelling errors are out there for all to see.

In order to reduce spelling anxiety, I think there are a few facts about spelling that all parents need to know.

  1. Spelling is not related to intelligence. Many very smart people don’t spell well. Albert Einstein was a rotten speller.
  2. Spelling proceeds through regular developmental stages beginning with regularly spelled single syllable words (cat, bit), moving to irregularly spelled single syllable words (noise, weigh), proceeding to multi-syllable words (battle, motel) and finally to low frequency words, often derived from Greek or Latin (pneumonia, misogyny).
  3. Early readers and writers benefit from approximating the spelling of words in their writing (inventive spelling). All writers, even adults, approximate spellings of unfamiliar words.
  4. Good spelling is primarily a function of good visual memory. Good spellers create a mental picture of a word through their reading and replicate that when they write. That is why when asked to spell a word, we often write it down to see if it “looks” right.
  5. Some children and adults do not have a strong visual memory and are, therefore, not strong spellers.
  6. Most good spellers are also good readers, but not all good readers are good spellers.
  7. Studying ten random words for a spelling test at the end of the week does not improve spelling in real world situations.
  8. Poor spellers need to develop strategies to overcome this problem, These strategies include writing drafts of communication and then checking the spelling and using spelling aids such as the dictionary and spell check.
When working with your own children, it is a good idea to lower the spelling anxiety and provide understanding and support. Remember that using approximate or invented spellings is a normal part of the writing process. But we also want kids to develop a spelling conscience – an awareness that spelling matters. Children should be held accountable to spell correctly words that they already know how to spell and words that they can easily find in the classroom environment. By grade three children should be held responsible to correct their spelling on written work that is to be turned in.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My ESSA Accountability Plan

As I write this, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) apparently needs help. They have been unable to come up with consensus rules for the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on such issues as "supplement-not-supplant" (about how Title 1 monies are used) and "assessments" (what kinds of tests will be permissible). Apparently coming up with actual rules is more difficult than thinking up Orwellian doublespeak titles like "Every Student Succeeds Act." I wonder if the creators of this acronym know that it also stands for European Salmon Smokers Association? I am not kidding; you could look it up.

One thing is sure though, ESSA requires the states to come up with their own education accountability plan, rather than just having them glom on to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top (RTTT) acts. (Writing about federal law can give you a serious case of acronym overload.) As a public service. I would like to help the states out with a suggested plan. Here goes:

Section 1: Assault on Poverty

The chief culprit in the differential learning outcomes for children in the United States is poverty. No education plan can hope to be successful unless it is tied to a full frontal assault on poverty. We now know that poverty causes actual brain damage that limits the educational possibilities for many. We have long known that poverty greatly impacts the educational opportunities of poor children. An assault on poverty would include increasing the minimum wage so that every person working 40 hours a week can support a family with adequate food and shelter and emotional nourishment, government programs to provide jobs for those who cannot find work (rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, including dilapidated schools would be a good place to start) and high quality, safe and professionally managed daycare for parents who require these services to be able to work.

For those unable to work we must have generous programs offering food stamps, housing vouchers and cash to insure a reasonable standard of living.

Section 2: Health Care Services

Free neighborhood health clinics to insure effective prenatal care, regular pediatric checkups and screenings for vision, hearing, nutrition, lead poisoning and any other aspects of health that have been shown to harm a child's ability to learn. In school health services would include one nurse for every 150 children and one school counselor for every 200 students.

Section 3: Professionally Staffed Preschool

Preschool has been shown to be an effective way to combat some of the problems related to poverty. Often, however, the preschools available to children of poverty are substandard and not professionally staffed. Teachers in preschools should be fully certified in early childhood education and supervisors should have both early childhood professional credentials and also experience in early childhood education. The focus of preschool should be on learning through well-structured and purposeful play.

Section 4: Small Class Sizes

Smaller classes help all students succeed (Schanzenbach, 2014), but they are particularly effective for students growing up in poverty (Achilles, et. al, 2012). It is important to note; however, that class size reduction must be accompanied by changes in teacher instructional style to reap the benefits of smaller classes. With this in mind, this plan will include professional development for teachers to help them adjust instruction for the new smaller classes.

Section 5: Student Assessment Practices

Students will be assessed in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, health, art, music and physical education at every grade level. In coordination with and under the guidance of the teacher, students will gather a variety of artifacts to demonstrate their learning throughout the year. Artifacts will include writing samples, logs of books and articles read and written and oral responses to the reading, science lab reports, written history reports, math problem solving evidence, reports on a variety of topics, classroom tests and quizzes, and teacher designed common assessments. Scoring of the artifacts will be based on rubrics that define performance and test scores.

The state will trust the professional educators to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance by randomly selecting a dozen portfolios from the school as a check to ensure that the school is maintaining high standards of student learning.

Section 6: Teacher Evaluation Practices

Like the students, teachers will be evaluated through a portfolio that shows evidence of successful student learning throughout the year. The portfolio will contain samples of student work, sample student assessments, teacher lesson plans, evidence of student learning, evidence of teacher collaborative work, documentation of improved practice based on observation feedback, student surveys, teacher self-reflection and documentation of professional development activities.

The state will trust the professional supervisors in the building to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance by randomly selecting 6 teacher portfolios from the school as a check to ensure that the school is maintaining high standards of teacher performance.

Section 7: School Accountability Practices

Like the students and teachers, schools will be held accountable for student performance based on a portfolio that demonstrates that the school is meeting the needs of all children. The school portfolio will include student standardized test scores for the one grade where these tests are given in the school (say 4th, 8th, or 11th), reports on programs offered at the school, including minority enrollment in the programs, specific evidence of a rich and varied curriculum open to all students, documentation of meeting the needs of all students through support programs, special education and ESL, and documentation of efforts to include parents in the life of the school.

The state will trust the professional principals and vice-principals compiling these reports to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance through a regularly scheduled visit to the school every other year.

Section 8: State Accountability

The state will be held accountable to provide the federal Department of Education with evidence that it is waging an assault on poverty through effective economic, health care and worker programs like those outlined above and that it is focused on developing the kind of professionally autonomous teachers needed to make this ambitious program work. If the state is unable to provide such evidence, they risk having the HELP rules committee taking up residence in the state capitol to bring its own special brand of legislative inertia down on the state.

So, that is my plan. If states are truly interested in acccountability, this is the approach they should take. I am sure you have ideas of your own. What would you add? I am going to sit back and wait for those state government leaders to come calling. I won't hold my breath.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

North Carolina’s Race to the Bottom

Greetings from Raleigh, North Carolina where I am attending the 3rd annual Network for Public Education (NPE) Conference. North Carolina has been in the news a lot lately because of the Republican governor and Republican dominated legislature has decided to strike a blow for ignorance and pass a law blocking anti-discrimination laws protecting gay and transgender people. This act has brought nearly universal scorn down on North Carolina. Bruce Springsteen cancelled a concert, Cirque de Soleil cancelled performances, PayPal and other companies are “reconsidering “expansion in the state.

This reaction is great of course and I applaud all of those who are using their considerable powers to protest this risible legislation. I only wish that all these folks would gather up the same righteous indignation for what this same state administration has done to destroy the public schools of North Carolina. The NPE is meeting in Raleigh because we seek to fly into the eye of the storm. And the storm clouds have been gathering over North Carolina’s schools for years. 

In the not so very distant past, North Carolina was the model for effective public education in the South. Only a few years ago North Carolina teacher salaries ranked 27th in the nation – in 2015 they ranked 47th. A teacher with 30 years of experience in North Carolina can make 50,000 dollars a year. That’s right, after 30 three years – talk about a career path! The state has also struck down any salary bump for completing a Master’s degree, so if you choose to make a career of teaching in North Carolina, you pretty much resign yourself to penury and a part time job at the 7 Eleven.

But of course, even if you do decide you can live on little money because you love the job and love the kids, there is no guarantee, even if you do the job really well that you won’t be fired because you got too expensive or because the school board president’s sister’s brother-in-law needs a job. That’s right, tenure is also under attack in North Carolina. The legislature has tried to strike down tenure several times, but the courts have blocked them, at least partially. In the latest ruling, the court said the legislature can’t take away tenure from those who already have it, but those who don’t and those who may wish to enter the profession will be denied this job protection.

And while North Carolina apparently can’t find the money to pay its teachers a living wage, they have found lots of cash for “Opportunity Scholarships”, money for parents to use to send their children to private schools. The money for these vouchers comes out of money that could be spent on improving public schools, of course, but North Carolina leaders seem hell bent on destroying a once very viable public school system.

The governor and the legislature of North Carolina have made it clear to teachers: we don't want you here. Some North Carolina educators have already taken the hint and are searching for jobs elesewhere. Many more will likely follow them. In fact, The Charlotte Observer reports that schools in Texas are actively recruiting North Carolina teachers and are offering them hefty salary increases.

So we gather in Raleigh, North Carolina this weekend to make sure these destroyers know that we will not be silent in the face of this unconscionable destruction.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

An Alternative to Standardized Testing? Portfolio Assessment

One sure sign that the Opt Out Movement is having an impact is the recent spate of increasingly hysterical defenses of the test from education reform advocates. When I responded to a typical anti-opt out piece in the reform minded Education Post, stating the obvious -  that the tests were biased against the poor and minorities, a featured Education Post blogger called me “immoral and classist.” So much for the Education Post’s goal of a “better conversation.”

While opt out is having an impact, states with corporate education reform friendly governors are plowing ahead with plans to make standardized tests like PARRC and SBAC a graduation requirement. Most recently, New Jersey made passing the PARCC test mandatory for students starting in 2021. This is wrongheaded in the extreme and is likely to result in chaos in New Jersey in a few years, as thousands of students miss the test’s arbitrary “cut score” and appeal to the NJ Department of Education seeking their diploma.

I do think it is fair of reformers to ask those of us opposed to high stakes standardized testing to offer an alternative. If high stakes standardized tests are poor measures of student knowledge, teacher effectiveness and school performance, what is a better way to assess these things? If high stakes standardized tests narrow the curriculum and reduce weeks of instructional time to test prep work, what is an alternative that broadens the curriculum and encourages genuine learning activities? The answer is portfolio assessment. 

Portfolio assessment is an authentic assessment that has the potential, not only to provide useful information on student, teacher and school performance, but that can also encourage genuine learning activities in the classroom and the broadening of the curriculum.

In New Jersey, portfolio assessment has been suggested as an alternative for students who fail the PARCC test. I would argue all New Jersey students would be better off if we just skipped the test altogether and went straight to the portfolio.

Here is how it could work.

A series of authentic assessments for each student could be gathered in a portfolio. Just as an artist, photographer or actor prepares a portfolio of work to show to prospective employers or clients, so too can a student, with the guidance of the teacher, prepare a portfolio of work that reveals learning accomplishments throughout a high school career. This portfolio documentation provides a much richer picture of the student’s learning for the teacher, the student, the parents and the state.

A teacher’s evaluation, too, could best be accomplished through a portfolio. A teacher’s portfolio might contain sample lesson plans, samples of student work, samples of assessments given to students, copies of observations, documentation of student learning, documentation of improved practice based on feedback from observations, documentation of professional development, samples of parent communication, student surveys and more. As with a student portfolio, the teacher portfolio gives a richer, more complete picture of the performance of the teacher than any standardized test could provide. A portfolio could form the basis of a genuine conversation between teacher and supervisor aimed at improved performance.

Finally, a school’s performance could also be best thought of as a portfolio providing evidence of meeting students’ needs. The school’s portfolio would include standardized test scores (given once every 3 or 4 years), but would also include reports on program, evidence of a rich and varied curriculum, documentation of meeting the needs of all children, documentation of efforts to invite parent participation in the life of the school, reports on hiring and evaluation processes and more.

Authentic assessments are time consuming and influenced by human factors that statistics cannot always control for. They are also much more valuable as tools for guiding decision making and for informing the public than are the quick, fuzzy snapshots provided by standadized tests.

Portions of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for Your Child. Learn more about the book here.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

10 Reading Instruction Non-Negotiables

A few years ago when I was working with several groups of teachers on a new language arts curriculum for a K-12 school district, I provided them with a list of “non-negotiables” for reading instruction to be included in all curriculum documents. I first heard the term non-negotiable in this context from literacy specialist, Cindy Mershon. These instructional practices were “non-negotiable” because research had overwhelmingly confirmed that they were effective practices. Over the years as new research has come out, the list has changed slightly. If I were writing the list today, here is what would be included.

Daily Read Aloud

One of the more disturbing aspects of current trends in literacy education is the reports I keep getting from classroom teachers who tell me that reading aloud is being discouraged because it is not "rigorous" enough or because more time needs to be devoted to test prep. So, let me state this as clearly as I possibly can, read aloud is a central part of effective literacy instruction and should be happening daily in every classroom. This is not open for debate. Don't take my word for it, here is a list of 13 scientifically based reasons for reading aloud to children. Among these well researched benefits are exposing students to a greater variety of literature, encouraging students to view reading as a part of their daily life, building background knowledge, providing a model of fluent reading, encouraging student talk about text, increasing vocabulary and helping students view reading as a pleasurable activity. Here is another resource on the importance of reading aloud.

When choosing a read aloud, I would encourage teachers to choose the very best that literature and informational text has to offer, whether that be picture books, novels, histories or scientific texts. When reading aloud, we can aim high because kids listening comprehension outpaces their reading comprehension by about two years and because we can easily scaffold their understanding by "thinking aloud" about the text as we read. Read aloud also provides a great opportunity for teachers to model important comprehension strategies. Just do it.

Sharing reading

Most elementary teachers are familiar with the instructional activity called "shared reading", but teacher, administrator, writer, Shelley Harwayne, offers a broader view of the activity, calling it sharing reading.  When teachers share reading they first choose something that is worthy of sharing, a poem, a big book, a song or chant and then display the piece so that students can join in the reading. Shared reading allows children to work together as a community of readers to enjoy, discuss and participate in a real reading experience. But sharing reading can also include the teacher sharing environmental print found in the classroom and hallways.

Sharing reading can also be effective with older readers, when texts are chosen wisely for specific purposes. Potential texts for sharing reading with older students include poetry, newspaper articles or particularly knotty passages from novels or informational texts. Displaying these texts on the Smart Board, document camera or overhead allows all students to share in the reading work.

Self-Selected Reading

Kids need lots of time to read independently in self-selected books to become proficient readers.   Independent reading is an important instructional strategy that allows students to practice and  consolidate all the good reading strategies the teacher has been teaching. Self-selected reading should not be confused with reading that is not guided by the teacher, however. In a quality self-selected reading program, teachers guide students to find books that they will enjoy and that they will be able to read successfully without teacher instruction. While students are reading, teachers have the opportunity to confer with the students to check on their progress. For more on independent reading try this article.

One-to-One Conferring

When students are reading indepently, teachers have an excellent opportunity to hold a one-to-one conference. These brief conferences give the teacher a chance to check that the book is a good choice, to listen to the student read and have the student do a retelling to assess comprehension. Anecdotal notes taken during these conferences provide the teacher with guidance for future reading instruction for the student. Jennifer Serravallo literally wrote the book on conferring with readers. You can find her webinar on the topic here.

Direct Instruction in Reading Strategies  

Direct instruction in reading strategies works. While many readers develop strategies on their own, many do not. The good news is that research has demonstrated that students can learn to use these strategies to improve fluency and comprehension. Among the strategies that can be taught and are shown to be helpful are question asking and answering, activating background knowledge, summarizing, visualizing and making connections. Much of the emphasis in the Common Core has been on knowledge driven reading comprehension, as has been promoted for 30 years by E. D. Hirsch and others. While lots of knowledge of a topic certainly aids in comprehension, so does a strategic approach to comprehension. For more on teaching reading strategies, you may want to look at Michael Pressley's article here.

Small Group Instruction

Children in any one classroom read at many different levels. This means that whole class texts or novels will be too easy for some, too hard for others, and just right for a some others. Only by teaching in small groups can teachers hope to be providing the majority of the students in the class with instruction that is "just right" for them at any given time in their literacy development. Grouping strategies such as those suggested by Fountas and Pinnell in Guided Reading and Guiding Readers and Writers in Grades 3-6 are very helpful in guiding teachers in the design of small group reading.


Rereading allows students to improve their fluency and comprehension of text. It is one of the most powerful instructional strategies available to teachers. Giving students opportunities to read and reread short texts is a best practice. Teachers can have students reread poetry, take books read in class home to read to parents, partner with other students to buddy read, and have students participate in reader's theater activities where they rehearse reading a story, poem or play aloud in order to prepare for a performance. For more ideas about rereading as a powerful instructional strategy, you can look here. 

Talk about Text
Literacy researcher, Linda Gambrell (2004), says that engaging students in discussion about text results in improved comprehension of text, higher levels of thinking skills and increased motivation to read. In encouraging student talk about text, we have many models to choose from including book clubs, literature circles and questioning the author. The teacher plays the role of model and facilitator, gradually releasing the children to talking to each other about text as we build their capacity both to talk to each other skillfully and to focus on important elements of the text. Here is a transcript of a talk by researcher P. David Pearson on getting the most out of talk in the classroom. 

Writing in Response to Reading

Writing about what we read is one of the strongest ways to improve reading comprehension. When we write we must reflect on what we have read and attempt to articulate our understanding through summary, analysis and critique. Writing activities engage the whole brain in thinking and responding to text and help us solidify our understanding. As with all reading/learning activities, students need teacher models, scaffolds and feedback on their writing to develop skill in responding to what they read, but research would indicate that the effort is well worth the learning rewards. You can see what literacy researcher Tim Shanahan says about writing in response to reading here.

Word Work

One aspect of becoming a good reader is facility in decoding words. Decoding is developed through daily reading activities including independent reading, sharing reading, rereading and guided reading, but class time must also be spent on learning sight words that cannot be easily "sounded out" (was, because), learning letter/sound correspondences, learning spelling patterns or word families (right, fight, might, flight), learning to break words into chunks (ch-unk-s), spelling and vocabulary development. Word work can take the form of direct teacher instruction, word wall activities, prompting at the point of difficulty during conferences or guided reading, making words activities and spelling instruction. Word work in kindergarten and first grade will also include phonemic awareness - developing the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words. As children get older and more proficient at decoding, word work will also include a greater focus on vocabulary development. 

These are my ten reading non-negotiables. It is a daunting task to balance all of these important aspects of reading instruction in the busy daily activity of the  classroom, but this is the challenge for the teacher of literacy. We must find a way to balance all of these priorities to help all students develop both the skill and the will to be excellent readers. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Say No to Standardized Tests

This country was born of civil disobedience. From the moment a band of angry colonists threw the British tea into the harbor in 1773, civil disobedience has been a way for Americans to call attention to injustice. In the 1800's we had the abolitionist movement, Susan B. Anthony illegally voting to highlight the plight of women and Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay his taxes that supported war and slavery. In the 20th century we had, of course, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests. In the 21st century we have the standardized testing opt out movement.

Our history of (mostly) peaceful protest of governmental missteps is well established and it has shown, over the long haul, to be effective. From the Boston Tea Party came a new nation, form the abolitionist movement came the end of slavery, from the suffragist movement came more equality for women, from the civil rights movement came the end of Jim Crow and the start of a new chapter on race relations in the country. From the opt out movement, could come the more rational use of standardized testing in schools and an improved educational experience for kids.

The rational use of standardized tests would mean that the tests were administered about three times in the school life of a child -  say in third, eighth and eleventh grade. These tests would not be used to punish children, teachers or schools, but to inform parents, teachers and schools about what programs are being successful and what programs need to be improved. This is really all that these tests are good for: to provide some indicators of program effectiveness in a school overall.

Yearly testing advocates say that these tests are the only way we can assure parents that their children are getting the education they deserve.  Testing advocates say that if we are to close the achievement gap, we need the yearly data that standardized tests provide. They say that standardized tests will tell us where we need to spend our resources to close the achievement gap. They insist that standardized tests will separate the good teachers from the bad. All of this is false.

The only thing that standardized tests measure with any certainty is the relative income levels of the children who attend that school. All standardized tests do, year after year, is affirm that we have an achievement gap, which can better be understood as an opportunity gap. Where kids have rich and rewarding opportunities to grow and thrive, they do well on these tests. Where they don’t have these opportunities, they do not do well. We do not need yearly tests to tell us that. All we need do is walk down the streets of a leafy suburb and then walk down the street of an inner city neighborhood.

Almost fifteen years of a test and punish agenda has not managed to get more resources into needy areas. Instead these areas, such as those in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago are being starved of resources. Schools are being closed, buildings are falling apart and cheap and ineffective solutions like charter schools and vouchers are being foisted on the school children in the guise of opportunity.

Using standardized tests to evaluate teachers has also been roundly discredited. The tests are simply inadequate for providing any useful information on who is a good teacher and who is not. Children are being asked to take a test to determine their teachers’ ability, apparently because the adults around them can’t figure out a better way to assess teacher effectiveness.

Many of the by-products of standardized testing work directly against a quality education. When standardized tests are used to punish children, teachers and schools, it is inevitable that the rich curriculum children deserve will narrow. Money and time resources will be focused on tested areas to the detriment of the arts and physical education. Teachers, fearing their jobs and their schools are under the gun, will resort to instructional practices that focus on skill and drill and not engagement in learning. The tests end up driving the curriculum, the instruction and the overall school experience.

Parents have the power to put an end to this very wrong headed policy through civil disobedience. Education reformers know this, which is why they are conducting a full out publicity campaign to champion the tests or, in some cases, scare people into compliance. When parents opt their children out of testing, they are not just saying no to the test, they are saying no to a narrow approach to their children’s schooling. They are saying, I want better for my child. I want a full, broad program of study that engages my child in all the richness that a first class education can be.

President Obama and thousands of other people of means have opted out of this testing craziness by sending their children to elite private schools. I am sure that they would want the same opportunity for those of us whose best or only option is public school. One way we can make it clear that we want the best education for our children is by saying no to standardized tests.

My advice? Strike a blow for public education. Opt Out.

For information on how to opt out go to the United Opt Out web site here:

Monday, March 21, 2016

Making Art in the Inner City

The Cast of Shadows of War at South Camden Theatre Company

Perhaps no city in America has suffered more from the steady decline of our urban areas over the past fifty-years than Camden, New Jersey. The story of Camden is not much different than many other cities - white flight, loss of manufacturing jobs, governmental neglect and mismanagement, loss of tax income - leading to a once economically and culturally vibrant urban area becoming a literal shell of its former self. As Earl Morgan of the New Jersey Journal puts it, "Ride the Amtrak past Camden and you'll see something resembling the aftermath of a disaster movie with one dilapidated and abandoned neighborhood and building after another."

But at least one little corner of Camden is fighting back and it is doing it with art. On that corner stands the lovely little 96 seat Waterfront South Theatre, home of the South Camden Theatre Company. This professional theater is the dream project of Founding Producing Artistic Director, Joe Paprzycki, a playwright, whose father ran a tavern in the very building where the theater is now housed. The mission of this little theater is to bring new life to the community and encourage residents from around the region to return to Camden for a positive experience that will aid in the rebirth of the community.

For the past two months I have been a participant and witness to these efforts. The South Camden Theatre Company just completed the run of a one-act play festival, Shadows of War, which presented four one-act plays on themes related to the tragedy of war, all written by regional playwrights and presented by regional actors and directors. To emphasize the community nature of these productions, South Camden Theatre partnered with the organization, Backpacks for Veterans, a group that collects toiletries and life essentials for homeless veterans. Patrons and participants donated socks and money to this worthy cause. At each performance, veterans in attendance were recognized and applauded by the audience.

I had the great pleasure to act in one of the plays and to join together with a group of dedicated and talented people both on-stage and behind the scenes who were engaged in making art with a purpose. Each day as I drove to a rehearsal or performance through the streets of Camden, I witnessed close up the struggles of the people of Camden, the boarded up former grocery and hardware stores, the abandoned homes, the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks. But also each day, as I parked on the street and got out of my car, a neighborhood resident would nod at me, give a friendly smile or say, "Hi" and I could see that what South Camden Theatre Company is trying to do is working. There is hope for Camden because this little jewel of a theater has dared to bring light in the form of art to these dark and dusty streets.

And because I am a teacher, my thoughts ran to the children of Camden. And particularly to the arts in the life of the children of Camden. We know for a fact that art, both visual and performance based, is vital to the education of children. Among many other things, art inspires creativity, enhances critical thought and problem solving abilities, provides motivation for children who are not as academically inclined and helps keep kids in school.

And yet, in times of tight budgets, arts education is often the first thing to be cut. The recession of 2008 was devastating to school budgets throughout the country, but inner cities were especially hard hit and arts education in those cities was hardest hit. The current emphasis on core subject matter and standardized testing has also had its impact. When language arts and math are tested and art is not, art tends to be de-emphasized. Where tests are given the most power, again in inner cities, where schools and teachers may be punished for low test scores, the damage is multiplied.

The availability of arts education has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years and that drop has been felt most in schools serving African American and Hispanic students. In 1990, approximately 50% of African American and 47% of Hispanics had access to arts education in school. By 2008, those numbers had dropped to 28% and 26% respectively. Since 2008, budget cuts have made the situation even worse, with dance and drama programs suffering the most. You can read more about these statistics in this report from Law Street.

What we all must understand is that the arts are vital to the health of a city and to the health of a school. And we must realize, further, that making art is the most human and humanizing of activities. Art brings people and communities together. Art revitalizes neighborhood economies. Art education must be a priority of our schools and our school policy makers.

The future audiences for Joe Paprzycki's plays at the South Camden Theatre Company are sitting in classrooms in Camden right now. Are these children being well prepared to be engaged participants in the art that is being made there?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reading Our Way to Empathy

A Reading Hug
Last week I had the great pleasure and opportunity to work with middle school students in the Clifton, NJ schools. My assignment was to model an instructional design for teachers based on a lesson structure suggested by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, from their outstanding book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, 2013). The students were engaged and winning in their approach to the work. The text for the lesson was Gary Soto's poem Oranges.

By Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighed down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December.  Frost crackling
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came over pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge.  I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore.  We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted-
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth.  I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, for a distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making fire in my hands.

Following Probst and Beers suggested lesson structure, I first read the poem aloud to the students, then had them read it silently and independently, marking the text with an x or ? at points of confusion, discovery, interest or wonder. Next, I asked the students to read the poem again, this time trying to turn those marks into questions. I then collected their questions on chart paper in the front of the room. Several students had a similar question about one key point in this narrative poem. 

I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

Some of the students asked, "Why did the boy put the orange on the counter next to the nickel?" Others asked, "Why did the lady let him have the candy?" Still others asked, "What did the lady know it was 'all about'?" All great questions. All questions at the heart of understanding the poem. As we discussed these questions, it became clear to me that the students had no schema for what had transpired here. One young man offered that this could not really happen. We had talked about how the poem was based on a memory of the poet's youth and took place in a long ago time when candy cost a dime. The kids could understand that, but the kindness of the clerk's actions eluded them. I finally asked the vocal young man what would happen if he went into the drug store and tried to pay for a dollar candy bar with 75 cents and an orange. His reply, "They would kick my butt right on out of the store?" The rest of the class nodded and murmured in agreement.

So I suggested to the students that we look at the rest of the line "the lady's eyes met mine, and held them, knowing very well what it was all about." I asked the students to "turn and talk" to see if they could discover what it was "all about." After a minute or two, two students raised their hands and simultaneously shouted, "Maybe she remembered when she went on a first date!"

"What do the rest of you think?" Most felt that this was the mostly likely explanation for the clerk's actions, but several still said that was not believable. We took off into a discussion of times when others have shown us a kindness that was unexpected.

Upon reflecting on the lesson, many things ran through my head, not the least of which was the concern that the world had changed so much for these school children that a simple act of kindness from a store clerk was outside of their experience or comprehension. The other thought was that we need poetry and good literature more than ever, because reading poetry and stories can help us vicariously experience empathy and perhaps come to value and practice it in our own lives.

In fact, there is research to support just such a notion. New School of Social Research researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano published a widely read study in the journal Science, which found that reading literary fiction made people more sensitive to the emotions of others. The results could not be replicated for genre fiction (mystery, horror) or non-fiction. The study has its critics, of course, including University of Pennsylvania professor of linguistics, Mark Liberman who found the conclusions wildly overstated. Overstated or not, the argument for a central role for literature and poetry in developing empathy is pretty compelling. What Kidd and Emanuele found was that it was the specific characteristic of "gaps" in literary fiction that allow readers to see themselves in the other characters. Filling in gaps aids in developing empathy. Poetry shares with literary fiction the need for the reader to fill in gaps. In poetry, as in literary fiction, the reader joins the author as co-author of the text in a what Louise Rosenblatt has called the literary transaction.

Why does this matter? The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has rather notoriously called for a greater emphasis on the reading of non-fiction from the earliest years of school. In many ways this makes sense. As kids advance in school and college and work life they will be required to read more and more non-fiction. This CCSS edict, however, has been misunderstood by many to be some sort of mandate to move away from the full exploration of literature and poetry in the classroom. Also, the current mania for standardized tests and "evidence-based" test questions are driving some away from a literature rich curriculum. None other than the leader of the development of the highly regarded Massachusetts state standards, Sandra Stotsky, sees this as a problem.  

A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.

So let's go back to Oranges for a minute. It is clear to me that the students were able to fill in the "gap" in the narrative and discover that the lady understood what the boy was going through because she had once been young and on a first date. The kids were showing themselves able to view something through another's eyes. They were developing empathy. They were becoming critical readers. It was truly a joy to be present to watch this happen.

As my former mentor, Professor Leland B. Jacobs, used to say, "Give children literature!" Give them literature indeed.