Sunday, October 20, 2013

An Unasked Question of the Common Core: Are Colleges Student Ready?

Research has shown us that appropriate scaffolding before, during and after reading is not only appropriate, but it is best practice.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are designed to insure that our children graduate “college and career ready.” The burden for getting kids “college and career ready” is placed on the K-12 institutions. Fair enough. This seems to be a reasonable goal for pre-college schooling. Let’s leave aside for a moment that being college and career ready requires many non-cognitive factors (academic mindset, academic perseverance, academic behaviors, social skills, learning strategies) not touched on in the CCSS and focus for a moment only on college readiness as related to reading ability.

Appendix A of the CCSS tells us the following (emphasis mine).

The difficulty of college textbooks, as measured by Lexile scores, has not decreased in any block of time since 1962; it has, in fact, increased over that period (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The word difficulty of every scientific journal and magazine from 1930 to 1990 examined by Hayes and Ward (1992) had actually increased, which is important in part because, as a 2005 College Board study (Milewski, Johnson, Glazer, &Kubota, 2005) found, college professors assign more readings from periodicals than do high school teachers.

Furthermore, students in college are expected to read complex texts with substantially greater independence (i.e., much less scaffolding) than are students in typical K12 programs. College students are held more accountable for what they read on their own than are most students in high school (Erickson & Strommer, 1991; Pritchard, Wilson, &Yamnitz, 2007). College instructors assign readings, not necessarily explicated in class, for which students might be held accountable through exams, papers, presentations, or class discussions. Students in high school, by contrast, are rarely held accountable for what they are able to read independently (Heller & Greenleaf, 2007).

My key takeaways here are as follows.
            1. College reading has gotten more difficult over the last 50 years.
            2. Students in college are expected to read with much less scaffolding than K-12 students.
            3. College instructors assign readings to students which may or may not be explicated in class.

This leads me to two questions that I am surprised no one has asked.
            1. Is it reasonable to expect students, upon entering college, to read admittedly challenging material in a wide variety of subjects, with little or no support?
            2. Does the college instructor, as the acknowledged expert in the field, have a responsibility to assist students in processing this challenging reading material?

Let’s just take for example a standard college freshman course, General Psychology. Typically these courses are taught by instructors with a Ph.D. in psychology. The text books for these courses tend to be very challenging reading for first-year college students. Much of the vocabulary will be new, the concepts difficult to grasp and the reading dense. Asking a student to read this material independently and process it without appropriate scaffolding would be the instructional equivalent of throwing a 3 year-old into the deep end of the pool to teach her how to swim.

As the expert in the field, the person most qualified to help the student deal with the issues presented by a challenging text is the course instructor. When assigning reading care should be taken that students have activated the appropriate background information, have some sort of guide to help them as they read and have some opportunity after the reading to process their understanding with the guidance of the expert. For me this is a part of the college instructor’s responsibility.

The CCSS seem to accept unquestioningly that students will not get this kind of instruction. They argue that students must arrive on the college campus able to survive without appropriate support. I worry that this blanket acceptance at the lack of scaffolding on the college level will lead K-12 teachers to think that the very kind of scaffolding they provide students should be withheld because by withholding support we will be helping students be college ready.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Research has shown us that appropriate scaffolding before, during and after reading is not only appropriate, but it is best practice. Certainly we should leave some questions for the students to wrestle with independently, but we should not leave students to fly on their own in some mistaken attempt to make the instruction more rigorous.

I think we would be wiser to look on college students as works in progress in the same way that we look at our K-12 children as works in progress. We hope to deliver engaged, capable readers to college, who are moving toward greater independence as readers. Being college ready should be measured over four years of college, not on a pre-entrance exam alone.

College instructors have a responsibility to provide students with instruction, not only in the content of their subject, but in the ways to read and learn about that subject as well.

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