Friday, January 31, 2014

What Would Pete Do?

Singing with children in the schools has been the most rewarding experience of my life. –Pete Seeger

One of my personal heroes died this week. Pete Seeger, troubadour, evangelist for folk music, teacher and political activist, passed at the age of 94. I can say without hyperbole, that Pete was one of the most important Americans of the 20th century. Without Pete much of our rich culture of people’s songs  would have been lost. Without Pete there would have been no folk revival in the 50s and 60s. Without Pete there would be no Bob Dylan; no Peter, Paul and Mary; no Bruce Springsteen. Pete’s songs were the soundtrack of the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. Pete’s instruction books taught generations of kids to play the banjo and the guitar. Pete’s example taught many of us how to live.

My favorite Pete Seeger story, involves his appearance before House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Like many young people growing up during the Depression, Pete joined the Communist Party. Later, horrified by the reign of Josef Stalin, he disavowed his membership and quit the Party in 1949. He would later say he waited too long to quit. Called before the House committee, Pete brought along his banjo and offered to play the songs that he sang to people at the meetings he was being questioned about.

            I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.

The flummoxed inquisitor pushed ahead trying to get Pete to name names of people he sang with, organizations he sang to, and places he had sung. It must be remembered that this was in an atmosphere where famous people from all walks of entertainment, including Pete’s friend Burl Ives, were cooperating with the committee and naming names for fear of jail and a ruined career. Pete refused to answer the questions in a beautiful statement of the rights of every American.

            I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. (You can read Pete’s full testimony here).

For his refusal to answer, Pete was found in contempt of Congress and eventually sentenced to a year in jail. His sentence was thrown out on a technicality, but Pete had fully expected to go to jail. He was blacklisted and his career was put on life support. All during the folk revival, the single most important figure in that revival was banned from appearing on national television. Pete slung his banjo on his back and made his living going from college campuses to coffee houses to summer camps, singing to anyone who would listen.

It is telling that when the blacklist was finally broken by the Smothers Brothers and Pete performed on their show in 1967, Pete chose to sing his anti-Vietnam war song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Pete Seeger was not going to back down.

More than anything else, Pete Seeger believed in the power of people, the power of community and the power of song to bring people together. In concert, Pete did not so much present a performance as he did get everybody in the room up and singing. He believed in the transformative power of song.

So, as a teacher and advocate for public education, when I ask myself what actions I should be taking for my fellow teachers, for my fellow believers in public education and for the public school children of today and of the future, I ask myself, “What would Pete do?”

I think that Pete would advocate for community action. Actions such as we are seeing in New York where parents, community members and advocacy groups like Class Size Matters and Lace to the Top are rising up to protest the rushed and faulty implementation of the Common Core and Common Core aligned tests. The kind of community action we are seeing in Newark, NJ, where parents and administrators are fighting the turnover of the public schools to the charter school privatizers. The kind of community action we are seeing from the parents group Stop Common Core in Tennessee. And the kind of community action we are seeing from the incredible growth of the Badass Teachers Association, some 35,000 strong.

If Pete were able, I think he would be attending meetings of these groups to lead the singing of songs like this:
            We shall not
            We shall not be moved
            Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
            We shall not be moved

And in a time when teacher unions are under attack and hard won working conditions and benefits are being stripped at the whim of reformy governors and legislatures, Pete would advise that this is no time to split apart into warring factions.

            Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
            I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
            Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
            I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

And as to our prospects for ultimate victory over the powers of reform? Well, Pete would have a hopeful message for us all.

            We shall overcome.
            We shall overcome.
            We shall overcome someday.
            Oh, deep in my heart
            I do believe,
            We shall overcome

Pete Seeger was the quintessential American optimist. He was the Johnny Appleseed of folksong. He was a believer in the power of good people to do good work together and to overcome oppression.  I can think of no better role model for us all as we work to stop the corporate takeover of public education.

I cannot sing or play the banjo, but I can write a little bit, so that will be my contribution to the fight. What will you do?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Arne’s World

In 2009 two things happened that we're bad for children: Elmo's World stopped production and Arne Duncan became Secretary of Education. 

Over the past five years, children and all advocates for children and public education have been entangled in Arne’s World.

Arne's World (to the tune of Elmo's World)

Lalalalalala lalalalala
Arne's World                                                            
Lalalalala lalalalala
Arne's World (Arne's World)
Arne loves his charters 
And his Common Core
That's Arne's World.

In Arne’s World, American school children are dumb and educators have been lying to parents about their children’s progress. Read more

In Arne’s World, “white suburban moms” are deluded about the abilities of their children and the Common Core and standardized tests will set them straight. Read more

In Arne’s World, bribing governors and state education leaders to adopt the Common Core and teacher evaluation based on test scores is the American Way. Read more

In Arne’s World public school teachers are the problem. Read more

In Arne’s World teacher preparation programs are the problem. Read more

In Arne’s World, merit pay will improve the quality of learning for children. Read more

In Arne’s World, Bill Gates has no seat at the education policy table, despite being the person who financed the development and implementation of the Common Core and despite having financed the MET study that advocates for teacher evaluation and compensation based on standardized test scores. Read more

In Arne’s World, Hurricane Katrina, which killed hundreds of people, is the best thing that ever happened to education in New Orleans. Read more

In Arne’s World, the way to address struggling neighborhood public schools is to close them and turn them over to charter school privatizers. Read more

So, welcome to Arne’s World folks. A world of self-delusion and arrogance. A world that invites the powerful plutocrat to the table, while belittling the people on the front lines trying to make a difference every day. A world where closing a school is a better solution than working with parents, teachers and community members to improve a school. A world where kids are dumb and their parents deluded. A world where teachers are the problem instead of part of the solution. A world where you can say "poverty is not destiny", and then ignore its impact on learning. A world where public education, a crowning achievement of American democracy, is being handed over to private interests. 

Last year we learned from Tea Party zealots, that it is difficult to have a functioning government when elected representatives don’t believe in government. Over the past five years we have learned that it is difficult to move forward in public education when the Secretary of Education does not believe in public education.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Smoke, Mirrors, and Longer School Days

Not satisfied with lengthening the commute for residents of New Jersey using the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Chris Christie now wants to lengthen the school day for children. A cynic might say that Christie is trying to distract attention from his recent scandals by once again attacking his favorite target, teachers and public education. A cynic might also point out that Christie has championed, over the years, lots of education reform initiatives that denigrate public education and feed into the efforts to privatize education. Here we need mention only charter school proliferation, vouchers, standardized testing and teacher evaluation based on unreliable test measures. A cynic might also point to Christie appointees like State Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf and the underqualified, but pliant, superintendents put in place in Newark and Camden as examples of Christie’s disdain for real educators. For an excellent recounting of the political agenda behind this call for a longer school day please see this blog post from teacherbiz.

But please allow me, for a moment, to park my cynicism on the GWB on ramp. Let’s say that Christie’s call to lengthen the school day and calendar year is a legitimate proposal. Does the proposal have merit? From my reading of the research the answer would be yes, but…

There is actually quite a bit of research available on longer school days or longer school years. Here is what we know with some certainty. This information comes from The Chalkboard Project’s review of the research on extended learning time.

·         The connection between time and learning is not straightforward, and depends on how effectively learning time is being used.
·         Additional learning time is effective only when existing learning time is well used.
·         Extended learning time can be effective for all children, but is more effective for children of economic disadvantage than for children from middle or high socio-economic status households.
·         Extended learning time programs have been more effective in primary and secondary grades than in middle school.
·         Extending the school day is more cost effective than extending the school year.
·         Any program should start small, gather evidence and expand over time.

So, a serious proposal for extended days should include the following:

·         An audit of how well school time is used currently. There can be a wide difference between time in school for children and time devoted to learning. Schools should work to maximize current learning time, before adding additional time. This could be as broad based as reorganizing school schedules for maximum learning and as simple as making sure the public address system is turned off during the school day.
·         Provide a combination of instructional support and enrichment activities likely to engage all students in learning.
·         Include arts exploration and education along with core subject enrichment or remediation.
·         Involve teachers in the planning, leadership and implementation of the program.
·         Involve the parents and community in the planning of the program.

If I ruled the education world, I would include two other things in the extended day/extended year plan. The first may well be the best way to use a longer day that could be devised.

1.    Teacher Professional Development – The best possible use I can imagine for a longer school day is to use the time for teachers to meet together to share ideas and improve practice. Here I am thinking about the Professional Learning Community model, where teachers meet together collegially to discuss lessons, strengthen instructional practice, problem solve individual student concerns and receive occasional input from supervisor or experts in various fields. Teachers in other countries use models like Lesson Study to continually improve practice. In this country teachers only seem to be valued for the time they spend in front of students. In years past unions fought long and hard to get professionals a few minutes of planning time during the school day. Political leaders and the public need to understand that real, intensive professional collaboration could do more than any other single factor to improve student learning.

2.    Summer Literacy Enrichment – Summer loss syndrome is real. It is well documented that children living in poverty suffer a loss of literacy skills over the summer months. Some school districts have combatted this by extending the school year into the summer and taking brief breaks several times during the regular school year. I don’t see that happening in most places. What all school districts should commit to is a program of literacy enrichment for children over the summer. This could go a long way to reducing some of the summer loss that many children experience.

Christie has promised that details of his extended day plan will come out later. When they do, we will know if this is a serious plan or just another way to batter teachers and public education. Let’s see if the plan acknowledges the research; let’s see if the plan is fully funded.; let’s see if teachers are included in the decision making and let’s see if this plan is about improving school experiences for the public school children of New Jersey or if it is just another traffic cone on the entrance ramp to a strong public education system.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wise Words for Plutocrats from Dr. Martin Luther King

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. - MLK

When I read this quote from Dr. King this morning my mind went immediately to the corporate education reform movement. If you throw into the mix an obscene amount of money, you get something truly dangerous. I believe that most of the voices of corporate education reform are sincere and they are certainly conscientious in the sense that they are diligent and wish to do the right thing. I am sure that their desire is to have a positive impact on society and that they see education as a key area where they can have this impact. And so Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family and others spend their millions on a sincere effort to improve schools and schooling.

The only problem is that their sincerity and concientiousness is trumped by their ignorance and stupidity. Instead of trying to understand what public education is, what teachers do, and how children learn, these plutocrats arrogantly decide that they know best and what is best is a business model for education. And so we get millions of dollars tossed at a "market driven" view of school improvement that undermines public education, narrows curriculum, stunts learning, denigrates the teaching profession and increases inequality. This corporate "philanthropy" assuages the guilt of the filthy rich and as a bonus allows them to dictate their world view on the rest of the nation. It also allows them to look like they are doing something about real problems like poverty; something that they don't actually want to touch.

What the plutocrats fail to understand is that education is not the way out of poverty, relieving poverty is the way into education. Why would they not spend their money on the real, tangible societal issue of poverty and leave the education of the children to the professional educators who know what they are doing?

Better yet, instead of using education philanthropy as a tax dodge, why not just pay your fair share of taxes and see what the educators can do with the money.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Chris Christie's Pronoun Problem: Lessons for Teachers and Education Leaders from Bridgegate

"I am not a bully." When I heard these words come out of the mouth of the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, I had the same reaction as I did when I heard Richard Nixon say, "I am not a crook." I thought, "Oh, yes you are." I served for several years as the Anti-Bullying Co-Ordinator for a suburban New Jersey school district, and if there is one thing I learned from that experience, it is that Mr. Christie fits the bully description.

Last Sunday I read an excellent column by Frank Bruni of the New York Times entitled, "The I in Christie's Storm." Bruni's premise is that Christie has a pronoun problem. Even in his two hour apologia on Bridgegate, Christie was focused on "I", unable to see beyond his own nose. Bruni says that effective political leaders need a strong ego (certainly Christie qualifies there), but they also need to be inclusive; they need to address the issues related to the pronouns "you" and "we." The "you" in the political equation is a genuine concern for others. As a leader I serve "you." That is what Christie is trying to do with his hugging of Superstorm Sandy victims: see, I care about you. The "you" message is undermined by Christie's boorish bullying tactics and certainly by Bridgegate. The "we" in the leadership equation is the ability to convince others that what I want to accomplish is our mission: "we" are in this together. For Christie the "we" too often comes across as me, me, me. As he said to a New Jersey teacher who voiced a concern, "I am tired of you people." Ultimately, Bruni says, a politician's obsession with "I" leads to another "i" word - isolation.

I believe that classroom leaders (teachers) and education administrators can learn a lesson from Christie's pronoun problems. Let me explain.

When the Bridgegate scandal broke, I was in Honolulu, Hawaii (I know, poor me) visiting my friend, colleague and former boss, Earl Kim. Born and raised in Hawaii, Earl is currently the Head of School for the Kamahameha School, a large private school dedicated to the education of native Hawaiian children and the preservation of Hawaiian culture. Previously, Earl had superintendent positions at two school districts in New Jersey. He left New Jersey because he could not continue to work in the educational environment that was being engendered by Christie and his minions. To me, Earl was and is the finest representation of the balance of the I, you and we in education leadership.

As all leaders must, I believe, Earl had a well developed sense of "I." He had studied economics and public policy and public education. He had worked as a teacher, assisant principal, principal and superintendent. He was confident in his understanding of schooling and what was best for teaching and learning. This sense of "I" allowed him to set a vision for his leadership and a direction for the school district he was leading. But Earl realized that his expertise and his vision were not adequate for leadership. He worked very hard at the "you" of the leadership equation. His concern for the children entrusted in his care was exemplary. He was hyper-diligent in attending student activities. He often started meetings with stories about individual students he had met and what they were experiencing. The only time he exhibited impatience was when others did not seem to put the children first.

Finally, Earl embraced the "we" of this leadership pronoun troika. He valued and truly listened to the advice he received from others. His cabinet had his ear. So also did union leadership and individual teachers. Earl could admit he was wrong and change course when the evidence indicated it. He received criticism with equanimity. When teachers complained they did not see enough of him, he went on a "listening tour" in the various buildings. He was moved by these discussions and what he heard helped frame subsequent plans for the district.

In short, Earl Kim embodies the balance of "I", "you" and "me" necessary for great leadership. Christie, stuck with his overabundance of "I" is less leader and more demagogue. I have addressed Christie's demagoguery in another post here, for now suffice it to say that Christie's verbal abuse of teachers, attacks on teacher unions, efforts to undermine public education, and rhetoric about failure factories are all a result of an excess of "I" type self-aggrandizement. All this is about the self-styled truth teller, Christie, and not about the parents, children and teachers of New Jersey. The people of New Jersey, the "you" and "we" are left out of the isolated Christie's vision.

What can educators learn from Christie's excess of  "I?" First of all, unlike Christie, most educators suffer from too little "I." Those of us who go into the profession are generally team players. This can be dangerous when what we are doing is under attack. The truth is that as a profession we are very well-prepared and dedicated people who are out to do the very best for children. The education reform movement has managed to brand us as incompetent feeders at the public trough. The Common Core, teacher evaluation based on standardized tests, charter schools and vouchers are all direct slaps in the face of our profession. We need a sufficiently developed "I" to fight back at this lunacy, stand up for our profession and our professionalism and reclaim the high ground.

But while we need to assert the "I" in the equation, we also must remember the "you" and the "we." In education, if you are a teacher the "you" is the children. If you are an administrator the "you" is the child, teacher and the public. As teachers we must be sure to always give our best to the children. This is the essence of professionalism. If our lessons are not the best, we work to improve them because we serve "you" the children. If an individual child struggles we try to determine why, because we serve "you" the individual child with a particular need. If parents don't understand why we gave a particular assignment, we communicate with them as best we can because we serve "you" the parent. As administrators we serve the teachers by making sure that "you" the teachers have the resources and feedback you need to be the best possible teacher and we serve "you" the public, by insuring that we hire, retain and develop the very best educators we can find.

The "we' in classroom and education is the profession. As Ben Franklin said, "We must hang together, or most assuredly we will hang separately." We need to support each other in our profession. This means teachers helping other teachers, administrators helping other administrators, teachers helping administrators and administrators helping teachers. This "we" means never saying to a parent or community member, "Your child should have learned this last year." It means working collegially to improve our practice. It means presenting a picture of a profession that respects all the members of that profession and works at the top levels of its capabilities.

So there it is. Chris Christie has made his pronoun problem a problem for the people of New Jersey and for all who serve public education in New Jersey. Let's fight back by balancing our own "I", "you" and "we."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ten Ways to Make Learning to Read More Difficult

Learning to read is hard work. Teaching children to read is hard work. Educators don't need to make this work harder by using discredited practices while working with children. Here are ten practices to avoid and the reasons to avoid them.

1. Providing Instruction that Lacks Balance

Reading is getting the meaning from text while guided by squiggles on a page. It makes sense that reading instruction requires instruction in how to decode those squiggles and how to get that meaning. Any program that requires an out-of-balance attention to one side or the other of this process is not adequate. Decoding is a complex process of coordinating visual information (phonics), syntax, and meaning. Decoding instruction cannot and should not be divorced from context because the context is a part of the decoding process. Balanced instruction does not mean equal parts of decoding and comprehension instruction, rather it means instruction on a sliding continuum based on student need. The observant teacher adjusts the instruction based on an assessment of student processing of text.

2. Putting Faith in Programs over Teachers

Programs do not teach children to read, teachers do. The wise administration would invest scarce resources in teacher training rather than specific programs. A skilled teacher adjusts instruction based on student need, not on programmatic prescription. No program can be as responsive to a student as can the knowledgeable adult working with that child every day. Empowering teachers to make critical instructional decisions and giving them the support they need to continuously improve performance (not through test scores, but through informed feedback) will improve instruction.

3. Testing Comprehension instead of Teaching Comprehension

Children do not improve their reading comprehension by answering multiple choice or short-answer questions. Reading comprehension improvement comes through the direct instruction in strategies that focus on comprehension including predicting, questioning, summarizing, monitoring for understanding, visualizing, making connections, and adjusting reading rate. Asking comprehension questions may help a teacher assess student understanding, but it does not teach comprehension.

4. Mistaking Difficult Texts for Rigorous Instruction

Except in very limited circumstances (some one-to-one tutoring and buddy reading), children do not improve their reading by reading text that is too difficult for them. The Common Core State Standards' (CCSS) call for greater rigor and text complexity should not be mistaken as a call for children to be reading text that is too difficult for them. Reading instruction should still occur in texts that provide some challenge for readers, but that are not at the frustration level, in other words, in a "just right" book. More complex texts may be introduced to students through read aloud, because listening comprehension is generally 1 to 2 years higher than reading comprehension. To meet the CCSS call for greater rigor, the teacher should focus on rigorous instruction, not more difficult text. For more on this see here.
5. Interrupting Real Reading for Silly Activities and Worksheets

Avoid assigning students activities that are not an integral part of their reading while they are reading. For example, do not ask students to look for their spelling words and circle them while they are reading. Don't ask them to find vocabulary while reading. This type of activity actually interferes with the real purpose for reading. Real reasons for stopping reading are based on student choice and comprehension development. An activity like "stop-and-jot" where the student chooses where to stop and what to jot is a genuine reading comprehension activity. Likewise reams of worksheets kill enthusiasm for reading and generally do not reinforce learning. Well structured journal entries or other written response activities are more engaging and more productive.

6. Engaging in Round Robin Reading

Round Robin Reading is the practice of having one child read aloud while the other children (either in a small or large group) listen in. This practice persists today despite longstanding research that shows it is ineffective. Round Robin Reading has been shown to lower the quantity of reading that children do, to emphasize pronumciation over comprehension and to cause discipline and self-esteem issues. For a fuller look at this pernicious instructional strategy you can look here.
7. Telling Children They Can't Read Ahead

Sometimes when the whole classroom is reading the same book, or when students are engaged in Literature Circles, students will be assigned to read up to a certain point in the text. Inevitably, some students will finish this assignment and want to continue reading. Let them. We need to decide what is more important, having kids who are motivated and enthusiastic about reading, or controlling kids because it fits better in our lesson plan. Since the greatest single factor in whether students become good readers is how much they read, it would be educational malpractice not to allow children to read ahead. What we can do is make it clear to them that they are not to share with others what they have learned and that they are to focus their comments only on what everyone has read.

8. Not Allowing Children to Take Books Home

I know, I know. We have limited resources, books are precious and if we allow them to go home, they might get lost. On the other hand, if we allow them to go home, they might get read. And since we know the best way to become a good reader is to read, what we have have here is a cost benefit conundrum. Here is what I suggest. The power and potential of allowing children to take books home outweighs the risk. We don't need to ban books from going home; we need better ways to insure they come back. The first year I taught in elementary school, I ended up owing the library 280 dollars for lost books (I would take them out and give them to the kids and they would forget to bring them back). Then I instituted a policy where every book that went home from my room went  home in a baggie with my name on it and in it. I then solicited the help of parents through phone calls and backpack mail to assist in making sure books were returned. My losses and out of pocket expenses went down exponentially and kids were reading books at home.

9. Tapping Fingers to Decode Words

Some children have difficulty learning to decode words. What causes this is not really known, but it is likely a combination of many factors including perceptual issues, developmental issues, literacy experience and instructional issues. Whatever the cause, these children often find themselves in remedial programs where they receive intensive phonics instruction, sometimes including such activities as tapping out the sounds of words and then scooping the sounds together to make the word. Not surprisingly, these children often get better at word identification activities. What they typically do not get better at is reading fluency and comprehension. The What Works Clearinghouse reviewed one exemplar of this kind of instruction, Wilson Reading. You can find out their conclusions here. It is really not surprising that kids do not become better readers with a program like this. These programs lose the balance I spoke of above. Children who are tapping and scooping are not able to attend to the real purpose of reading - what do these words mean?

10. Interrupting Student Reading

In typical classrooms good readers spend a great deal of time reading and struggling readers spend a great deal of time having their reading interrupted. It is understandable. We see a child struggling and we want to intervene. We want to provide instruction. When we have a group of struggling readers, it may get even worse. More stopping, more instruction, less actual reading. So what happens is like in our society today, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Skilled readers are likely to have hours more time to actually read in school over the course of a month than struggling readers. The strong readers, therefore, get stronger and the struggling readers continue to struggle. Teachers must find a way to insure that struggling readers get plenty of uninterrupted time to just read (on their own appropriate level) and also additional time for continued reading instruction. Richard Allington has some very cogent thoughts on this topic in his book,What Really Matters for Struggling Readers.

So there you have it. Ten ways to make learning to read harder. Let's see if we can eliminate these non-productive practices from our reading instruction.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Does Class Size Matter?

On Monday, I had the pleasure of observing some excellent reading instruction in 4th grade classes in a small town school district in New Jersey. To give you an idea of size, I was able to observe every fourth grade regular education teacher (6) in the district over the period of one school day. Many things jumped out at me during these observations, but nothing was as startling as the class sizes in these six rooms – 12, 13, 11, 18, 19, 20. 

Now, the reaction you have when you read those numbers will depend on who you are. Likely, if you are a teacher you are awed by all the possibilities that classes this small would afford you as a teacher. If you are a parent of a fourth grader, you probably are pleased that your child would be able to get so much individual attention in the class. However, if you are a taxpayer in the district without children in the school, you may see this as a wasteful expenditure. It looks like the district could save lots of money by reducing the staff in half. Finally, if you are a district leader, you are looking at these numbers and trying to determine how to present a responsible budget in difficult financial times, while balancing staffing needs with other expenditures including building maintenance, educational supplies, technology needs, and so forth.

The district I described above is not a wealthy district. It falls in the middle of the pack in terms of socio-economic status. According to a district administrator I talked to, this small town has always prided itself on neighborhood schools and small class sizes. The town's motto is "Small Town, Big Heart." A school board or school leader looking for greater efficiency in the district by consolidating schools would find stiff public resistance.

In 2008 I was working as the Director of Human Resources for a large suburban school district. As part of my responsibility, I was charged with establishing class size guidelines to present to the Board of Education for approval. Obviously, this was a heady responsibility. I went about the job methodically and, I hoped, thoughtfully. I read the research, including the well-known STAR research out of Tennessee that showed that large reductions in class size (from 22-24 down to 12-17) could have educational benefit, especially for at-risk children. I read other research that seemed to indicate that small class size reductions had small impact. Other considerations played a role as well. As a teacher, I had taught classes as large as 39 and as small as 22. I knew in my heart 22 was better. But was it better just for me or better for the students, too?

Another thing I needed to take into consideration was the community expectations. Many families moved to the district because of the high quality of the public schools. They sacrificed a great deal to buy expensive houses and pay high taxes to send their children to a highly respected district. These concerned and vocal parents were not going to stand for high class sizes. Eventually I recommended the following structure.

Grades K-2:                20-22 students
Grades 3-8.                23-25 students
Grades 9-12.              24-27 students

Special consideration was given to some classes with special requirements. Supplemental Instruction was capped at 10 students and high school science at 24 because there were only 24 lab stations in each room.

No sooner were these guidelines approved by the Board, then the recession hit, the State aid to the District was slashed, and hard personnel decisions had to be made that had a incalculable human impact, but also brought the class size parameters under ever deeper scrutiny. I found myself in daily discussions about how far we could stretch the guidelines and where the stretching might have the least educational impact. In the end the guidelines were maintained, but at the upper ends of the ranges.

So class size does matter. It matters to teachers and parents and boards of education and taxpayers and school leaders. But does it matter for students and how does it matter for them. The corporate education reform movement likes to cite the mixed evidence of actual learning gain of students in marginally smaller classes to argue for rewarding "high performing teachers" by paying them more to accept larger classes of students. The idea is to have more students exposed to these top teachers. Makes sense doesn't it?

Well, I suppose it might make some sense if we all defined education as a score on a  standardized test. It might make sense if we could actually reliably determine who "best teachers" are. Unfortunately, and most fortunately, schooling Is much more than a score on a standardized test and teaching is much too complex to be easily quantified.

What do we want children to learn in school? Of course we want them to be able to read and write and compute. But I believe we want so much more. We want children to learn to be good citizens. We want them to learn to think critically. We want them to learn to be knowledgeable consumers. We want them to develop a social conscience. We want them to learn how to get along with others. We want them to feel safe in school. We want them to be allowed to explore their interests. We want them to be nurtured. We want them to learn how to "do school", so they will be successful at the next level of learning and we want them to learn how to "do life" so that they can live a happy and productive life. Is this asking too much of school? Perhaps, but in my experience this is exactly what good schools do and more.

And what do we want from teachers? Yes, we want highly intelligent people who know their content well. We want teachers who are skilled at planning engaging lessons. We want teachers who are skilled diagnosticians, skilled at meeting diverse students needs, skilled at classroom management, dedicated to their work. And we want teachers who are good nurturers, who really listen to children and value their thinking. Would the impact of a great teacher be increased by loading in more students or would it be diluted by the increased demands?

Back when I was teaching those 39 ninth-graders, it really wouldn't have mattered whether I was teaching fifty students or 20 students in the class. At the time, in my first year, I was a stand and deliver teacher. I stood in front and lectured and students took notes and spit back at me what I said. Over time, I learned to be a facilitator of learning, rather than a "sage on the stage." When I made that shift, I truly began to see the benefits of reasonable class sizes. So, it is not just about controlling for class sizes. Teachers must change the way they teach to take full advantage of the smaller sizes. In the schools I visit, especially the elementary schools, this is clearly happening. It is a huge challenge to meet the needs of all students. When students are at-risk the struggle is even greater.

Good teaching matters. Arriving at school ready to learn matters. Class size matters. Policy makers need to insure that teachers get the training they need to take full advantage of reasonable class sizes. They must also look closely at the needs of their students and set guidelines for class size that are most likely to meet those students needs. Yes, class size does matter, not just for the adults in the room, but for the children, also.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Common Core Goes to Kindergarten: How Should Teachers Respond?

One of the chief concerns about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that it is not developmentally appropriate for children in grades K-3. This concern is understandable since not one early childhood teacher or early childhood educator was involved in the development of the CCSS. I have discussed my concerns with the CCSS in general here and with the CCSS prescriptions for early literacy here.

In this post I would like to take a close look at the CCSS for English/Language Arts in kindergarten. The key questions to explore will be as follows:

·         What is developmentally appropriate in kindergarten?
·         What should be taught as it relates to literacy in kindergarten?
·         What guidance is the CCSS giving teachers that makes sense and what falls short?
·         How should teachers respond to curricular/instructional demands made on them that they deem inappropriate?

First a couple of illustrative stories. Diane Ravitch has been featuring the voices of teachers in her blog. A few weeks ago she featured these reports from two kindergarten teachers.

            1. I teach kindergarten. The five-year olds have an incredibly tight schedule to keep in our county: an hour of math, hour of science, 2 hours of language arts, half hour of social studies. We kindergarten teachers have had to sneak in rest time and social centers (such as puppets, blocks, housekeeping, play dough) which are so critical to their development.
            They have been forced to sit through the two close readings that go on for three days each and require them to write notes and then sentences to explain what they learned. My poor babies turned in papers with sentences made of fragments from our fact chart we had made, but they hung their heads because they couldn’t read the sentences they’d managed to write. I hugged them, told them they were great, and gave them chocolate. Then I reported that only 4 of my students passed….another poor reflection on my teaching.
            2. I am a kindergarten teacher, stressed to the nth degree from having to push 5 year olds in ways that make my blood boil from the wrongness of it. It is immoral to ask 5 year olds to write facts from a story they are listening to and to write sentences when they are only learning to read & write!!

            [E]ducation reformers such as Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor don’t seem to think much about what is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten children in the zealous implementation the Connecticut Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Moreover, Commissioner Pryor and other reformers are thinking of how can we get these kindergarten children into college as their main focus. In the place of  developmentally appropriate activities suitable for young children, Pryor and other “education reformers” want these kindergarteners to begin to work on “academic skills” instead of a kindergarten where creative play as well as language and number development use to be some of the central themes of the curriculum for these young children. Sadly, what we are also experiencing with the Common Core Elementary Standards for these very young children is stress as many of these vulnerable young children are not prepared for this level of education.

So what is developmentally appropriate literacy instruction for children in kindergarten? One of the things that makes this question so difficult is that the development of children, especially such young children, is so volatile and individual. There could be 20 different answers to the question in any classroom of 20 five year-olds. This means that more than anything else standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment and teachers must all be flexible enough to accommodate these individual differences. As I will discuss later, in some ways the CCSS acknowledge the need for flexibility and in some ways they undermine this. It seems clear to me from the anecdotes above and what I have observed myself in some kindergarten classes, that the implementation of the CCSS has often lacked this necessary flexibility.

Let me now answer the question. What is developmentally appropriate literacy instruction for kindergarten? In order to be developmentally appropriate instruction must take into consideration “age, individual growth patterns and cultural factors” (Reutzel, 2007). In literacy, kindergarten children should learn the following:
·         Oral Language
·         Concepts about Print
·         Letter Names
·         Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
·         Beginning Phonics (CVC words)
·         25 (or so) Sight Words
·         Listening Comprehension Strategies (Reutzel, 2007)
Children should develop these abilities through the following instructional routines:
·         Read-alouds
·         Shared reading and writing (charts and big books)
·         Guided reading
·         Discussion groups
·         Independent reading
·         Interactive writing
·         Independent writing and conferences
·         Word Work (beginning with name charts)
·         Word sorts and hunts (McGill-Franzen, 2006)
And teachers should provide instruction to children through the following:
·         Reading aloud
·         Mini-lesson direct instruction
·         Modeling
·         Prompting
·         Conferring
·         Linking reading and writing

What kind of guidance does the CCSS give us as it relates to literacy targets in kindergarten? Let’s start with oral language. Oral language development is critical to the literacy success of children. Some children come to school with quite advanced oral language proficiency and others do not. This is the beginning of the “achievement gap” because it is often children who come from homes impacted significantly by poverty who have an oral language deficit.

At least one researcher has some concerns about where the CCSS leads us as it relates to oral language development. Fiano (2013) says the following:

            The Common Core State not stress the importance of merging the authentic expressive oral language that children enter school with and that of school's more academically focused vocabulary. The Common Core's College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language outline tightly woven and extremely structured academically based standards for vocabulary acquisition and use. The document presents specifically for kindergarten, “Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts” (p. 27). Although the anchor standard for language appears to place importance on language, it does not foster expressive oral language development in kindergartners. The standard is more concerned with the institutional academic agenda of vocabulary acquisition rather than centering on the student and honoring the cultural complexity in expressive oral language that each student brings to school (p. 78)

Fiano also cites a concern about how the CCSS can steal time from the oral language instruction children need.

            Teachers need to be more tolerant of student talk in the classroom. Consistent modeling and multiple opportunities for practicing oral discourse in student-led workstations will alleviate off-task behavior by students. Additionally, there needs to be time built in for teachers to observe the language that students are using during independent workstation use (p. 77).

Finally, Fiano will win the hearts of many kindergarten teachers when she advocates for the kind of workstations that were a familiar part of all kindergarten classes pre-CCSS.

            An emphasis needs to be put back on more authentic student-centered oral discourse tasks in workstations. For instance, an oral language or vocabulary workstation might be a kitchen area where students learn and use vocabulary and phrases related to the everyday workings within the kitchen environment, including whisk, temperature, barbecue, and cabinet, and incorporate synonyms for words associated with this environment, such as plates/dishes, silverware/utensils, and market/grocery store. A veterinarian workstation could include chart, stethoscope, artery, and dorsal for students to take care of “injured” animals, and a numeracy workstation might emphasize collaborative student tasks and discussion analyzing and comparing two- and three-dimensional shapes using language to describe similarities, differences, parts (e.g., number of sides and vertices/corners), and other attributes (e.g., having   sides of equal length) (p. 77) (emphasis mine).

I offer one other caveat about the Listening and Speaking CCSS in kindergarten. Under “Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas” we find this: “Add drawings and other visual displays to descriptions as desired to provide additional detail.” Anyone who has taught kindergarten would know that these young children draw first and then write about what they are describing. If they want to add detail they then add to their drawing prior to writing more.

The CCSS groups the areas of concepts of print, letter names, phonological and phonemic awareness and sight words under the heading of “Foundational Skills.” In this area I have no real problem with what the CCSS is suggesting as targets for student learning. I worry; however, that because these abilities are given a separate heading some will interpret the standards to mean that these skills are to be taught in isolation. This would be a mistake. The “foundational skills” should be taught, as all other literacy skills are taught, as a part of a dynamic engagement of students in real reading and real writing activities. Specifically, these skills are taught through read aloud, interactive writing, direct instruction through mini-lessons, guided small group instruction, authentic writing experiences, and structured play experiences in workstations.

As far as reading comprehension instruction is concerned, the CCSS addresses reading in literature and informational text with the phrase “with prompting and support.” I read this to mean that students will learn reading comprehension strategies primarily through teacher read alouds. This seems appropriate to me. It also seems appropriate that students would work with the teacher to create classroom charts of what they recall about a story, or to focus on characters or to recall important information. After this type of scaffolding, students might be invited to see what they can write on their own (probably after they have drawn a picture). I do not see anywhere in the CCSS where they call for kindergarten children to write in complete sentences or be able to read what they wrote as the teacher above recounted her kids were expected to do.

Should kindergarten children be able to read by the time they leave kindergarten? Of course some children will be reading by the time they leave kindergarten, but that does not mean it should be a goal of kindergarten instruction. I believe that all kindergarten children should get the instruction they need in literacy. For some that will be reading instruction, for others that will be getting ready to read instruction. What all students should get is small group instruction with like ability peers to move them forward in their literacy. The CCSS says that kindergartners should be reading “emergent reader” texts by the time they leave kindergarten. In my mind that leaves room for students to be reading at a variety of levels from A to F, just as most kindergartners will. It will ever remain a challenge for the kindergarten teacher to provide small group instruction and give children the attention they need in workstations.

This brings me to my last point for now. I believe that there is a great deal of misinformation out there about the Common Core. My colleague, Cynthia Mershon, discussed this in an earlier entry on this blog here. Teachers must be armed with a deep knowledge of what the CCSS says and what the research says about appropriate instruction for kindergartners. They must resist any call for instruction that is truly developmentally inappropriate and they must insist that curriculum developed in the name of the CCSS not only reflect the CCSS, but also reflect sound instruction.

One place to start would be to insist on the kindergarten workstation as a place that is still vital to kindergarten children’s development. Whether that is because the workstation is a place to develop oral language or literacy or numeracy, well-structured workstations should remain as a part of the kindergarten experience. Structured play is still a path to learning for young children. If the implementation of the CCSS does not seem to support this, then the CCSS needs to be revised, this time with input from educators.

Fiano, D. (2013) Primary Discourse and Expressive Oral Language in a Kindergarten Student. Reading Research Quaterly. Nov 2013.

McGill-Franzen, A. (2006) Kindergarten Literacy: Matching Assessment and Instruction in Kindergarten. New York: Scholastic