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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Should Reading Be Taught in Kindergarten?

In a rather snarky post in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog last week, literacy expert and professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tim Shanahan, mocked a recent article in The Atlantic, by Tim Walker, entitled "The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.The Atlantic article reports on the play oriented kindergarten practices of Finland.

In response Shanahan says essentially, "We're not Finland!" Personally, I am glad to hear this in a blog from the conservative Fordham Institute, since our failure to match Finland's (and other places like Singapore, Japan and Lichtenstein) performance on international tests like PISA has been a chief driver behind the education reform movement.

The United States is different from Finland, of course. Finnish children are much less likely to be poor and are much more likely to be raised in a household with two college graduates. Finnish kindergartners also learn to read in a language that is far easier to decode than English.. But five-year-olds in Finland are not developmentally that much different from five-year-olds in the US. Five-year-olds around the world learn best through structured play. As Mr. Rogers said long ago, "Play is really the work of childhood."

Shanahan says he has read the research and that to argue that literacy should not be taught in kindergarten is a claim you can make "only if you don't know the research." Well, others have read the research too, and not everyone would agree that formal instruction in literacy in kindergarten is a good or necessary thing. Many researchers, including Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years, argue that "no research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten."

What is a poor teacher to make of this? How is a parent supposed to know what is appropriate for kindergarten? As usual, the best answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

An unfortunate by-product of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Common Core State Standards has been to make kindergarten instruction look more like first grade, and not a very joyful first grade at that. The Common Core standards' call for kindergartners to read "emergent texts with fluency" and "identify long and short vowels with common spellings" and "use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes" leads inevitably to more teacher directed instruction and developmentally inappropriate worksheet completion activities for kindergartners.

To his credit, Shanahan says he does not support worksheet driven instruction in kindergarten, but he must have some serious blinkers on if he believes that the Common Core call for more rigor has not already led to more worksheet driven, teacher-centered, developmentally inappropriate instruction in kindergarten across the country. One person's rigor is another person's worksheet. And research would support the idea that children don't need to be reading by the end of kindergarten, they just need to have the knowledge and understandings in place to help them be successful in learning to read.

On the other hand, it is part of the work of children in kindergarten and, therefore, part of the responsibility of kindergarten teachers to make sure that every child is ready to become a successful reader. Most of this work can be accomplished through structured play. Here is the literacy knowledge that rising first graders should take with them from kindergarten.

  • A rich oral language both spoken and receptive
  • A love of books
  • An awareness that books can entertain and inform
  • A working knowledge of the alphabet
  • Concepts about print like how to hold a book, how to turn pages and that print carries the meaning
  • The ability to hear and generate rhymes
  • The ability to hear and segment sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • The ability to match sounds to letters (phonics)
  • A store of about 25 sight words (the, it, and, I, me)
  • The ability to retell a story that has been read aloud
These literacy abilities can be acquired through the following instructional designs:
  • Structured play activities where students interact orally and in writing
  • Daily read alouds
  • Shared reading
  • Interactive or shared writing
  • Direct teacher instruction (kept brief and focused)
  • Word and language games and activities
  • Targeted small group instruction
  • One-on-one instruction as needed
  • Independent reading
  • Independent writing
Of course, no successful kindergarten program can be one-size-fits-all. The younger the children, the more critical it is that a program meet individual needs. When it comes to kindergarten literacy some children will enter already reading, some will have some letter knowledge and still others will not yet know their letters. Instruction must meet the needs of all these students. Readers should get instruction that strengthens their precocious reading ability and letter name learners must receive instruction that helps them learn their letters, but none of this means that play is not central to the kindergarten experience.  For a good guide book on developmentally appropriate kindergarten instruction, I recommend Kindergarten Literacy, by Anne McGill-Franzen.

In the end, kindergarten can be a joyful experience full of rich literacy learning opportunities. Should a child be expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten? My answer would be no. Should every child leave kindegarten positioned to become a successful reader through subsequent instruction in first grade and beyond? Absolutely.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

PARCC Test Results in NJ: Child Abuse on the Grand Scale

Well, the PARCC test results are out in New Jersey and to no one's surprise, the scores were low. Certainly the State Department of Education was not surprised, since they know that similar forms of the test had similar results in states like New York where an earlier version of the test was taken and where a scant 30% of students were judged to be meeting or exceeding standards. And so it is in New Jersey, where in no grade level did more than half of the students pass the test.

New Jersey Commissioner of Education, David Hespe, says that "There is still much work to be done in ensuring all of our students are fully prepared for the 21st century demands of college and career." Of course that is the official line of all reform minded politicians from President Obama, to US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to Bill Gates to everybody else who seeks to discredit parents, students, teachers, their unions and public education in general. Low test scores are a major component of the reformers drive for privatizing education through charter schools, vouchers, national standards, over-testing of children and the elimination teacher job protections.

But this test tells us nothing about our children's preparedness for college and career. In fact, the only thing these test results tell us is that the test is deeply and irretrievably flawed. Any competent teacher will tell you that if more than 50% of the students in a class fail a test that there is something wrong with the test. I recently gave a test in my college freshman class. While 95% of the students passed the test, one section of the test caused many students trouble. When I returned the test to the students at the next class, I asked them what gave them trouble with that section of the test that I had thought would be fairly easy. Together we determined that some of the students, who had only taken one other test from me, were confused by the format of the question and had not studied for what the test was asking of them. I noted this and determined to make changes in future tests to insure students knew the expectations and had a better chance at being successful.

Like many other PARCC observers, I predicted the PARRC scores would be low long before anyone took the test. This did not take rocket science. All I did was look at the reading passages for the English/language arts part of the exam and note that they were, for the most part, about 2 grade levels above what should be expected for a student at that grade. I also looked at the readability of the word problems in math and found similar concerns. I also examined the questions asked of students and the match between the passages and the students. You can read those analyses here, here, here and here. Our children were set up to fail this test, so that education reformers can continue to argue for the dismantling of public education. In New Jersey, all anyone needs to do is look at what is happening in Newark and Camden to see that private companies are taking over public education. The PARCC test is simply one more stake to the heart for public schooling.

All New Jersey parents and teachers want every child to be a high achiever and there is nothing wrong with having high expectations for children. But when education bureaucrats seek to advance their own agendas by setting a testing bar above what a child should be expected to do, that does not lead to high achievement, it leads to frustration and feelings of failure. 

Here is what Commisioner Hespe should have said about the PARCC test. "Any test where more than 50% of children fall below expectations is obviously a flawed test. We at the State Department need to go back to the drawing board and find out what we did wrong and see if we can correct it for the future. Governor Christie and I would like to apologize to the parents and children of New Jersey for putting them through this fruitless exercise and we promise to do better by talking to parents, students and teachers about ways to design a test that is both more fair and more useful for informing instruction going forward."

I am not holding my breath for this statement. Until such enlightenment comes out of the state department, however, I recommend all New Jersey parents simply refuse to let their children take the test. Opt Out when testing time rolls around again. 

Setting kids up for failure constitutes child abuse.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teacher Autonomy, Accountability and Baseball

I don’t think that the primary problem in American education is the lack of teacher quality, or that part of the solution would be to find the best and the brightest to become teachers. The quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teaching is seen as a team sport, not as an individual race.
Pasi Sahlberg, Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Pasi Sahlberg is the former director general of the Finnish Ministry of Education, heading a public education program that has long been held up as a model because of high scores on PISA international tests of literacy and mathematics. In my view, Sahlberg is onto something that American corporate education reformers are ignoring at the peril of all school children. Quality education is not a matter of common standards, school choice, hero teachers, principal autonomy or teacher evaluation based on test scores. Quality education is a combination of informed, enlightened and engaged leadership, teacher quality, teacher teamwork, teacher autonomy and teacher accountability based on the quality of instruction, the quality of interactions with other teachers and the ability to reflect and grow as a professional.

I am a huge baseball fan. For me the game of baseball is a metaphor for life. Sahlberg says that education needs to be seen as a team sport. The best baseball teams are made up of individuals of talent who work together for the common good. Sure, many teams have a superstar player or two, but interestingly, superstar players do not guarantee success of the team. Many of the greatest players of all time never played in the World Series – Ernie Banks, Nolan Ryan, Ken Griffey, Jr., Rod Carew. This year 10 teams made the playoffs. One of those teams is the Houston Astros. In baseball, the .300 batting average (3 hits in every 10 times at bat) is the mark of a good hitter. Here are the batting averages of the 9 everyday players on the field this year for the Astros: .211, .199, .313, .279, .224, .243, .236, .276, .246. Clearly, something other than great hitting got the Astros to the playoffs.

Great pitching can overcome poor offense in baseball. Do the Astros have great pitching? Not so much. An average number of runs given up per game (ERA) by starting pitchers in the American League where the Astros play is about 3.75. Here are the ERAs of the pitchers who started at least 10 games for the Astros this season: 2.48, 3.89, 3.22, 3.90, 4.36, 4.17. The overall starting pitching performance is average at best. How did the Astros make the playoffs, beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game and move to the divisional playoffs? As a team, the Astros are better than the sum of their individual parts. So can it be with a school.

In order for a school to work well, teachers and administrators need to be working together toward the common goal of the best possible learning environment for every child. For this to happen, Sahlberg suggests, teachers need autonomy. This is not the autonomy of closing the classroom door and teaching whatever you want in whatever way you want. This is an autonomy built on teamwork, professionalism and trust. Professionals are people who are empowered through their knowledge to make decisions, but true professionals do not make decisions in a vacuum, they seek help, they share good ideas, they look for solutions to new problems.

Recently, a friend suffered a re-occurrence of cancer and she went to her local doctor, a very well regarded oncologist. In order to design a plan of treatment, this very experienced doctor called a colleague in a nearby urban hospital to talk through the best possible treatment plan. So must it be with teachers. A school as a whole must be even stronger than its best teachers. It can be so if all teachers are working together and if they have the time and autonomy to make it happen. Teachers in Finland, and many other countries, teach fewer hours than US teachers and spend more time consulting with their colleagues. Rather than teaching to a prescribed set of standards toward scoring well on a standardized test, Finnish teachers are guided by a loose framework around which they find the best way to teach the children in front of them.

Of course, autonomy requires trust and trust in teachers is both deserved and earned. It is deserved because teachers are professionals who have dedicated themselves to the study of the child, the study of teaching methods and the study of content. And trust is earned when teachers hold themselves accountable. Not accountable to some fool’s gold of a standardized tests, but accountable for providing the best possible instruction to each and every child entrusted to their care.  This means keeping up on the research. It means constantly improving your own teaching ability through reflection on what is working and what isn’t. It means being a productive and contributing and collaborative member of an instructional team that is working together to meet children’s needs. It means being able to demonstrate every student’s progress through authentic artifacts like tests, quizzes, classroom projects and writing samples.

Autonomy is inextricably tied to accountability. If, as teachers, we desire autonomy we must embrace accountability, as long as it is an accountability that respects our professionalism. The school administrator must trust that teachers will work together to design the best possible instruction. Parents must trust that the teacher is providing the best possible instruction for the child. Policy makers must trust that teachers are professionals doing their jobs as well as they can. The Common Core, the proliferation of standardized tests, the teacher accountability movement built on those standardized tests are all indications of a lack of trust. As teachers we have every right to demand that trust, but we also have the heavy responsibility of being deserving of that trust.

The Houston Astros trust each other. They trust each other to do their best, not only on the field, but in preparing to go on the field. They trust their fellow players to make the correct plays, throw to the right base, break up the double play, run the bases intelligently. When each Astro walks into the batter’s box, he is an autonomous actor with a bat in his hand, but he is also a teammate working toward the greater good of winning the World Series. As teachers we play in the World Series every day. Our job is that important. We deserve professional respect, we need the professional collaboration of our colleagues and we must earn the trust of the children and adults we work with by being the best professional team players we can be.