Finals week

It’s finals week here, which–so far–has provided several very interesting changes. First, there were a lot more folks around when I stepped off the bus at 7:50 am. Not only were there more people, they were moving at increased rates of speed. Noticeably so. Clutching steaming cups in gloved hands, they streamed toward lecture halls and classrooms, comparing notes and talking theory. As I was dodging a bike hurtling around a bike circle, I overheard: “It’s just three simple compounds. Why can’t I remember it?” The other thing I noticed is that many students seem impressively adept at walking and reading. I’m a big fan of all things reading, but have never even contemplated trying to study and walk at the same time! I wish our students well this week as they walk and study and talk and test. I am also sending out positive energy that they will not only successfully demonstrate what they’ve learned this quarter during finals week, but also that they continue to develop and leverage their knowledge to keep striving toward their goals.

“How I learned to stop worrying and love assessment”

In my new role, I am learning a lot (and I do mean A LOT) about people, especially when the hear my job title. I recognize that slight, involuntary recoil that occurs within a particular group of people when the hear the words accreditation or assessment. I used to be one of them.

When I first started teaching in a university setting, I truly wanted my students to feel free to express themselves. My job–as I conceived of it–was to support their development as writers. Never mind that many of them didn’t (and may still not) view themselves as writers–I wanted them all to feel like they had the capacity to communicate effectively (in case they ever discovered a need for such a thing). I had a vague understanding of my own writing abilities then, and believed that although I was just a step or two ahead of my first-year students, it would be enough to get us through. It didn’t occur to me then (or if it did, I have no recollection) that perhaps the most important part of my job was to articulate my expectations of and for them, so they could make informed decisions about their own learning.

Looking back, I imagine my first students experienced something not unlike my own upbringing: a free-spirited, free-wheeling, mostly unstructured meander, where learning was primarily spurred by luck. I’m not saying that’s a bad approach. It’s just not the one I would choose now. (And, I should probably add here: my course evaluations have always been pretty positive, so there’s that.)

What has changed for me as a teacher (which I’ll always be, regardless of job title) is that I understand why it is so incredibly important to understand and articulate what I expect of students. And that’s where assessment comes in.

CAVEAT LECTOR: these are my personal opinions, not dictates for others.
For me, thinking about teaching and learning through the lens of assessment is a given. I know that in my own experiences as a student, I needed the structure of expectations in order to manage my time and energy. Knowing ahead of time what I needed to do to demonstrate my mastery in a particular class requires me to become responsible for monitoring my own effort and establishing priorities. One of my worst / best classes was in a department outside the department / college from which I received my doctorate. I loved the course because it introduced concepts which fascinated me. I hated the course because every week, the professor arrived with a whole new set of assignments, none of which ever included an explanation of how the activities would help us achieve the course goals. I didn’t think of my experience in those terms, but looking back, that’s what was happening.

I know the temptation of exciting activities and compelling assignments. For years, I planned my instruction around activities without thinking through how they would promote student learning in the long term. I think about those students who stumbled along with me before I learned about using assessment as a planning tool, and wonder how much more we could have achieved together had I begun by thinking about the end of the journey, not just the beginning.

books, parenting, and censorship (not necessarily in that order)

It’s Banned Books Week, which despite what a friend posted on Facebook, is NOT the week when we decide what books we want to ban for the next year. My first memory of participating in Banned Books Week was when I worked at Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks (now known as Bookshelf Stores, Inc.) way back in the twentieth century. We put together a display at the front of the store, featuring books that had been regularly challenged. We even managed to get the local paper to cover the event. The other thing I remember is that, when asked, a local school official said that the district didn’t experience much controversy related to challenged texts because they didn’t include said texts in their courses. Now, I could be misremembering that last bit, but there is an emotional resonance to the memory that I can’t shake.

When I was in high school (even further back in the last century!), I remember having to get my mother’s signature on a permission slip so I could read The Color Purple in my 11th grade English class. She was incensed and offended, but not for reasons one might imagine. My mother had her own (special) approach to parenting, which included a fervent belief in my freedom to read. (Hence, my choice of Agatha Christie novels when I was ten, and Rebecca when I was twelve, and which turned out to be required reading in 12th grade…). How else, she explained later, was I going to develop my own understanding of literature?

More recently, I was teaching a methods course, which focused on using children’s and young adult literature to promote K-12 students’ literacy development. It was Banned Books Week, so naturally (!) our discussion focused on the nuanced understanding required of classroom teachers when it comes to literature. Our conversation was difficult and honest and revelatory.

In response to my hypothetical question about how they would handle a book challenge, students wrote and thought and began to share. One student talked about a book she might not have wanted her own children to read (And Tango makes three), until she learned that it was based on a true story. She told us that in considering the book, she realized that, as a future teacher, she would need to interrogate her personal feelings about topics in light of her responsibilities for teaching all of her students. Another student said that he would simply provide a book list to parents at the beginning of the year, and ask them for their input (and approval). I asked if he was planning to let parents approve the texts for the math curriculum, too.

Like the American Library Association, I fully support the right of parents to be involved in decisions about what their child(ren) reads. In fact, I’d argue that it’s parents’ (guardians’) responsibility to be engaged with all of the texts their children read, watch, play, etc. However, I adamantly believe that no one has the right to tell other people’s children what they can read. No way. No how.

Every year, the ALA receives reports of attempts to challenge, restrict, and/or ban books in public schools and libraries. Last year, the number–that they know about–was well over 300. They estimate the actual number could be much higher:

We do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges as research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported. In addition, OIF has only been collecting data about banned banned books since 1990, so we do not have any lists of frequently challenged books or authors before that date.

Every year, I review the list of books to see which challenges I find the most confusing. Below are two of my all-time-head-scratchers:

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is often on the challenge list. In 2010, Speak was challenged in the Republic, Mo. schools because of two concerns. 1) Someone believed the book qualified as “soft-pornography”; and 2) someone claimed the book “glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.”
Source: Nov. 2010, pp. 243–44. I don’t know what they’re reading or watching in Republic, Missouri, but a book about the devastating aftereffects of a date rape can hardly be categorized as either of the above. (But, of course, Todd Akin is from Missouri, so perhaps that explains the book challenger’s confusion.) Aside from the specious nature of the challenge (I truly don’t see how someone could come to those conclusions having actually read the book in question!), there is the very real fact that the book is about what has become an all-too-often-reality for young adults. We can’t make the bad things go away by hiding the books in which they are discussed honestly.

Speaking of which, here is my all-time-favorite challenged book: The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. That’s right. A dictionary. A parent in Menifee, California Union School District complained when a child came across the term “oral sex,” so school officials formed a committee to consider a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary. Source: Mar. 2010, p. 55.

George Orwell was right (you knew there’d be an Orwell reference, didn’t you?!?). If reference materials are removed from schools, then Ignorance really must be strength.

ready, set, … ?

I had the distinct pleasure of chairing the last of my graduate students’ Oral Exam presentations for the semester on Tuesday. Of the six students who completed their programs this semester, three focused on early literacy (which I’ll admit is more-and-more interesting to me, thanks to my students!). In addition to being incredibly pleased with their poise and expertise, I was inspired by their passion.

The student who finished yesterday presented her answer to a question I posed here about how to improve education in New Mexico. In short, her answer was: early childhood intervention. In addition to drawing our attention to the correlations between socioeconomic status and school-achievement, the student captured our attention with Dr. Estelle Farrar’s “Ready Child Equation.”  Have you seen it? Here it is:

Ready Families + Ready Communities + Ready Services + Ready Schools = Children ready for school (Ferrar, 2007, slide 12).

Simple. Profound. Vital.

New Mexico’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards in K-2 this fall creates a perfect opportunity to talk about what it will take to promote readiness for school success. We need all stakeholders to participate in this conversation. Who’s ready to talk?


Also, did you know that Dolly Parton founded a group that now GIVES books to almost 700,000 children every month? Local communities can become affiliates and send high quality, age-appropriate books directly to children’s homes.

In case you’re wondering, 70% of all New Mexico students meet the “eligibility” requirements for participation. There are 22 affiliate/sites currently operating in the north-western part of the state. If you know of any organizations looking for community service projects, please send them my way.

Beyond outrage, indeed

I just watched the interview with Robert Reich on The Daily Show about his new eBook, and was inspired by Reich’s clarity and conviction that individuals can make change. Then I read the following headline: Call to States: Revolutionize Teacher and Principal Preparation and then this quote from Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers:

“If we are honest with ourselves, we know we are not ready to deliver against this promise,” he told teams from 27 states. “The vast majority of teachers don’t have the skill set” needed to teach to the new expectations. They need support to improve both their pedagogical skills and their content knowledge, he said.

If we (and it turns out that “we” doesn’t just pertain to New Mexico) aren’t ready to make good on the promise that is the national standards, why are we jumping off that cliff? Cue inspiration fizzle here.

Teachers don’t have the skills sets? That’s the reason the Common Core Standards Initiative can’t deliver on its mythical promise? Seriously? This is a forest-for-the-trees argument, and continues to provide “evidence” to the hegemonic narrative that teachers are to blame for, well, everything. Fast forward two years from now, when asked to explain why the standards didn’t deliver on their promise. I guarantee you that we won’t hear anything about a) the lack of a well thought-out approach; b) the lack of an assessment plan; c) the lack of resources devoted to promoting change; or d) the fact that standards don’t eradicate poverty.

I don’t disagree that teachers need support to change. Don’t we all? What I want to know is where is the support for the change?

In New Mexico, so far, it has come in the form of documents empty of research (at least in the area of vocabulary–more on that in my next post) with oddly phrased sentences about what students and teachers will do without any mention of context or differentiation or instruction or assessment or… anything!

If indeed, the goal of the Common Core State Standards initiative is to force promote a different approach to teaching and learning, then we are going to need a whole lot more than what’s being currently offered. Not because teachers can’t figure it out on their own (they can), but because there are a whole set of invisible criteria lurking behind this seemingly well-intentioned “reform” of education.

I’ve looked at the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, and so far have not noticed qualitative differences between them and the current standards used in New Mexico. (Well, except for the typos, the glaring error my students noticed that 3rd graders should be reading grade 2-3 books by the end of 3rd grade, and the prescriptive approach to writing as a set of rules to master rather than as evidence of productive knowledge, but I digress.) How exactly are these new expectations?

For the sake of argument, let’s accept that somehow by publishing a set of standards on the web, the CCSS will magically cause a “different approach” to education to appear. (grumble grumble grumble). Then isn’t it incumbent upon policymakers to have already been engaged in on-going, constructive, and collaborative conversations with educators, administrators, parents, and students about the differences? Handing a person a binder with a set of standards won’t change anything. Engaging in conversation about how to identify students’ needs and plan instruction grounded in formative and valid assessment might change things. Where are those conversations? Judging by Mr. Wilhoit’s comment above, the narrative is already well on its way to fossilization (read: blame teachers).

The trouble is that I don’t think the Common Core is really about facilitating learning or educational progress. If you read statements from representatives of the US Department of Education, you’ll notice a lot of talk about entrepreneurship and taking educational products “to scale.” I believe, as Anthony Cody wrote yesterday, that this process is about providing business opportunities for publishers and testing companies (who, incidentally, are usually one-and-the-same).

Which brings me to question exactly what kind of “skill set” current and future teachers need. I’ve written it before, and will write it again: People should not go into teaching simply because they like kids. We need passionate, brilliant, dedicated, and resilient people to become teachers because they want to participate in, and create opportunities for, the most amazing process humans undertake: learning. We need teachers who can think creatively and disruptively; who resist top-down mandates from people who know little-to-nothing about the realities of children’s lives; who are willing to push back against professional consultants who come bearing one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching anything other than questions and a willingness to listen; who know the difference between transmitting content and facilitating learning.

Those are the skills teachers and principals need. Where’s the money to provide that kind of professional development? Shall I hold my breath?

through the woods with no map

When I started writing the previous post, I thought it was going to be about assessment, and it was, but only indirectly. Clearly, I had other thoughts I need to express. This post will be about assessment which, I’ve come to believe, is the most important part of education we never talk about. Sure, we hear a lot about high-stakes testing and so-called value-added models, but those are just two elements in a much wider topic. The problem, I believe, is related to whose voices dominate the conversation.

Despite their apparent enthusiasm for using (questionable) test scores to make all sorts of decisions, the self-titled “education reformers” don’t seem to know much about assessment (never mind validity–more on that in a bit). People with actual experience in education (and by that, I do not mean that they attended school at some point in their lives!), on the other hand, have known for while now that valid assessment of student learning is perhaps the most important part of curricular design.

Therefore, I offer this brief assessment primer (just in case they’re interested).

Before making any curricular decisions, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I  want students to master? 
  2. How will I measure students’ (growth toward) mastery?
  3. What sorts of things do students need to do in order to achieve mastery?
  4. How will I know if students are moving toward mastery?
  5. What do I need to do (re-teach, provide extra scaffolding…) to assist students in their pursuit of mastery?

Notice question #2?

That’s the crucial step that a lot of people skip. Sometimes we teachers get so excited about our engaging / research-based / relevant / inspirational learning activities that we forget to stop and ask how we are going to measure student growth. Even though engaging / research-based / relevant / inspirational learning activities are crucial to support student learning, they’re of no use whatsoever if they aren’t aligned with valid (and documentable) assessment. I’m not a person who believes that if you can’t measure something it doesn’t exist, (how does one measure love or freedom?).  I do, however, believe that teachers (myself included) need to know and be able to articulate the purpose(s) of instructional activities in language that is accessible to students. In addition, we need to provide concrete descriptions of how students’ work will be assessed (along the way and at the end).

Key terms related to assessment so-called reformers need to understand:

  • Validity indicates whether the assessment actually measures what it purports to measure. Here’s an example: if we want to know whether a child has gained ownership over a word, a multiple-choice test can’t tell us that. All the test tells us is which answer she bubbled. Here’s another example: students who live near the zoo chose “elephant” in response to a question about which animal wakes them up in the morning. As a measure of what students know, that question is invalid. Children from urban (or suburban) areas may never have seen a rooster, which–of course!–was the “correct” answer to that question. For more on sound principles for assessment, click here.
  • Multiple measures means that we assess draw from many types of evidence to assess student performance to avoid making long-term instructional decisions without getting a full picture of what a student knows and can do. To find out about how multiple measures systems are used successfully at home and abroad, click here.
  • Formative assessment measures student progress during learning; includes a focus on daily practice as a means to achieving mastery on a final product; includes timely and useful feedback; allows teacher to adjust instructional plan for tomorrow; and focuses on student growth. This is also known as assessment for learning, because it promotes learning.

Of course, there is much, much more to know about assessment, but I’ve found that scaffolding learning where no schema exists (which appears to be the case with many people who view themselves as experts on education), it’s important to take small steps, and allow time for thought. I only wish that the folks driving the Common Core bus here in New Mexico would stop and consider the long-term implications of implementing a set of standards without (valid) assessment instruments. Yesterday, I heard someone (who claims decades of experience) propose that we teach our students strategies they can use to implement the CC, with nary a mention of assessment at all. ((sigh)) A girl can dream.

How to ensure students suffer, in three easy steps

I’ve been talking about New Mexico’s implementation of the Common Core with lots of folks recently, and have heard some stories that stun even me into (momentary) silence.

One was about a Texas-based consultant brought in to provide professional development related to the CC. Sounds reasonable (although there are plenty of experts on education within the state) except when you consider this fact: Texas isn’t implementing the Common Core Standards. Hmmm. Why on earth would someone hire a consultant to talk about something that she’s not actually doing? Knowing about standards is NOT the same thing as having experience implementing them. What’s that saying about how to get ahead in business? It’s not what you know but who you know… So out-of-state experts rank higher than people with experience identifying and meeting the educational needs of New Mexico’s students. I don’t know why I’m so surprised.

The other story does not surprise me, but makes me mad enough to scream. Apparently, one of the reasons New Mexico rushed to embrace national standards was to qualify for a coveted NCLB waiver from the US Department of Education (and that, in that rush, forgot to consider exactly how we might implement those standards). That was after New Mexico was the only state which was denied a waiver, which allows flexibility in relation to the requirements of NCLB. Here’s how the USDOE describes their invitation to states:

The U.S. Department of Education is inviting each State educational agency (SEA) to request flexibility on behalf of itself, its local educational agencies, and schools, in order to better focus on improving student learning and increasing the quality of instruction. This voluntary opportunity will provide educators and State and local leaders with flexibility regarding specific requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive State-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.

Providing flexibility to schools, districts, and states to support efforts to identify and address students’ needs? How could that not be a good thing? (HINT: look at that paragraph above again and pay particular attention the sentence which describes the deal-with-the-devil “exchange” required of states granted a waiver.) According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the waiver places New Mexico among the leaders of education reform.

“Today, New Mexico joins the ranks of states leading the charge on education reform by protecting children, raising standards and holding themselves accountable,” Duncan said. “As New Mexico implements these reforms, it is important that all stakeholders are at the table and their voices are heard. We encourage the governor and her team to work closely and in a bipartisan manner with the legislature, and to fully include educators, community, and tribal leaders and parents in the process of advancing these reforms. … New Mexico will move to an accountability system that “recognizes and rewards high-performing schools and those that are making significant gains, while targeting rigorous and comprehensive interventions for the lowest-performing schools,” the Department of Education said.

Last night in class, our topic was reading comprehension (specifically, ways to support students’ comprehension of content-area texts). One of the strategies we discussed was creating a found poem from an informational text. In order to create a found poem, students need to have a deep understanding of the text in question, be able to select meaningful words and phrases that convey the essence of the text, and create something new. (These steps, by the way, move students progressively UP Bloom’s Taxonomy, from understanding to creating.) If I were going to write a found poem based on the quotes above, here are the words I’d list as most meaningful (to the authors of the text, not necessarily to me!):

  • standards
  • accountable
  • accountability
  • gains
  • interventions
  • quality
  • improving student learning
  • rigorous
  • educational outcomes
  • equity
  • quality of instruction
  • protecting children
  • rewards
  • significant gains

What found poem would you write with that list? What words (and therefore concepts) are missing from this list?

Here are a few I would add (were I invited into the conversation about how best to identify and meet the needs of New Mexico’s students, which I think is unlikely; see “not what you know…” above):

  • authentic assessment
  • socioeconomic status
  • formative assessment
  • culturally responsive instruction
  • relevancy
  • assessment-based instructional decision-making
  • collaboration
  • on-going, formative assessment
  • culturally and linguistically relevant materials
  • validity of assessment

Once again, I find myself disheartened at the absolute lack of foresight and complete abdication of responsibility. In order to secure a waiver from the federal government, education policymakers in New Mexico agreed to sacrifice student learning and long-term academic success implement national standards. Rather than using widely accepted (and time-tested) principles of curriculum design, New Mexico has put the proverbial cart before the horse. It’s as sure a way to guarantee failure as any I can imagine. Why is this regressive approach to “reform” so bad? Because despite the fact that, during the most recent Legislative session, the New Mexico Legislature rejected Governor Martinez’ proposal to tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, teachers’ evaluations will be tied to students’ test scores beginning in 2013 (according to today’s Albuquerque Journal).

Again, I ask: who will benefit from New Mexico’s headlong plunge into an approach to so-called reform which is almost guaranteed to fail?

By the way: I’m not just sitting back and criticizing. I’ve begun a new venture dedicated to supporting teachers as they implement the Common Core Standards in meaningful and effective ways to model and scaffold authentic student learning. It’s a work in progress, but you can find more information about it here.

Choose Your Own Adventure (OR: implementing the Common Core with no materials, assessments, or…)

Is it just me, or does the implementation of the Common Core standards nationwide seem like a great big trap for teachers and public education?

How could we possibly be catapulting from the age of scripted, teacher-proofed materials in which teachers’ expertise was characterized (by some) as irrelevant to a situation in which a set of common standards are provided to teachers who–magically–will embrace a “different approach to instruction,” which–at least from what I’m reading–doesn’t include any curriculum scaffolds, instructional materials, or authentic assessment. Here’s a paragraph to ponder:

“The standards describe what students must learn and in which grade spans learning must take place, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach or what instructional materials they will use. Our superintendents, principals and teachers will decide how best to help students achieve the standards. …By the 2012-2013 school year New Mexico, K-3 teachers will be responsible for teaching the new standards, and by the 2013-2014 school year, all New Mexico teachers will be teaching the new standards. NMPED as well as your districts are creating documents and plans to guide educators in making decisions about how to implement the standards” (

So let me see if I have this right.

For the past half-decade or more, teachers who worked in schools that did not make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) were often required (by site administrators and /or district officials) to standardize their instruction (via commercial publishers’ pacing guides) to ensure that all students in the same grade would hear the same script instruction at the same time. A striking characteristic of this very bleak period of American education is that teachers are regularly vilified by so-called education reformers (who also suggest that firing entire faculties would somehow change schools in a positive way), and few in the public sphere question the word of the well-funded. These teachers, whose professionalism the “reformers” publicly question, are now going to be free to decide how to best meet their students’ needs? Seriously?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist in general, but it strikes me as truly odd that the curricular pendulum has swung this far, this fast.

It’s not that I don’t believe that there are many, many excellent teachers out there, who are already helping their students succeed. I know those teachers. It’s not that I don’t believe that local school officials aren’t dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to a relevant and equitable education. I know those folks, too. My real concern is that despite the expertise, passion, and dedication at local levels, implementing national standards without first laying the groundwork poses a serious threat to public education. Implementing standards before measuring validity (or, providing a “scientifically-based” rationale) goes against every principle of good teaching.

Let me be clear here: I do not oppose having high expectations for students. (Ask my own students; they’ll tell you how demanding I am.) I do not oppose curriculum planning that provides a framework for developmentally-sequenced objectives. I do not even oppose state standards (although I have concerns about standardized approaches to education). I do, however, oppose over-simplified “solutions” to complex issues. And I really, really oppose policymakers who make promises they can’t possibly keep, and don’t take responsibility for failure.

Telling parents (and students) that the implementation of a set of national standards will change education is specious at best. Having common standards is not the same thing as ensuring that every teacher is an expert with theoretical, pedagogical, and practice-oriented knowledge AND the relationship skills required to inspire learning. Having common standards will do nothing to alleviate the fact that millions of students (22%, in fact) in the US live in crushing poverty, and that socioeconomic status is the most reliable predictor for future academic success. Having common standards without providing on-going professional development in which teachers, administrators, parents, and students engage critically in planning how to meet expectations for grade-level learning will lead nowhere (or worse).

So why are we even on this journey without a map or waypoints at which we can stop to reflect on where we are, where we are headed, and make informed decisions about how best to complete the trip?

Which leads me to another question: who will benefit if the implementation of national standards fails miserably (and by that, I mean when scores on the new computerized assessments don’t skyrocket)? For-profit educational “experts” pushing scripted, teacher-proofed materials (again)? For-profit charter schools? Publishers with quick-fixes?

More importantly, who will not benefit from this (almost) national experiment?

Can school districts really promise parents that students won’t suffer (which seems like a pretty low bar to set, if you ask me) if they don’t provide on-going, systematic, and collaborative professional development for teachers, instructional coaches, and paraprofessionals to ensure that the people closest to the students understand how to design curriculum to meet individual students’ needs and keep everyone moving forward?

Is it realistic to expect teachers–many of whom work second or third jobs to pay their bills–to adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; adequately identify students’ needs; implement multiple assessment measures; plan instruction; reflect on their practice; provide intervention where needed; AND successfully move students toward career- or college-readiness without providing them the time and resources?

I explained all of this to a friend, who said, “I don’t know a lot about education policy, but that seems really stupid.” Exactly.

I’m not a pessimist by nature, but I fear that we all will–at least those of us without financial stakes in the game–suffer unless states, districts, schools, parent-organizations, university faculty, community organizations, and other interested stakeholders get involved (right now!) in making sure that the implementation of the Common Core Standards does not fail because we linked our future to promises that can’t be kept.

I decided to read the implementation plan published by the state department of education, and make sure I hadn’t mischaracterized the lack of teacher development in advance of the roll-out. Also, I wanted to see what specific suggestions the planners included, in case I was too hasty in my judgments. Here’s a description a major “instructional shift” the CCSS will inspire:

“Through reading, discussing, and writing about appropriately complex texts at each grade level, students build the general academic vocabulary they will need to access a wide range of complex texts in college and careers. Students gather as much as they can about the meaning of these words from the context of how the words are being used in the text. Teachers offer support as needed when students are not able to figure out word meanings from the text alone and for students who are still developing high frequency vocabulary.”

Hmmm. I thought the standards were research-based. The authors of this implementation guide must have read different research than I have on what it takes to develop academic vocabulary. Relying on context and wide reading alone is not enough (or even remotely enough) to develop students’ ownership of academic vocabulary. The research is pretty darn clear on what effective vocabulary instruction actually looks like, and the paragraph above doesn’t match.

Not good.

Banning words to protect children

It reads like a headline from The Onion (“NYC Department of Education wants to ban 50 forbidden words from state tests“), but it’s not. According to news reports, in New York, there are some words that are so powerful that students should be shielded from them in testing situations. On a day when I had planned to discuss censorship & challenges to literature with my students, the article seemed particularly fortuitous.

What are these dangerous words, you ask? Here they are:

Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological); Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs; Birthday celebrations (and birthdays); Bodily functions; Cancer (and other diseases); Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes); Celebrities; Children dealing with serious issues; Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia); Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting); Crime; Death and disease; Divorce; Evolution; Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes; Gambling involving money; Halloween; Homelessness; Homes with swimming pools; Hunting; Junk food; In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge; Loss of employment; Nuclear weapons; Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling); Parapsychology; Politics; Pornography; Poverty; Rap Music; Religion; Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan); Rock-and-Roll music; Running away; Sex; Slavery; Terrorism; Television and video games (excessive use); Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters); Vermin (rats and roaches); Violence; War and bloodshed; Weapons (guns, knives, etc.); Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

Leaving aside the fact that the paragraph above includes topics, not specific words, the list deserves scrutiny. When we talked about them in class last night, we did–I’ll admit–laugh, because some of the concepts were downright ludicrous. Seriously, why would a test administered in K-12 schools would even include references to alcohol? One of my students suggested maybe it was a math word-problem: “If you have two shots and your friend has five beers…” Same with “gambling involving money”; does that mean reading passages about gambling that doesn’t involve money would be OK?

Then we turned our attention to the other topics. Some are clearly motivated by some constituents’ religious beliefs (and therefore we did not laugh): birthdays, occult, religious celebrations/holidays, witchcraft. Having just discussed the American Library Association’s explanation about past and current challenges to books, we weren’t surprised to see topics related to religious viewpoints or sex as potential “dangers.” (Although, as another student said: “Do these people not know what kids today are up to?!?”) We were surprised / stunned / stupefied about some of the others.

  • Why do rap and rock-and-roll constitute potential danger, but not country music?
  • Would students living in poverty be so upset by a reference to unemployment in a reading that they’d be unable to complete the test? Wouldn’t the fact that they LIVE IN POVERTY be the real potentially upsetting thing?
  • If a student lives in a vermin-infested home, do the folks at the NYC DOE really think that reading a story with a rat in it (e.g. Charlotte’s Web) would upset that test-taker so much as to invalidate their measure?
  • Conversely, if a student who lives in poverty reads a passage about a home with a swimming pool (where are they getting these hypothetical reading passages, anyway?!?), she will be so crushed by aspirational envy that she won’t be able to correctly bubble in her answer?

These are silly-seeming questions, until we step back and look at the wider context of education in the United States. If teachers’ salaries are tied to test scores, one might imagine they will spend more time focusing on helping their students prepare for the tests. That’s not what most teachers view as “best practice,” but what else do we expect them to do if their lives livelihoods are on the line? If the tests are scrubbed of the topics listed above, then it seems reasonable to expect that instructional materials will also be sanitized, in order to more closely align instruction with assessment. Look at that list above again. What are those students going to be allowed to read to prepare for the tests? (Never mind read to learn, explore, think…) Using the list above as criteria, every text is potentially offensive or upsetting to someone. My students suggested an experiment: I chose a book at random from my book cart (it’s a class on teaching literacy through children’s & young adult literature, so I roll my cart to and from class each week), and started reading. Within the first few pages of Bill and Pete go down the Nile by Tomie dePaola, we had found several things that could be offensive or upsetting or problematic from someone’s point of view (e.g. non-Christian burial practices; representations of Egyptian characters–I’m sure someone somewhere might make a connection between the talking crocodile and a fear of an impending Muslim-takeover of the world…).

If we act on the rationale that we should remove words or topics from tests that might offend or upset students, we’re in trouble. As one of my students said, “I really want a puppy, and every time you mention your dog, it makes me sad.” What’s a teacher to do?

I’m not advocating that educators not be sensitive to students’ backgrounds. Not at all. Culturally-responsive pedagogy demands that we recognize and honor the lived experiences of all the students in the room, so that we can find more and more ways to create authentic and relevant learning opportunities. That includes–from my way of thinking–providing opportunities for critical engagement with difficult topics. (If not in school, where?) But if society (or in this case, the NYC DOE) bans ideas words in order to protect children from topics that are potentially upsetting, what happens when they leave school each day? Children in this country live in poverty. Our students are have experiential knowledge of violence, disease, unemployment, and abuse (to name just a few). If schools don’t provide students with safe spaces to think critically about their lives, who will? How will they ever learn that they are not alone in their experiences? Why on earth would we want to do anything that further exacerbates the disconnect between school and students’ “real” lives?

Words are tools for identifying, thinking about, and discussing the underlying concepts they represent. Banning words won’t make those realities disappear. If we really want to protect children, we should work to eradicate poverty and homelessness and abuse. Impossible task? Not if we put our minds to it instead of taking the easy route of banning thoughts words.

Language matters

“People without a voice are often people without a shaping role in the world” (Johnstone, 2002, p. 112).

Language shapes, and allows us to shape, who we are in the world. We use language to position ourselves, and to position others, in relationship to cultural expectations (Olsen, 2006).  Language constitutes, and is constituted by, our interactions with other people and the world (Fairclough, 1995, 2001; Gee, 1996, 2005; Halliday, 1978; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004; Johnston, 2004; Thompson, 2004). Therefore, language plays a central role in social development, because it is the primary way culture is transmitted (Haliday, 1978).

Right about now, some readers are probably wondering where this post is going. Why the academic treatise on language and discourse? Well, because one of the things at stake in the current monologue about education is the language we use. Do I mean that the English language is under attack? No. I understand (and teach) that language is dynamic and that to try to fix (as in “fasten (something) securely in a particular place or position“) language in a  particular context is a futile endeavor. Meanings shift, slip, and alter over time. That’s how languages work.

For many people, language just is. My experiences teaching hundreds of college students over the years has taught me that many people do not view themselves as agentive language users, because our educational system has taught reading and writing (in particular) as tasks to master. Our historical emphasis on creating educational environments dedicated to transmitting receptive knowledge (see “liking kids is not enough” for more on this topic) has created legions of people who think of themselves as users not creators of language. Therefore, language is something many people don’t consider: “the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ to its users it tends to become” (Chandler, 2002, p. 3). Asking people to think about language is like asking a fish to see the water in which it swims (not a new, but very apt comparison). Taking this metalinguistic leap–step back from language to see language–isn’t for everyone (I believe people are capable, just perhaps not interested and/or willing), and it doesn’t occur to everyone to pay attention to how language shapes who we are and how we operate in the world. (Obviously, I’m not one of those people…)

Exposure to particular language usage over time renders it seemingly neutral and invisible (Kress, 2003). Often these habitual discursive practices convey a sense of permanence and as being beyond question (Kress, 2003). Chandler (2002) suggests that the very fact that some categories, ideas, and/or sign systems have been granted a priori status requires that we question them, their origins, and who benefits from their normative status. That’s what I’m trying to do in this blog.

I want people to realize (or remember) that language is never neutral. Power is embedded, and embodied, in all discursive transactions (Foucault, 1982). The way we use language provides insight into how we as speakers perceive ourselves (Rymes, 1995). Our choices reflect our capacity to draw from language-as-a-resource “for… making the representation that we wish or need to make” (Kress, 2003, p. 82). Attending to language use can reveal the ways in which our discursive choices reveal our perceptions of ourselves in relationship to others (Alvermann, Young, Green, & Wisenbaker, 1999).

What happens if we don’t pay attention to language? We limit our ability to participate fully in the conversations that matter to us.

For example, let’s consider our current national conversation about education. Gee (2005)–who likes to use capital letters to draw distinctions–defines a Conversation as an on-going largely metaphorical discussion within a group, culture, or society about issues that matter: “one big grand conversation” (p. 49). In the rest of this post, I’ll use the capital C when discussing big-picture conversations about education.

Recently, the Conversation about education (particularly “education reform”) has reached more and more Americans. While there are more voices –for better or worse–in the Conversation, the language we’re using (even the collocation of education and reform seems “natural”) remains largely unexamined by the general public. This taken-for-grantedness has serious implications.

Teachers have historically not been as vocal as other participants in the national Conversation about education, despite the expertise and authority they possess. Unlike other professions, teachers are often (some might argue systematically) excluded from shaping the policies by which they must live. Instead, policymakers turn to so-called experts without actual teaching experience (and for the record, owning a company that trains teachers is not teaching). Similarly, as the locus of control over education has shifted away from local classrooms, schools, and communities, teachers have had minimal say in defining what it means for them to be highly qualified or for students to be considered proficient. Without a say in how they’ll be judged, teachers become easy targets. (Just look at Wisconsin, where teachers’ unions are being blamed for budget deficits.)

A recurring theme in our national Conversation is that teachers are defenders of the status quo who want nothing more than to reap their generous salaries without having to be held accountable for test scores, I mean: students’ learning. (Don’t believe me? Watch this montage of opinion about teachers put together by The Daily Show.) Given the vitriolic tone of our Conversation (which Diane Ravitch actually calls a monologue), I think it’s time think about words. In particular, I think it’s important to think about seemingly neutral words like education, reform, and transformation.

Education is a noun formed by the affixation of -ion (which means action or condition) and the verb educate, which derives from the Latin verb educare. Briefly, the root -duct- means to carry (think: aqueduct, conduct, deduct). The prefix ex- means out of or away. In the case of the word educate, the prefix ex- was assimilated to ease pronunciation. Try saying exducation and you’ll begin to understand the phenomenon of assimilated prefixes. For more information, see Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2008; 2011) or Vocabulary their way (Templeton, Johnston, Bear, & Invernizzi, 2010). So, education–at its root–means to carry out.

Reform is a verb, which when it has an object, means to “make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it” (Oxford University Press, 2011). The word derives from Middle English and Old French. If we look to its etymology, we learn that re- is a prefix which means back or again, and form is a root which means exactly that: form (shape, create, build). So, reform means–at its heart–to form or make something again. Let’s see what happens if we replace the prefix re- with trans-, which means across or beyond (think: transcontinental, transport, transfusion). To transform means to make something completely or thoroughly different. What if we talked about transforming education instead of reforming it? Would that make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not.

What if we embarked on an etymological exploration to find a word that actually and accurately describes what some people are suggesting as “solutions” to our “problem”? First, let’s recap the problem: According to some, the problem of education is really a problem of “bad teachers”–not poverty, class size, or parental involvement–just bad teachers. Solution? Fire the “bad teachers.” OK, what’s next?

The problem of education is that our students don’t score well on international tests. Well, actually, American students in low-poverty areas scored comparatively well on those tests, but that’s a fact often overlooked in the Conversation. Another overlooked (or just plain ignored) idea is that education should be about more than just test scores. Nevertheless, the problem is that our students don’t do well on those tests, so we narrow the curriculum to test preparation.

Next problem? Once we get rid of the “the bad teachers” and greatly reduce our focus to test preparation instead of education, we increase production. In recent opinion piece, Bill Gates (who is an education expert because of what???) suggested that we “get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.” Increasing the number of students receiving the transmission from the “good teachers”  will surely solve all of our problems, economic, civic, and other. Sure, there’s extant research, which outlines  a relationship between class size and achievement. But, since that research was probably conducted by people who work in colleges of education –the last bastion of “insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy” (–we can safely ignore it, right? OK, so we’ve gotten rid of the “bad teachers”; we’ve increased class sizes; we’ve narrowed our curriculum to focus on test prep. Now what? We still need to ensure that no child gets left behind. Let’s provide teachers with scripts and teacher-proof the curriculum.

Let’s be more precise in our language choices.

The word dismantle comes to English from Old French and Latin. The prefix des- means removing (or taking away) and mateler means fortify or cloak in Latin. So, denotatively, dismantle means to remove fortifications or uncloak. Its meaning has evolved over time to mean to take something apart. That’s what the so-called reformers seem to be recommending: identify and fire “bad teachers”; rescind autonomy through demands that all teachers in a grade level are teaching the same thing at the same time regardless of the needs of the students in the room; disregard the influence of poverty; increase class sizes in order to make anything other than the transmission model of education possible; narrow curriculum to test prep; and reduce opportunities for students to engage in creative expression (bye bye, music & art!). From where I sit, the so-called reformers should really be called dismantlers. They don’t seem particularly interested in remaking public education, but taking it apart piece by piece.

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