Thursday, August 18, 2016

No, CAP-- CCSS Is Not the Path to Better Reading

At this point, there is nobody-- absolutely nobody-- who can match the Center for American Progress in senseless devotion to the Common Core State [sic] Standards. CAP, the left-tilted thinky tank founded by Hillary Clinton's campaign chief John Podesta, has remained absolutely unflinching in their support of the standards, no matter how little sense they are making.

For instance, yesterday we get this piece from Melissa Lazarin, a CAP policy advisor with no actual background in education. Her piece is entitled "Reading, Writing, and the Common Core State Standards" and does not include the sub-heading "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others." She then goes on to demonstrate a lack of understanding about English language instruction.

She opens with the uncredited (but credible) data point that more high school students read The Fault In Our Stars and Divergent than read MacBeth or Hamlet. Yes, that could well be true.

Lazarin is bothered because the popular teen lit books do not have complex texts. In fact, she's worried that the lack of complexity in their reading and writing will make them unprepared for college. And she goes on to demonstrate how thoroughly she misunderstands the nature of reading and reading instruction:

Three of the top five most commonly assigned titles in grades 9 through 12 are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible, and Of Mice and Men. All three books, while classics, are not particularly challenging in terms of sentence structure and complexity. 

Yes, so? This is the great reading fallacy of the standards-- the notion that reading is somehow a series of discrete tasks, skills that can exist independent of any content, and that in fact content is irrelevant, even unnecessary. This is nonsense, like trying to learn a language without learning the meaning of any words in that language.

But but but, she says. Text complexity!

An ACT report finds that “performance on complex texts is the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not.” 

Text complexity is not independent of content. It's not simply mechanics. If you don't know anything about dinosaurs at all, any book about dinosaurs is hard to read. And if you are able to work your way through a complex text about quantum physics, it is in large part because you know something about quantum physics. To suggest that the Crucible is an easy book because it has simple sentences is just bizarre. Anything by Hemmingway has simple sentences and easy vocabulary, but that does not make  The Sun Also Rises a fourth grade text.

Here's another angle. Lazarin is concerned that high school students aren't getting sufficient exposure to the level of complex texts they will deal with in college. But I can spend years putting a student through the most complex texts in the canon of classic novels, and that will not make that students any more prepared for a text about advanced calculus-- only a study of calculus, no matter how complex the text, will do that.

Lazarin then wastes our time talking about NAEP proficiency levels, failing to note that "proficiency" on NAEP means "super-duper" and not "just good enough." And that one study showed a full 50% of the NAEP students rated "basic" still graduated college with four-year degrees. And she throws in the US rankings on the international PISA tests, skipping over the historic context showing that we have always ranked low on such tests.

Lazarin will now follow this up with some groundless claims about the standards.

Under the new standards, students are getting regular practice with complex and grade-level appropriate texts, using more informational texts, and practicing more evidence-based writing.

It's an odd claim, given that its the Common Core text requirement that has led to less MacBeth andHamlet in the classroom. And students are not so much getting grade-level appropriate texts as they are being subjected to a new definition of what grade-level appropriate means, a definition now divorced from content and centered only on sentence structure and vocabulary. Which is nuts ("Mommy, why won't Brett let Jake be her boyfriend?"). The reference to writing here is one of the few in the whole piece, so we're just going to let that rest for another day.

But CAP has some thoughtful recommendations for teachers everywhere, because if there's anything we teachers need, it's suggestions from thinky tank whiz-bangers with no classroom experience.

Push ahead with the Common Core standards and aligned assessments.

Lazarin insists that hints of improvement are emerging. Lazarin is kidding herself. She also claims there are more robust tests. This is also simply not true. However, what she needs to understand about the assessments is this-- I could best prepare my students for the standards-based assessments by dropping all instruction of any texts at all and simply having them read short excerpts from newspaper articles and answering some multiple choice questions every day. That would get me much better test scores. Of course, it would also require me to stomp on my own soul and discard every thought I ever had about why I wanted to be an English teacher. But it would get me better test results.

There is nothing that would better improve the current state of education than to drop the aligned assessments into a black hole somewhere.

Strengthen training supports for prospective and current teachers, including teachers of other subjects.

Noted in multiple surveys of teachers, their most pressing need is professional learning regarding how to best differentiate instruction for students at various achievement levels, students with disabilities, and ELLs. 

None of which has anything to do with the standards. Lazarin also notes that people who studied to teach subjects other than language arts feel ill-prepared to teach language arts. Go figure.

Ensure that teachers have access to and are using high-quality curricular materials and tools aligned to the Common Core. 

Yeah, that's been a problem since day one. And it's getting to be a bigger problem in the sense that teachers, having played the Common Core game for a couple of years, have been steadily going back to using their own professional judgment.

The Common Core ELA standards offer educators a roadmap to arm students with the core knowledge and literacy skills they need to be prepared for college and the workplace. 

CAP contains about the only people who can say things like this with a straight face. Seven years in and there still isn't a shred of evidence that Common Core can actually do any of those things. CAP really needs to understand that if they are going to make a case for the Core, they will need more than advertising copy and PR puffery endlessly repeated.

And here's the thing about books like Faulty Stars and Divergent-- students read them because they want to. And there is nothing- nothing-- that gets students to read and progress and grow and learn like finding things to read that they are interested in. And reading leads to more reading. Better reading. Certainly more and better reading than forcing a child to look at page after page of stuff they hate. Standards are not the secret to better reading. Getting students about reading something-- anything-- is the secret.


  1. Forwarding this piecentury to all the teachers I know. Great job!

  2. "As you grow up in this world you realize that people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think...." David Coleman/Architect of the Common Core Language arts. What you think and how you feel are what reading is all about. Old Man and the Sea would just be a book about a man gone fishing unless the moral of the story is discussed. The power struggle, the greed and what remains at the end. These people are crazy....CC is the best thing since sliced bread and students should be reading informational text only, yet the reading is not complex enough? They sure can't keep the story straight! Maybe Ms Lazarin should school herself on the ideals of the ELA Common Core Curriculum.

  3. Text complexity: that was the excuse for which I was searching in my day. My teachers merely told me my writing was gobbledygook and I needed to focus on communicating my meaning clearly. The simpler the sentence structure, the better my readers could grasp what I meant.

  4. I'm coming at this as an old physics teacher who has a little brother (PhD in Physical Chemistry from Pitt, director of the Big Sky carbon sequestration among other titles & father of a PhD in English from UGA & currently at University of Denver)

    My younger brother learned to read from the Batman, Superman & Sargent Rock Comics that my other brother & I subscribed to from our lawn-mowing money. He was inspired in science by Spock from Star Trek. Small sample size, but the lesson for young children: JUST READ & IMAGINE WHAT YOU'RE reading!!! Reading is an art form too, if only in one's mind.

    My PhD Daughter...when my grandma (her great grandma) died, we inherited her complete works of Shakespeare. I cannot stand ANY of the so-called great bard, but she started reading the stuff in the 5th grade. Same lesson as my younger brother...just read with your imagination.

    You are correct that 'complexity' depends on context; however, I hypothesize that the student who reads often & engaged carries the ability to read in (seemingly) unrelated disciplines well.

    No matter what the medium is, it is absolutely essential that people have the ability to be able to read-to-learn, not just learn to read.

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  6. Why in the world is CAP still pushing this? Are they all shareholders in Pearson or what?

  7. The US public school system has a shameful history of ignoring dyslexia, the underlying cause of the majority of reading (decoding, fluency, comprehension) problems in children. Hard to imagine a federal literacy policy (NCLB/CCSS/PARRC/SBAC/VAM) that pretended dyslexia does not exist, and in fact, scapegoats teachers and schools instead of addressing what is essentially a faulty brain wiring condition. Failure to train teachers, failure to screen, and failure to provide working strategies for the nearly one in five children afflicted with this learning disorder is inexcusable. The companion disorders of dyscalculia and dysgraphia cause similar problems in math.
    From the “Decoding Dyslexia” website:
    Decoding Dyslexia is a network of parent-led grassroots movements across the country concerned with the limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia within the public education system. We aim to raise dyslexia awareness, empower families to support their children and inform policy-makers on best practices to identify, remediate and support students with dyslexia. If you are a schoolteacher or administrator, I would strongly suggest pushing for dyslexia training in your next PD session.
    We are advocating for the following policy goals:

    • A universal definition and understanding of “dyslexia” in the
    state education code

    • Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia, its warning signs and
    appropriate intervention strategies

    • Mandatory early screening tests for dyslexia

    • Mandatory dyslexia remediation programs, which can be accessed
    by both general and special education populations

    • Access to appropriate “assistive technologies” in the public
    school setting for students with dyslexia

    Each state organizes and inspires its own local movement by networking with families and professionals to gain support for the Decoding Dyslexia mission. We recognize the power of the collective parent voice and work diligently to encourage individuals and organizations to partner and collaborate in the best interest of supporting families and advancing services for dyslexics.

  8. If you like this post, please surf this group has people like Lisa Hansel, Robert Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham involved.

  9. I completely agree that attempting to determine the difficulty or complexity of a text by only looking at the difficulty of individual words is silly. The is an instance of the fallacy of composition. The idea that a text that only uses simple or short words must itself be simple. These people should read Plato's dialogues. He doesn't use big words, but, obviously, these are some of the more complex and profound texts to be found anywhere.

  10. just a personal reminiscence here...but... I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" when I was 12 or 13 (not as a required book), and found it rather dull. A few years ago, when my own child was assigned the book in 8th grade, I reread the book, and absolutely loved it. Life had given me the ability to read between the lines, to understand what was really going on. I remember thinking that there is no way that an 8th grade student can really appreciate the book, even if the writing is not as complex as that of Marcel Proust or Vladimir Nabokov.