Thursday, December 3, 2015

The New ESEA and Content

There's a huge amount of discussion about how the New ESEA will affect policy and the flow of money and the new ways that privateers can grub for that money and just how big a hash states will make out of education, anyway etc etc etc,

But over at the Fordham blog, Robert Pondiscio has put a bit of focus where focus ought to be-- the new bill's effect on content.

Pondiscio is a reform fan who has always been willing to see what we see in the classroom-- that an emphasis on high stakes reading tests is destructive to the teaching of reading. I've made the same argument. The current theories about reading embedded in both the Common Core and in Big Standardized Tests is that reading is a set of free-floating skills unrelated to content, prior knowledge, or the engagement of the reader. The BS Tests have focused on short excerpts specifically chosen to be boring and weirdly obscure so as to guarantee that students will have no prior knowledge and will not find the excerpts interesting. All this because some reformsters believe that reading is a set of skills that has nothing to do with content, which is kind of like trying to imagine waves that exist independent of any matter through which they move. As Pondiscio puts it:

Years of treating reading as a discrete subject or a skill—teaching it and testing it that way—have arguably set reading achievement in reverse. You don’t build strong readers by teaching children to “find the main idea,” “make inferences,” and “compare and contrast.” You do it by fixing a child’s gaze on the world outside the classroom window.

It has been, and continues to be, a dumb and counterproductive way to approach reading. For one thing, it means that the best way for me to increase student achievement would be to never teach anything but daily three-paragraph excerpts from anything at all. Throwing out my anthology of American literature and replacing it with daily newspaper clippings would be an excellent way to get test scores up-- and a complete abdication of my responsibilities as a professional English teacher.

And professional English teachers know that. But for the past many years, we have also known that our school and professional ratings rest on those scores. So we have made compromises, or we have been commanded by state and/or local authorities to commit educational malpractice in the name of "student achievement" (the ongoing euphemism for "test scores").

This, more than anything else, is why the federal decoupling of teacher evaluation and school ratings from the BS Tests is good news.

Under the new ESEA, states will still have to test students annually, including in reading. But they have a lot more control over the way the results from those tests are turned into grades for schools. This could offer an opportunity to restore some sanity to schooling.

Exactly. States have the chance now to put an end to questions like, "Well, that's a lovely unit, but how will it prepare students for The Test?" It gives us the chance to get back to teaching students that reading (and writing and speaking and listening) are ways to engage with and unlock the wonders of the world.

Whether states will take the opportunity remains to be seen. But if they screw this up, they can no longer blame it on the feds. And if we sit in our schools and let them screw this up without raising a fuss in our respective state capitals, shame on us. The federal defanging of tests gives us the opportunity to put reading (and writing and listening and speaking) back in its rightful place, taught properly and properly used to empower student discovery of a million amazing things. No matter how I feel about the rest of the ESSA, I feel good about this.

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