Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Where Reading Improvement Comes From

Recently on multiple platforms, Robert Pondiscio talked about reading on his way to standing up for Secretary of Education John King. We disagree about his praise of King for making all the correct word noises, but he's made a point worth repeating about the improvement of reading.

Every teacher of low-income children and English language learners has had this moment: You’re sitting with a student, working line by line through a text, grappling with what should be fairly simple comprehension questions.

“Did you read it?” you ask. “I read it,” the child replies. “But I didn’t get it.”

This is what reading failure often looks like in a struggling school. A child can read the words on a page in front of him, but he can’t always make sense of them.

I would tweak this a bit-- you don't have to teach low-income and ELL students to have this moment. But the rest is absolutely familiar, and I think the insight he applies is also valid.

Pondiscio argues that the traditional response-- more reading instruction, harder-- is not useful. And under the Big Fat Standards movement, we have pushed in exactly the wrong direction. Common Core and its mutant siblings all emphasize reading as a set of discrete skills, somehow existing in a vacuum separate from any content. This is rubbish. Reading never happens in a vacuum, and the reader's relationship with the material, which in turn is based on reader interest and reader knowledge, is always critical. Or as Pondiscio puts it

Children’s ability to understand what they read is intimately intertwined with their background knowledge and vocabulary. If a child is not broadly educated, he won’t be fully literate.

When a student doesn't know the words or the context or the background of what she's reading, reading is hard. If you give someone who has never heard of Harry Potter ten pages from the end of the last book to read, all the reading skill drills in the world will not help that person make sense of what's on the page.

Pondiscio is a member of the E. D. Hirsch fan club, and I half agree with him-- in order to read well, you have to Know Stuff. Hirsch just happens to have a particular view of what stuff everyone needs to know, and that Master List of Stuff is highly debatable, regardless of whose list we're looking at.
When we talk about standardized tests being biased, this is what we're talking about-- what stuff the test-taker already needs to know in order for the test to make sense.

Here's a classic example from the Archive of Terrible SAT Analogies:

A) envoy: embassy
B) martyr: massacre
C) oarsman: regatta
D) referee: tournament
E) horse: stable

Embed this batch of vocabulary in a reading selection; we don't have a reading problem, or even a vocabulary problem. We have a "what's your community culture of origin" problem, aka a "what have you actually experienced in life" problem.

Particularly at my level (high school), the solution to supposed reading comprehension problems is rarely context clue skills or decoding skills or the fabled "passage reading skills." The most useful skill at my level is discussion. We read a selection last week that led to a question about collective bargaining, and my students were largely stumped, and it was nothing as complicated as some set of reading skills or attack strategies. They has just never heard of collective bargaining before and had no idea what it was, and so I picked the approach of discussion, probing to see what experience and background knowledge they had that I could connect to the idea of collective bargaining (because the best way to explain something unknown is to connect it to something known) and they could ask clarifying questions of their own and, in this case, even argue a little bit about the issues related to the concept. None of that was reading instruction as we currently understand it, but nothing else would get me better results on the "reading comprehension" questions dealing with "collective bargaining."

The new round of calls for a more rounded education are correct for so many reason (even if some, like King, are undercutting their own words even as they speak), but at a bare minimum, even with the modern reform narrowed view of reading and math as the be-all and end-all, a well-rounded education matters because the more you know, the better you read. Common Core has been denying that for years. As Pondiscio puts it:

There’s a surface plausibility to the idea that nothing matters more than reading, but we’ve followed this well-intentioned idea off a cliff.

If we could stop perpetuating the failed concept of reading as a content-free skills, it would be a huge service to all our students.


  1. Pondiscio and, less enthusiastically, Hirsch made a strategic decision to sell out to the reading testing regime even though it is fundamentally incompatible with their approach to pedagogy. To be fair, so did every other similar organization, given that the alternative was twenty years in the unfunded wilderness. Nonetheless, they are one of the few groups actually focused on instruction and pedagogy that could have meaningfully objected to the emphasis on generating reading scores since NCLB. Probably Core Knowledge would have been in a better position politically than even NCTE since they could drive wedges within Fordham's sphere of influence.

  2. Thanks for this, Peter. Pleased to be on the same side of this issue with you. I suspect it happens more often than either your readers or mine realize.

  3. Spot on! Pondiscio's "decision" to "sell out" despite what he knows in his heart of hearts to be true is unforgivable. He is a very smart guy and an excellent writer; he would have been an invaluable voice against test-based reform and the privitization of our public schools. I have pleaded with him for years to join the Resistance but such a move would not be nearly as lucrative as his gig at Fordham Institute. Just another schill for Bill Gates assault on public education. His principles go no deeper than the signature on his checks.

    1. This was meant to be a reply to Tom Hoffman.

      John King, Rob Pondiscio, and how many others will try to walk back their support of education policies that restricted and constrained student learning. Now referring to these consequences of punitive, test-based reform "unintended" is laughable. If they didn't know this would happen they were unqualified to make policy decisions in the first place. Any experienced teacher could have saved the country 15 years of wasted effort, and many of us offered this advice, only to have fallen on deaf ears stuffed with money.

      They can't even get results in the dark and narrow world of math testing. NEAP scores down again.

  4. "Children’s ability to understand what they read is intimately intertwined with their background knowledge and vocabulary. If a child is not broadly educated, he won’t be fully literate."

    Pondiscio seems to be saying that the solution is to "broadly education" the child. Or we could, rather, start with the education (experience) a child already has. Maybe part of the problem is that we're trying to teach words like "house" and "garage" to kids who live in apartments and take the bus. Studies seem to show that poor, non-white, and/or urban kids learn to read much better when the reading materials they are given reflect their lived experience. Human beings need to have their experience mirrored back to them before they are ready to move on beyond the self. That's why what you spend your time doing with a baby is looking at them and making the same face they do. Then, by the time the kid is scooting, crawling, walking around, they know enough about themselves to integrate their explorational learning into the cognitive structures they've already created. This pattern of mirrors and windows continues throughout childhood, if not life. If you give a kid (person) a window when they need a mirror, they don't understand what they're looking at.

  5. <<<Studies seem to show that poor, non-white, and/or urban kids learn to read much better when the reading materials they are given reflect their lived experience. Human beings need to have their experience mirrored back to them before they are ready to move on beyond the self.

    Not precisely. What you're seeing is that when kids read about subjects they know about they appear to be good readers. Broadly speaking, this is because reading (oversimplification alert) is not a "skill" per se. You're a good reader on subjects you know about; less so on subjects you're not as well-versed on.

    But this is where it gets complicated for us as educators (and I'm not sure, frankly, these are our decisions to make unilaterally as teachers). Are we preparing kids to be good readers of their own world, as it were? Or is the goal of a good education to prepare children to be good readers of (and in) the world at large?

    I'm resolutely of the mind that if we do NOT prepare children to read broadly by giving them a broad education -- if we give them what they already know and reflect their experiences back to them -- we are choosing a form of illiteracy for them.

    1. Robert, you know the answer to this already, or you should, as one of the precious few at Fordham who's ever seen the inside of a classroom in some other capacity than "photo op" or "parents' night:" Start where the children ARE, and go from there. A knowledge base that begins where only, for example, well-off suburban kids are does a disservice to poor urban kids, and vice versa - but you and your gang of Reformers keep insisting on standardization, when we all know, even if we can't or won't SAY it, that kids don't COME "standard."

      Humans DO need to have their experience mirrored back to them at the beginning (as ANYONE who's taken the time and effort to learn about Early Childhood knows) before they're ready to move on to "be good readers of (and in) the world at large." Dienne certainly hasn't proposed *staying* at a child's starting point; nobody here has, and I don't think most teachers would WANT to. But by the same token, dragging children from their world before they've even fully experienced it and immersing them in another whole world of vocabulary and context they haven't had a chance to experience does NOTHING for their comprehension either. That's choosing a different form of illiteracy for THEM.

  6. I'm seeing schools where because of Fountas and Pinnel's balanced literacy Aka whole language, older students dont ever have the skills to move beyond fourth gade reading. They pervasively guess, constantly look up from text at the teacher's mouth whether or not they know the words and they do not know the difference between a " name" or a "sound" of a letter. Their massive vowel confusion renders them without strategies to read the longer 3 - 5 syllable words. Common core got it all wrong ( with no research base) by focusing on sight words and leveled readers in kindergarten and emphasizing phonics in first grade after the damage had started Explicit instruction in phonics starting in kindergarten makes learning to read the words one of the easier skills in reading. Vocabulary and core knowledge is far more difficult. But if the basic foundational phonics skills arent there. You have a student who has suffered the 4th grade cliff and whose reading will plateau there. BTW. Bad phonics, inadequate phonics and poorly taught phonics is as ineffective as Fountas and Pinell's word guessing and word skipping strategies.

    1. Common Core doesn't encourage leveled reading (F&P).

  7. So then you agree with the makers of the PARCC and other modern standardized tests that reading is a context-free skill? That's done in isolation of experience and interest? Then you and Peter are most emphatically not on the same side of this issue.

    Sure, kids need a broad education. Eventually. But when kids are learning to read, they need familiar stuff to read about. Asking a kid who can barely read to read about stuff they know nothing about is a double whammy - they have trouble decoding the words to begin with, and even when they do, they don't know what the words mean.

    Yes, eventually, once kids have learned to read reasonably well, they read to learn and can use reading as a window to the larger world. But even then it needs to be scaffolded with what they already know. You can't throw a kid whose experience is completely limited to the 10 square blocks of their neighborhood straight into reading about government policy effects on rural China without a whole lot of bridges to get there.

  8. Coincidentally, Teacher Tom has a post about "broad education" today too:

    Broad education is about a whole lot more than stuffing a plethora of facts into kids' heads. It's about their experience as social creatures inhabiting a planet together. Otherwise, as Teacher Tom says, we're creating monsters.

  9. <<< So then you agree with the makers of the PARCC and other modern standardized tests that reading is a context-free skill? That's done in isolation of experience and interest?

    I think the difference has more to do with the nature of standards and assessments than anything else. ELA standards/assessments by their nature are "content-free." For largely political reasons, they are "process" standards not "content" standards. They say what kids should be able to do, not the content they should know. But this is something of an illusion (E.D. Hirsch and I wrote for The American Prospect a few years ago titled, "There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test." Every reading test is a de facto test of background knowledge.

    So you end up with ELA standards that are built--of necessity--on the assumption that kids will get a well-rounded education. This is literally written into Common Core (cf. "The 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform Ever," which I've been nattering on about for years now). But then you have assessments that privilege background knowledge and arguably incentivize bad practice, functionally demanding the kind of skills-and-strategies approach that Peter and I both agree are deleterious.

    My solution to squaring this circle is to keep tests for data and progress monitoring (I have no illusions anyone on Peter's blog will agree) but uncouple reading tests completely from individual teacher accountability schemes. In short, we need to create the conditions that encourage and enable schools--particularly those serving low-SES kids--to make the steady investments in language and knowledge that we need.

  10. What essentially nobody can bring themselves to say out loud is that we need to de-emphasize reading in American education, but that's what it comes down to. That is, we need to de-emphasize "reading" as an *end* in education. It is the wrong model. We've lost track of how weird, under-specified and unhelpful concepts like "college-level literacy" are, despite their now central role in our educational system.

  11. <<< What essentially nobody can bring themselves to say out loud is that we need to de-emphasize reading in American education, but that's what it comes down to.

    I'll say it.

    I'm not anti-testing, but you can only test academic subjects. Reading is not a subject.

    It's a verb.

    1. Technically, it's a participle, functioning as a noun. *wink*

      Reading *shouldn't* be a subject, but 120 minutes per day is spent on it, as a discrete skill, in my kid's elementary school. They had the chance to really re-imagine their curriculum when they aligned to Common Core, but keeping the skills discrete makes for easier data entry, because those discrete skills align to the discrete standards foisted upon us all, and our school district is "data-driven," so.... *sigh*

  12. Awesome!
    If we can't test it- let's not!
    Can you make that happen???

  13. I'd like to. And I mean this earnestly: if a broad consensus could be reached among various combatants in the edu-wars -- if a grand bargain could be struck that there's a role for testing and accountability, but ONLY when it actively incentivizes the inputs that matter (e.g. a well-rounded, rich education) -- I think there would be a receptive audience, among parents, teachers and policymakers alike. There's a palpable hunger to restore sanity to schooling. I'm certain of it.

    1. Anybody who uses the word "incentivizes" in connection with education clearly does not understand what education is. Hint, if you have to "incentivize" anything, you should wonder whether it's worth doing. Testing and "accountability" can only "incentivize" in the same way a worker on the widget assembly line needs to be "incentivized" - because there is absolutely no intrinsic motivation.

    2. Robert, you say you are aware of a "palpable hunger to restore sanity of schooling," even as Fordham has undermined so many things that teachers would consider essential TO that sanity. As a former classroom teacher yourself, I am at a loss to comprehend how you don't understand that. I'm not sure that a "bargain" needs to be struck so much as teachers need to be listened to, researchers who are learning more and more about the ways that learning happens (even on the physiological and neurological levels! - it's actually really exciting!) need to be listened to, and our expertise put to work. OUR expertise: that of teachers in the classrooms, where the rubber meets the road - not ivory tower pundits, as I not-so-affectionately refer to many of the initiatives issuing forth from Fordham.

      You want sanity? LISTEN to us! PLEASE! IMO you didn't spend *enough* time in the classroom to Grok teaching and learning like the folks who've been there for decades, and I don't know whether you've kept up on advances in education research outside the data-gathering wonk-o-sphere. That's not meant to be insulting - it just is what it is, y'know?

  14. <<< Anybody who uses the word "incentivizes" in connection with education clearly does not understand what education is.

    The insults start, my interest stops.

    Thanks, again, Peter. You've always understood this issue well. I appreciate your thoughtful engagement on it. Be well.

    1. How is it an insult? If anything on this thread is an insult, it's the suggestion in the first place that teachers need "incentivizing" to do the jobs they've been CALLED to do, certainly don't need "incentivizing" to do, and you and Fordham have done more than your share of that over the years.

      Why *YOU* are crying "Insult" over someone calling you out for using a particularly distasteful term where it has no business being (education) and taking your toys and sulking in a corner is beyond me. That's not meant to be insulting, but Jeez, aren't we adults here?

      I was *almost* agreeing with you there for a while. :-/

    2. If you want to discuss further, please email me at I've made an earnest attempt to start a dialogue here. But I'm just not interested in invective. I retired from online combat long ago. Hope to hear from you.

    3. Nobody was engaging in online combat, Robert; you're the one who took offense. Lawmakers impose top-down policy on teachers, policy that doesn't improve teaching but makes everyone's job harder and less effective. Teachers and parents aren't listened to, are marginalized and shut down - you can't possibly wonder why we parents & teachers have gotten defensive and confrontational (the ones who are still in the classroom, anyway). If you have not mourned the loss of a profession to which you were CALLED, which has become increasingly about data and numbers and less about the children you entered the field to reach, you really don't have the same vantage point as most of the rest of us. More ironically, those policies that are killing the profession are being imposed at the behest of people like you, and entities like Fordham...and now you want to cry "Insult!" instead of listening to the very people who are the way they are because they feel so strongly and deeply about what they do, about the connections they're no longer able to make. It struck me last night, thinking about this thread, the the irony of you decrying the "monster" that reading education has becoming while more or less incubating the conditions that caused it isn't unlike the Republican Party being horrified that Trump is the leading Republican candidate for President right now. Those monsters didn't suddenly spring to being in a vacuum; they are the result of policies that are hurtful, that sooner or later would come home to roost - and the most surprising thing to many of us (especially teachers) is that ANYONE is surprised by their coming into being. :-( Bad teaching and bad presidential candidates happened because NOBODY LISTENED, and invective was the inevitable result, because people are TIRED of rolling over, of "playing nice" to get by.

      Peter, sorry if I hijacked. This was an interesting post, and there's some good stuff here in the Comments section too. Robert, I'm still on Twitter if you truly want more dialogue, but you'll have to un-block me first.

    4. This is a really interesting discussion thread. I'm always especially impressed by the articulate insights from such knowledgeable people as Dienne and CrunchyMama.

    5. Well you sure told me, didn't you?

      There is nothing to be gained from any further exchange. Since it is "clear" that I "know nothing about education" it would be a waste of everyone's time. Lesson (re)learned. Sorry to trouble you all.


  15. Last year at a social studies department meeting, one of our young go-getter teachers (who is a new administrator this year) explained to us that background knowledge was totally unimportant for students to take on DBQs and complex reading - "all the information they need is in the reading provided." I remember sitting there with my mouth hanging open (and, yes, I may have rolled my eyes, as well). I work in a low-income, urban high school - 70+% Hispanic, 20+% African-American, about 5% Asian and other minorities, and the remainder white. We have serious language issues, especially with bilingual-program refusals and other ELL students. Our ELA scores are horrendous! So for the past 10 years we have addressed this problem by using CBMs because, you know, if the kids read faster, they understand the material better, OR we've stuck them in 2-period block classes of some version of Read 180 for a minimum of 2 years, often teamed with a 2-period algebra then geometry block. To accommodate this, we have not enrolled these students in social studies required courses until junior year since SS isn't tested by the state, ACT, or now PARCC or SAT.

    I cannot begin to tell you the absurdity of this approach to improving reading instruction (or math instruction, for that matter). We have seen virtually no overall improvement in MAP or other standardized test scores, no matter how many times we practice ACT or PARCC style test questions. I contend this is largely because the students lack the contextual experiences to understand material presented to them in isolation. When I teach my government, geography, and world history classes, I am faced ON A DAILY BASIS with glassy-eyed stares when talking about common historical experiences...anything from not recognizing references to Confucius, the Golden Rule, or "In 1492,Columbus sailed the ocean blue," to not knowing who the Pope is, to not knowing what a "slum" is. These are minor, but consistent, gaps that my students do not understand year after year, whether freshmen or seniors. Much of my time is spent explaining embedded references in reading material without which deriving accurate meaning from text is fruitless.

    I admit that I am an old white lady trying desperately to find connections for my students to things in their lives than can help them make sense of the social studies topics I must teach them. I acknowledge that my privileged life experiences are far different from their struggle to make it from day to day. But background knowledge is so key to making sense if what has happened in the past and it's impact on the future. It is necessary to understand the literature they read in their ELA classes in order to make comparisons and draw meaning from the lit. Without it they flounder along waiting to be told what they are supposed to understand from the lit, then still not understanding the lit because there is nothing in their lives to compare it to.

    I could go on and on. Suffice it to say I am not convinced that Common Core's emphasis on "skills" is doing our students any favors at all.

    1. The "glassy-eyed" look is all too familiar in the post NCLB era. I continue to be taken aback at the level of ignorance I see in my students. They are not unintelligent, but they know so little that it is almost impossible for them to learn anything new. This knowledge void is a very destructive state of being. It is a reductive mode that is scary to observe: young adolescents who lack basic human curiosity, who have become frighteningly apathetic toward learning, they avoid reading because it is so hard to comprehend, and they have so much trouble making sense of basic instruction (science 8) that I am at a loss as a teacher for how to help them out of their intellectual catatonia. An old education professor once told us, "beware the null curriculum" - boy has that concept come home to roost in a very bad way under test-based reform.

    2. Apologies. Robert Pondiscio did offer a response, and I erased it instead of approving it, absolutely unintentionally (blog moderating by phone screen is a bad idea). I was able to retrieve his post; here it is--

      I do go on and on. But I go on and on not about skills but content. Why? Because *that's what Common Core says we're supposed to be teaching*

      Here is the passage from CCSS that I have banged on endlessly as "The 57 Most Important Words in Ed Reform":

      “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

      This is pretty much the alpha and omega of why I support CCSS. Because it says, "Hey! Teach the kids some #$%! content, OK?" If schools don't do it even when it's in black and white, or if teachers have been trained so badly that they think you don't need background knowledge to read with comprehension, at some point you can't really blame the standards anymore.

      The standards give us permission to DEMAND that we give kids a rich, well-rounded education. That's what I've been doing and what I intend to keep doing. I hope you will join me.

    3. Thanks for forwarding that, Peter. THAT makes some sense to me, resonates with me, the "read about other content so kids w/o the knowledge base can build one" thing. Content *is* huge.

      My issue is that we still aren't seriously looking at starting with where kids ARE. Why is this important? Because LIVED EXPERIENCE (sorry for shouting but no italics option) trumps "what you read about" Every. Time. We're looking at making the Well-Off White paradigm, the "oarsman:regatta" thing, the Default, which marginalizes kids who haven't seen and are never likely to see a regatta, ever. I'm middle class, 50, and White and STILL haven't ever seen one outside YouTube. I rented a rowboat twice, I took a canoe trip once in college. I'm a music teacher who can't afford to go to the symphony, irony of ironies. How is a Spanish-speaking 5YO in my neighborhood whose family is trapped in a cycle of poverty EVER going to be able to relate remotely to a regatta? Our school district's arrangement with Strathmore Hall for elementary kids to see symphony performances 2 times in elementary school is about the best many kids in my neighborhood can ever hope for outside their 4 walls and their schools. :'(

      Should kids be reading to learn, as the buzzphrase says? Sure they should! But at the very outset, they should be exposed at least in part to books that reflect their worlds. Poor Brown kids *can* certainly learn about "oarsmen," but where is any provision for Rich White Kids to learn about how to cobble together an existence with SNAP benefits and a life without breakfast or hot water? I know, I know, CCSS "doesn't mandate" this or that, but The Tests are definitely skewed "Whiteward" and "wealthward," so that HAS to be what's taught if you want "actionable data." (Buzzword Bingo, anyone?)

      But CCSS also has some MAJOR deficits in terms of what is expected in the Foundational years - hence the push for all kids to do work that doesn't fit what Early Childhood specialists and researchers already KNOW as Best Practice. I cannot support a set of expectations that fails to take into account the normal development of a child-who-should-become-a-whole-adult. I'm not averse to *standards* in any subject, but THESE standards are an affront to neurotypical 5-8YO's, and the rest of the NCLB/RttT/ESSA package is still a stain on the face of true authentic education.

      THIS is the kind of dialogue I have sought for YEARS; THIS is the kind of thinking that would represent a starting place, I think, for a consensus - IF, and ONLY if, classroom practitioners' POV's are heard, are part of the process, not just some annoying buzzing sound that's solved by swatting the air until it goes away.

    4. (Cont'd)

      Robert, there are many MANY good teachers within spitting distance of Fordham's location. I've invited Mike Petrilli MULTIPLE times to come and see my neighborhood school not 10 miles from his doorstep, where teachers are teaching as hard and as fast as they can, fighting the odds that a number of our more vulnerable students will remain in the cycle of poverty and of Having Poor Babies that Mike frequently gnashes his teeth about, but....*crickets*. I repeat my entreaty to LISTEN to us, to HEAR us. Yes, I've gotten bitter over time, and I am aware that in print I come across as snarky, I'm painfully aware that diplomacy is never going to come naturally to me when dealing with adults (with 3YO's, I'm ace at it! LOL), but I am PASSIONATE about these kids, about their chances, about their possibilities that are snuffed out more and more each time a new policy comes down the pike to take away from authentic learning and connection - and so are many of the others here in this particular Comments section. I can't believe I'm offering to sit down in person with you over coffee, but...what the hell. I figure even if I have to take Metro it's only a half-hour and $5 each way. Seriously. It has to start somewhere, and why not start by LISTENING? Yes, even to each other. I too want to give kids "a rich, well-rounded" education;" even if our definitions differ, we have common ground there.

      *extends hand*

    5. I'd be happy to come to your school. I'm in DC (nearly) every Tuesday and Wednesday.

    6. Well, I'm no longer IN a school, but Tuesdays & Wednesdays are good for me (mostly because I'm no longer in a school LOL). :-) But lots of good coffee places in central MoCo.

    7. Here is the passage from CCSS that I have banged on endlessly as "The 57 Most Important Words in Ed Reform":

      “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

      The problem with these 57 words is that none of the apparent intentions ever made it to the de-facto curriculum: PARCC/SBAC/Pearson tests. There were meager attempts by ELA teachers to read history and science articles in class. Students of course never bought into this half-assed approach and so the goal of enriching the ELA curriculum backfired. And at the same time, real history and science classes were put on the back burner at the elementary level so that double periods of math and ELA could be offered. Bottom line is you can bang on this passage until the cows come home but, "if it isn't tested, it isn't taught. Like it or not that IS the mantra of ELA teachers under test-and-punish reform.
      Why do you think that the Common Core standards for speaking and listening have been ignored as well?
      And when it comes to actual ELA content knowledge you can't even find test items on parts of speech, literary devices, or any other bit of actual knowledge. No, CC ELA tests have forced teachers into a laser-like focus on finding text-based evidence to support test-based claims. So not only has CC resulted in the stifling of enrichment but has also offered a very narrow view of the English language arts.

      This is pretty much the alpha and omega of why I support CCSS. Because it says, "Hey! Teach the kids some #$%! content, OK?"

      Schools are ignoring those 57 words and until the tests change, nothing else will. Its time to ask yourself if the data generated is worth the trade-off? This is the harsh and unfortunate realty of test-and-punish school reform that you continue to support. The Resistance is calling you; you don't have to be an enigma wrapped in a blank check signed by Bill Gates any more.

    8. Ball is in your court, CM. I have no way of reach you and make plans to meet (I don't know who you are) unless you get in touch.

    9. <<<Schools are ignoring those 57 words and until the tests change, nothing else will.

      I agree. Which is why, as Peter Greene knows, I have been advocating for changes in testing and accountability policies that 1) align the content of children's education to the content on reading tests and 2) uncoupling teacher accountability from the the results of reading tests.

      We all do what we can. You have your solutions. This is mine.

    10. The trouble with aligning "the content of children's education to the content on reading tests" is that (1) you're still narrowing the curriculum to what's on the test and (2) who decides what content is on the tests?

      When they used to just give one of the five standardized tests in 6th and 8th grade, it seemed like the main reason was to "track" kids into "honors", "regular", or "basic" classes, but at least these Iowa or whatever tests gave more specific information. One year I looked up all my students' schedules just because of curiosity to see if the ones in honors English had an easier time with foreign language, which I taught. I found it to be true in general, but not always.

      As I was looking up records I saw that one of my students in Spanish I, who did very well and who I considered one of my best students because he always asked questions until he understood, was in basic English! I thought, "What is this, did they put him in basic because he's black or what?" So I looked up his testing scores. Sure enough, according to the test scores his reading level was at 3rd grade. But I also saw that his spelling and math reasoning were at or above level, so this is what I think helped him, and I thought it was very interesting. He took Spanish through third year, and struggled a bit with third year because of the reading comprehension, but got through.

      As far as content for reading goes, I would love to see a social studies-driven curriculum (though of course also literature, but the canon should be whatever the English teacher chooses)based on culture rather than wars. I've always loved anthropology and ancient history. My favorite writer in anthropology is Margaret Mead, and my favorite history books are The Outline of History by H.G. Wells and the various tomes by Will Durant on The History of Civilization. All three authors are excellent writers and their books are very pleasurable reading.

      H.G. Wells wrote The Outline of History right after The Great War (WWI). The reason he wrote it was that he was so upset, as many intellectuals of the time were, by the sheer inhumanity of the millions of people killed by the war, that he wanted people to understand what we all have in common as humans so that such a terrible thing would never happen again.

      That's why I'd like to see a curriculum that (besides state and American history) focused on the historical cultures of each of the major regions of the world so that students could see the diversity and yet what contributions each region has made to civilization (because they all have) and to see what humanity together has created and what we all have in common.

  16. Dear Mr. Greene and Other Commentators:

    Today, I just opened up this site and chose a recent column at random to enter a brief note of appreciation for everything you are do...

    WHOA! My two dogs, who were lying on the floor... both got up and backed away from the computer, with low growling.

    What is this icy cold air on my spine?


    (checks the previous comments)

    Sorry, Mr. Greene, gotta go. I'll be back maybe after the place airs out. I think you owe Dienne and Crunchy Mama for keeping your immortal soul safe. Close one, there, Gals.

    Ha, ha. Just KIDDING, of course.


  17. <<<(1) you're still narrowing the curriculum to what's on the test and (2) who decides what content is on the tests?

    I don't agree. Tests are de facto tests of background knowledge. Combine that with the broadly assumed yet demonstrably false notion that reading comprehension is a content-neutral, transferable skill and the result is a nearly perfect storm for low-SES kids. They don't get the "concerted cultivation" their more fortunate peers get and well-intentioned progressive educators (you really can't pin this one on your reform friends) give them a steady diet of self-directed "relevant" pedagogy. The unhappy result is that children who grow up in poverty never get the exposure to rich language and the well-rounded education affluent kids take for granted (because we don't want to impose a curriculum on them) their vocabulary suffers, and tests blame teachers.

    One possible solution -- there are surely others -- would be to align the content domains with reading tests. This could only be done at the state or district level, but there would be no reason that a state couldn't say, for example, 4th grade, we teach the water cycle, the Plains Indians, Ancient Egypt, westward expansion and 100 other knowledge "domains." The test passages must be culled from those domains.

    Make the tests reflect what's taught, not the other way around. States are the customers. Parents are powerful advocates. If they demand these things, test makers have no choice either to comply or lose their contracts to test makers who will.

    I'm sure everyone who reads this blog would prefer no tests at all. I don't happen to think that's likely, reasonable, or even desirable. As a teacher and a parent, I want to know where kids stand. It's valuable to me. And for disenfranchised kids and families, it's indispensable. But I want kids to get a well-rounded education, and tests that don't work at cross-purposes to that.

    1. "I'm sure everyone who reads this blog would prefer no tests at all. I don't happen to think that's likely, reasonable, or even desirable. As a teacher and a parent, I want to know where kids stand."

      I don't have a problem with tests per se. I get plenty of information from the tests my kids get along the way, both formatives and summatives, as do the teachers and my kids themselves, on an ongoing basis. I don't object to some sort of confirmation of learning before moving on to something higher-order or sequentially more complex, as in most math classes, or to another unit of study entirely (say, science or social studies) - that makes sense to me as a parent and as a teacher, and I am equally sure that at least *almost* "everyone who reads this blog" *wink* feels more or less the same about that at least.

      But I don't need PARCC to know where my kids stand. I don't need my school district to drop money on 100,000 Chromebooks while simultaneously increasing class sizes and deferring much-needed repairs to my neighborhood school yet AGAIN (it was supposed to have been DONE years ago, and hasn't even STARTED and isn't scheduled to start for several MORE years at this point). I don't need the school's Broadband and computer lab and media center to be co-opted for a week or two to know where my kids stand. I'm heartened that we at least agree that tying their teachers' evaluations to these tests is a bad idea (especially since only 2 of my 8th-grader's teachers even teach tested subjects!). But until we recognize that we are sinking a HUGE amount of time and resources into the tests (and apparently weighting the importance of these tests accordingly) while getting relatively little ROI, we keep on teaching to them because they're The Goal, the Finish Line, the Thing That Tells Us Whether The Kids Are Smart or The Teachers Are Good. The stakes are too high to drop them for something as frivolous-sounding as a "well-rounded education." The whole approach to testing needs to change.

    2. While I've never felt the need for it as a student, parent, or teacher, any kind of statewide "outside confirmation" test would have to be for detailed, specific diagnostic results and purposes only, would have to not take time and resources away from schools, and would have to have no stakes attached to it at all: DIAGNOSTIC purposes only. Making "the tests reflect what's taught, not the other way around" would at least be a good start; doing otherwise is to put the cart before the horse. I like the idea of "domains" a lot better than "standards", but the domains should be decided by a consensus of practicing educators in the state.