Saturday, April 7, 2018

Content Matters (or "Yet Another Reformster Has an Epiphany")

NAEP report time is just around the corner, and states are positioning themselves to withstand the hits they're about to take. This has led to even more special moments in reformster revelation.

Here's John White in The Hill, explaining why NAEP is not a good reading test. White, you will recall, is the Louisiana Superintendent of Education, arriving there as a Broad-trained TFA-produced reformster (you can see his timeline laid out here) and a big fan of Common Core. In short, he's always been completely unqualified for his job, but has the right friends in the right places. None of that prepared me for what he wrote in the Hill opinion piece.

He opens by setting the stakes high-- "A literate citizenry is a matter of national defense" -- and so, he reasons, we have to change every reading test in America.

Why? Well, he notes that while fourth grade scores have climbed, scores for older students have not. And the problem could be, he thinks, that the tests are not an accurate measure of reading.

As with children, a literate adult can read individual words and can connect them into sentences. But literate adults also have the background knowledge necessary to make sense of the words they encounter. When we read that a player rounded the bases, for example, we know that means more than just running around a baseball field — someone hit a home run. Or when we read there was a meeting at 10 Downing St., we know it wasn’t just tea time in London — something important happened in Great Britain at the home of the prime minister. We comprehend what we read because we have prior knowledge of the subject

Imagine, then, taking a reading test and encountering a passage on the Cuban Missile Crisis without knowing much about the Cold War or President Kennedy. Or, try it yourself by reading an academic study on a subject you know nothing about. You may be able to decipher the words, but making sense of the text will be tedious. And good luck with a test of how well you comprehended and retained the knowledge.

On today’s reading tests, students read articles and stories they’ve not encountered before on topics they don’t necessarily know anything about. This may explain why older students struggle more on these tests; there is simply more that older students have to know to be sure they will comprehend an article written for an older audience.

And I know that's a lot of quoting, but this next graph is crucial:

The trouble is that by not requiring knowledge of any specific book or facts, reading tests have contributed to the false impression that reading is mainly about having skills such as being able to summarize, and not about background knowledge. Walk into many English classrooms today and you will see students capably identifying an article’s main idea. But you’re less likely to find students learning the historical context for a novel or discussing the novel’s broader meaning. By not requiring knowledge, tests create no incentive for particular knowledge to be taught.

Emphasis mine. White is absolutely dead on correct here-- the attempt to reduce reading to a set of discrete content-free skills has been misguided and dopey. How did we arrive at such a place? White ignores that question, as well he might, as he's one of the people who worked hard to get us there. The content-starved skill-focused vision of reading was promoted by Common Core and backed up by Common Core testing. That would be the same Common Core that White encouraged Louisiana to embrace. And hey- remember that time that White openly defied the governor who hired him in order to keep the Core and the PARCC test in place? Fun times.

White apparently wants to pretend it's not so, but his Hill piece directly contradicts reformster orthodoxy. It was David Coleman, CCSS ELA architect who told us to boldly teach the Gettysburg Address without any historical context or discussion of the broader meaning. It's the Common Core linked Big Standardized Tests that have accustomed us to the notion that reading is always done in bits and pieces and excerpts, snatches of reading plucked loose from the context of the larger work. In fairness, not all reformsters have bought this idea-- the importance of content for reading is a point on which Robert Pondiscio and I are in complete agreement. But White has been toeing the Common Core content-free reading line all along.

So why the shift? Did something happen to make White realize that the Common Core approach to reading is baloney? That seems unlikely, as witnessed by the fact that his opinion piece nowhere mentions Common Core, nor does it include the words "I was wrong."

No, the more likely cause is the knowledge that NAEP scores are about to punch his state in the face, and as Mercedes Schneider correctly notes, these are not scores he fudge, delay, or hide. Instead, he has to scramble for a way to lessen the impact. When doing the wrong thing is about to bite you in the butt, one strategy is, surprisingly, to start advocating for the right thing.

So while I agree whole-heartedly with everything White said, I don't believe he believes it. His unwillingness to fess up for his own complicity in this mess is also not an encouraging sign. He's just the dog standing next to the broken tree saying, "Hey, somebody broke this. I don't know who it was, but you should really do something about it." He's not entirely wrong, but I'm not going to trust him around trees any time soon.


  1. How on Gods Green Earth did, "We don't need no stinkin' facts!" ever become the motto of professional educators? Reformers sold it, but far too many teachers bought it. Constructivism. Discovery learning. The guide on the side. Facilitating. Twenty first century skills. The notion that higher order thinking didn't need a foundation of knowledge.
    Be thankful that White is calling us out.

  2. Reform support for CCSS and content-rich curriculum is not contradictory. I talked until I was blue in the face about how I supported CCSS because of what I called "the 57 most important words in ed reform": a section that explicitly said standard *could not be met* without content rich curriculum. Before that section was added I didn't support CCSS. But all of that relies on good curricular decisions at the state and local level; it can't be mandated from on high.

    White's curriculum work in Louisiana shows he has been consistent on this too.