Monday, June 18, 2012

Your child must read 50% informational text, and enjoy it!

Over the weekend, NYS Education Commissioner King sent around a new parent guide about the Common Core standards, called "Shifts for Students and Parents."  Here is one of the slides:

Also over the weekend, Robert Pondiscio of Core Knowledge critiqued Sandra Stotsky, who had questioned the 50% split for non-fiction on our Parents Across America blog.  Stotsky, the main author of the highly-regarded Massachusetts standards, had written "It is amazing that one badly informed person [David Coleman] could single-handedly alter and weaken the entire public school curriculum in this country, without any public discussion."

In contrast, Pondiscio called the Common Core standards "common sense."

As a parent, I do not agree that mandating 50% informational text in grades K-5 and 70% thereafter is common sense.  Instead, it seems arbitrary and wrong-headed, and  if enforced, may kill the love of reading among many children.

In recent years, it is nearly miraculous to many how many children have been caught up in reading long, imaginative novels like Harry Potter, and series by authors like Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins in their independent reading, instead of spending even more hours playing video games.

My 8th grade son reads as many as twenty or more novels a year as part of his assigned reading for school, along with other “texts”. In fact he reads  many thousands of pages a year. Should he be forced to read thousands of pages of non-fiction to match this? or should he instead be discouraged from reading novels, so that his “informational text” quota can be more easily reached?

David Coleman, the author of the Common Core standards, often natters on about the need for students to cite “evidence” in their writing, but where is the evidence that replacing fiction with equal amounts of informational text will help kids in terms of literacy or otherwise? All that he and others cite is that students have to read more non-fiction in college and that this is primarily what is tested on the NAEPs.

But this is not evidence that a 50/50 split in the early grades is called for; or 70% thereafter. This is like saying because a student may be assigned Heidegger in college, it should be assigned in elementary schools. Where are the controlled studies, random experiments or pilot projects anywhere in the country, or indeed the world, to show show that this sort of rigid mandate has helped kids learn better? Doesn’t common sense also means testing out your personal preferences somewhere, before foisting them on the entire nation?

In addition, Coleman’s version of “close reading” tells teachers they cannot assign texts ahead of time, and in teaching the Gettysberg address, for example, they should not refer to the Civil War battle that preceded it. The Common core scripted lessons command that teachers must “avoid giving any background context” because the close reading strategy “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all.”  Again, this is not common sense, at least to me, it is nonsense.  (For more on this, see post by a HS English teacher who had formerly supported the CC before he saw the scripted lessons.)

Just as in the corporate reformers who seem intent on killing creativity by prescribing  end-of-course multiple-choice tests in the arts, the Common Core's rigid mandates represent a stifling straitjacket, implemented with no thought on how they may undermine the joy of reading for our children.

For more on the Common Core, see our blog here and here, and the PAA blog here and here.  Meanwhile the Pioneer Institute (who opposes them) estimates that implementing the CC will cost states $15.8 Billion; the Fordham Institute (who supports them) as much as $8.3 billion.


NYC Educator said...

Scripted lessons indicate that these folks trust teachers even less than they did before. Considering that they don't want teachers to design their own tests, or grade the standardized tests of their own students, that's very little already. Perhaps they'd like to replace us with robots. Or DVD players. Or flowerpots, perhaps.

Robert Pondiscio said...

Sorry you took my piece as a "critique" of Stotsky. It wasn't (I mentioned her in passing to make the point that in elementary education in this country, we do not have a curriculum at all which is precisely the problem (and "standards" are most definitely NOT the same thing as a curriculum).

My point, purely and simply, is that kids (especially low-income kids like my former 5th graders in the South Bronx) were suffering acutely from what can only be seen as a knowledge deficit. Their inability to competently read had little to do with their teachers, or their ability to "decode" (they could all "read," but not comprehend). And that's because they lacked the vocabulary and background knowledge their more affluent peers enjoyed. The problem was that rather than address their lack of knowledge of the world beyond 149th Street, we simply acted as if it didn't matter. That if we taught them to "love books" all would be well. It won't. It can't.

In the end, standards--love 'em or hate 'em--are not the issue. If we want children to be able to read, write, speak and listen with understanding, you can't get around the need for broad background knowledge. That's where comprehension comes from. You can criticize CCSS until the cows come home, but kids aren't going to meet any reasonable definition of literate without a well-rounded education. There is simply no such thing as the "skill" of reading comprehension that can be applied with equal facility to all texts, regardless of background knowledge. So what -- what exactly -- are we to do about this?

To their credit, the authors of CCSS understand that. I hope CCSS critics who are concerned about the amount of nonfiction kids will be "forced" to read understand it too. We can live without standards. We cannot live without a curriculum for our most disadvantaged kids.

Leonie Haimson said...

Robert- Sandra Stotsky read your piece as a "critique" and so did others. I and most other other parents strongly believe in a well-rounded curriculum as well but not in arbitrary mandates that force kids into reading specific amounts of "instructional text" based on no evidence but the personal predilections of one man hired by Gates who has never taught a day in his life. I noted that you did not cite any studies to back up the 50% rule either.

We also believe in providing historical context and background knowledge for assigned readings -- for all kids, but perhaps especially necessary for those who do not already have a sufficient amount of historical knowledge. I think its ridiculous that teachers are told to teach the Gettysburg address, for example, without allowing the students to read the speech in advance or providing any information on the Civil War or slavery. I urge you to look a little more closely at the sample canned lessons that Coleman provides as well as his notion of "close reading" to see if this is really aligns with the goals of Core Knowledge and the other principles you profess.

If we are promoting critical thinking and evidence in our kids' writing, we should start exemplifying those values in our own work as well.

Ben said...

This robust debate about ccss and literacy education is an important one to have. I appreciate the thoughts and insight.

Can't we additionally address demand for non-fiction in science, social studies or other content areas? Better yet, allow teachers to create cross-curricular units where students can interact with ideas from the perspectives of both literary and informational text structures.

Robert Pondiscio said...

The point is not a percentage, which is obviously arbitrary. The point is that too many of out children come to school knowledge and vocabulary poor, and their schools do nothing to ameliorate it. The cognitive principles of background knowledge are well established and have been discussed ad nauseum by E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, Dan Willingham and others for many many years.

We're not going to agree, Leonie. And I'm comfortable with (polite) disagreement. But my answer, now and always, to your comment that it's "ridiculous that teachers are told to teach the Gettysburg address without...providing any information on the Civil War or slavery" is to say you're absolutely right. That IS ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is that we are allowing kids to get to the point of reading the Gettysburg Address ever having studied, or even heard of the Civil War or slavery. So again, I ask you: what exactly do you propose to close the knowledge gap that Hirsch and Ravitch (especially) have been so eloquent in describing and which is at the root of our troubles?

If we don't solve that problem first, there's not much point in debating pedagogy or assorted points of orthodoxy.

Jenn said...

Leonie, Your post inspired a blog post of my own! Here it is if you would like to share it. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

I am confused about the automatic demand that we have 50%informational text throughout the grades. I think the most important thing would be to get our children to want to read. We can't do this if we turn them off to reading in our lower grades. There are many fictional books which cover historical and scientific topics in an enjoyable and informative way. I think before we make a declaration of what percentage of fictional and non-fictional must be used,we need to research a list of books that are worthwhile for the teacher to maintain the joy of reading in our classroom and publish this list for the teacher to choose from.

jcg said...

There's something seriously pathological about philistines having unparalleled influence over national literacy education.