Tag Archives: Standards

Why Pain is Necessary: A Response to the Proposed NYS Reading Standards

fc17d1bd7888792a71a10a6be02cf570The late great comedian George Carlin mastered exposing the use of language to control society.

One of his best routines involved the evolution of the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  He chronicled how early in the century, in the World War I era, this condition was simply known as “Shell Shock.” Later in the century it evolved into “Battle Fatigue”, with Carlin pointing out how the addition of syllables made the condition seem less frightening.  Ultimately, he ends with PTSD, which makes a harrowing condition seem more and more antiseptic and banal.

In a similar way, the proposed New York State Standards, especially in reading, may control events through omitting a phrase.  Ultimately, this omission can have disastrous consequences.

In September, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released new draft New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards for public comment.  These new standards were the work of two committees of teachers and parents who spent two years reworking over half of the Common Core Learning Standards to better meet the needs of New York’s students.

Many praised the new standards, and with good reason.  Much of the redundancy of standards, especially among reading informational and literary text, was streamlined to make the standards more flexible and manageable.  In mathematics, the distinctions between certain courses, particularly Algebra I and II, were clarified to give teachers better direction.  In all, this revision kept the spirit of the CCLS largely intact, which was a relief to many, including myself.

To really understand the changes, I decided to look at the ELA and Literacy (in Science/Social Studies) standards side by side, seeing them evolve grade by grade.  The work done in the K-2 grades really hit the mark: It allowed rigor in language foundations while emphasizing hands-on activities and creative play.  Most importantly, it emphasized, as in the past, the ability to read “grade-level text”, maintaining the need for a solid grounding in the basics of reading and writing.

After second grade, however, the phrase “grade-level text” disappears.

From third through twelfth grade, the the entire standard for text complexity is stricken altogether.  In grades 3 through 5, the phrase “grade-level” was replaced with “a variety of” to describe text level comprehension that would meet the standard.  For example, whereas RF.5.4a used to read:

“Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.”

Under the proposed changes it would now read:

“Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding.”

A similar change happens in RF.5.4b, which addresses fluency.  It used to read:

“Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”

It would now read:

“Read a variety of prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”

(NOTE: The Literacy in Social Studies/Science Standards did not leave out text complexity for grades 6-12.  I am not sure if that was intentional or an oversight of the committee.)

The committee’s rationale was “so that the teachers have the opportunity to choose texts that meet each students’ needs effectively in order for each child gain success.”  When I looked to find where the old text complexity standard was, usually R.10, it stated that “Text complexity standard to be moved to supporting guidance.”  I headed to the anchor standards to find said supporting guidance, where I found the following:

“The ELA Committee decided that this standard would be more appropriate as guidance for instruction instead of a student achievement expectation. The committee would like to see text complexity guidance included in an introduction.”

In that statement, the committee rendered all the reading standards utterly useless.

First of all, this omission of text complexity assumes that grade-level standards are entirely based on skills that scaffold as the child gets older.  Thus, drawing a conclusion from Slaughterhouse Five is essentially the same as drawing one from The Cat in the Hat.  Identifying a causal relationship in Ramona and Beezus is basically the same as from Hamlet.  Nonsense.  Since older children are expected to read more nuanced and complicated texts, then text complexity has to be scaled just as much as reading skills or strategies. Having only a partial standard in skills and none in text complexity is just as good as not having a standard at all.

Furthermore, the lack of standards in text complexity presents false levels of promotion and achievement for students.  The student who achieves promotional criteria may not necessarily be reading at or even near their grade level.  How fair is this for a child who ultimately reaches high school with a literacy rate so far behind that they can never master the texts needed for college and beyond.

This is particularly true for students with special needs.  Much of the rationale of omitting text complexity must lie in the need to level the playing field for struggling students by allowing student choice in texts to demonstrate standards mastery.  Unfortunately, as admirable as this may sound, it defrauds the student of an authentic assessment of their abilities.  Also, those students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, that feature grade-dependent text and vocabulary in their annual goals would find their programs essentially obsolete, denying students needed support in the lofty pursuit of giving students choice.

Finally, let us return to George Carlin for a moment.

Carlin’s goal in his routine was to show how language was used to mollify the shock, pain and discomfort of everyday life.  “Shell Shock” becomes the less painful “Battle Fatigue” and the even more harmless “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”  The problem, as Carlin hints at, is that making the term less painful does not make the pain go away.  It simply gives the public enough piece of mind that it can be ignored or handled by someone else.

The lack of text complexity also has to do with such pain, and apologies if I begin to sound like a sadist.  Learning, by design, is a change from the status quo, and any change to the human condition is inherently painful.  Some changes, like death or war, are more painful than others.  Some changes affect the mind or the emotions more than the body.  Whatever the form, learning involves a level of pain, however light, that is necessary for student development into functioning adult citizens.

By allowing so much student choice, and placing no standard on text complexity, the committee has in essence alleviated much of the pain of learning.  Yes, learning needs to be guided by the needs of students.  Yes, learning can and should include elements of joy and fun.  However, avoiding needed pain in order to make the experience more effective in the short term will cause that student unbearable agony in the long term:

  • a hamster wheel of low expectations.
  • The constant treadmill of never reaching the standards you should be reaching.
  • A student body so ill-prepared for college and the workforce that any attempt at career or academic advancement is futile.

I humbly ask the Board of Regents, Commissioner Elia, and Governor Cuomo to reconsider removing text complexity.  In pursuing the equitable education of today, do not consign our bright students to the agony of a dim future.

That “shell shock” helps more than you think.

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A Letter to Andrew Cuomo: Mr. D for New York’s new P-12 Assistant Education Secretary

English: New York State Capitol viewed from th...

English: New York State Capitol viewed from the south, located on the north end of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Governor Cuomo:

I hear that you’re losing one of your top advisors to…law school?

May I ask, do you recruit from the kiddie pool?  May I suggest your next interview be during adult swim?

When I heard of Katie Campos’ departure as Cuomo’s P-12 Assistant Education Secretary, I wasn’t surprised.  I mean, how much can a 20-something who has NO experience in the classroom, NOR in administering a school building know about New York’s arcane system?

Let me repeat that—she was never in a classroom.

She was never even a principal.

She was never a TFA drone, a Teaching Fellow, a Broad Fellow or any of the other alternative programs that the reform crowd love to tout as “experience.”

Michelle Rhee, Richard Barth, Geoffrey Canada…I have my issues with these people, but at least they had some real knowledge of the trenches of education.

Campos spent her three years between college graduation and her Albany post as nothing more than a political apparatchik, from Democrats for Education Reform to the New York State Charter Schools Association.  That’s akin to letting the late Ted Kennedy be principal of a girls’ high school—probably inept, and possibly disastrous.

And she was your “most experienced” team member?  I hear the lamentations of a thousand pairs of soiled undergarments.

So for Campos’ replacement, I humbly urge you, our esteemed governor, to select someone with experience, commitment, passion and above all a vested interest in education.

Someone like me.

Now, besides being ravishingly handsome, I do bring some important skills to the table.  So before I start sending my resume up to Albany, a few bullet points to strengthen my case:

  1. Classroom experience – I’m up on Ms. Campos by nine years in that department.  In my near-decade in the classroom, I’ve seen special education kids, English Language Learners, kids in trouble with the law, kids experimenting with drugs and sex, foster kids, homeless kids, kids on the run from abusive parents…you name it.  I’ve managed to reach a lot of them (NOT all…I wouldn’t pretend like that) and in the process, gotten to know what works and what doesn’t work for kids, parents, and teachers.
  2. Bipartisanship – Why not appoint a Republican to your team, Governor?  Especially an elephant like me with a long memory and (most importantly) an open mind to new ideas. I may have an “R” next to my name, but I’m not some Tea Party nincompoop, nor am I a Wall Street goon. After four years as an undergrad in DC, crossing the aisle is really no big thing; it’s more of a matter of getting the right mix of ideas that can help solve the problem.
  3. Honest feedback about current reforms – Testing, Common Core, teacher evaluations, class size: the big four in terms of gripes and controversies (if I’m missing something, let me know).  How about getting feedback from someone who has worked with and worked to implement your reforms at its base level?  The reform poobahs will gladly generate the spreadsheets and charts to keep you happy—but are they being upfront with you?  At least I can give an answer based on those who actually utilize these programs, rather than the bean counters who collect whatever data is given to them.
  4. A balanced approach to the Common Core – speaking of the Common Core, unlike many of the opposition, I really have no beef with these standards per se.  In fact, in several instances they serve as a necessary clarifier for benchmarks that were extremely vague and open to interpretation.  The Common Core is not the problem; implementation is.  The inconsistent nature of Common Core adoption—followed by ramrod exams that were clearly shown to be flawed—indicates a more nuanced approach to the problem.  It’ll be slower, but much more effective in the long run.
  5. A “people person” who gets along with teachers, students, administrators, unions and kids – The “carrot-and-stick” approach only goes so far in New York state among certain places: the “stick” might work in those districts where the opportunities are slim and teachers take what they can get.  Yet there are also places (NYC, Rochester, etc.) that just laugh at the stick and whip out a bigger one.  Whatever programs that need to implemented, the initial phases will be painful.  Don’t make it more painful by using ed reform blowhards who patronize teachers and keep harping that it’s all “for the children.”  We all know it’s for the kids—at least it’s supposed to be.  Send someone who can reach the best in all sides, who can bring people together instead of drive them apart.
  6. A good-looking guy – did I forget to mention I’m ravishingly handsome?  I was on TV, for Pete’s sake.

With a CV like that, there isn’t a statehouse in America that wouldn’t want me on their team, right?

If you are interested, Governor Cuomo, my LinkedIn profile is right here, and I can be reached through this blog or at my email ldorazio1@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Give my best to Sandra Lee (that was from Future Mrs. D).

Sincerely,

Mr. D

PS: If per chance you request an interview, please make sure it’s a nice day as Future Mrs. D enjoys the drive to Albany.

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More Slavery Math Problems: Another Example of Clumsy Content Integration in NYC

slaverymathditto152acf8d-97a2-4cc7-993a-52fe818552fdToday’s post is proof positive that not every teacher visits the Neighborhood—especially when it’s for their own good.

A year ago, we looked at the plight of a Georgia teacher who made a clumsy and altogether disastrous attempt to integrate social studies with mathematics, using the brutality of slavery to teach word problems.

Not only was the attempt slapdash and insensitive (the latter through no fault of the teacher, I’m guessing) but grossly inaccurate and leaving students with less of an understanding of BOTH subjects.

At PS 59 in Manhattan yesterday, someone (who probably didn’t read my post of a year ago) attempted a similar integration effort, using social studies content with word problems for a class of 9-year-olds—in a neighborhood where many were the children of UN personnel.

Again, slavery was the subject of the day—which was another not-so-bright move given the school’s community base.  Here are two examples:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

And once again, a teacher trying to do the right thing in her mind gets herself in hot water.

Jane Youn assigned these kinds of questions for homework and almost handed them to a second class before a student teacher noticed the inflammatory questions and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The Chancellor and the DOE displayed the appropriate amount of outrage, and “disciplinary action” will follow for the teachers responsible.  Yet as in the Georgia case a year ago, what exactly is Ms. Youn’s crime?

Was she being deliberately insensitive?  I would guess not.  Slavery is so explosive as a topic that any instruction—of any level—could be construed as inappropriate or insensitive given the audience.  After all, being around diplomat’s kids would give anyone a heightened sense of moral outrage over any perceived slight.  Putting a dinner fork in the wrong place could cause an international incident.

Yet is Ms. Youn at fault for clumsy, irresponsible lesson design?  Absolutely.

It’s not her fault entirely.  Such is the current trend of integration that science and social studies content miraculously show up on standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards we hear so much about.  In this frenzy, a teacher with little, if any, time for content instruction would sneak social studies or science in any way they can…even if it means a math problem about slavery or a reading exercise about the discovery of the DNA double-helix.

However, it isn’t an excuse for bad planning.  Real content integration—true integration—uses the vehicles of English Language Arts and math to expand understanding of content knowledge, or the “stuff” you have to know.  A student should hone practical skills in reading, writing and math and also learn more about a subject.

For example, the way Ms. Youn phrased her questions leads me to believe she really didn’t give a shit about teaching the kids about slavery, but would rather assess their math skills.  It’s obvious since her scenarios are so wildly unrealistic: whipping an enslaved man 5 times a day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to sell him?  How often did slave revolts happen during the Middle Passage?  My guess: not very likely.

How about questions that showed how much commerce slave-based industries such as cotton contributed to the growth of Northern industry?  Or if you dare touch the Middle Passage, how much an enslaved African was sold for on the market, and the profits of the slave-merchants per person?

If Ms. Youn really cared about content, she would’ve done enough research on slavery (as well as appropriate math skills) to answer the following:

  1. What do I want the kids to know about (insert content area here)?
  2. How can I use (insert ELA/Math skills here) to help my kids understand (insert objectives about content area here)?

In education today, the debate between content-driven versus skill-driven instruction has devolved into a chicken-before-the-egg argument: do skills drive content, or vice versa?  The reality is that skills are necessary to understand content, yet skills cannot be mastered without basic content knowledge as a foundation.  There’s no good answer to this.

Yet for the sake of Jane Youn and others who simply see social studies and science as a backdrop for their test prep, I do hope future teachers take integration seriously.

There’s too much at stake not to do so.

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