A Simple Prescription: Write More, Read More – And Often

A tip of the hat to the Marshall Memo for pointing to this recent article by Deborah Hollimon in Reading Today.  In “It’s Simple: Read More, Write More, Teach Vocabulary”(subscription required), Hollimon’s suggestions are right in line with the research of Anders Ericsson.  Here’s Hollimon getting straight to the point:

What our students need are opportunities for voracious reading in classes brimming with engaging materials of all sorts, at many different levels… Reading means reading something engaging in every class, every day.

We could not agree more.  We’ve written extensively on the importance of students reading more.  First, Ericson’s research on what it takes to move from novice to expert is informative here.  Critical to the development of expertise is time on task, or practice.  In other words, if students wish to become better readers, they then obviously must spend more time engaged in reading.  Second, the Common Core State Standards has established a proposed ‘staircase’ of text complexity.  That document recommends that students face the challenge of increasingly complex texts as they progress from grade to grade.  Third, Nell Duke, among others, including, again, the Common Core State Standards, recommends that students must learn to grapple with a wide variety of texts.   To put it another way, a student brought up on a steady diet of fiction will find himself ill-prepared to face the challenge of real-world, informational text as they move into college or the workplace.  Duke, like Hollimon, recommends that students be exposed to informational text from a much earlier age.

On writing, Hollimon is even more succinct:

Writing more means writing every day, in every class, mostly without fear of red ink… Content teachers can easily incorporate quick-writes, exit slips, learning logs, or journals into daily lessons. What better way for teachers to check for understanding than to peruse the writing thoughts of their students?

We would echo Hollimon’s point on writing more.  Targeted and deliberate practice applies across a range of human activities, including writing.  Our personalized learning platforms, Oasis and MyWritingWeb were built around the very simple idea of allowing students to engage in daily, deliberate, and targeted practice in reading and writing.  Hollimon’s ideas on easy ways to incorporate writing into the content areas mirror our own belief that writing should occur across content areas and need not be limited to full-length, 3-5 page essays.  MyWritingWeb and Oasis, for example, allow students to write essays of any length, giving students plentiful opportunity to practice and teachers an easy and administratively painless way to keep students writing more.  And because both Oasis and MyWritingWeb are based on the Lexile Framework for Writing, educators have the added benefit of being able to monitor student growth in the domain of writing. 

If you haven’t yet checked out these platforms, be sure to take a look.

Traversing the Texts: An Appreciation of Text Complexity

Here’s Mark Bauerlein over at Education Leadership offering a useful reminder on the importance of the ability to tackle complex texts:

Will more technology in high school classrooms help? Not in the crucial area of reading. When teachers fill the syllabus with digital texts, having students read and write blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like, they do little to address the primary reason that so many students end up not ready for college-level reading. When they assign traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids, they likewise avoid the primary cause of unreadiness.

That cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts…

Bauerlein’s concern is that many of the post-secondary texts with which students must wrestle are inherently ambiguous, e.g. a supreme court decision, a poem, a philosophical treatise, a contract, etc…  Their meanings are best  teased out through a deep and reflective reading.  In addition to being constructively ambiguous, many of the texts with which students must struggle (think Emerson, Nietzsche, Holmes, Freud, etc…) are not capable of being reduced to a few simple pages or bullet points (to paraphrase one philosopher, any system of thought capable of being reduced to a nutshell belongs there…).  Many of our most cherished texts and documents are  expansive, self-contained works, rich in meaning and related to a long canon of work.  As Bauerlein argues, Thoreau’s assertion that he went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately or Nietzsche’s assertions about claims of knowledge are not easily grasped by reading over the first few pages.  The reader is expected to critically reflect over the pages and to locate the writer’s meaning in the fuller context of the writing:

When faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, an epic poem, or an ethical treatise—works characterized by dense meanings, elaborate structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and subtle authorial intentions—college-ready students plod through them. Unready students falter.

This is the sort of task that does not lend itself to distraction.  To paraphrase Bauerlein, a reader trekking through Locke’s political treatises is unlikely to make it very far if they are simultaneously updating their Facebook status, tweeting their latest thought, popping up a blog entry, streaming Pandora, and clicking on hyperlinks through the margins.  For this is not the sort of reading that lends itself to browsers.  Many of our most valuable and cherished texts, the ones most worth reading, reveal their import through a focused and deep absorption into the text.

That’s not to minimize the importance of technology in the classroom or the important role that personalized learning platforms can play in differentiating texts for struggling readers.  And Bauerlein is careful to avoid nostalgic claims about the destructive influence of online reading or the Internet destroying our mental capacities.  Instead, he merely suggests that more attention should be paid to deep and meaningful reading, to the undistracted and focused reading of high level texts; and that time should be set aside to allow students to explore these sophisticated texts in a distraction-free (meaning, unplugged) zone.

In that sense, Bauerlein’s concern echoes what both the Common Core State Standards and a study by Nell Duke have already pointed to: that American students are reading far too little informational texts.  As we’ve written before, for a student raised on a diet of fiction, a strong dose of informational texts may come as a shock to the system.  It’s little wonder then that many students graduate unprepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, that they arrive at the university only to find that even introductory texts present a formidable challenge.   Nell Duke argues that students should be exposed to informational texts at an earlier age and the Common Core State Standards attempts to address that deficiency by pushing for increased exposure to informational texts at a higher rate and at an earlier age.

 Bauerlein’s suggestion is worth considering.  With far too many students finding themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, it’s our hope that encouraging students to tackle higher levels of targeted texts at an earlier age will move them ever closer to the levels of texts they will undoubtedly encounter in life after high school.

Forging A Path Toward College & Career Readiness

Much has already been written on the dangers of graduating unprepared to face the reading demands now found throughout universities and the workplace. There’s been ample research demonstrating that many of today’s high school seniors are graduating ill-prepared to tackle the rigors of the post-secondary world .  Even those students who qualify as ‘proficient’ within the boundaries of their own state find that proficiency does not necessarily entail readiness for the reading demands of life after graduation.  Declining levels of text complexity at the high school level translate into less rigor and many students are unfamiliar with richer, more complex texts,  which is why so many universities have witnessed an increase in the number of freshmen enrolled in remedial, first-year courses. 

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards Initiative offers a clear trajectory toward college and career readiness, though a recent report from ACT shows just how much work many states have to do to place their students on a track toward college and career readiness.  A sample of 250,000 high school juniors, for example, found that the students were unprepared for the standards proposed by the Common Core.  Within English/Language Arts, only 38 percent were proficient in reading and a little more than half were proficient in writing and in language. Students were especially weak in science literacy and only 37 percent showed proficiency in statistics and probability. The weakest area in math was number and quantity.   The ACT report goes further than just analysis, however, and offers some suggestions on how states, districts, and schools can support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  

Another recently released study, REL Southwest’s How Prepared are Students for College-Level Reading? Applying a Lexile®-Based Approach, offers a real-world perspective for measuring the effectiveness of preparing students for post-secondary success. Using The Lexile Framework for Reading, the study matched student scores on an exit-level Texas English language arts and reading assessment with college English textbooks to gauge students’ ability to read and comprehend the books used in entry-level English courses throughout the University of Texas system: (more…)

Measuring Teacher Effectiveness: Take A Broad View

Recently teacher effectiveness and evaluation have been gaining legislative and media attention.  The current Race to the Top application (U.S. Department of Education, 2009) asks states to “design and implement rigorous, transparent, and fair evaluation systems for teachers and principals that (a) differentiate effectiveness using multiple rating categories that take into account data on student growth…as a significant factor, and (b) are designed and developed with teacher and principal involvement.”  Many districts and states are now faced with the challenge of how to thoroughly evaluate whether a teacher is effective in the classroom.   Many states are now modifying existing laws against using student data to evaluate teachers and policy makers are suggesting ways to quantify the evaluation of a teacher by basing the evaluation on student test scores. 

The Tennessee Report, for example, indicates that Tennessee teachers’ evaluation will be based on 50% of student scores, 35% on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVASS) and 15% on other student data, including test scores.  And the New York Times reports that New York schools have also implemented a new teacher evaluation basing effectiveness on 40% of student test scores, which includes scores from tests developed within the school district and state standardized tests. 

Organizations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-supported, Measures of Effective Teaching, supplement the focus on student test scores alone by offering a broader analysis and taking five types of data into account:

  • Student achievement gains on state standardized assessments and supplemental assessments designed to measure higher-order conceptual thinking
  • Classroom observations and teacher reflections
  • Teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge
  • Student perceptions of the classroom instructional environment
  • Teachers’ perceptions of working conditions and instructional support at their schools

That’s good to hear.  This project comes at a critical time; and as states look for reliable ways to gauge teacher effectiveness, it’s good to see organizations committed to the hard work of determining the key indicators of what makes for an effective teacher.

Crisis of Confidence: U.S. Teens Worry Over Nation’s Math Ability

A recent Education Week article (subscription required) suggests that our teens may be overconfident in their math and science abilities. Out of 1,000 students surveyed, many reported feeling confident in their math preparedness and 68 percent agreed that math and science skills will be a requirement of most jobs, with 58 percent reporting a desire to work in a related field. However, when asked which country was best at math and science, 67 percent selected Japan or China and only 44% viewed mathematics as important to “solving society’s big problems.”

Intel, the corporation that conducted the study, believes that this study indicates the bar needs to be raised for American students. Shelly Esque, vice president of Intel’s Corporate Affairs Group, said: “We need innovative programs that celebrate not just “making the grade,” but taking the challenging courses that will prepare our students for the careers of the future.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an attempt to align state curriculum standards with the demands of college and career.  That’s been our focus at MetaMetrics as well, and we’ve put together a variety of resources to demonstrate how both the Lexile® and Quantile® measures support the Common Core State Standards’ goal of preparing all students for college and careers.   Going a step further, we’ve also developed utilities that match readers to books of their choice based on their current reading level.  And our mathematics utilities assist educators and parents by allowing students to access differentiated math resources.  If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a look.

The Focus on Mathematics Achievement: A Rising Trend

Last year I wrote a blog post  for the National Associsation of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) titled “Math Education Needs More Emphasis”.  In the post I made a number of contrasts between the areas of reading and math. As those contrasts make clear, there is clearly more attention, in terms of money, print, and resources, that is allocated to reading than to math.  As further evidence of the disparity between the attention devoted to these two skills, I just used Google’s new Ngram viewer , which allows users to compare the occurrences of certain words in written English text, to compare the terms ‘reading achievement’ and ‘mathematics achievement’ from 1800 to 2000. As the graph below indicates, there is both good news and bad news.  

While the graph clearly demonstrates a disparity, the good news is that there is cause for hope.  The graph documents an increasing level of attention on mathematics achievement.   Slightly discouraging, however, is the fact that the graph also indicates a declining level of attention on reading achievement.  There is clearly a rising trend in the occurrences of the term ‘mathematics achievement’ in print from 1980 through 2000.  That’s a good sign.  More promising still, the last decade has seen the rise of NCLB, more detailed international comparisons of student achievement, and now the Common Core.  It will be interesting to see the total and relative impact of these two constructs when books from this decade are included in this new Google search feature.

Chiefs For Change

Here’s a recent announcement worth mentioning: In case you haven’t heard, five state education leaders recently announced that they have formed a leadership group to emphasize certain education policy positions.  Chiefs for Change includes Tony Bennett (Indiana), Deborah Gist (Rhode Island), Paul Pastorek (Louisiana), Gerard Robinson (Virginia), and Eric Smith (Florida). 

The five chiefs said that even though they work on important policy issues through the Council of Chief State School Officers, they felt the need to push a subset of policies through a separate group. Pastorek said the five want to “set ourselves apart and pursue a much more aggressive path toward success.” It’s not a partisan agenda, he said, but a “cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope way of putting children at the top of all of our decisions.” Bennett said the five have “kind of started our own union, a children’s union,” in which the interests of students trump those of adults.

Among the issues that the group will emphasize will be results-based systems of accountability, higher academic standards, and school choice.  Chiefs for Change is expected to release a draft of their policy agenda soon.  We’ll follow their progress closely as they launch their efforts.

Essays on Demand: The Desperation of the Unprepared

Here’s The Chronicle of Higher Education offering an appalling view into the seedier side of post-secondary education.  In The Shadow Scholar, academic mercenary, Ed Dante (a pseudonym), chronicles his experience as a ghost-writer for hire.  Dante works for a custom-essay company, an organization birthed from the deficiencies of students ill-prepared for the academic rigors of university life and dedicated to churning out essays for students to pass off as their own:

 The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

There’s no gray area here.  Even the most adept sophist would be hard-pressed to dress this practice up  as anything other than plagiarism – a practice we’d prefer to view as a rare mistep  by the desperate few.  That might be a mistake.  Dante argues that the practice of paying others to produce essays is far more pervasive than most would like to believe.  And it’s not constrained to a particular discipline or department.  Moral ambivalence, apparently, goes all the way down.  Unable, or unwilling, to produce even marginally competent work has led both graduates and undergraduates alike to enlist the help of writers, like Dante, to churn out thoughtful work that they can turn in as their own.  And, as Dante writes, there’s no pattern to the customer base.  The clientele is just as varied as the topics on which they refuse to write: (more…)

Competing Globally Starts Locally

In this December’s issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley highlights a recent study which ranks students around the world “…using scores on standardized math tests as a proxy for educational achievement.”  While we’ve mentioned similar studies in the past, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and colleagues have gone a step further by disaggregating the U.S. into individual states in order to compare the educational rankings of other countries to single states.  By treating each state as an independent country, the study shifts the focus to locating centers and regions of excellence around the U.S., rather than just accepting a national average.

This idea being that by comparing achievement in individual states, the international ranking of the U.S. (at least at a state level) might move up the scale.  Unfortunately, as Ripley reports:

Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list.  The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17.

While this news is less than what was hoped for, it does offer the rest of the nation an exemplar.  If Massachusetts is clearly our nation’s front runner when measuring aptitude on standardized math tests, a closer study of the state’s recent reforms may allow us to glean some helpful pointers.

[In the last decade] Massachusetts…began demanding meaningful outcomes from everyone in the school building.

…More states are finally beginning to follow the lead of Massachusetts.  At least 35 states and the District of Columbia agreed this year to adopt common standards for what kids should know in math and language arts.

This is encouraging news.  With many states now adopting the Common Core State Standards, students will be held accountable for a shared set of standards, regardless of what state they happen to call home.  The focus on shared standards will allow each state to shift the focus to what it means to compete on a global scale.  Although the United States may still have a substantial amount of ground to cover, relative to other nations, emulating the effective practices that have worked so well for our most successful states is a certainly a step in the right direction.

Read the whole article to learn more about key reforms Massachusetts has made over the past decade.

And Then There Were Thirty-Nine

As the National Governors Association is reporting, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have now adopted the Common Core State Standards.  Those states include: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, U.S. Virgin Islands, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Click here and here for more information on the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

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