Archives For CCSS

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2009. They are now seven years old.

I will admit that I was not initially enthusiastic about the English Language Arts literacy standards. (see post)

I felt they were heavy in non-fiction…(no, wait.. heavy in “informational texts”).

The CCSS suggested a typical student should have a reading diet filled with informational texts because of the authentic kinds of reading they would do once they graduated, in the real world. The CCSS recommended that a ratio of 50:50 of fiction and informational texts in elementary school should shift to a 30:70 ratio of fiction to non-fiction by grade 12th. These ratios made me concerned that fiction would disappear.

I should not have worried.

The year 2016 has proven that the genre of fiction, a genre of invented or imagined stories, is thriving in the real world. Sometimes certain fictions are posing as informational text.

The year 2016 has been marked by the rise of fake news, hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation that has circulated on news and social media platforms, fictions that have been developed intentionally or spread unintentionally.facts-not-fiction

The growth of this kind of fiction may explain the decision of dictionary editors to award the word  post-truth as the 2016 word of the year. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth is is defined as

“an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

The decision by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary to chose the word post-truth is a decision that also highlights a phenomena studied by by Troy Campbell and Justin Friesen. Their experiments tested the relationship between facts, bias, and untestable beliefs.

The March 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published their paper titled The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. This research examined the circumspect methods people use to get away from fact(s) that contradict a deeply held belief.

Participants in the Campbell/Freisen’s experiments used facts to support or dispute a position. The experiments revealed that when the facts opposed a deeply held belief, the participants argued that facts did not matter but moral opinion did. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals.

“In other words,”Campbell/Freisen’s noted, “we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.” They concluded,

“…when people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter.”

One example of a land “where facts do not matter”, was the radio booth for the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (NPR) on November 30th, 2016. Guest Scottie Nell Hughespolitical editor of and contributor to CNN appeared midway during the Diane Rehm’s show. Hughes was discussing the effective use of social media in bypassing more traditional media outlets to direct message. At 10:20, she made the claim that looking at facts is  “kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.” Then she stated:

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”

Her statement was greeted with immediate derision by other journalists on the show. James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine shot back, “First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here. There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion.”

Hughes statement was hardly original; she may have been channeling her inner Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who had also claimed (1887), “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Fallows dismissed such philosophies on air, concluding:

“I believe that the job for the media and civil society now is essentially to say there are such things as facts.”

In contrast to Hughes, the use of facts as supporting evidence is essential to the CCSS. The CCSS recognized that 21st Century students would need to deal with an exponential growth in information, a future where rote memorization of facts cannot keep pace with knowledge that is doubling every year. As a result, the CCSS at each grade level outlines the skills students need to identify and to incorporate relevant facts they will use to write argumentative or explanatory responses.

For example, CCSS writing standards require students to:

“Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.” CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.2.B

In addition, the Common Core promotes the use of text-based evidence , gathered when  students “read closely” (aka: “close reading”):

“The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.”

Prior knowledge or experience are no substitute for evidence. For the past seven years a common teachers’ refrain has been, “Can you show me where that evidence is in the text?”

All this hunting for text-based evidence may be the best training our students could have received as preparation for this post-truth world where pundits dismiss facts as unnecessary and media platforms promote factual inaccuracies through fake news.

Seven years ago, I could not imagine that I would be pleased about the Common Core, but the push for text-based evidence may be exactly what our students will need if educators are ever going to fulfill all those mission statements in student handbooks that outline how to make students into productive citizens and life-long learners.

What came first…the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS Egg?

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46First, let’s define terms:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level.”

Back in 1992 and through 2007, the test reading framework for the NAEP centered on three broadly defined genres for assessment content: literary, informational, and document. By 2009, however, the NAEP was revised to offer eight defined genres of assessment content, part of a larger shift to separate reading content into distinct categories.  Of the eight genres in the 2009 reading frameworks, reading content was categorized into more specific forms of nonfiction: literary nonfiction; informational text; exposition; argumentation and persuasive text; and procedural text and documents. There was fiction included on the 2009 test along with selections of poetry, some of which could also be categorized as fiction.

Before 2009, a nonfiction selection might fall into any one of the broadly defined genre categories. After 2009, 5/8 of the NAEP or 63% of the reading frameworks on the NAEP test were in well defined sub-sets of nonfiction.

Now consider, while the NAEP was being revised, in 2009 the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were in development. The CCSS designers for literacy placed an emphasis on complex informational texts (nonfiction) stating:

“Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K-12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.”

These designers were pushing to expand reading beyond the fiction and literary analysis that traditionally dominated the ELA classes, particularly at the high school level. This was an effort to include reading in other content areas as necessary for the post-secondary experience. As a result, there were standards developed for literacy in grades 6-12 in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects

By 2010, 42 states had adopted the Common Core standards  and began revising curriculum to align with  the The Key Shifts of the CCSS and reducing fiction from being 50% of a student’s reading diet in 4th grade to 30% of the reading diet of a graduating senior.

The connection between NAEP and the CCSS was evident, and the recommendations in the literacy standards of the Common Core called attention to this connection:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.51.04 PM

Six Years Later: The Rise of NonFiction

Not surprisingly, six years later, one of the anecdotal findings released from the 2015 NAEP is the increase in nonfiction assigned by teachers in both grades 4 & 8 . This  information came from a voluntary survey where teachers could select the genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.”

In 2015, fourth grade teachers who had previously created a 25% point gap favoring fiction over nonfiction in 2011, led the reduction of fiction to 15%  in 2013 and to single digit 8% in 2015.

Similarly, in eighth grade, the 34% preference for emphasizing fiction declined to 24% in 2013, and to 16% in 2015.

Screenshot 2016-03-25 17.06.47

The Egg Hatches…and It Looks a Little Different

The truth is, all the emphasis on increasing nonfiction in schools at the expense of fiction has had an positive impact on the genre. An article in the October issue Publisher’s Weekly Moment of Truth: Trends in Nonfiction for Young Readers by Sophie McNeill offered comments from bookstore owners and librarians about the increased interest in factual prose:

Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York who says,

“Common Core has raised awareness of kids’ nonfiction. We are seeing parents and teachers talking about it differently in home and at school.”

Sharon Grover, head of youth services at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wisconsin, adds:

“Nonfiction has really improved in recent years. Books are more readable, with more pictures and less straight recitation of facts. Kids really appreciate that, since they have become used to reading websites and apps.”

The article also referred to the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference (2014) which advertised its aim “to display the verve and capabilities of nonfiction, and to show that it can be just as creative as fiction.”


All this added attention to increasing nonfiction appears having an impact on the genre itself, not only in the in quantity produced but also in the characteristics of nonfiction itself. While the nonfiction genre is generally understood to be based on real events, a statement by the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman seems to blur those clear lines that the NAEP and Common Core have tried to separate as distinct. Freedman has stated:

“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”

Note the word storyteller?
Can truth be that objective?

Sounds a little like non-fiction is borrowing a little from the fiction genre playbook.

Eggs and Evolution

Whether it began with the the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS egg, the pressure to emphasize nonfiction is like any other evolutionary force in nature. While the Common Core has fallen out of favor with many states, with at least 12 states introducing legislation to repeal the CCSS standards outright, the nonfiction genre is growing and responding and adapting under the current favorable conditions.

The reduction of fiction in favor of more readable nonfiction in grades 4 & 8, as evidenced by the NAEP survey, continues. The evolution of the nonfiction genre may increase readership as well, especially if engaging texts increase interest in reading in the content areas of history, social studies, science and the technical subject areas.

Today’s educators may break a few more fictional eggs, but the end result could be a better omelet.

That letter “O” morphing on your search engine for Mother’s Day?
That spinning Globe for Earth Day?
Those jigging leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day?
These are all the Google Doodles from 2015 to celebrate holidays.

There are also Google doodle tributes to individuals. Emmy Noether (physicist), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and Anna Atkins (botonist), have been featured in doodles this year (2015) as individuals whose work was celebrated as having made an impact in our lives today. Each of the doodles represents the individual artistically using elements that best represent their work.

Some of the Google doodles are interactive. The Google doodle for Martha Graham is a 15 second celebration of dance. The Google doodle for Robert Moog provides a miniature electronic analog Moog Synthesizer (keyboard) that the viewer can play. The tribute to journalist Nellie Bly features a Youtube video scored with an original song (Music: “Nellie” by Karen O).

There are also international tributes not seen here in the United States with Google doodles for surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (Latin America/Australia); the oldest primary grade student at 84 years old, Kimani Maruge (Kenya); and womens’ rights activist, Henrietta Edwards (Canada).

The first Google Doodle celebrating a vacation at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google doodle celebrated a vacation by Google founders Larry and Sergey at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google Doodle (right) was a comical message that the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were out of the office attending the Burning Man Festival. The Google Doodle Archive houses the entire collection (1998-present). A scroll through the graphics shows how Google’s primary colored logo is changed in a way that is often surprising or magical. Clicking on the Google doodle takes the reader to a page with information about the event or person, and information about the graphic design and artist for the page.

There are hundreds of doodles, and information on the archive states:

Creating doodles is now the responsibility of a team of talented illlustrators (we call them doodlers) and engineers. For them, creating doodles has become a group effort to enliven the Google homepage and bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.

Now, consider that a key shift of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. The explanation on the CCSS website is:

Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge. Further, it is vital for students to have extensive opportunities to build knowledge through texts so they can learn independently.

Students at all grade levels can independently develop an interpretation of the Google doodle graphic. After studying the logo created by Google illustrators (doodlers), teachers can determine if the link that takes students information on the holiday, the anniversary, or the biography is appropriate for age or grade level reading. Each link contains general information that aligns to the CCSS shift to “build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” There is information on these links that might lead students to investigate the person or topic on the doodle even further.

Should a student have an idea for a Google doodle, “The doodle team is always excited to hear ideas from users – they can email with ideas for the next Google doodle.” There are hundreds of suggestions daily, but the information of the website assures students that, “…rest assured that we’re reading them :)”

Another opportunity for students to submit ideas for a Google doodle (Doodle 4 Google) will be available in September 2015. The details for the 8th annual US competition will be announced then, and examples of student entry winners in 2014 are available for viewing on the website as well.

A quick click on the Google doodle can be an engaging mini-lesson for students in building background knowledge….especially when the information is offered in a logo that is dancing, leaping, morphing, twisting, falling, jumping, running, exploding, singing, growing….

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

Since I write to understand what I think, I have decided to focus this particular post on the different categories of assessments. My thinking has been motivated by helping teachers with ongoing education reforms that have increased demands to measure student performance in the classroom. I recently organized a survey asking teachers about a variety of assessments: formative, interim, and summative. In determining which is which, I have witnessed their assessment separation anxieties.

Therefore, I am using this “spectrum of assessment” graphic to help explain:

Screenshot 2014-06-20 14.58.50

The “bands” between formative and interim assessments and the “bands” between interim and summative blur in measuring student progress.

At one end of the grading spectrum (right) lie the high stakes summative assessments that given at the conclusion of a unit, quarter or semester. In a survey given to teachers in my school this past spring,100 % of teachers understood these assessments to be the final measure of student progress, and the list of examples was much more uniform:

  • a comprehensive test
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a recital/performance

At the other end, lie the low-stakes formative assessments (left) that provide feedback to the teacher to inform instruction. Formative assessments are timely, allowing teachers to modify lessons as they teach. Formative assessments may not be graded, but if they are, they do not contribute many points towards a student’s GPA.

In our survey, 60 % of teachers generally understood formative assessments to be those small assessments or “checks for understanding” that let them move on through a lesson or unit. In developing a list of examples, teachers suggested a wide range of examples of formative assessments they used in their daily practice in multiple disciplines including:

  • draw a concept map
  • determining prior knowledge (K-W-L)
  • pre-test
  • student proposal of project or paper for early feedback
  • homework
  • entrance/exit slips
  • discussion/group work peer ratings
  • behavior rating with rubric
  • task completion
  • notebook checks
  • tweet a response
  • comment on a blog

But there was anxiety in trying to disaggregate the variety of formative assessments from other assessments in the multiple colored band in the middle of the grading spectrum, the area given to interim assessments. This school year, the term interim assessments is new, and its introduction has caused the most confusion with members of my faculty. In the survey, teachers were first provided a definition:

An interim assessment is a form of assessment that educators use to (1) evaluate where students are in their learning progress and (2) determine whether they are on track to performing well on future assessments, such as standardized tests or end-of-course exams. (Ed Glossary)

Yet, one teacher responding to this definition on the survey noted, “sounds an awful lot like formative.” Others added small comments in response to the question, “Interim assessments do what?”

  • Interim assessments occur at key points during the marking period.
  • Interim assessment measure when a teacher moves to the next step in the learning sequence
  • interim assessments are worth less than a summative assessment.
  • Interim assessments are given after a major concept or skill has been taught and practiced.

Many teachers also noted how interim assessments should be used to measure student progress on standards such as those in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or standardized tests. Since our State of Connecticut is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), nearly all teachers placed practice for this assessment clearly in the interim band.

But finding a list of generic or even discipline specific examples of other interim assessments has proved more elusive. Furthermore, many teachers questioned how many interim assessments were necessary to measure student understanding? While there are multiple formative assessments contrasted with a minimal number of summative assessments, there is little guidance on the frequency of interim assessments.  So there was no surprise when 25% of our faculty still was confused in developing the following list of examples of interim assessments:

  • content or skill based quizzes
  • mid-tests or partial tests
  • SBAC practice assessments
  • Common or benchmark assessments for the CCSS

Most teachers believed that the examples blurred on the spectrum of assessment, from formative to interim and from interim to summative. A summative assessment that went horribly wrong could be repurposed as an interim assessment or a formative assessment that was particularly successful could move up to be an interim assessment. We agreed that the outcome or the results was what determined how the assessment could be used.

Part of teacher consternation was the result of assigning category weights for each assessment so that there would be a common grading procedure using common language for all stakeholders: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Ultimately the recommendation was to set category weights to 30% summative, 10% formative, and 60% interim in the Powerschool grade book for next year.

In organizing the discussion, and this post, I did come across several explanations on the rational or “why” for separating out interim assessments. Educator Rick DuFour emphasized how the interim assessment responds to the question, “What will we do when some of them [students] don’t learn it [content]?” He argues that the data gained from interim assessments can help a teacher prevent failure in a summative assessment given later.Screenshot 2014-06-20 16.50.15

Another helpful explanation came from a 2007 study titled “The Role of Interim Assessments in a Comprehensive Assessment System,” by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and the Aspen Institute. This study suggested that three reasons to use interim assessments were: for instruction, for evaluation, and for prediction. They did not use a color spectrum as a graphic, but chose instead a right triangle to indicate the frequency of the interim assessment for instructing, evaluating and predicting student understanding.

I also predict that our teachers will become more comfortable with separating out the interim assessments as a means to measure student progress once they see them as part of a large continuum that can, on occasion,  be a little fuzzy. Like the bands on a color spectrum, the separation of assessments may blur, but they are all necessary to give the complete (and colorful) picture of student progress.

At the intersection of data and evaluation, here is a hypothetical scenario:Screenshot 2014-06-08 20.56.29

A young teacher meets an evaluator for a mid-year meeting.

“85 % of the students are meeting the goal of 50% or better, in fact they just scored an average of 62.5%,” the young teacher says.

“That is impressive,” the evaluator responds noting that the teacher had obviously met his goal. “Perhaps,you could also explain how the data illustrates individual student performance and not just the class average?”

“Well,” says the teacher offering a printout, “according to the (Blank) test, this student went up 741 points, and this student went up….” he continues to read from the  spreadsheet, “81points…and this student went up, um, 431 points, and…”

“So,” replies the evaluator, “these points mean what? Grade levels? Stanine? Standard score?”

“I’m not sure,” says the young teacher, looking a bit embarrassed, “I mean, I know my students have improved, they are moving up, and they are now at a 62.5% average, but…” he pauses.

“You don’t know what these points mean,” answers the evaluator, “why not?”

This teacher who tracked an upward trajectory of points was able to illustrate a trend that his students are improving, but the numbers or points his students receive are meaningless without data analysis. What doesn’t he know?

“We just were told to do the test. No one has explained anything…yet,” he admits.

There will need to be time for a great deal of explaining as the new standardized tests, Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), that measure the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are implemented over the next few years. These digital tests are part of an educational reform mandate that will require teachers at every grade level to become adept at interpreting data for use in instruction. This interpretation will require dedicated professional development at every grade level.

Understanding how to interpret data from these new standardized tests and others must be part of every teacher’s professional development plan. Understanding a test’s metrics is critical because there exists the possibility of misinterpreting results.  For example, the data in the above scenario would appear that one student (+741 points) is making enormous leaps forward while another student (+81) is lagging behind. But suppose how different the data analysis would be if the scale of measuring student performance on this particular test was organized in levels of 500 point increments. In that circumstance, one student’s improvement of +741 may not seem so impressive and a student achieving +431 may be falling short of moving up a level. Or perhaps, the data might reveal that a student’s improvement of 81 points is not minimal, because that student had already maxed out towards the top of the scale. In the drive to improve student performance, all teachers must have a clear understanding of how the results are measured, what skills are tested, and how can this information can be used to drive instruction.

Therefore, professional development must include information on the metrics for how student performance will be measured for each different test. But professional development for data analysis cannot stop at the powerpoint!   Data analysis training cannot come “canned,” especially, if the professional development is marketed by a testing company. Too often teachers are given information about testing metrics by those outside the classroom with little opportunity to see how the data can help their practice in their individual classrooms. Professional development must include the conversations and collaborations that allow teachers to share how they could use or do use data in the classroom. Such conversations and collaborations with other teachers will provide opportunities for teachers to review these test results to support or contradict data from other assessments.

Such conversations and collaborations will also allow teachers to revise lessons or units and update curriculum to address weakness exposed by data from a variety of assessments. Interpreting data must be an ongoing collective practice for teachers at every grade level; teacher competency with data will come with familiarity.

In addition, the collection of data should be on a software platform that is accessible and integrated with other school assessment programs. The collection of data must be both transparent in the collection of results and secure in protecting the privacy of each student. The benefit of technology is that digital testing platforms should be able to calculate results in a timely manner in order to free up the time teachers can have to implement changes suggested because of data analysis. Most importantly, teachers should be trained how to use this software platform.

Student data is a critical in evaluating both teacher performance and curriculum effectiveness, and teachers must be trained how to interpret rich pool of data that is coming from new standardized tests. Without the professional development steps detailed above, however, evaluation conversations in the future might sound like the response in the opening scenario:

“We just were told to do the test. No one has explained anything…yet.”

An ad supporting the Common Core State Standards posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured a Missouri Teacher of the Year, Jamie Manker, saying, “I support the Common Core because it’s asking kids to think.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.31.27 AM

My immediate reaction was, “Good Heavens! What did Manker’s students do before the implementation of the Common Core? Thinking should have been happening all along!”

Of course her students had been thinking or she would not have been a teacher of the year. Her statement may have been truncated to fit on on the #SupporttheCore poster. Yet, she is not alone in making such statements. There have been a number of teachers of the year who state that their students are doing better work because of the Common Core:

From Nancie Lindblom Arizona 2013 Teacher of the Year, The new standards provide the opportunity to do this by increasing the expectations for all students, allowing me to challenge my students to think analytically.”

From Ms. Sponaugle 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, “My students are engaged, they’re motivated, and they’re learning, and that’s what the common core standards are all about-preparing our children to be confident and capable in an ever-more competitive world.”

Again, these admissions are puzzling. Why would a teacher whose credentials and instructional practice are exemplary enough to warrant a state award wait for an “opportunity” to challenge students to think analytically? Or how would a teacher of the year not already be engaging students in order to prepare them for an ever-more competitive world? Did they not already use a set of standards before the Common Core in their classrooms?

Without context, these teachers’ statements make them appear less competent. In an ironic twist, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s use of teachers of the year as promotional tools has the unfortunate effect of leaving them open to the following line of criticism: What kind of teachers were they B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) when they admit their students were not being challenged?

Their overstatements on behalf of the Common Core contribute to the unfortunate generalization that B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) students were not engaged. They were not being prepared for a competitive world. They did not think.

Collectively, their statements open up a single tricky question for these teachers of the year…..Why not?

The 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.

These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.

Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.

Moreover, watching the different versions meets the Common Core State Standard:

Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare)

This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.

For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed  selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

The scenario of film clips went in this order:

Act I; scene i: The “Who’s there?” opening:

  • Branagh (Note: Jack Lemmon as Marcello is woefully miscast)
  • BBC (Patrick Stewart plays both Ghost and Claudius)
  • Olivier (students thought the graphics and set were amazing for 1948)

Act I; scene v: In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet. I started with Zefferelli, and then moved to the Branagh version.  I added two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the 1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor. To have a sense, here are some clips to compare of the Ghost meeting Hamlet:

Kenneth Branagh
Grigori Kozintsev

Alexander Fodor

I had asked the students to consider the origin of the Ghost-from Heaven (“spirit of health”), from Purgatory (“till my sins were purged”), or Hell (“goblin damned”). Where did they believe the Ghost originated? After watching the clips, they decided:

  • Zefferelli: Heaven or Purgatory (“The ghost looks so sad..”)
  • Branagh: Hell (“there’s fire coming out of the ground! it’s Hell unlashed,” said one.)
  • Hallmark: Hell (“there is a hand that comes from the ground!” “He’s wounded by the Ghost!”)
  • Fodor: Hell (“That’s an abusive dad!”)
  • Grigori Kozintsev: Hell or Purgatory (“Darth Vadar!”)

Act III; scene iv: The students also watched the stabbing of Polonius in Gertrude’s bedchamber where Zefferelli’s version veers into a disturbing Oedipal psychoanalysis akin to Olivier’s version. Students compared that version with the more toned down version from Branagh before moving onto Act IV.

Finally, when we arrived at Act V; scene ii, I lined up the five different versions moving between the Smartboard and a small projector. This year, I followed this order and have summarized the student responses:

  1. Starting with Zefferelli’s authentic combat, Hamlet is both clown and avenger. The three bouts are elaborate and full of suspense; my students were amazed at the hand-to-hand combat that would have been for “entertainment.” Glenn Close’s Gertrude dies in pain with wonderful contortions, and one student noted hearing “a satisfying “crunch” when Claudius is finally stabbed. As the camera pulls away, four bodies litter the stage, and the “rest is silence.”
  2. Branagh wisely kept Fortinbras in the play (all four hours of it!) using the setting of Blenheim Palace in England, which could serve as a substitute for the Russian Winter Palace of the Tsars in his Marxist take on the play. The students did not care for the elaborate staging in the death of Claudius who is “fed” poison after he has been lanced by a foil and crushed by a falling chandelier. They did, however, give “thumbs up” to the editing which juxtaposes the combat between Laertes and Hamlet with the invasion of the palace by Fortinbras. One of the open-ended questions I had asked was to choose “Fortinbras or Hamlet: The soldier or the scholar?” This film put most student squarely in Fortinbras’s corner as the man of action.
  3. The BBC version switches between security camera feed and with a single-camera setup giving the impression that the action recorded will be later viewed in some criminal investigation. Patrick Stewart returned to the BBC as Claudius where played the same role in 1980 with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. In the final scene, confronted by Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius takes the cup and with a resigned shrug, drinks the remaining poison and falls dead a few inches from his beloved queen. My students thought this version was hilarious, a dark and cynical twist on justice.
  4. The Almereyda version suggests that Gertrude, played by Diane Venora, willingly drinks from the cup in order to protect Hamlet and that Laertes played by Liev Schreiber is not Claudius’s dupe. As Hamlet remarks to Laertes, “You do but dally. I pray you, pass with your best violence,” Schreiber’s brutish and vengeful son of Polonius stands up with a concealed weapon and, in the scuffle that follows, shoots Hamlet in the abdomen before being wounded in the same way himself. My students reacted in shock:”didn’t see that coming!”  Once avenged, Schreiber’s next act is one of brotherhood towards Hamlet as he hands the weapon off for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Viewers should note that Horatio has something useful to do in this version, as he holds the dying Hamlet upright to hunt Claudius.  

Watching these four Hamlets die took all the time we had in our block schedule (80 minutes). A few more minutes, and I could have offered a fifth? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal.  There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”

Die again, Hamlet, please, die again.

Opening speeches generally start with a “Welcome.”
Lucy Calkins started the 86th Saturday Reunion, March 22, 2014, at Teacher’s College with a conjunction.

“And this is the important thing” she addressed the crowd that was filling up the rows in the Riverside Cathedral, “the number of people who are attending has grown exponentially. This day is only possible with the goodwill of all.”

Grabbing the podium with both hands, and without waiting for the noise to die down, Calkins launched the day as if she was completing a thought she had from the last Saturday Reunion.

“We simply do not have the capacity to sign you up for workshops and check you in. We all have to be part of the solution.”

She was referring to the  workshops offered free of charge to educators by all Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) staff developers at Columbia University. This particular Saturday, there were over 125 workshops advertised on topic such as “argument writing, embedding historical fiction in nonfiction text sets, opinion writing for very young writers, managing workshop instruction, aligning instruction to the CCSS, using performance assessments and curriculum maps to ratchet up the level of teaching, state-of-the-art test prep, phonics, and guided reading.”

“First of all, ” she chided, “We cannot risk someone getting hit by a car.” Calkin’s concerns are an indication that the Saturday Reunion workshop program is a victim of its own success. The thousands of teachers disembarking from busses, cars, and taxis were directed by TCRWP minions to walk on sidewalks, wait at crosswalks, and “follow the balloons” to the Horace Mann building or Zankel Hall.

“Cross carefully,” she scolded in her teacher voice, “and be careful going into the sessions,” she continued, “the entrances to the larger workshops are the center doors, the exits are to the sides. We can’t have 800 people going in and out the same way.”

Safety talk over, Calkins turned her considerable energy to introducing a new collaborative venture, a website where educators can record their first hand experiences with the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.

And, as unbelievable as this sounds, Calkins admitted that, sometimes, “I get afraid to talk out.”
That is why, she explained, she has joined an all-star cast of educators (including Diane Ravitch, Kylene Beers, Grant Wiggins, Robert Marzano, Anthony Cody, Kathy Collins, Jay McTighe, David Pearson, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and others-see below) in organizing a website where the voices of educators with first hand experience with standardized testing can document their experiences. The site is called Testing Talk The site’s message on the home page states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of the new breed of standardized tests. What works? What doesn’t? Whether your district is piloting PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or its own test, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

Screenshot 2014-03-31 21.56.01 Calkin’s promotion was directed to educators, “This will be a site for you to record your experience with testing, not to rant.” She noted that as schools “are spending billions, all feedback on testing should be open and transparent.” 

Winding down Calkins looked up from her notes. “You will all be engaged,” she promised. “Enter comments; sign your name,” she urged before closing with the final admonishment, “Be brave.”

Continue Reading…

The 86th Saturday Reunion (3/22/14) at Teacher’s College in NYC was decidedly political. Not political as in elections or party affiliation, but political as education is critical to “the public affairs of a country.”

The morning keynote address by Diane Ravitch set the agenda. Ravitch is an education historian and an author who served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush.  She was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; this Saturday, she returned to speak at Riverside Cathedral.

She began by recalling another political era, calling the cathedral the “sacred space” where William Sloan Coffin had spoken out against the Vietnam War.  This time Ravitch was speaking out against the war on public education.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 9.48.58 AMShe began by alerting the enormous crowd of teachers about the Network for Public Education. This year-old network was established to, “Give the [us] the courage to fight; our motto is ‘We are are many, they are few, we will prevail’,” she claimed.

Screenshot 2014-03-23 19.04.39“I wrote Reign of Error for you to use as ammunition… but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t buy it,” she insisted, “borrow it from the library, but use it to fight back the efforts to undermine education.”

Ravitch has been organizing a defense that is aimed at exposing the corporate take over of education that is endemic to this country alone. She countered that other nations have “no charters and no vouchers,” adding that “charters and vouchers divide communities” in economic funding. She challenged the treatment of teachers in the USA, insisting that other nations respect teachers and do not let “amateurs become principals and superintendents.” 

She spoke of challenges in providing for the inequities in education, detailing that 25% of children today live in poverty, and she demanded to know how our public schools will survive when education reformers push to replace public schools that accept everyone with schools that are privately managed.

She recounted instances of publicly funded charter schools that teach creationism and other “17th century STEM subjects,” and she railed against a push to eliminate local school boards.
“You may want to get rid of members of your local school board,” she quipped, “but there is a democratic process for that; this is an attack on democracy itself.”

“What is the end game?” she asked after the litany of charges against education reform, and then answered her question, “Nothing less than the elimination of teaching as a profession, systematically aided and abetted by the Department of Education.”

Ravitch continued her argument claiming that, “The education reformer narrative is a hoax, and they [education reformers] cannot win if they continue to perpetrate hoaxes.” She noted several indicators that speak to current successes in public education: falling dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher minority scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.

“We have an incredibly successful system overwhelmed by a high test prep curriculum,” she declared. “The reformers’ passion is for firing teachers. They suggest, ‘Let’s test every child every year and we’ll see what teachers get low scores, then those are the bad teachers,’ she intoned. “They fire 5-10% of teachers when they should be coming up ways to recruit and support teachers.”

Teach for America was a particular target of her scorn as she argued, “Teach for America is not an answer,” noting that reformers who rail against university and college preparation programs for teachers, and complain that first year teachers are “poorly trained are the same reformers that encourage the placement of 10,000 TFA graduates annually into schools, despite their minimal six weeks of teacher training. “They [TFA] leave in two years,” she continued, “and we have lost so many teachers. We are reducing the status of teachers. Who will want to teach? Many are shunning the profession; they [teachers] are getting rid of themselves.”

More scorn was heaped upon teacher evaluation systems where billions of dollar have been spent. “Many states have added value added measurements (VAM) to rate teacher effectiveness,” she noted. One such VAM is the inclusion of standardized test scores in rating teachers, however, Ravitch asserted, “most teachers do not teach the tested subjects (math and English). To assign [these] scores to all teachers is totally insane.”

Even more scorn was directed towards Bill Gates, as she maintained “The Gates Foundation has paid millions to have these [tests] written.” Gates himself has been touring the country this year in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a tour that included an opportunity “to dine with over 80 senators” that did not escape her attention. Neither did his comment suggesting “it might take10 years to see if this stuff works.”
“You have to admit he has chutzpah,” she quipped. Her more salient point was in her statement, “One man has bought and paid for an entire nation’s education program.”

Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states.
She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the  National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She  specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here)

Ravitch commented also on the language that education reformers made in promoting the CCSS, standards that force schools to”Jump into the deep end of the pool” or standards that “rip off the bandaid” asking, “Why do they use such sadistic language? These are our children!”

“This small group [CCSS writers],” she continued, “was aided by the ACT and presented the CCSS as a fait accompli.” She added that the writing process of the CCSS was not transparent, and that, in violation of the National Standards Institute protocols,“there is no appeals process for standards that are seen as incorrect.” Moreover, although teachers were invited to “review” the CCSS,  the standards themselves were implemented without a field test. Now the two federally funded testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, will spend the next two years testing these standards online.

“The tech sector loves the CCSS,” she insisted, “there’s new software and bandwidth” included in already tight education budgets, “along with data analysts and entrepreneurial agencies designed to help with the CCSS.” Finally she returned to her message of academic inequities where targets of 70% failure rates on rounds of standardized tests are predicted. “How is it equitable to give a test they know students will fail?” suggesting that a passing rate is fluid, determined by the test creators who choose the “cut rate.”

During the speech, I was seated only eight rows back with a colleague who echoed to me particularly strong statements made by Ravitch on the effects of educational reform. She obviously wanted these statements included in my notes, so here are a few more “Ravitch-isms”:

We must roll back what we see is a poisonous time….

I never met a child who learned to read because the schools were closed.

No other nation doing this. We are alone in taking punitive action.

They [ed reformers] call it creative disruption, but children need continuity, not churn.

As she came to the conclusion of her speech, Ravitch returned to her message on the impact of poverty on academic performance saying, “What we do know about standardized tests is that they reflect socio-economic status. The pattern is inexorable. Look at charts that align standardized test scores with income and education; they [tests] measure the achievement gap.” Ravitch then turned to Michael Young’s book,  The Rise of the Meritocracy, and cited the following quotes:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

She concluded her address with a list of suggestions, of next steps:

  1.  Salvage the standards to make standards better. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) should review and revise the standards. “Fix what is wrong”and “damn the copyright.”
  2. Decouple the Common Core from the tests;
  3. Teachers: Teach what you love and enrich instruction;
  4. Remember that a decent democracy equals values. 
  5. Do nothing to stigmatize those who have the least.

It should be noted that throughout the speech, Ravitch referred to “children” instead of using the word “students.” Her linguistic choice was noted by a later speaker, Kathy Collins. In refusing to use “students,” Ravitch put the focus back on the purpose for public education, to prepare the nation’s children, and she relayed a critical difference between her pedagogy and the philosophy of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “Arne Duncan thinks children as young as five should be on track to be college and career ready. He has said, ‘I want to walk in, look in their eyes, and know they are college and career ready’.”

She paused as if to respond to him, “I see a child. Leave him alone.”

The cathedral reverberated with applause.