And now, White is continuing to steer Louisiana on the path to meaningful reform with a proposal to pilot a new form of assessment that recognizes the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. These assessments will do so by merging social studies and ELA texts and units throughout the course of a year. Here’s his explanation:
“Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.”
This type of assessment is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and that former NY State Commissioner and current Executive Director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, David Steiner, has been talking about for years. At a Research ED conference back in September, I had a chance to chat with Steiner about this a little bit. It’s not a topic that non-wonkish education people seem to care about, but he is also passionate about this issue, and it’s really nice to see that this might finally get a chance to get “tested” by a state.
Too bad NY couldn’t get itself together to make this happen first.
Here’s a short video I had made about ideas for successful implementation of the Common Core standards back in 2014 in which I also make the case that all teachers on a grade-level should be held accountable by literacy assessments:
Stop wasting your time on item-analysis of standards and skills on state ELA tests, people
Tim Shanahan has some advice and candor that many principals and district leaders sorely need to hear.
“What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging–that pose barriers to meaning.
. . . The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.”
This is the annual rigmarole that schools waste their ELA teachers’ time with at the beginning of each school year.
Stop it, folks. Just stop it. You’re not going to glean new insight about how to effectively teach literacy to your kids by doing intensive item analysis of the standards and questions on the ELA state test.
Instead, read real literature and engage your kids in learning about their world. Then you might actually have an impact.
“At least on paper, it is difficult to tell what separates the schools at the bottom of the list from those at the top, which cuts to the core of what makes school turnaround so difficult: nobody knows precisely what works.
‘The problem is that there is no silver bullet to turnaround interventions,’ said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College. ‘It’s a really tough thing to figure out what makes the difference in schools.’”
Make sure to read behind the headlines on the new CREDO study. There’s a lot of unknowns and nuance to their findings.
Matt Barnum does a nice job of drawing those out in this Chalkbeat piece.
“…the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.
Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.
What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.”
the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.
“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”
But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.
So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.
In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:
a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.
So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.
How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?
First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:
How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?
Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.
There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.
I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:
I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).
In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.
OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?
But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.
Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.
But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.
Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.
There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.
1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.
2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).
3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.
4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.
5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?
6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.
7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.
For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:
Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.
It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.
Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:
Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:
This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.
I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here: