Saturday, December 28, 2013
The Normal Accident Theory of Education: Why Reform and Regulation Won't Make Schools Better is due out in April, from Rowman & Littlefield. I've offered up some of this before, so I won't say a lot about it. If you've read this blog through the years, you'll recognize some of the material, though not all of it.
I enjoyed the whole process of writing this book enough that I'm already considering the next one--Why the Common Core State Standards Won't Ruin Education...Even Though They're Bad Enough To Do So. Clunky title, so maybe I'll work on that. The point is that I've just started looking at CCSS material in more depth, for some "professional development time" I'm doing with my next door neighbor colleague.
The standards are fine enough--for English they aren't all that different from what I've been doing. What people say about the standards can be a bit--well, more than a bit--bizarre. I'll start with this gem. "Reading, like any activity, is never subjective." This, according to the purported authors of the CCSS (nobody is quite sure precisely who authored them) is why we should teach text only and strip away background and context. For instance, see the explanation of why a teacher should mention nothing of what or why about the Gettysburg Address...just start 'em in on reading the text.
The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.
Problem is, of course, nobody actually reads or thinks like this. And anything like knowledge or wisdom certainly does not pass on or cumulate through such a reading process. Such an orientation does reflect, though, the intensive "skills" emphasis in reading teaching. This (the CCSS process, not just the Gettysburg Address) seems to treat the skills of lower level reading mechanics (say, phonemic awareness) the same as higher level skills like inference and discernment of cause and effect the same.
It's not at all clear to me why we think everybody can achieve the same level (no matter how high or low we set the level--if you set it low, some will go far above it) in reading and math, but we all know--without even thinking about it--that no matter how much we all train at dancing, singing, golf, painting or any number of other things, some will always be better than others. (As is so often the case, Gladwell sketches dubious causation. It's not that 10,000 hours will make you a virtuoso. Rather, by sampling on the dependent variable--virtuosos--he "found" that they practiced for 10,000 hours. Some initial conditions, namely, proclivities or gifts in the skill area, were present, thus motivating the greater commitment to practice.)
Reading's importance doesn't mean that all will achieve highly in it. Education could be organized more effectively if we would all accept this.
Posted by Andrew Milton at 4:38 AM