Sunday, November 19, 2006

Trekking, Climbing, Summiting

I was recruited by the indomitable [Swerve] to facilitate and manage a middle school Language Arts learning community, providing professional development to 1st and 2nd year TFAers.

{Aside: I told my friend [Archimedes] about this, and after he finished laughing at me he asked why, with my numerous criticisms of the organization, I continue to volunteer time to assist in its various pursuits. I told him I was willing to work in those areas that made folks better teachers, which thereby increased the likelihood they would stay teachers, but unwilling to do anything that promoted TFA as service, a admirable pastime, or agree to work on staff. This just got me laughed at some more.}

TFA encourages its corps members to choose one of two Big Goals (BGs) for their students, based on the varying levels of student readiness. For kids within two years of grade level, the BG should be "master at least 80% of all grade level standards." For kids below that two-year mark, the BG should be "growth," such as "improve independent reading level by two years."

I've been struggling to conceptionalize this, because I do not view achievement and goal-setting as such a dichotomous thing. It's been years since I taught a kid who started within shouting distance of even that point two years below grade-level, and yet I teach grade level standards. I also seek to promote growth, and one of my BGs is to improve independent reading levels by that magical two-year mark. So I've been having the discussion with [Swerve] and in my own brain, about what constitutes mastery of grade-level standards.

Here's a 7th grade standard:
Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text3.2 Identify events that advance the plot and determine how each event explains past or present action(s) or foreshadows future action(s).

The vast majority of my students can now do this, but not utilizing grade-level-appropriate text. At the same time, given a multiple choice format, the unlimited time afforded ELLs, and the desire to achieve, I think they'll answer these questions correctly on the CST exams in May. Did they reach the standard? Obviously, the language around grade-level-appropriate is critical, and yet, I have taught students who have tested proficient on 7th grade level standards with independent reading levels hovering around the 4th grade level. It's easy to dismiss this as a result of a poor test, the multiple choice monster, and so forth, but I think the issue is more layered than that. I think we calculate reading ability as too much a function of vocabulary, and view reading analysis too un-holistically.

I struggle also with this concept of growth vs. mastery as it applies to curricular and instructional choices. What is added (or removed) to the instructional program in a growth model, as opposed to one focused on mastery? Certainly, phonics and decoding instruction are necessary with far below grade-level readers, and probably not as much in those only a few years behind (although I believe phonics and decoding instruction are abandoned far too soon, with far too little exit demands, especially for ELLs). That's an easy one, but what else?

I think the reality of working with kids far below grade level requires one to abandon or under-teach certain standards in favor of definitive and lasting mastery within certain predetermined content areas or skill sets. In other words, let's all make the unpopular and unsatisfying acknowledgement that the 7th graders who haven't been on grade level since 4th grade (or ever) are not going to move from FBB to Proficient in a year. But they can get close, and in so doing, lay a foundation for future growth. We ought to ensure this happens, even if it means they do not receive full access to the curriculum. In looking at the standards, I realize there are huge areas I either cover in an extremely cursory manner, or completely ignore. Namely, Reading 2.6, Writing 1.4 - 1.6, Writing 2.3 a-d, and pretty much all of Speaking 2.0. Still, my students make gains, because I focus on those elements that will help them close the instructional and performance gap between their current level of readiness and where they need to be.

I make this instructional choices, and I'm sure countless others do as well, but I wonder why the state hasn't undertaken this issue themselves. Beyond politics, beyond the knee-jerk of-course-we'll-teach-everything, why hasn't there been an instructional standards-blueprint that charts and connects student readiness with the standards that actually need to be taught? Why haven't state-level educators sanctioned a multi-year path toward proficiency to remediate student needs that is standards-based, but not goes beyond a list of standards? Moreover, why do we not have assessments that are more proscriptive and diagnostic, assessments that diagnose down to the level of skill, and provide a roadmap toward growth?

I feel like we run this silly race every year, trying to cram in everything, every standard, every skill, trying to climb the entire mountain in one year and ultimately falling short, frequently slipping back down. We should stop, and step outside of this 10-month, year-to-year model. We should be teaching less to ensure they learn more.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are my hero and I completely agree with you... with that said, any advice on how to manage two more years of my TFA committment and co-investigations where they try to convince me to be a TFA robot?

4:39 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

At its core, what TFA is trying to do is a good thing and will help you become a better teacher. At the same time, learning how to present information to kids, learning how to structure opportunities for remediation, learning how to motivate kids and support their learning IS more important than revising your TFA-generated long term plan for the ninth time. Draw your own lines. In the final analysis, the organization is not your boss, and you are responsible to the needs of kids, not the needs of the organization.

5:30 PM  

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