Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Please Spread the Word

As you have no doubt noticed, I don't try very hard to make this blog comprehensible to anybody except me, and I often fail to even meet that standard. I have, however, put some serious time and thought into trying to explain, particularly to teachers, "10 Reasons you should care about the Common Core State Standards Initiative's Draft English Language Arts Standards." And while I don't really care how many people read this blog, I do care about preventing this mindlessly misguided policy from crushing English as a discipline in American schools, so please consider linking to, emailing, ning-ing, twittering and otherwise redistributing "10 Reasons you should care about the Common Core State Standards Initiative's Draft English Language Arts Standards" to folks who have in interest in literature, the arts, heck, even "international competitiveness."

Suggestions on making it even more easily understood are welcome.


10 Reasons you should care about the Common Core State Standards Initiative's Draft English Language Arts Standards

  1. Your state has probably already committed to using them.

    Every state except Alaska and Texas has made a signed commitment to use the English Language Arts Common Standards (key links listed at the end of this post) as at least 85% of their state English Language Arts standards.
  2. The federal Department of Education is exerting heavy pressure on states to adopt the Common Standards.

    By most experts' reading, participating in the Common Standards Initiative and adopting them as at least 85% of the relevant content area standards is a key criterion in the draft requirements for receiving grants from the $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund.
  3. An impressive and powerful list of partners and supporters are backing the Common Standards initiative.

    Endorsing partners include: American Association of School Administrators, Council of the Great City Schools, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Parent Teacher Association, Pearson, Scholastic Inc., Wireless Generation, and many more.
    According to the Initiative website, statements of support have been signed by: American Federation of Teachers (AFT), The College Board, The Education Trust, National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), National Education Association, National School Boards Association (NSBA), the U.S. Department of Education and others
  4. These "college- and career-ready" standards, if implemented, will become the basis of all subsequent K-12 English Language Arts standards.

  5. These standards, if implemented, will become the basis of all subsequent K-12 English Language Arts curriculum and assessments.

  6. The results of those assessments will, if implemented, be used to evaluate not just schools and students, but the performance of individual teachers.

  7. The creation of data systems to attach test scores to individual teachers is a basic requirement for federal Race to the Top grants and a top priority for the federal Department of Education and other powerful interests.

  8. But...

  9. The Common Core State Standards Initiative English Language Arts Standards are not actually English Language Arts standards.

    They are referred to as "English Language Arts" standards everywhere except the pdf of the full standards document, where they are called "Core Standards for Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening." You might think this is just more educational jargon or euphemism for "English," but the introductory paragraph indicates otherwise:

    The Core Standards identify essential college- and career-ready skills and knowledge in reading, writing, and speaking and listening across the disciplines. While the English language arts classroom has often been seen as the proper site for literacy instruction, this document acknowledges that the responsibility for teaching such skills must also extend to the other content areas. Teachers in the social and natural sciences, the humanities, and mathematics need to use their content area expertise to help students acquire the discipline-specific skills necessary to comprehend challenging texts and develop deep knowledge in those fields. At the same time, English language arts teachers not only must engage their students in a rich array of literature but also must help develop their students’ ability to read complex works of nonfiction independently.

    This could be more clear, but the most straightforward reading is that the authors of these standards regard them as defining cross-disciplinary, "disciplinary literacy" skills, not the scope of the discipline of English Language Arts itself.

    As George Constanza might say, "Not that there is anything wrong with that," literacy is important, but, as I have outlined above, there is a formidable weight of organizational, regulatory and financial weight behind the idea that states will adopt these as at least 85% of their English Language Arts standards. "Literacy" is not 85% of English Language Arts.

    Also note that these standards are specifically designed to not be the sole responsibility of English teachers, so any data system properly linking student performance on related tests to teachers would attribute the results to all subject area teachers.

  10. The Common Standards for English Language Arts are narrower, lower, and shallower than the Language Arts standards of high performing countries.

    Establishing "internationally benchmarked" standards is a key buzzword in the Common Standards initiative, Race to the Top regulations, and their larger discourse community. The idea that these English Langauage Arts standards are "internationally benchmarked" to those of high performing countries is a farce, except insofar as the benchmarking demonstrates the low level and quality of our proposed standards.

    No country with high reading scores in international assessments conceives of the discipline of Language Arts as being limited to literacy skills, or "college- and career-readiness," as the Common Standards do. Thus, the Common Standards are narrower, lower and shallower than the English Language Arts standards of high performing countries.

    Quantifying the limited range of the Common Standards compared to other countries is difficult to briefly explain, and it is my intent here to encourage you to explore both the Common Standards and the international standards they reference to come to your own conclusion. On the whole, my observation is that the Common Standards cover between one-third and two-thirds of the scope of the comparable Language Arts standards from other countries.

    For example, the Common Standards omit, but every high performing country cited includes, such fundamentals in the discipline of English as:

    • developing independent interpretations of texts;
    • literary criticism;
    • the concept of genre;
    • drama;
    • any student writing beyond explanations and arguments.

    That is just a sampling of the significant omissions from the Common Standards.

    England's Language Arts standards are structured similarly to the Common Standards, which makes for straightforward comparisons. For example, while the Common Standards have 18 Reading standards, by my count, they only cover half of the concepts in England's 14 reading standards. Specifically, the Common Standards do not cover:

    • recognise subtlety, ambiguity and allusion within sentences and across texts as a whole
    • select, compare, summarise and synthesise information from different texts and use it to form their own ideas, arguments and opinions
    • relate texts to their social and historical contexts and to the literary traditions of which they are a part
    • recognise and evaluate the ways in which texts may be interpreted differently according to the perspective of the reader
    • analyse and evaluate the impact of combining words, images and sounds in media, moving-image and multimodal texts.
    • analyse and evaluate how form, layout and presentation contribute to effect
    • compare and analyse the connections between texts from different cultures and traditions.

    The authors of the Common Standards document do diligently cite specific "illustrative international benchmarks," however in many cases, if you follow the links, what you find is that the proposed Common Standards are demonstrably lower and shallower than their cited benchmarks. It is so remarkably shameless it is worth an extended examination.

    The second of the proposed Common Standards for reading is:

    Support or challenge assertions about the text by citing evidence in the text explicitly and accurately.

    This is benchmarked to a set of international standards:

    1. Alberta, Canada: English Language Arts Curriculum Outcomes, 2003 (Grades 10‐12) (see 10/20/30 2.3.2.b and

      b. assess the appropriateness of own and others’ understandings and interpretations of works of literature and other texts, by referring to the works and texts for supporting or contradictory evidence

      a. form generalizations and synthesize new ideas by integrating new information with prior knowledge
      b. draw conclusions that are appropriate to findings, reflect own understandings and are consistent with the identified topic, purpose and situation
      c. support generalizations and conclusions sufficiently with relevant and consistent detail

    2. British Columbia, Canada: English Language Arts Integrated Resource Package, Prescribed Learning Outcomes, 2007 (Grade 12) (see B8)

      B8 explain and support personal responses to texts, by

      • making comparisons, associations, or analogies to other ideas and concepts
      • relating reactions and emotions to understanding of the text
      • developing opinions using reasons and evidence
      • suggesting contextual influences and relationships

    3. Ontario, Canada: The Ontario Curriculum, English, 2007 (see 1.4 &1.7, Grade 12 Reading & Literature Studies)

      1.4 make and explain inferences of increasing subtlety and insight about texts, including complex and challenging texts, supporting their expectations with well-chosen stated and implied ideas from the text

      1.7 evaluate the effectiveness of texts, including complex and challenging texts, using evidence from the text insightfully to support their opinions

    4. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Certificate of Education Study Design: English/English as a Second Language, 2007 (≈ Grades 11‐12) (see Unit 1, Outcome 1, Key Skill 4; Unit 3, Outcome 1, Key Skill 3)

      1.1.4. construct a response to a text, including the use of appropriate metalanguage to discuss the textual features and textual evidence to support the response;

      3.1.3. discuss and compare possible interpretations of texts using evidence from the text;

    In each of these cases, the benchmarked standards are richer and more complex, and situated within a broader set of interlocking goals. It is worth focusing on two unique features of the Common Standards version:

    1. The student is not asked to generate an interpretation, inference or assertion. To meet the standard it is sufficient to support or challenge, with evidence, an assertion provided by the teacher or test.
    2. The student is not asked to evaluate an interpretation or understanding, but merely an "assertion," which may simply be factual. For example, the assertion about the text could be "Copernicus argued that the Earth was the center of the universe." And this could be disproved by quoting "Nicolaus Copernicus was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe."

    This is by no means an isolated example. Look for yourself.

  11. We are inviting testing companies to determine the future of our schools with virtually no accountability or public input.

    These standards were developed by two testing companies, the College Board and ACT, with help from a nebulous non-profit, Achieve, Inc. It is essential to understand this when reading the Common Standards; it explains many of their odd choices. In the example above, the obvious interpretation is that they chose to define the standard as "support or challenge assertions" rather than "construct a response or interpretation," as every international example they cited did, because the former is much easier and cheaper to score reliably on a standarized test.

    No high performing educational system in the world would consider giving testing companies this much control over their standards and curriculum. It is absurd.

What should happen now?

A public comment period for the draft standards is going on now, it ends October 20. I encourage you to comment. A validation committee has been formed. It is very thin on the English and Language Arts perspective. It is difficult to guess how they might respond to the confusion over exactly what kind of standards they're being presented with. Perhaps the numerous literacy experts on the committee will relish quietly ending English Language Arts as a discipline in American schools. Sending emails directly to at least some members of this committee will probably be a good idea.

My take on the situation is that as long as all stakeholders, including the states and federal Department of Education can agree that these are not internationally benchmarked English Language Arts standards, but cross-disciplinary literacy standards, and that they should not be seen as supplanting the English Language Arts standards and curriculum, and the various relevant memos and regulations can be updated to reflect that fact, then everything will be ok. Either that or they need to start over and write actual English Language Arts standards.

Or we're just setting the stage for the next crisis in American educational standards, when people suddenly discover circa 2012 that our English Language Arts standards are scandalously lower than our global competitors'.


  1. Common Core State Standards Initiative Website:
  2. English Standards:
    Note that many of the handy links to benchmarked standards under "see evidence" don't point to the right place, so if you want to be complete you need to use...
  3. The full English standards PDF:
    The bibliography provides links to all the full documents for the relevant international standards.
  4. English Programme of Study for Key stage 4, 2007:
    England's standards make an easy point of comparison if you're curious about what actual benchmarked English Language Arts common standards might look like.
  5. Feedback form:
  6. Race to the Top:
    In case you don't believe me about 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 above.

About the author: Tom Hoffman has ten years of experience with English standards and standards based assessment, including classroom teaching, scoring writing assessments for the state of Rhode Island, implementing standards-driven school and curriculum refom, conducting research into the information architecture of standards-based assessment, and development and deployment of of data systems to track student achievement of standards. He has a Masters in Teaching English from Brown University.

Feel free to redistribute this document as you see fit as long as you include a link to the original:

Me Quoted in Information Week

The funny thing about my conversation on the phone yesterday with Michael Hickins yesterday, which led to me being quoted in his post "NYC Schools Overpaying For Proprietary Software" was that I wasn't paying that much attention to where he was from, and completely forgot to ask why his schools PTA feels the need to pay for eChalk instead of using ARIS.

At this point, Andrea Reibel is wondering if buying me lunch was a worthwhile investment.

I Wasn't Expecting to See these Headlines for Another Year

Kaplan Test Prep Daily:

City Dumps Contractor Hired to Build Database

The District has fired the contractor hired to build a $12 million data repository for critical information about D.C. schools, citing missed deadlines, software defects and failure to make available the personnel it promised, officials said Monday.

I told you so. Once the RttT money starts gushing, data systems may become Duncan's version of the Reading First scandal. Wireless Generation can't subcontract for the entire industry.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sandards and "Teaching Reading as a Skill"

Robert Pondisco and Dan Willingham both argue (as Robert puts it):

The draft reading standards put up for public comment this week by the Common Core State Standards Initiative can’t “stick” because they are built on a flawed model of reading as a transferable skill.

If this was true, you'd expect that countries that use similar standards would have low scores on international assessments, and high scoring countries would do something substantially different. As far as I can tell, everyone writes their Language Arts standards pretty much this way, and it is not really possible to do otherwise. Standards are just a limited tool. You can't do that much with them. This is what English Language Arts standards look like.

Of course when England writes:

Students should be able to relate text to their social and historical context and to the literary traditions of which they are a part

It is implied that substantial prior background knowledge in social, literary and political history is necessary. I just don't think in England they have to have such endlessly tiresome discussions of this fact, and I doubt they have people as smart as Robert and Dan making arguments that they should not include that standard because some teachers might try to teach to it improperly.

Passing Manic Episodes

One Hungry Chef:

I have something of a habit of going to extremes. Not always. I'm not obsessive. Rather, I'd call it “passing manic episodes.” Now and again an idea will strike me as particularly interesting or challenging and I dive in, as deep as I can. Typically this involves me learning a complicated process so that I might create something which I could easily purchase for a fraction of the price and no effort at all. For example: I've made paper out of native grasses, started fire with flint and steel, fermented my own sourdough starter using organic grapes, built a bicycle, dug up and potted with native clay, woven rope, brewed beer, made baskets from pine needles, sewed a tent, and made ham.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I Grant Permission

If you want to give a disciplinary literacy test to all high school students in the country, it is not necessary to re-define the English curriculum to be limited to a subset of literacy skills that can be easily assessed on the test. This is carrying the zeal for alignment too far. It is OK to have standards not covered on the test!

Comparing USA (proposed) and England's Reading Standards

The proposed US core English standards and England's Stage 4 English Programme of Study are structured similarly, which makes comparing them easy. Let's run through what shows up in England's reading standards but not in the US:

c recognise subtlety, ambiguity and allusion within sentences and across texts as a whole

e select, compare, summarise and synthesise information from different texts and use it to form their own ideas, arguments and opinions

g relate texts to their social and historical contexts and to the literary traditions of which they are a part

h recognise and evaluate the ways in which texts may be interpreted differently according to the perspective of the reader

i analyse and evaluate the impact of combining words, images and sounds in media, moving-image and multimodal texts.

l analyse and evaluate how form, layout and presentation contribute to effect

n compare and analyse the connections between texts from different cultures and traditions.

That's half of England's 14 reading standards, and is being generous, considering that what I'm counting as equivalent American standards are often narrower and less sophisticated in their US versions.

Conversely, by my count eight of the 18 US standards are either covered by England's reading "competence" standard or "a analyse and evaluate information, events and ideas from texts."

Looking at the most straightforward international benchmark, the proposed US standards are markedly lower.

The Central Contradiction

The problem with "developing college- and career-ready standards... (that) are evidence- and research-based and internationally benchmarked to top performing countries" is that top performing countries do not see the aim of their English instruction (at least) to be merely "college- and career-readiness."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Student Practices in Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening

Since I've increasingly been quoting longer aims/rationale/goal statements from different countries cited in the proposed core standards for English, I might as well do the same for the core standards themselves for comparison:

The following practices in reading, writing, and speaking and listening undergird and help unify the rest of the standards document. They are the "premises" —broad statements about the nature of college and career readiness in reading, writing, and speaking and listening—that underlie the individual standards statements and cut across the various sections of the document. Every idea introduced here is subsequently represented in one or more places within the larger document.

Students who are college and career ready exhibit the following capacities in their reading, writing, and speaking and listening:

  1. They demonstrate independence as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.
    Students can, without significant scaffolding or support, comprehend and evaluate complex text across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and clearly convey intricate or multifaceted information. Likewise, students are independently able to discern a speaker’s key points as well as ask questions and articulate their own ideas.
  2. They build strong content knowledge.
    Students build a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance. They demonstrate their ability to become proficient in new areas through research and study. They read purposefully and listen attentively to gain both general knowledge and the specific in-depth expertise needed to comprehend subject matter and solve problems in different fields. They refine their knowledge and share it through substantive writing and speaking.
  3. They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
    Students consider their reading, writing, and speaking and listening in relation to the contextual factors of audience, task, purpose, and discipline. They appreciate nuances, such as how the composition and familiarity of the audience should affect tone. They also know that different disciplines call for different types of evidence (e.g., documentary evidence in history, experimental evidence in the natural sciences).
  4. They comprehend as well as critique.
    Students are engaged and open-minded—but skeptical—readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but they also question an author’s or speaker’s assumptions and assess the veracity of claims.
  5. They privilege evidence.
    Students cite specific textual evidence when offering an oral or written interpretation of a piece of writing. They use relevant evidence when supporting their own points in writing and speaking, making their reasoning clear to the reader or listener, and they constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence.
  6. They care about precision.
    Students are mindful of the impact of specific words and details, and they consider what would be achieved by different choices. Students pay especially close attention when precision matters most, such as in the case of reviewing significant data, making important distinctions, or analyzing a key moment in the action of a play or novel.
  7. They craft and look for structure.
    Students attend to structure when organizing their own writing and speaking as well as when seeking to understand the work of others. They understand and make use of the ways of presenting information typical of different disciplines. They observe, for example, how authors of literary works craft the structure to unfold events and depict the setting.
  8. They use technology strategically and capably.
    Students employ technology thoughtfully to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They tailor their searches online to acquire useful information efficiently, and they integrate what they learn using technology with what they learn offline. They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals.

You've got plenty of examples now (scroll down) to compare this to, from high-performing countries which we're ostensibly seeking to benchmark ourselves to. They are all very different from this. And the more deeply you look, the more differences you perceive. This is not taking us closer to our high performing peers, it is taking us further away.

They are not representative of a complete vision of English Language Arts standards. In fact, they don't even claim to be. I would be ok with that if every public indication didn't point to their eventual use as English Language Arts standards, including (non-binding) commitments from 48 odd states to use the final version of this document as the basis of 85% of their English Language Arts standards.

Beyond that, this is just such crap writing. The verbs! The verbs are all wrong. Here are the verbs in the English (that is, of England, the country) "competence" key concept: "expressing," "reading," "demonstrating," "applying," "transferring," "demonstrating," "making judgements." Here are the verbs from common standards key concepts 6 -7: "are mindful of," "consider," "pay especially close attention to," "making distinctions," "analyzing," "attend to," "seeking to understand," "make use of," "observe." They're all internal, abstract, indefinite, passive in tone if not voice. English isn't about what goes on in your head, it is about what you can communicate, what you can express. And I'm not just pulling this out of the air. Look at all the other standards documents!

And what's up with authors "craft the structure." You're going to make a list of just eight capacities in college and career ready reading, writing, speaking and listening and "craft for structure" is one of them? These folks don't seem to understand the gravity of their undertaking. If this is released in this form, people will be hosting conference sessions, writing journal articles and sitting through PD trying to glean the inner meaning of "crafting the structure to unfold events and depict the setting."

Maybe the weirdest thing about the way the common standards are written is that they seem to be going out of their way to keep the reading level of the document itself much lower than other countries'.

International Benchmarks... and Victoria

OK, I already did Singapore, so that leaves Victoria, Australia:

The English language is central to the way in which students understand, critique and appreciate their world, and to the ways in which they participate socially, economically and culturally in Australian society.

The study of English encourages the development of literate individuals capable of critical and imaginative thinking, aesthetic appreciation and creativity. The mastery of the key knowledge and skills described in this study design underpins effective functioning in the contexts of study and work as well as productive participation in a democratic society in the twenty-first century.

The study design draws on interstate and international models and reflects recent developments in the study of English. Students will continue the learning established through the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) in the key discipline concepts of texts and language, and the dimensions of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

This study design will assist teachers to implement an English curriculum that is interesting and challenging for students with a wide range of expectations and aspirations. Teachers have the opportunity to select texts which will reflect the needs and interests of their students. The study of texts focuses on creating and analysing texts, understanding and interpreting texts, and moving beyond interpretation to reflection and critical analysis.


This study is designed to enable students to:

  • extend their competence in using Standard Australian English to meet the demands of further study, the workplace, and their own needs and interests;
  • extend their language skills through thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listening;
  • communicate ideas, feelings, observations and information effectively, both orally and in writing, to a range of audiences;
  • extend their competence in planning, reviewing and re-shaping content of print, non-print and multimodal texts to ensure accuracy, and coherence of form, language, purpose, audience and context;
  • understand, enjoy and appreciate language in its written, oral and multimodal forms;
  • recognise the structures and features of a wide range of print, non-print and multimodal texts and demonstrate understanding of how authors choose these elements for particular purposes and effects;
  • demonstrate in the creation of their own print, non-print and multimodal texts an ability to make considered and informed choices about form, language, purpose, audience and context;
  • demonstrate an ability to use appropriate metalanguage to discuss their own and others’ texts;
  • identify and comment on the ideas or implied values that underpin texts;
  • recognise the relationship between language and ideas, and the role of language in developing the capacity to express ideas.

I don't have anything to add to that.



Choose words and phrases to express ideas precisely and concisely.

Aren't they embarrassed to cite this Ontario standard as a "counterpart?"

use a wide range of descriptive and evocative words, phrases, and expressions precisely and imaginatively to make their writing clear, vivid and compelling for their intended audience (e.g., replace general diction with concrete and specific language; use figurative language and literary and stylistic devices appropriately and effectively in a short story; review their writing for examples of imprecise or clichéd expressions, and replace them with more precise or imaginative wording, as appropriate)
Teacher prompt: "What effect are you trying to create in your short story - shock or delight? Which words create the effect? Could you use other words to heighten the effect?"

Let's Run this One Through the Deflavorizer


analyze the personality traits, roles, relationships, motivations, attitudes and values of characters developed/persons presented in literature and other texts; and explain how the use of archetypes can contribute to the development of other textual elements, such as theme

Common Core:

Analyze the traits, motivations, and thoughts of individuals in fiction and nonfiction based on how they are described, what they say and do, and how they interact.

OK, I can see trimming off the archetypes bit, but still, we're getting stuck with the crappily-worded knock off. Or perhaps this was lying around as an example of how to paraphrase without getting busted for plagiarism and got stuck in as a standard by mistake.

International Benchmarks: Ontario


Literacy development is a communal project, and the teaching of literacy skills is embedded across the Ontario curriculum. However, it is the English curriculum that is dedicated to developing the knowledge and skills on which literacy is based – that is, knowledge and skills in the areas of listening and speaking, reading, writing, and viewing and representing.

Language development is central to students’ intellectual, social, cultural, and emotional growth and must be seen as a key component of the curriculum. When students learn to use language, they do more than master the basic skills. They learn to value the power of language and to use it responsibly. They learn to express feelings and opinions and to support their opinions with sound arguments and evidence from research. They become aware of the many purposes for which language is used and the diverse forms it can take to serve particular purposes and audiences. They learn to use the formal language appropriate for debates and essays, the narrative language of stories and novels, the figurative language of poetry, the technical language of instructions and manuals. They develop an awareness of how language is used in different formal and informal situations. They come to understand that language is an important medium for communicating ideas and information, expressing world views, and realizing and communicating artistic vision. Students learn that language can be not only used as a tool but also appreciated and enjoyed.

Language is the basis for thinking, communicating, learning, and viewing the world. Students need language skills in order to comprehend ideas and information, to interact socially, to inquire into areas of interest and study, and to express themselves clearly and demonstrate their learning. Learning to communicate with clarity and precision will help students to thrive in the world beyond school.

Language is a fundamental element of identity and culture. As students read and reflect on a rich variety of literary, informational, and media texts,1 they develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others and of the world around them. If they see themselves and others in the texts they study, they will be more engaged in learning and they will also come to appreciate the nature and value of a diverse, multicultural society. They will develop the ability to understand and critically interpret a range of texts and to recognize that a text conveys one particular perspective among many.

Language skills are developed across the curriculum and, cumulatively, through the grades. Students use and develop important language skills as they read and think about topics, themes, and issues in various subject areas. Language facility helps students to learn in all subject areas, and using language for a broad range of purposes increases both their ability to communicate with precision and their understanding of how language works. Students develop flexibility and proficiency in their understanding and use of language over time. As they move through the secondary school program, they are required to use language with ever-increasing accuracy and fluency in an expanding range of situations. They are also expected to assume responsibility for their own learning and to apply their language skills in more challenging and complex ways.

The proposed US common standards for English fit in nicely as a small subset of Ontario's broader goals for the discipline.

International Benchmarks: New South Wales


English involves the study and use of language in its various textual forms, encompassing written, spoken and visual texts of varying complexity, including the language systems of English through which meaning is conveyed, interpreted and reflected.

The study of English enables students to recognise and use a diversity of approaches and texts to meet the growing array of literacy demands, including higher-order social, aesthetic and cultural literacy. This study is designed to promote a sound knowledge of the structure and function of the English language and to develop effective English communication skills*. The English Stage 6 courses develop in students an understanding of literary expression and nurture an appreciation of aesthetic values. Through reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and representing experience, ideas and values, students are encouraged to adopt a critical approach to all texts and to distinguish the qualities of texts. Students also develop English language skills to support their study at Stage 6 and beyond.

In Stage 6, students come to understand the complexity of meaning, to compose and respond to texts according to their form, content, purpose and audience, and to appreciate the personal, social, historical, cultural and workplace contexts that produce and value them. Students reflect on their reading and learning and understand that these processes are shaped by the contexts in which they respond to and compose texts.

The study of English enables students to make sense of, and to enrich, their lives in personal, social and professional situations and to deal effectively with change. Students develop a strong sense of themselves as autonomous, reflective and creative learners. The English Stage 6 syllabus is designed to develop in students the faculty to perceive and understand their world from a variety of perspectives, and it enables them to appreciate the richness of Australia’s cultural diversity.

The syllabus is designed to develop enjoyment of English and an appreciation of its value and role in learning.

The more of these I look at the more clear it is that the Common Core people just unilaterally redefined their assignment, without really telling anyone.

This one has a particularly nice definition of the discipline of English.

Looking at the Rest of the Common Standards Bibliography

There are several sources on "international benchmarking" of standards, which are all exclusively about math and science, not English. There is, however, a whole section on "Disciplinary Literacy Research," from which these standards are clearly drawn.

The question, then, is whether we want to narrow our standards from "English Language Arts" to merely "disciplinary literacy." From what I've gathered so far, no other country finds this sufficient. The idea that this represents raising standards to meet international norms is an utter joke.

International Benchmarks: Ireland


English at this level must excite students with aesthetic experiences and emphasize the richness of meanings and recreational pleasure to be encountered in literature and in the creative play of language. Students should be engaged with the voice of literature, learn to dialogue critically with it, and so come to understand its significance and value

An English course at Leaving Certificate must also be wide-ranging enough to accommodate not only vocational needs and further education, but also the life long needs of the students and the language demands, both oral and written, that are placed on them by the wider community.

In the US, we're considering an explicit move to "only vocational needs and further education." That's the plan.

International Benchmarks: Hong Kong

Comparing the proposed English standards for the United States of America to those of a little mercantilist dongle hanging off China is a stretch. And the scope of the Hong Kong English standards document is different from the others I've read so far, making comparisons difficult. For example:

The values that we develop underpin our conduct and decisions. They can be positive or negative in effect. Examples of positive values include honesty, self-esteem and perseverance. Examples of positive social values include equality, interdependence and tolerance. An example of a negative value is egocentricity.

Yeah... we're not going to be including that. Focusing on the curriculum, however:

The English Language Curriculum provides learners with learning experiences to increase their language proficiency for study, work, leisure and personal enrichment; develop their knowledge, skills, values and attitudes; and promote lifelong learning so as to enhance their personal and intellectual development, cultural understanding and global competitiveness.

Hong Kong perhaps could be excused for adopting purely utilitarian/economic goals for English language instruction. They don't. Their vision for English instruction is more expansive than the one proposed for America. Sad.

"Common Core" and Common Core

I'm sure that Common Core Inc. ( is annoyed that the Common Core State Standards Initiative pretty much stole their name. Well... not my problem. However, when I'm writing about "Common Core," assume I'm not talking about's response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative takes their usual cramped view of liberal arts. That is, they're really concerned with exactly what you're going to read, specificity, rigor, but can't bring themselves to comment on why you're reading and what you're going to do with it. Adding a literature canon to the Common Core State Standards Initiative would not turn it into a liberal arts curriculum.

This is part of the reason these English Language Arts standards are so out of line with international norms. Even an organization devoted to an energetic defense of the liberal arts can't bring themselves to suggest that, say, "an appreciation of the significance and artistry of literature" might be an appropriate goal in the English classroom, because it just seems too fruity for the USA.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NCTE Response to Common Core Standards

Not too bad. Even more galling than the Common Core'ers disregard for the overall critique is their rejection of smaller suggestions for improving the clarity and precision of specific standards, e.g.:

Section 1.A, Standards For Reading Informational and Literary Texts, Core Standards, #6

Current language: 6. Analyze the traits, motivations, and thoughts of individuals in fiction and nonfiction based on how they are described, what they say and do, and how they interact.

Proposed language: 6. Analyze the traits, motivations, and thoughts of individuals including the author, in narrative and expository texts, based on how they are described, what they say and do, and how they interact.

Rationale: The fiction/nonfiction distinction is problematic, since what is really meant here is text structure, not reference to reality. In many informational texts, the author is the only person available to analyze, and it is important for critical readers to do so, even (perhaps especially) in scientific texts.

Even that rewording is rather weak. You don't just analyze characters, personalities and authors based on the text itself, you need to make connections to prior knowledge outside the text to form interpretations.

International Benchmarks: Finland

I'll just pull this from an earlier post.


The pupils will learn to recognize the importance of aesthetic experiences to the quality of life.

Yeah, not the kind of thing we'll be valuing in Arne Duncan's future.

International Benchmarks: England

In England, there are four "core concepts that underpin the study of English:" competence, creativity, cultural understanding, and critical understanding. Since their definition of "critical understanding" is relatively narrow (like the Common Core's), I'd say the proposed Common Core standards hit half of England's core concepts.

Overall, if the Common Core people wanted their standards to be less of a joke without losing the stodgy tone (but with better graphic design, or any graphic design), they'd make them more like England's.

International Benchmarks: British Columbia

British Columbia (they're pretty verbose):

Society expects graduates to think critically, solve problems, communicate clearly, and learn and work both independently and with others. The English Language Arts 8 to 12 curriculum contributes to this outcome by providing a framework to help students

  • present and respond to ideas, feelings and knowledge sensitively and creatively
  • explore Canadian and world literature as a way of knowing, of developing personal values, and of understanding
  • learn about Canada's cultural heritage as expressed in language
  • use language confidently to understand and respond thoughtfully and critically to factual and imaginative communications in speech, print and other media
  • develop the reading and writing skill required of informed citizens prepared to face the challenges of further education and a changing workplace
  • express themselves critically, creatively, and articulately for a variety of personal, social, and work-related purposes
  • use language appropriate to the situation, audience, and purpose to become comfortable with a range of language styles, from public to personal, and from literary to standard business English
  • realize their individual potential as communicators

In the Common Core, you may analyze, but not critique in the sense it is meant in British Columbia or on a college campus. Solving problems? Feelings? Not here. We will, in the US, be able to "to take in and respond to the concepts and information," while in a group but I don't know if that is sufficient to "work with others."

Not only do we not care about Canadian literature, we won't care about American literature either, nor will we see literature as a "way of knowing," or "developing personal values." However, we might "Analyze the traits, motivations, and thoughts of individuals in fiction and nonfiction based on how they are described, what they say and do, and how they interact."

Express yourself creatively? For personal or social reasons? Meet your "individual potential?" No, we'll be going fewer and higher than that.

OK, that's enough for now...

International Benchmarks: Alberta

I guess I'll just go through these in order. I doesn't take long.


There are two basic aims of senior high school English language arts. One aim is to encourage, in students, an understanding an appreciation of the significance and artistry of literature. A second aim is to enable each student to understand and appreciate language and to use it confidently and competently for a variety of purposes, with a variety of audiences and in a variety of situations for communication, personal satisfaction and learning.

The Common Core omits the first aim entirely. Also, "personal satisfaction."

Which Standards Are These, Again?

One of the more hilarious/pathetic features of the Common Core draft standards is internal confusion about what subjects they're supposed to address. The website says "English Language Arts Standards." The linked PDF says "Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening" (yes, that's how it is phrased) and:

The Core Standards identify essential college- and career-ready skills and knowledge in reading, writing, and speaking and listening across the disciplines. While the English language arts classroom has often been seen as the proper site for literacy instruction, this document acknowledges that the responsibility for teaching such skills must also extend to the other content areas. Teachers in the social and natural sciences, the humanities, and mathematics need to use their content area expertise to help students acquire the discipline-specific skills necessary to comprehend challenging texts and develop deep knowledge in those fields. At the same time, English language arts teachers not only must engage their students in a rich array of literature but also must help develop their students’ ability to read complex works of nonfiction independently.

In any case, this illustrates the rushed, slip-shod nature of this effort, but it is particularly galling in the context of Race to the Top, where states are supposed to be making proposals about adoption of these standards on a very short timeline. What does it mean to adopt these standards ("identical" or "85%" ?)? If they are English Language Arts standards, they drastically constrain the scope of the discipline. If they aren't English Language Arts standards, are states expected to adopt separate English Language Arts standards? Are they allowed to?

Given that these standards are clearly meant to work in concert with data systems linking students to individual teachers and thus performance pay to individual teachers, does anybody care that the English standards as currently defined rule out attributing progress to individual teachers?

...the responsibility for teaching such skills must also extend to the other content areas...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What "Internationally Benchmarked" Means

At the risk of stereotyping, I'm going to guess that Singapore's approach to education in general, and English instruction in particular, is not very crunchy. So when I'm told these English standards are "internationally benchmarked," I already know how they compare to, say, Finland's progressive standards, but I figure I should also look at how they compare to what I imagine is a fairly conservative approach. It is a pretty easy analysis.


  • Language for Information
    As speaker, writer, reader, listener and viewer, the learner will access, retrieve, evaluate, apply and present information derived from print, non-print and electronic sources.
  • Language for Literary Response and Expression
    As speaker, writer, reader, listener and viewer, the learner will respond creatively and critically to literary texts, relate them to personal experience, culture and society, and use language creatively to express self and identity.
  • Language for Social Interaction
    As speaker, writer, reader, listener and viewer, the learner will use English effectively, both in its spoken and written form, to establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships, taking into account purpose, audience, context and culture.

Of these, the Common Core standards only address the first -- language for information. Arguably, language for social interaction is less applicable when English is the native tongue, but more alarmingly, we're proposing to virtually remove "language for literary response and expression" from our curriculum. I'm not going to spend the whole evening looking up reading and writing standards for the rest of the world, but I'd be shocked if any other country had the narrowness of vision to impose such barren, culturally-inert expectations on their own children.

The complete lack of a philosophical explanation of the Common Core standards is symptomatic of the underlying problem. These things have to slip under the radar without ruffling any feathers or raising any questions about whether they can be "objectively" assessed. It's pretty grim though. A high price to pay for the dubious virtue of uniformity, and a mockery of "international benchmarked," which I guess means we get a small gray subset of standards used elsewhere.

Ready to get into College Standards?

Which of these standards prepares you to write a good college entrance essay? A prospective student meeting the NECAP standards would kick the ass of someone merely meeting the core standards.

Which of these Standards were Drafted by Testing Companies?


Generates a personal response to what is read through a variety of means...

  • R–12–16.1 Comparing stories or other texts to related personal experience, prior knowledge, or to other books (Local)
  • R–12–16.2 Providing relevant details to support the connections made or judgments (interpretive, analytical, evaluative, or reflective) (Local)

Common Core:

Draw upon relevant prior knowledge to enhance comprehension, and note when the text expands on or challenges that knowledge.


Demonstrates the habit of reading widely and extensively...


No equivalent standard.


Demonstrates participation in a literate community by...


No equivalent.

Which is better preparation for college?

Giving Up On the Idea of "High School"

The proposed Common Core standards for English dovetail neatly with the new wave of interest in adolescent literacy. The implications of this in the current context make me a little queasy.

Combine a focus on literacy more in line with K-8, with a push for various kinds of early college, AP and dual-enrollment, and you start to crowd out the idea of high school entirely. I don't know...

I guess the biggest thing I'm on the look out for is structural changes which increase the advantages of test score driven approaches. From one point of view, any course stuffed between the end of literacy assessments and an the beginning of AP exams is a wasted year.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Like I Said, Artless

I think these are fair minimum graduation standards, but, as I expected, completely artless, a barren view of the discipline of English. Building a curriculum backwards from this point would be a grim exercise indeed.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Vivian Reads From The Very Silly Mayor

The Very Silly Mayor from Tom Hoffman on Vimeo.

She did go through it once with Mommy first. I definitely recommend Tom Tomorrow's first book for children, especially for school libraries in NYC and DC.

Yes I Can

Bill Maher:

New Rule: Democrats must get in touch with their inner asshole.

Glad I can do my part.

via Gary.

Storing Student Writing as Text Files

Mark Ahlness:

As of today, nine students are missing from a very long Room Twelve Alumni List, and that is the dream come true. I managed to transfer every word from their third grade blogs to their new fifth grade teacher's classroom blog. Every single blog post, comment, and conversation from their third grade writing experience is back with them, so their new teacher can to continue to facilitate and guide their growth as effective 21st century writers.

Tomorrow they finally rejoin that journey. I have dreamed about this happening for over four years, and I could not be happier.

The transfer of bodies of work like that, held in databases, referenced and hyperlinked all over the Internet, is no small feat. I held my breath as I sat next to their new, young, fifth grade teacher, each of us logged in to our classroom blogs. I went through the process of making students "orphans", making them available to their new teacher, and then watching him "adopt" them into his new classroom blog. Several came with over 50 pieces of writing. Not exactly like walking down a school hallway to offer a thick manila folder of writing samples to a cringing new teacher who may or may not ever look inside - never mind share with another person....

This transfer was unbelievably exciting - for both of us.

Back in the stone ages I advocated for blosxom-style blog engines for schools, where all posts would be stored as text files in the author's home directory on the school server. This is the right way to handle portability and archiving. Simple. Robust. Just zip up the files, take 'em wherever you need to go and unzip them when you get there. I was even briefly optimistic that this approach would gain some traction when blojsom was added to Mac OS Tiger Server.

It doesn't appear to be in Snow Leopard though, and I haven't heard much about schools going in this direction. Indeed, the buzz has moved in the opposite direction, into the cloud.

So... I dunno... this is the kind of thing which makes me less excited than I was six years ago. Technically, at least. OTOH, Mark and his kids are doing a great job.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Byte of the Apple

I spent a good chunk of the day reading A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, which Fordham put out a last year, but I missed at the time. A few thoughts.

After reading this book, you only have the barest hints of the existence of vendors in the educational data sphere. They recount at some length the failings of government bureaucracy and the inconveniences of politics, mis-aligned priorities, and annoyances like privacy concerns, but the role of commercial vendors, and the IT industry writ large in this woeful history is omitted. When projects go over budget, fail to meet user needs, and trap data in silos, it isn't always or exclusively the customers' fault. A casual read through A Byte of the Apple would suggest that many or most large education data projects are done entirely in house. How many are really? I don't know.

Given Fordham's ideological leanings, one can infer (as I believed going in) that most of this work is already done by private vendors, because otherwise Fordham would be calling for privatizing the educational data industry.

But if you are going to point out mis-aligned interests of actors, you need to include vendors, who have their own interests. Kenneth Wong misses this entirely. Nice job. It can be in a vendor's interest to limit the use of data in their systems. This is a significant part of the puzzle.

A couple authors touch on SIF, with some optimism. Of course, the further into the SIF world you get, both in terms of SIF politics and the actual technical implementation, the queasier one usually gets. I'm not saying SIF is bad, or that it doesn't work. But it is not nearly as good as it could be, in large part because of the parochial interests of key vendors, whose approach seems to be to maintain a large slice of a small pie, rather than a smaller piece of a large pie (where the size of the pie represents the number of schools using SIF). SIF occupies incredibly strategic territory in this discussion, and it seems destined to remain indefinitely in a limbo where it is not so good as to become very widely used and useful, but not so bad that anybody could generate the momentum to displace it.

The problem is that if you're going to write an 150 page book about educational data systems, with the intention of, you know, improving the field, you really ought to know enough to say, "SIF is ok, but actually not nearly good enough, and these geeks need a kick in the ass." Because they do. And if the authors of this book can't make that point, who will?

Educational data is a very technical subject, and the technical capacity of the authors of these papers is limited, and, quite frankly, circumscribed by class. These folks are too important to bother understanding how this stuff actually works, it is really just plumbing, so after a certain point, their analysis drops off a cliff. Unless you have a decent understanding of information architecture (or whatever you want to call it), you can't even perceive the cliff. But the problem with, say, the Data Quality Campaign, is that it only includes the simple, easy to understand and explain aspects of the problem. It doesn't even acknowledge the hard parts. And while on one hand you might want to start with the easy parts, fine, the hard parts will take a long time. The hard parts take as long to explain as the easy parts take to fix, and unfortunately, (almost) nobody is even trying to explain the hard parts, or acknowledge they exist, even when they write 150 page books on the subject.

I would be happy if instead of blowing pixie dust about "student data backpacks," Margaret Raymond would get in a little golf cart and ride over to the Stanford Center for Biomedical Informatics Research and write a little paper on concrete steps we can take to apply and emulate their work in education. They're really friendly.

Also, I'd note that their description of South Korea's comprehensive national open source administrative infrastructure, which I know too little about, is impressive, but of course leads to no recommendations of similar approaches here. Too pink for Fordham, I'd imagine.

Finally, Checker Finn's vision for how all this fits together in 2025 is just creepy:

All students carry PDAs (or cell phones) that communicate with tracking devices in the school, and Alexandra, a typical student, is no different. Using these devices as well as swipe-able ID cards, the activities that fill her day are entered into the school data system -- and, when warranted, flashed to teachers and parents. For example, each day the system calculates how much time Alexandra spends sitting and listening to the teacher, doing seat work, taking formative assessments using her PDA, reading independently, doing math problems at a computer, playing outside, etc. This information is used by teachers and analysts to determine how Alexandra might better use her time and the school's learning resources.

Look, this isn't abstract, because I'll have two girls in high school in 2025, and I don't want them going to that school. I don't want them living their lives that way. I don't want them to learn that constant electronic surveillance is necessary, normal or benign. Because it isn't. The authors do a pretty good job throughout the proceeding pages in arguing that privacy restrictions should be lessened, but Finn blows it for me with his vision of educational telescreens in every backpack.



Aside from the need for more stimulus, I don't think it's crazy to suggest that the US has underinvested in public infrastructure in recent years, and private investment was horribly misallocated towards real estate projects. A lot of public infrastructure isn't very exciting - things like fixing sewer systems - but still necessary.

They Insituformed the sewer on our street this week. Vivian thought it was pretty exciting, especially the steam coming out of the manholes last night. Combine that with the summer long project to remove the lead water lines in the neighborhood, and there's been a lot of machinery to entertain a toddler -- and stimulate the economy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Wacky Broad Prize

I find it weird that to win the Broad Prize not only do you not have to make AYP, but you don't need mayoral control, merit pay, TFA, or charter schools.

OTOH, you need do need a really strictly aligned curriculum. The fact that this strategy pursued over eight years, including four years as a Broad finalist, has not raised the graduation rate enough to meet AYP is not relevant.


Interesting Take on EFCA

Labor Notes:

Sandy Pope heads a local of dozens of small Teamster shops around New York City. Unlike most, she’s not sorry card check won’t be part of EFCA. Pope says card check could make it almost too easy to get recognition: “It would allow people to hide from taking responsibility for getting the union in, and then when there’s a fight to get a good contract, you don’t have a group that’s battle-tested at all, there’s no group cohesion, no momentum.”

Wouldn’t EFCA’s provision for arbitration of first contracts take care of that? Pope explodes, “That’s another way to avoid going through organizing the workers! ‘Let’s make this legalistic so we don’t have to talk to the peons at all.’ I want to have to do that part. I just don’t want people to get fired.”

To that end, Pope and others strongly back the EFCA provision for injunctions to put illegally fired union supporters back to work. And she’d like to see a new clause now floated by Washington negotiators: expedited elections.

A short election period is valuable, she says, because the organizing committee can hang on without getting disheartened. Her method is to organize the vast majority of the workforce to visit the boss as a group and demand recognition. If that won’t fly, they seek an election on the spot or the next week.

Nobody Could Have Anticipated 50% of the Students Leaving

Boston school officials during the 2007-08 school year publicly voiced their concerns after approximately 25 percent of seniors at MATCH Charter School departed for Boston public schools, with some students showing up just a few weeks before graduation.

Just for a reminder, MATCH is the school in Boston that has a residence on the third floor for a cadre of recently graduated from college tutors in addition to their regular teaching staff, so this is pretty much the maximal example of what you can do with a full court press of TFA types.

Also, they've got the flashy "at least 2 AP and 2 university classes" to graduate from high school requirement, which obviously explains a lot of the transfer rate. It is a stupid stunt, the the results were completely predictable.

BTW, if the Common Core standards go through, will individual schools be allowed to have graduation requirements significantly in excess of them in English and Math? If so, what's the point?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Did Not Know That 4.0

So... the new Did You Know? seems to have dropped its creeping yellow hoard approach to one focused more on media, which is a definite improvement. Still, I have to call bullshit on the second slide:

It is easier than ever to reach a large audience, but harder than ever to really connect with it.

Really? It used to be easier to really connect with a large audience? By what definition of "really connect?" This is true for the people who run television networks. Who else? Does The Economist find it harder to connect with a large audience than it did in 1990 when they used these slogans?

"The Economist - not read by millions of people."

"Never in the history of journalism has so much been read for so long by so few,"

Their global sales have doubled since 1997. Are they actually finding it harder to "really connect?"

I didn't make it any farther than that.

How One is Brought into the Mutual Backscratching Society


Readying for a DC trip for the Broad Prize with trips to and as well

h/t to Sherman Dorn.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Gov 2.0 Speech I'd Like to Hear

Instead of the oh so bland "Data Driven Measurement of Education Practices," I'd like to hear Brad Jupp explain why educational data has been such a mess up to this point and why it will be different in the future. Or will we just be giving more money to the people who got us in this mess in the first place, to do the same things?

Ushra'Khan Bashes Unaffiliated in Alliance Tournament Round II

TVA: Step 3 -- PROFIT!

Tom Vander Ark:

Here’s what should happen next:

· Set standards: a consortium (like School of One, Achieve, iNACOL, COSN, and CCSSO) should set standards for digital content in chunks ranging from short objects and lessons to longer units and courses.

Is TVA aware of the decade or more of work that has already gone into this problem? More importantly, is he aware that despite numerous well-funded global initiatives, the net results are as inviting as a cup of lukewarm spit (or is that why he doesn't mention them)? Has Achieve ever shown the slightest interest in taking on this kind of technical work? If they have, there's nothing on their website to show for it. Does iNACOL, COSN or CCSSO have any capacity whatsoever to do this kind of work? No.

Does TVA have any idea how hard this step is? You're not only talking about the kind of complex technical specifications which, quite frankly, almost never work, but what you're trying to specify is the process of educating a human child from early childhood to adulthood. To have a meaningful standard, you have to have a shared understanding of that process. Good luck with that.

Beyond that, you need to find a group of people with a very advanced understanding of information architecture, educational statistics, pedagogy and politics to do difficult, thankless, incredibly boring work for little reward.

Nonetheless, I'd say, oh, $50 million dollars and five years would get you a good start on the foundations of a solution, if you at least bound the problem to US K-12 education as it usually implemented and build on existing solutions. That's assuming that 2/3rds of the work will be completely useless, which, based on history, is probably optimistic. You definitely can't move faster than that, no matter how much you spend.

The big problem is that for your $50 million all you get is a stack of arcane technical specs and, if you're doing it right, which in the US you almost certainly are not, a set of open source reference implementations for various platforms.

OTOH, the gold star in this work in US K-12 goes to Jes & Co. They've stuck with this stuff through thick and thin. Someone should give them $50,000,000. Since they don't go to the same dinner parties as TVA, apparently, this is probably unlikely.

· Tagging scheme: Then they should develop a tagging scheme by theme, modality, and use license.

Not to seem picky, but if you're going to call this "tagging," (" a tag is a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information") you're going to reveal how little you understand about what's really involved here. "Tagging" is by definition flat, simple, ad-hoc. It is an insufficient approach to the problem, which requires formal, hierarchical and/or networked specifications. It is hard, and that's why it hasn't been successfully done on a large scale, not because it hasn't been tried. We need protégé for education, not tags.

Let me give you an example: you need to look at an online assessment given to a child six years ago. Since then the standards used by the school have changed twice (new state standards two years later, new federal standards last year), and the technical standards for specifying both the assessment itself and describing the academic standards have also both been revised. Your "tags" have to be able to translate the old data into a form meaningful in the current context. I can almost tell you what you'd have to do to make this work, but it would make you want to stick pins in your eyes. Also, it probably wouldn't actually work.

· Keep moving: in the mean time, School of One should keep chugging along and expanding their pilot with their own framework—we need more next gen examples fast!

· Issue RFP: Groups of districts, states, and networks should issue RFPs for content and producers (or intermediaries) would tag and submit their content. Some RFPs could be entirely open, others a mix of open and proprietary. Some RFPs would be at the learning object level, others may only ask for units and courses.

· Develop pay mechanism: It will eventually be possible to create a series of micro-transactions to pay producers based on use and learning gain.

Micro-transactions? 1998 is on the phone, they want their failed ideas back. In particular, how would this work in a School of One like system? Is a school going to install an black box AI to decide if a student happens to need paid resources from vendors and automatically charge the district?

· Fund service economy: A service economy of taggers, repositories, recommendation engines, assessment providers, next gen LMSs, social learning networks, PD and SES providers, and school improvement services would spring to life with venture. Philanthropic, and i3 support.

It is going to take a LOT of up front investment to get to this. And time, and I just don't see who has the stomach for it. Certainly TVA didn't when he was sitting on the money pot.

This is a lot more difficult than iTunes, but it’s time for an ascendant platform like that and it will only happen with a handful of influential folks set standards and folks that control access to markets to issue forward leaning requests for content. The process outlined above would break out of the flat boring choices we have today and usher in the next generation of engaging personalized content. Alex Kozak’s “open trajectory of learning” would be accelerated by a set of standards and an online economy where open and proprietary content could flourish together. Then everyone would have access to a real School of One.

It is amazing to me that someone would write something like this on a blog promoting his own consulting services, although I guess to be a successful consultant you only need to know a tiny bit more than your clients. Kind of like a teacher staying one chapter ahead of his literature class.

This seems like the kind of problem we will eventually have to solve. I'm beginning to doubt that.

Later... Alternately, IMS and particularly Common Cartridge might be way further along and generally awesome for US K-12 than I think. I doubt it though.

The Demands of the 21st Century Economy


American perestroika really boils down to this: we have to rescale the activities of daily life to a level consistent with the mandates of the future, especially the ones having to do with available energy and capital. We have to dismantle things that have no future and rebuild things that will allow daily life to function. We have to say goodbye to big box shopping and rebuild Main Street. More people will be needed to work in farming and fewer in tourism, public relations, gambling, and party planning. We have to make some basic useful products in this country again. We have to systematically decommission suburbia and reactivate our small towns and small cities. We have to prepare for the contraction of our large cities. We have to let the sun set on Happy Motoring and rebuild our trains, transit systems, harbors, and inland waterways. We have to reorganize schooling at a much more modest level. We have to close down most of the overseas military bases we're operating and conclude our wars in Asia. Mostly, we have to recover a national sense of common purpose and common decency. There is obviously a lot of work to do in the list above, which could translate into paychecks and careers -- but not if we direct all our resources into propping up the failing structures of yesterday.

I think that's a more likely scenario than "in the future we'll all be web designers," although if I had to bet it would be on "in the future, we'll all be dental hygienists."

Must Reading for Advocates of "Social Networks" in Schools

Andy Oram: RSS never blocks you or goes down: why social networks need to be decentralized.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Sociopathic Indifference to Urban School Reform Looks More Appealing All Time


But progressives can’t adopt an attitude of sociopathic indifference merely in order to strengthen our bargaining position, because refusing to adopt such an attitude is part of what it means to be progressive.

Federalizing State Education Policy

Leaving aside most of the actual policies in Commissioner Gist's Transforming RI Education: Our Five Priorities, it is depressing just how generic it is. It doesn't reflect Rhode Island's specific issues at all. It's just Race to the Top boilerplate.

Priority one in RI for state education policy has to be a fair and equitable funding formula for state aid to districts. Actually, that's number two. Number one is any predictable funding formula. Fairness would be a bonus, but I'd take being predictably and consistently screwed than the annual circus we have now. This is not only a huge problem it is actually a state-level issue, so it is an appropriate focus for state leadership. And yes, it is in the longer report, but it should be at the top, not the bottom.

Also, "Establish World Class Standards and Assessments?" We just got done doing that, with specific praise from Duncan for being leaders in multi-state collaboration on NECAP. By my count, since NCLB started, Providence has operated under three different sets of standards. For better or worse, the district is 100% committed to rolling out a full curriculum aligned to the current standards and in the middle of that process. Changing again would be a disaster.

With state policy like this, we might as well just turn the operation over to the feds. Or maybe cut out the middle man and let the Broad Foundation run things directly.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What Can You Do With This: StarLogo

When I saw Dan's What I Would Do With This: Groceries post, I immediately thought StarLogo. EToys would work too, but StarLogo is perfectly optimized for this kind of thing -- modeling complex systems -- and with Dan we want to respect The Rule of Least Power.

Even thinking these thoughts is painful and depressing, so I just left a short, bitter, cryptic comment:

In 2009, the easiest way for kids to approach this problem should be by writing a computer program. Of course it isn’t for myriad reasons, including kids not having computers handy. Also, it isn’t clear that solving the problem that way is “math.”

To which josh g responded.:

Tom: Is programming any better of an option in this case than using Excel? I like coding stuff but I don’t see the advantage here, other than building programming literacy (which is good, but not “easier”).

This is a good point, as I tend to forget spreadsheets exist, but also, I didn't read Dan's post that carefully and was thinking more about what I would do with it than Dan was.

Basically StarLogo is Logo with lots of independently acting turtles, instead of the traditional one turtle drawing lines. So in this case you'd create some customer turtles with a value for the number of items they've got and a "done" flag, and some checkout turtles which remove the items from a customer and flag them as done at a certain rate (based on Dan's observations), and an attached queue, and then you just run the thing as a simulation.

Just getting this basic simulation running is the biggest, and it is not hard if you know some StarLogo already, hard if you don't. StarLogo nirvana is when it is used repeatedly over a period of years (you could easily use it 5-12) in different subjects. Not so much as a one off. I'm not sure if anyone has actually achieved StarLogo nirvana.

Once you've got the core simulation working (and you could just provide it to the kids to speed the whole process up), then you can experiment in endless ways with relatively little programming. See how the whole system flows depending on how the turtles pick their lines. Study the effect of line-switching strategies. Measure the satisfaction of individual customers based on wait time. Try to maximize the average satisfaction. Try to minimize high dissatisfaction. Try one feeder line for all the registers, different cut-off points for express, etc, etc.

So that's what I'd want to do with it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Mau-Mauing the Department of Education

I'd been trying to figure out how the right would paint Obama's business model education policy as "socialism," but frankly, I was stumped. Last week we saw one of their workarounds -- the silly speech kerfuffle.

The question is how will this mau-mauing affect the Ed.Dept. going forward (if at all), and what does it tell us how the Republican base will react to the next round of federal education legislation?

Before moving to PVD, Jennifer and I grew up and worked in the world of rural school reform, which is base liberal Democrats against base conservative Republicans. When we got here, urban school reform was more or less base liberal Democrats vs. a free-floating and omnipresent inertia and malaise. Now it is more like the labor wing of the Democratic party against the corporate wings of the Democrats and Republicans, with the racial politics jumbled and the Republican base abstaining -- urban education is not their problem.

The foundation jokers at the Ed.Dept. haven't been ganked by the right's Mighty Wurlizter before. How will bureaucrats react? Will the corporate right try to rein in the base? Can they? Will the Republicans in congress deviate from their policy of blocking everything to pass an Obama-supported education bill that mirrors their vision? Will that placate their base or make it even more frenzied? Can NCLB 2 be passed over the objections of both the liberal and conservative bases? Time will tell.

Monday, September 07, 2009


Ushra'Khan wins in round one of the seventh alliance tournament over Gentlemen's Club:

How To Not Get Your Blog Hacked

Maciej Cegłowski:

Recently an exploit has surfaced in WordPress, a popular kind of blog software. If you run WordPress on a public server, an attacker can get full access to your site and do nasty things, up to and including deleting all your data. If you listen to the WordPress people, the answer to this is 'be extremely zealous about updating your software', which is the same as saying, devote half your life to learning and understanding WordPress administration.

If you listen to me, the answer is much simpler. Do not run this kind of software on a public server. Either host your blog with a competent centralized site (like LiveJournal or Blogger) that takes the burden of upgrading, backing up and patching off your hands, or use whatever personal publishing software you like (WordPress, Movable Type, and so on), but keep it on a local machine.

You can use a program like wget or curl to generate a flat HTML version of your website from this local version, and then upload these files to your public server to share them with the world. Now there is no way you can get hacked, because your server is just serving static files. As a bonus, you don't have to worry about your site ever going down because of database problems or excessive load. And as another bonus, you now have a remote backup of your blog.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Ushra'Khan on the Move

Ushra'Khan (and allied) fleet moving our heavy alliance assets (think, many space stations stuffed into immense freighters) to a new base of operations. About 130 pilots participated in this fleet, which was sufficiently secret that I had no idea it was taking place until after the fact. You're looking at literally thousands of dollars worth of internet space ships in that shot.

Think "Favela-Chic Education" Not "Disrupting Class"

Bruce Sterling:

*I’m kind of taking this guy’s point about the crushing economic factors here, but I don’t understand why these online educationaly enterprises even need to *pretend* to be a “college.” If we’re really looking at Clayton Christensen style “disruption,” we ought to be abandoning the whole idea of “education,” of degrees, schooling, grades, papers, publishing, theses, doctorates, any of that.

*You just get on line and you start messing with stuff. At some point, the other practitioners notice you and start linking to you. And they buy stuff from you, or they praise you for what you are doing. And then you know that you know it. And that’s an end to it.

*Maybe somebody could invent some formal tests for you, if they were all worried about it. Otherwise, what the heck: bring on the rocket-science and the brain surgery! Got all the instructables you can eat!

*Of course we’re not “formally educated,” but given that we’re living in a re-purposed car showroom in some wildfire-flaming barrio in East Los Angeles, who cares about that? You can’t *make us* care. You are Main Stream Education and you are so over.

Perhaps today I'll finish my stalled post on The Caryatids.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

I'm Going to have this Graph Tatooed to my Chest

Aaron Pallas at GothamSchools:

I Don't Know Where The Union Got That Idea

LA Times:

Union leaders characterized (the reform plan) as a right wing-inspired privatization scheme that could destabilize public education.

(4 paragraphs earlier)

The reform plan will be overseen by newly arrived district official Matt Hill, whose $160,000 salary is paid by the foundation of philanthropist Eli Broad. Hill's staff expenses are likely to be covered in part by a $4.3-million grant from Los Angeles sports executive Casey Wasserman. Both donors have given money to charter schools, and Broad has said he hopes charters will gradually dismantle L.A. Unified, which he considers beyond hope for rapid improvement.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Challonge! My cousin David's free web app to generate single and double elimination tournament brackets. Very nice design.

Accountability Crumbles Into Incoherence

The incoherence of Joel Klein's improvement/disassembly approach in NYC is all too apparent in GothamSchool's summary of the 2009 progress reports for elementary and middle schools. Just read the whole thing.

It is a mess, and these guys won the Broad Prize two years ago, so if they're not doing it right (on their own terms, by their own definitions), who is? That is to say, is fixing schools without closing them the correct answer?

Why shouldn't there be a moratorium on closing any school getting a B or above? Doesn't this prove no additional changes are needed to the contract? Problem solved? Oh wait, actually, all the data we've been collecting is inaccurate, you're still failing. Do-over! See, the schools are really failing, so our plan to close them will still be a success!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Nice Ideas, We Should Try Them

A few quotes from a "Governing Body Guide" for South African schools I was skimming through for work:

The governance of a public school is entrusted to a democratically elected governing body which stands in a position of trust to the school...
It is important to note that it is government policy is to invite union representatives to attend all working meetings of the interview committee. However, these persons attend the meetings as observers only. They are there to ensure that the correct procedures are followed, that the process is fair, and that the interview committee is accountable to the school community.

The US, of course, is marching rapidly away from these kind of ideas.