Monday, May 14, 2012

They Are Trying to be Smarter, and It Just Makes the Task Stupider

Alice Mercer:

Looking through the sample performance task is like looking at Common Core in general. It’s a hodge-podge. Some of the tasks are great and could be “world-class”, some are the same-old, and some remind me of the Pineapple Race test passage, in that they are trying to be smarter, and it just makes the task stupider. My notes are in italics, make of it what you will:

Sample Performance Tasks for Informational Texts (Fourth and Fifth Grade)

Students explain how Melvin Berger uses reasons and evidence in his book Discovering Mars: The Amazing Story of the Red Planet to support particular points regarding the topology of the planet. [RI.4.8]
Since the text is not included in the exemplars, I can’t tell if there is something gripping about it that would make it compelling for students. I’m also trying to figure out what the idea here. Is it to learn about the topology of Mars, or how scientists determine points about Mars topology? It’s still better than this next task…

Students identify the overall structure of ideas, concepts, and information in Seymour Simon’s Horses (based on factors such as their speed and color) and compare and contrast that scheme to the one employed by Patricia Lauber in her book Hurricanes: Earth’s Mightiest Storms. [RI.5.5]
This is really comparing apples and oranges. Why would you want to compare these classification systems? If you’re going to teach them about classifying hurricanes, shouldn’t you be teaching them about “official” scales, instead of a “scheme employed” by one author? What are they learning about content matter when you teach this? It’s a central weakness of the standards in that they want to be content relevant, but without content standards, they just seem to vaguely point to science and social studies, and to have tasks that involve high level thinking about stuff that is often banal, and has NO connection to the big ideas of the subject. It replicates all the worst tendency of Open Court’s coverage of science and social studies by creating a paint-the-wall-by-polka-dots curricula.

People are starting to pick up on the idea that the Common Core encourages more "informational texts." And close reading. That the Common Core places a heavy emphasis on close reading of informational texts, due to its own "backward engineering" and rigid structure, hasn't quite sunk in. Never mind that close reading is primarily used for literature, unusually literary non-fiction (like the Gettysburg Address) or perhaps dense argument.

Thus, in the first example above, the idea is not to learn about the content, it is to study how the author has structured the text.

In the second example, you're studying the use of classification systems as structural elements in informational text. And you are going to be doing a lot of that kind of thing.

This is very plainly explained in the text of the standards and supporting documents like those Alice is citing, but it is still difficult for teachers to wrap their heads around, because it makes no god damned sense to make this kind of structural analysis a central objective for 5th graders. But there it is.

Just for comparison, Finland's "description of good performance at the end of fifth grade:"

The pupils' skills in interpreting and utilizing various texts will have developed so that they

  • achieve a fluent basic reading proficiency
  • know how to use strategies to improve reading comprehension
  • know the main phases of information acquisition
  • are used to utilizing the library and capable of searching for the information they need in printed and electronic sources
  • find the main elements in texts in which there are words, sound, and illustration
  • distinguish opinion in age-appropriate texts and consider the text's dependability and meaning for themselves
  • use their reading skills for both benefit and fun

This is why you won't see international benchmarks for Common Core ELA.


Leroy's Mom said...

I definitely stand by those being lousy, and agree with your analysis of them not being world class (I don't even think they're second class, lol). But, I'm curious...what did you think of this one, which I liked:
Students compare and contrast a firsthand account of African American ballplayers in the Negro Leagues to a secondhand account of their treatment found in books such as Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, attending to the focus of each account and the information provided by each. [RI.4.6]
This I like, because it hits an important point about differences in first and second-hand accounts in history. Still, pre-Civil War and Reconstruction text would be more in keeping with the content standards.

Tom Hoffman said...

It seems ok to me... although the problem is you'll presumably be doing that A LOT during the 4th grade year.