Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bloom-Washing and the Bad Man Theory

I've finished my benchmarking of CC standard R.2, and have been mulling over my conclusions at this point in the process. I've come up with two things:

  • Bloom-washing: In the IT world, there are standard benchmarking suites. You run a standard set of calculations, etc. on different hardware or software to see which is objectively fastest. Which of course leads to optimizations/cheating specific to the benchmark tasks (see also Campbell's Law). We're used to thinking about how curriculum can be overly-focused on "teaching to the test," but there is also the question of whether the standards themselves are manipulated to score higher on common methods of evaluating the rigor of curriculum.

    For example, one common tool for "objectively" assessing the complexity of the tasks in a set of standards is Bloom's Taxonomy, which focuses on a set of verbs, with an increasing presumption of rigor and sophistication. This is the revised (2000) version:

    • Remembering
    • Understanding
    • Applying
    • Analyzing
    • Evaluating
    • Creating

    The unique feature of standard R.2 compared to its counterpart standards from outside the US is its call for students from seventh grade on to "analyze the development" of central ideas or themes in a text. That is, most high-performing province, nation or special administrative district has an outcome that asks students to identify the main and supporting ideas. What is unique about the Common Core is the requirement to "analyze the development." So... why?

    Determining the central idea or theme is, I would argue, an "understanding" task, as is summary. In the vast majority of cases, I can't see why "remembering" or "understanding" is not sufficient to describing the "development" of the theme or main idea. For almost all "informational texts," the development of the main idea is no different than a summary of the text. For most literary texts, it is a fairly linear process. If you've determined the theme, you should be able to come up with a sequence of citations related to the theme. In a small number of cases, this is much more complex. You can easily get a master's thesis over the development of themes in Hamlet, but mostly "analysis" isn't necessary to this task, which is why other outcomes don't use the term.

    It is becoming increasingly clear that the most common assessment of this standard in high-stakes tests will be a two part multiple choice question, asking the student to identify the theme or main idea and select passages which contribute to its development. Is this "analysis" more than "understanding" and "recall?"

    If you ask me, "analyze the development" is in R.2 to get a higher score on Bloom's and other simplistic analyses of standards, which in the end is mostly harmless, but certainly obscures and complexifies the plain meaning of the standards.

    While we're at it, here's a gem of an example task from Appendix B:

    Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot. [RL.8.2]

    Can someone diagram that sentence for me?

  • The Bad-Man Theory: I learned about this concept last week on Fred Hess's blog! According to USLegal.com:

    Bad-man theory is a jurisprudential doctrine or belief, according to which a bad person's view of the law represents the best test of what exactly the law is because that person shall carefully and precisely calculate what the rules allow and operate up to the rules' limits.

    This nicely encapsulates the difference in tone between the Common Core standards and its counterparts from outside the US. The Common Core standards in many ways big and small, from imposing percentages of "informational text" and valid ranges of automated measures of textual complexity, to including requirements that "two or more" central ideas or themes must be found by 11th and 12th graders, assumes that teachers, parents, assessment developers and other actors are all trying to undermine their vision, and seeks to predict and block their routes. The authors of curricula in high-performing provinces, nations and special administrative districts simply do not take this approach.

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