Saturday, June 16, 2012

Responding to the #PARCC ELA Framework: Modern Times All Over Again

I can't think well inside the little boxes PARCC provides as they ask for bits, not wholes, so I am doing it here and then posting it via the PARCC response form.

Some considerations as I read the PARCC 'MODEL' Frameworks for Grades 3 -11 (The Testing Years)

1. I appreciate that a range of texts and independent reading during and after school are emphasized. They write:
In addition, all students need access to a wide range of materials on a variety of topics and genres in order to develop their knowledge and joy of reading. Students’ classrooms and school libraries need to provide this wide array of texts to ensure that students have opportunities to independently read texts of their own choosing during and outside of the school day.
I would add that these texts need to not only be diverse with regard to topic, genre--but also with regard to authorship and circumstance.  They K-3 stories that are CCSS exemplars are not diverse. This is problematic.We should seek to be inclusive and the CCSS has failed to do this with regard to K-3 exemplars, especially stories children will actually read.  I would also add that the Internet is a main basis for text (visual, written, auditory, multimodal) and perhaps this was intended in the statement. 

2.  With regard to writing, I appreciate the emphasis on multiple types of text to be authored but think it limiting, if not sophomoric, to impose percentages.
The Model Content Frameworks are organized with the expectation that students will respond to high-quality, text-dependent prompts about what they have read by framing a debate or informing the reader about what they have learned through writing.
Learning how to compose expository, argumentative, and narrative texts-- and to conduct and compose research are important.  The issue though is that once percentages of text type one will author is put into play--agency and intention, which  not only fuel all good writing but represent important skills, become limited. The child is not writing to compel another to do or think in a particular way because she or he desires to do so, but rather because it is the PARCC assignment.   Such writing is aimed for the shredder and the child learning to write needs to have critical experiences that are meaningful, not simply dutiful.

What I find odd is the separation of these text types into discrete categories.  It would seem more sophisticated that as students progress as writers that they be given more,  not limited choice to use what they have learned in the crafting of important texts, not specific types of text. I would prefer that the emphasis shift from prescribed percentages to meaning and intention. Truly, the 'career and college ready' learner needs agency, alongside skill.  Imposing strict percentages reduces thinking, agency, and the very skill that the CCSS purports to be building. Isn't it idiotic to have to be in the position of telling 15-years-olds what types of text to write?  Isn't that a good percentage of the task?  What is it you have to say? What means/method would best represent the content?  And finally, how will you pull others to your message?  These are critical aspects of composing.

3. The PARCC Framework is based on an input-output model that situates learning as simple. Take a look at this opening:
The Model Content Framework Chart reflects the integrated nature of reading, writing and research (as illustrated by the arrows connecting them). Each module suggests both the number and types of texts that students read and analyze. Students then write about these texts either to express an opinion/make an argument or to inform/explain.
Who are these automaton students?

Now add: year after year after year after year as this structure is unyielding and the 'centerpiece' to this framework. Is this what it means to be literate?  Is this the 'recipe' to awaken lives? Could anything be duller?  More predictable? More contrary to understanding curiosity as habit? What arrogance does it take to assume you know the number and types of texts that a child in Ringwood, NJ or Benton, AL or Cold Spring, KY should read and that the number and type of text will remain the same across geographies, intentions, and time?  Why would one even bother with such an intention?

Contrast the predictability of learner behavior assumed by the Framework writers with Tony Wagner's description of innovators:

...innovators must consistently act different to think different (p.16).
4. The PARCC Framework situates reading as a task of extracting information and that the text is the sole source for such activity.  Further they understand the purpose of reading is to understand central ideas and key supporting details.

They write:
Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details.
The preposition 'on' is a curious choice--not in and certainly not between (text and reader). Directing student attention on the text itself may or may not empower as empowerment rests not in the text but as Louise Rosenblatt eloquently penned years ago, in the transaction between the reader and the text. You cannot dismiss the reader if a goal is to compose meaning. That is where the poem is made: between (not on) the reader and the text.  Similarly, dismissing the text which has been a practice in classrooms is equally foolish and Rosenblatt writes about this in the last chapters in The Reader, The Text The Poem.  It isn't all text or no text.  It is about the blending of both and the agency and knowledge to know how to do this. We cannot make another empowered. That is colonial thinking. Empowerment is accompanied by agency. 

The second half of the equation: to understand the central ideas and key supporting details at first seems like a fine and solid idea and it is.  I like to understand when I read too, although truth be told, I especially like to struggle with thorny ideas and have come to understand that there are texts whose meaning I partially am able to compose.  It is this understanding that seems to be missing from the Framework. Truly dense texts (and again density is co-determined by text structure/topic/language and reader) are ones we don't understand completely.  They are ones we return to across time because we are compelled to do so.  I was reminded earlier that today is Bloomsday--that celebration of James Joyce's Leopold Bloom.  I have read/reread Ulysses and can say that whole sections of it still baffle and confuse me and I see this bafflement not as a deficit, but as an opening.  It is opening possibilities, we need to engender at school.  Limiting reading as the extraction of central ideas and their requisite key supporting details is what test makers seek to do.  It is not what readers live.  Children need to understand and experience that meaning evolves alongside experiences.  We are more than big heads on little bodies.

5. Thinking requires getting lost along the way and that the way is largely nomadic if the learning is going to be spectacular, not merely mediocre.

The PARCC authors say:
Once each source is read and understood, students can give attention to integrating what they have recently read with readings they have previously encountered and knowledge they have previously acquired.
Misconceptions form right alongside more clarified understandings and sometimes it is the author of a text who is misinformed. Schema doesn't work like simple addition and tacit dimensions of understanding aren't limited to what can be codified.  Once again, an overly simple model of input-output poorly characterizes complex ways we actually make meaning with and without written/visual text. 

6. Grammar.  The PARCC authors write:
While grammar is meant to be a normal, everyday part of what students do, students should be taught explicit lessons in grammar as they read, write and speak, guided by L.3.1–3.
I do not actually understand what "a normal, everyday part" means.  This needs to be revised so a reader can better understand the intention.

7. Once the reading and writing sections are introduced, the framework reads like a hodgepodge of lifted ideas that are partial. The discussion of grammar and vocabulary seem abrupt and the references to researchers makes me wonder if the PARCC authors actually read what they cited. For example, the reference to the article by Constance Weaver alongside the call for explicit grammar lessons makes me wonder what 'explicit' actually means in practice. Likewise selecting 'tier 1, 2, and 3 words' is method to identify potential vocabulary words, but should not be confused with a method for teaching vocabulary or for understanding of how vocabulary is acquired.

Overall the PARCC Framework is disappointing in that it is so narrow and extreme and that it calls itself a model should give us all pause.  Overly simple, it confuses making a plan with teaching and learning. Input-output mdoels are great if you want to produce widgets a century ago.  Beneath the finery of the repeated use of the phrase, close reading, the banal is present as student as worker is what is being 'produced.'

Student as thinker requires uncertainty, randomness, agency, poetry. Enacted, the PARCC Framework will not produce more critical readers and writers, but rather will continue the poor practice of mistaking the formula for the lived and critiqued experience.

Contrast the predictable and repetitive structure of PARCC Model Frameworks with what Mitch Resnick from MIT Media Lab has to say about innovation and learning (as quoted by Wagner, p. 182) and then tell me if you think following the Framework will yield innovators:
"The key to success in the future is not what you know, but whether you are able to think and act creatively,” Mitch said. “Here at the lab, we take our inspiration from the ways people learn in kindergarten, where kids have opportunities to create, design, and build collaboratively. The best way to develop creativity is to design and create things in collaboration with one another. We also find that people do their best work when they are working on things that they care deeply about—when it’s their passion. Finally, the work here almost invariably leads our students to cross academic boundaries, just like in kindergarten where finger painting is also about learning how colors mix, which is science, and often the kids will write a story about their painting as well. 
“The challenge is to set up systems that allow students to follow their interests. People tend to dichotomize approaches in education: The teacher is either telling students what to do, or standing back and letting them figure it out. I think that’s a false choice: The issue is not structure versus no structure, but rather creating a different structure. Students need to be exposed to new ideas and learn how to persist. They also need support.”

Works Cited
Wagner, Tony (2012-04-17). Creating Innovators [Enhanced eBook]. Scribner. Kindle Edition.


  1. I'm struck by the thought that the authors of the framework are assuming that the texts being presented to students, all along the way from 3rd-11th grades, will be exactly within their capabilities--exactly the next thing they can do, so no worries, no errors, no re-do needed. No explorations, either, and no bird walks. A-ah, B-buh, C-cuh, D-duh... Really? Have they ever even seen a kid learn something?

  2. I think the idea is that the standards represent common outcomes. How learners get there (or in some cases stall there) is up to the schools.


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