Something is wrong in education that no one can fix. A new innovation promises to deliver the solution to wipe out this problem.
As educators, we just need to get on board with the new, shiny, and nicely packaged new solution so that are students can finally achieve.
This is the phenomenon that I have dubbed: The New Shiny Pretty.
In almost two decades as a public school educator, I have seen instructional reform models, new standards, and shifts in assessments numerous times. Each time, a new focus is lauded as the great savior of education, or the long awaited answer for the achievement gap. In fact, I have gotten pretty good at reading through the rhetoric and sorting out exactly what is just a new name for an old idea and shuffling what I used to do, to call it whatever The New Shiny Pretty has determined is the new name for what we are already doing.
My natural inclination when I heard about the new Common Core Standards was to assume that it was time for the latest and greatest New Shiny Pretty and that this was it. I resisted doing much more than printing the standards and reading over them few times. As an English teacher, this seemed like what we did. Honestly, how much can reading change? It is reading, writing, and language. The New Shiny Pretty might label the parts differently, but the parts were still the same. As I began my usual process of sorting out where the new and old lined up, I kept coming to roadblocks. Some of the skills that had persevered through other reforms seemed to be missing. Some of the new skills used language that I had only seen in my college classes. These Common Core Standards were not what I thought they would be. The standards required a different mindset, a new way of looking at literacy for educators, and a new set of strategies. Something was amiss with this New Shiny Pretty. It didn’t just seem to shine things up and repackage them. This was—dare I say—different? My theory about nothing being new in education was tossed on its backside.
Whether it is because of accountability or the rise in high stakes testing, what teachers have gotten very good at is the Checklist Method of teaching. We simply check off behaviors that are associated with literacy. For example, if successful readers can recognize cause and effect relationships, we teach our students how to recognize a cause and effect relationship and test to see if they can do it. When we finish that, we move on to other indicators of literacy. At the end of our units, we expect students to apply these skills. Often the application is in the form of a multiple choice test where students use skills like cause and effect, sequencing, or drawing conclusions to pick the correct answer from a set of four choices about a text. This is how we have taught literacy for a while. Students in third grade do it this way. Students in eighth grade do it this way. High school seniors do it this way. Those who can select the correct response have mastered skills. Unfortunately these students go off to college and are asked to analyze text and write about it and the hammer drops—they cannot do it.
Doing Literacy: Just Play Tennis
Understanding how the Literacy Common Core Standards differ from what teachers have primarily done in the past requires a new way of looking at literacy. The Common Core Standards do not teach students skills that they can demonstrate mastery of in isolation. The Common Core Literacy Standards demand that students continuously perform skills in concert, with an eye on recursive practice and mastery.
Common Core Literacy is the opposite of Checklist Teaching.
Don’t misconstrue that to mean that teachers don’t keep track of skills. What is means is that students shift from checking off skills to teaching students to deconstruct text. The Common Core Literacy Standards are about mastery, not a checklist of skills. Students are “doing literacy” instead of demonstrating mastery of skills related to literacy.
A great analogy to understand this shift in thinking is to compare Common Core Literacy to playing a sport. An individual sport like golf or tennis is a perfect comparison. The students are playing a game of their own. They are “doing literacy”. Just as Serena Williams or Gabby Douglas must use multiple skills, techniques, and strategies in their sports, so do our students.
Compare the training that Serena Williams has to the average ALTA tennis player. If they learned to play tennis under the Checklist Method of teaching skills and testing them, both Serena and the ALTA player would have been identified as masters in their sports. Do they both know how to serve? Check. Do they both know how to volley? Check. Do they both know the rules of the game? Check. Do they both understand how to hit backhands? Check.
Under the Checklist Method, both are tennis players. In reality, Serena and the average ALTA player could hardly even play a game together. It would be a shutout. I imagine that Serena’s serves would probably never even be returned. So—what went wrong? They learned the same skills. We checked them off. We are sure that they mastered the skills. What exactly happened? This is the same thing that happens in classrooms. Teachers are teaching the skills, checking for understanding, and moving on to their other requirements (typically state mandated) for instruction. The teaching is not the problem. The problem is that the Checklist Method does not produce tennis players. It produces people who can demonstrate skills related to tennis. This is the same in the class. The Checklist Method does not result in students who can “do literacy.” It produces people who know something about literacy and literacy related behaviors. Despite this knowledge they can’t “Do Literacy”