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A Critique of the CLASS Assessment: Pre-k CLASS Standards are Culture-Specific

By Jessica Ruiz, MS

Site Coordinator, Educare Implementation Study,Herr Research Center for Children & Social Policy, Erikson Institute, Chicago

 

The Pre-K Class Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) is intended to rate the quality of preschool teachers.  The assessment is organized into three Domains in which the observer is to organize their scoring.  The domains include Emotional Support, Classroom Organization, and Instructional Support.  Within each domain are several dimensions which measure certain behaviors such as the interactions between teacher and student, behavior amongst students and the level of language offered by teachers.  The dimensions within the three domains include:

  • Emotional Support: classroom climate, teacher sensitivity and regard for student perspective
  • Classroom Organization: behavioral management, productivity, and instructional learning format
  • Instructional Support: concept development, quality of feedback and language modeling.      

                                                  -  *Retrieved from Classroom Assessment Scoring System 2008

These dimensions are to be carefully observed within four to five observation cycles.  The observation cycles are timed by the observer and can last anywhere between ten and twenty minutes.  After each cycle, the observer leaves the classroom to read over observational notes and score each dimension.  Scoring is based on a scale of 1 through 7.  The observer is to score each dimension on as either Low (1,2), Middle (3,4,5) or High (6,7).    

Experiences as an Observer

As a certified Pre-K CLASS observer, I am expected to objectively assess teacher language and behavior toward students.  In my experience, being objective means disregarding the culture of the teacher who typically represents the culture of the community served.  

Within the CLASS Domain of Emotional Support, for instance, the observer is to pay attention to any behavior suggesting a Negative Climate within the classroom.  Behavioral characteristics which determine a negative climate of punitive control include verbal threats or harsh voice.  I find that these mandates are in contradiction to varying discipline techniques valued by various cultural communities.  For example, threats may be deemed acceptable by parents of Mexican cultures in effort to redirect or avoid misbehavior of children.  Adults and parents of Latina/o culture tend to value an authoritarian approach to parenting (Falicov, 1998).  Even within a school classroom, parents view the teacher as the adult who exhibits authority, expecting obedience and respect from the students. 

 


 

During a CLASS observation, I have observed verbal threats used by teachers as a form of prevention and redirection of misbehavior, and they have worked as intended.  Below is a conversation which occurred in Spanish between a teacher and preschool student, both who identify as Mexican.  Note that this observation occurred as a team of videographers filmed students and teachers for a promotion video of the program to showcase what NOT to do as a teacher.  The instructor, who is one of the most respected and seasoned teacher at this school, and who clearly values student participation--as evidenced by her responsiveness to not just one but THREE questions from this student--received a low CLASS score, despite her ability to fully engage all her students in a what both she and the parents of the student in question considered to be culturally appropriate behavior facilitation.  The exchange follows:

 

Student: “Why do they have cameras?” [Wh-Q]

Teacher: “The cameras are used to record your behavior.”  [Response designed to keep the student on best behavior]

Student: “Why?” [Wh-Q]

Teacher: “Because they are checking if you behave well.”

Student: “Why?”

Teacher: “Because if you are bad they will call the Police.”

 

Culture Specific Standards

The authors of the CLASS credit developmental theorists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Ellen Skinner and Michael Belmont for their theories and research on relationships of children and adults.  However, cross-cultural studies criticize such research as being culture-specific, not applicable for multiple cultures (Bretherton, 1992).  Furthermore, the research conducted by Ellen Skinner and Michael Belmont was specific to the Caucasian culture.  The population of children within this study was comprised of 94% Caucasian students and 6% Black students of upstate New York (Skinner & Belmont, 1993).   

 

I continue to struggle in applying such one-size-fits-all standards to classrooms with students from Mexican culture, in particular.  I call on fellow certified observers to question and further examine culturally inclusive alternatives--rather than expecting teaching staff of varying cultures--serving a diverse body of children and families--to conform to CLASS scoring standards.  I find that most administrators of early childhood programs expect their teaching staff to score high on the assessment.  Unfortunately, these school leaders are not questioning the research used to construct these culturally exclusive assessment's standards. The Pre-k CLASS assessment was created by researchers who too often emphasize the values of once-mainstream White American culture.

 

References

Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1978).  The Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory. Journal of Behavioral

and Brain Sciences, 1 (3), 436-438. 

Bowlby, J. (1969).  Attachment and Loss: volume 1 Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bretherton, I. (1992).  The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. 

Developmental Psychology. 28, 759-775.

Falicov, C.J. (1998).  Latino families in therapy: A guide to multicultural practice.  New York,

NY: Guildford Press.

Hamre, B.K., Pianta, R.C., Mashburn, A.J. and Downer, J.T. (2007).  Building a Science of

Classrooms: Application of the CLASS Framework in over 4,000 U.S. Early Childhood

and Elementary Classrooms. https://www.fcd-us.org/building-a-science-of-classrooms

application-of-the-class-framework-in-over-4000-u-s-early-childhood-and-elementary

classrooms/ 

Skinner, E.A. & Belmont, M.J. (1993).  Motivation in the Classroom: Reciprocal Effects of

Teacher Behavior and Student Engagement Across the School Year.  Journal of

Educational Psychology. 85 (4), 571 – 581. 

   


Another Blog follows:

Concerned about Common Core?: Conversations with Students, Teachers, Parents, a Policy Maker, & a Superintendent

“At my school, less than 25% of the teachers show (Common Core-related) pressure” observed 10-year-old Shiva when invited to share his views on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that 45 U.S. States have adopted to date.  Let's face it! Many of us are concerned about the CCSS, so let's ask ourselves:

  • What is the “common” component and/or the CORE we speak of? and what makes it common? 
  •  To who(m) and why?
  •   How?  When? and where?  
To gauge different audiences’ responses to these questions, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with seven students from three states that have implemented the CCSS, namely, California, Maryland and New York.  I also dialoged with twelve P-12 teachers, four parents, and an assistant superintendent1   These exchanges are summarized and analyzed below, alongside the views of the Chancellor of DC schools, Kaya Henderson, and other policy makers interviewed through other outlets, including the Kodjo Nnamdi Show (July 31; http://thekojonnamdishow.org/audio-player?nid=23770). 

The objectives of this piece are as follows:

  1. To share multiple perspectives on the CCSS
  2. To identify major concerns about the CCSS and/or its implementation, as well as plus points
  3. To address individual concerns, and
  4. To raise questions and initiate dialog on the CCSS, particularly as regards how it supports language and core content.  [The author invites you to share your thoughts on the CCSS, and will summarize and report additional information in the next issue.  To that end, please e-mail your thoughts to languagebuildingblocks@gmail.com धन्यवाद Khamsa hamnida/ Merci beaucoup! Muchas gracias! Xie xie!

We begin with the students’ views, starting with a fourth grader who attends Centennial Lane Elementary School in Howard County, Maryland.

Students’ Views on CCSS

None of the kindergartners, first graders, second graders and third graders I talked to had heard of the term CCSS.  However, the first, second and third graders did share that their teachers had started using “more games” and “group work” in language arts, math and science, and the author is inclined to believe that the observed switch to more learner-involved and collaborative activities reflects individual teachers’ attempts to align their lessons to the CCSS.  She corroborated her hypothesis with the first grader’s teacher, and is waiting to hear back from the other two teachers.

[Symbol Key: R = researcher, Sa = Samira, 9.75; S = Shiva, aged 10.75; N = Nick, aged 10.5; NR = Nick Rotoli].

A 4th Grader’s Thoughts:

R: Have you heard of CC?

Sa: Yes, I just heard that it’s something new, like a new way of learning.  That’s all I really know about it.

R: Who told you that?

Sa: Some friends.

R: Has your teacher mentioned CC?

Sa: Once in 4th grade she said the new CC is blah blah blah. . . but I don’t remember what she said. 

R: And why do you suppose she mentioned it?

Sa: Because it’s coming, and if we aren’t ready, we won’t do well on the tests.  I think she said something like that.

R: Did she seem stressed when she mentioned CC?

Sa: Yes, but the good thing is that she is now giving us cooler things in science—like the palette of an owl, from its second stomach and we get to touch it because they’ve microwaved it for lots of degrees, so all the germs die. And we had to look for things in it and I found a rat’s skull and a claw, so we could tell what it ate. Now, that’s science!  Not the boring stuff from just books that we did before that.  I can’t wait till next year when I see something interesting in science! 

R: How would you describe science?

Sa: Science is a very interesting way of learning with theories, experimeents and many other things.

R: What’s a theory?

Sa: A theory is a synonym for a prediction, except—this is what my teacher said--you actually test it, I mean the theory.

Summary of Observations: This short exchange suggests that this student from Centennial Lane Elementary School has noticed that science has become more hands-on (prompted by CCSS, as verified in a follow-up exchange with her teacher), and enjoys this immensely.

A 5th Grader’s Response to CC:

R: Have you heard of CC?

N: No.

R: How important do you think it is to learn new words, and how did your teacher teach you new words last year (in 5th grade)?

N: It’s very important, because words tell us important ideas.  Our teachers make us read books and look up words in the dictionary—or use context clues before we check the dictionary, and 70% of the time, I guess right.  Each week, we also get a list of spelling words that we have to organize—like write synonyms or definitions for them, or use them in sentences.  But on synonym day, they sometimes expect the wrong stuff, like “stool” for chair, which my parents and I found ridiculous.  Many words have no one-word synonyms.  For example, watermelon.  In such cases, you can write a question mark (?) next to the words. 

R: What if you write fruit or melon?

N: You could, but they aren’t exactly the same.

A 6th Grader Shares His Thoughts

R: Have you heard of CC?

S: Yes.

R: What is CC?

S: It’s the new curriculum in the state of NY.  I’ve heard that they test the students and then they figure out whether the teachers are doing well. 

R: What’s curriculum?

S: It’s what the teachers want you to learn.  They say “It’s different now because of CC”; something along those lines. 

R: Do you notice any changes in your classroom since CC?  What has changed?

S: I definitely see a difference in math.  Because they want students to score high—the whole point of teaching—they want math to be a fairly easy subject to teach and test.   We now have a pretest and again at the end of the school year, they give a similar test to see how much the student has improved.  For example, in music class, they’ll show a quarter note and again at the end of the year, and ask about it or see if you can produce it.  CC really hasn’t affected too much other than math and extras, like music and art.  In music, there were some slight changes.  They added some stuff.  I am in alternate math, where we go deeper.

R: Oh!  Congrats!  Like the gifted and talented group.

S: Yeah.  Sort of.  It’s for those students who do a bit better than the others.  So we talk about circles in “normal” math, but in alternate math, we discuss not just the circumference, but the area and what pie is. Pie is the number you use to find the area and the circumference.

R: What else?

S: My friends in regular math say the Go Math textbook is a lot easier.  Some topics were moved up and some down.  For example, pythagorem theory was moved up.  And yes, extracurrulum has changed—like music and art.  In music, there were slight changes.  They essentially added some stuff. 

R: So which teachers are mention ing CCSS the most?

S: Math teachers mainly, because there are huge differences there. 

R: What was the first time you heard of CC?

S: When I was going to 6th grade.  I had been hearing rumors from my friends. 

R: What have you learned in English since CC came about?

S: Words and grammar.  Our spelling tests—20 words per week-- are every Friday, and every Monday, we have a pretest. 

R: What do you know about your school?

S: I’ve heard it’s one of the better schools.  In the ratio of teachers to students, it’s got more teachers to each student, 15-1 maybe.  That affects the way you teach.  It makes students feel at home—I mean at least you know their name.  It’s harder when you have more students.  You can’t give them a lot of attention.  I remember when I went to ESL class.

R: You were in ESL, even though English is one of India’s official languages? 

S: Yes, when I came to the U.S., in 3rd grade, they put me in ESL, I guess because my grammar was different and my speech was different.  There were 3 of us.  By the way, I thought English was our official language—in the U.S., I mean.

R: It is in a few states, but not nationwide.  How was it?  ESL class.

S: I actually enjoyed it because they made learning English fun.  But very soon I found it too easy and that I was taking advantage.

Summary of Observations: Both students mention vocabulary as a focal area at their respective schools.  The fifth grader’s (from Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland) observation regarding the challenges of locating exact matches (i.e., synonyms) for many words could serve as a valuable lesson to educators everywhere.  It reminds us to provide meaningful vocabulary instruction (Marzano, 2010) and to ensure that the words (and other language structures) we employ are the most suitable for the purposes intended.  As Pandey (forthcoming; 2012a, b) demonstrates, a functional bilingual approach goes a long way, and inviting student participation—in English and other languages—is particularly instructive for both the student, and many others.

In the second exchange, the sixth grader from Loudonville Elementary School in Albany, NY shows that he has a fairly good grasp of CCSS and its underlying philosophy.  He recognizes, for instance, that the CCSS aims to provide more individualized, relevant, and hands-on instruction.  The underlying objective is to cater to each student’s interest(s), and to adjust to their preferred learning style.  As such, the coverage should be fairly flexible, and not as rigid as some might assume. 

A Chancellor’s View of CCSS

In his July 31 radio exchange with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, host Kojo Nnamdi opened by observing that “The results of D.C. public schools math and reading tests are in, and they're impressive. In the 2012-2013 school year, D.C. public schools students scored higher than ever before. Average scores increased across the board and in nearly every ward in the city.”2  Chancellor Henderson attributes DC students’ greater success in reading, math, composition and science (measured via their improved test scores for 2012 and 2013)  to CCSS, which she identifies as the heart of the DC reform movement.  In her words, “Two years ago, we implemented a new standardized curriculum that's aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which is more rigorous than the previous academic standards under which we were working.” (http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2013-07-31/conversation-kaya-henderson).  She expressed optimism about the new approach and expects DC schools to attain 70 percent proficiency in four years.  In addition to curriculum, she identified the following as key factors in DC schools’ march toward greater success: extending the school day and the school year (piloted in eight schools this year, and “seven schools saw gains in both reading and math”), professional development for instructional staff and administrators and other forms of support for “teachers and principals”; motivating students, and “engaging parents” in education.  “I think those are the things that are gonna get us to the success that we're trying to achieve,” she continued. 

Noting that qualitative instruction and teacher input and involvement are essential to success, she identified two teacher cohorts, namely, the Common Core Reading Corps and the Common Core Math Corps, which consist of the “most advanced teachers in the District who are writing curriculum” for the schools.  As this exchange makes clear, the CCSS necessitate collaboration and engagement at multiple levels; student, family and community.  They will not work as intended, otherwise.  At one point, Nnamdi asked “Can you talk a little bit more about the Common Core and what the new curriculum will mean for students?”  Chancellor Henderson responded:

Sure. So last year, we moved to a Common Core-aligned exam and curriculum around English language arts. It really calls for reading not textbooks, but books, the books that you have on your shelf or that I have on my shelf. We talk about texts that are worthy of our children's time and attention. And so they're reading fiction and nonfiction. They're reading the classics.  . . . . [C]hildren are getting a rich set of literature and nonfiction texts. And they're called to analyze these texts. They're called to read the text, to pull evidence from the text to support positions that they take in response to the text, and it's just a much different approach. On the math side, we teach math very differently than most people in the rest of the world.  In fact, most people in the rest of the world teach fewer subjects in math and go much more deeply. We are wide and, I guess, shallow. And so it's reorganizing when we teach math, the sequence in which we teach various mathematic subjects, and it's making things more simple, more elegant so that we can go in-depth.

An Analysis of Chancellor Henderson’s Perspective on the CCSS

As Chancellor Henderson observes, the hallmarks of the CCSS include:

  • sustained student engagement through reading—of multiple texts and not merely textbooks or books confined to a single centralized location (like a school or public library, for instance);
  • engagement through ongoing reflection, critical thinking, and analysis of content, as reflected in the new requirement that students provide support from the text to corroborate their responses--a key component of the new approach, as opposed to merely supplying the correct answer. 

That is, the CCSS require that students go one step beyond reading comprehension.  They must engage in intuitive reasoning—not just when it comes to reading, but also when they encounter math and science concepts and content.  They must be real problem-solvers, ready and willing to explain how they arrived at their conclusions.  Making readings relevant is one way to further engage students, as we know.  However, as with any curriculum, implementation is not without challenges.  As Chancellor Henderson notes “I think the school system has struggled to figure out the right way to involve and engage parents.”  Asked about why she didn’t okay a parental request for a “foreign language” at a DC school, she responded “providing foreign languages, not just because somebody raises a hand and says it, but really thinking about how we see a foreign language program in a school and make it successful is very important,” suggesting that she recognizes the value other languages play in internationalizing the school curriculum and in enhancing student and family involvement and proficiency, as the next section illustrates.   “If our young people are gonna compete, then they need to be exposed to foreign languages very early,” she continued.  She reminded listeners that all elementary school children and schools, not just a select few, need to offer the arts and languages.  “As you know,” she continued, “I've taken the money that we're saving from the school consolidations to ensure that every single one of our elementary schools is able to offer at least 45 minutes of art, music, P.E., library and foreign language.”

Teachers’ Views on CC

Preschool

Preschool teacher Kimberly shares her assessment of CCSS and its impact on her work below:

We’ve never been this busy!  More of our time is spent on lesson planning and assessment, since assessment is ongoing and data typically has to be entered into an Online system.  There is an explicit focus on grouping and differentiation, and greater emphasis on math and science.  Thematic sequence and depth of coverage are now predetermined and quite intense.  Many of us wonder, for instance,  why preschoolers need to know about balls specifically—and that too, for so long-- and whether they are really ready to learn complex terms like circumference, which we now have to introduce when we cover the unit on balls.   Also, the timing of the coverage can be odd and disappointing.  For example, the balls unit fell during Martin Luther King Jr. week and we were unable to do many of the activities we had previously enjoyed using.  

Summary of Observations

My conversation with Kimberly and seven other preschool teachers at a preschool in New York made it clear to me that unless you have innovative and energetic teachers who can individually or collectively find a way to integrate activities that worked previously with CCSS-stipulated themes and activities, implementaing CCSS could get overwhelming.   I proposed, for instance, that the teachers ask children about ball sports Dr. King and other civil rights advocates played.  This way, teachers can carefully mesh CCSS into their existing lesson plans.

High School

7th and 8th grade history teacher Agboola Dada teaches in Compton, California.  When invited to share his thoughts on the CCSS, he responded:

I do not have any concerns about the Common Core. I have long felt that its components are what we should be emphasizing.  The common core is the kind of education I had in Nigeria between 1967 and 1986.  The kind of education whereby we did not do multiple choice in history. We had to write essays in history and the rest of the curricula.  When I got to the U.S. and found out that history is multiple choice, I was very surprised and disappointed. I had known all along that students won't be able to think critically and analyze events if they are not answering questions in essay forms.  So, I believe now, like I did then, that the common core is the way to go.

Indeed, the West African Examination Council (WAEC) offers a West African Senior School Certficate Examination that Form Five students (i.e., graduating seniors) have to take at the end of high school in Nigeria.  It is a comprehensive essay-based exam.  Students are assessed in core areas, including English and mathematics, and the exam is patterned along the lines of the Oxford and Cambridge, exams that students take in the U.K. and in many other parts of the world, via correspondence courses and other means.  Interestingly, it is a regional examination, compiled by five anglophone nations, namely, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia.  Up until the early 90s, the examination was only offered once a year and students who did not earn a credit pass in English (i.e., a minimum grade of a C) were denied access to university.3  WAEC aims to be “Africa’s foremost examining body” (http://www.waecnigeria.org/).  In its Facebook update in Aug. 2012, the Council shared that, out of the 1,672,224 students that sat for the exam in 2012, 46% earned six credits and above, and 56.9% five credits, representing a marked improvement from the previous year.

High school math teacher Molly teaches at a public school in Baltimore City.  She shared her understanding of the CCSS as follows:

I’ve heard some negative things about CC, like how they rearranged the topics.  They redid the curriculum.  The focus now is more on real-world problem-solving and it’s such a switch in focus that it’s going to be difficult for both students and teachers.  Groupwork and collaboration is all fine but the students will still be tested individually, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.  CC is also about integrating everything, including vocabulary and reading in math, for instance.   The algebra test, for instance, is all word problem-based, and if your vocabulary is limited and you are a poor reader, you won’t score high.  It’s no longer just math for math.  Part of it is exciting but I’m sceptical because it’s going to be coming down the school system and when you have this big of a beast, it could be a mess.  The idea conceptually is good, but implementing it in a traditional school setting is going to be challenging because the kids are not problem-solvers.  A lot of the kids, they don’t want to have to think.  Thay can’t tell you that 6 x 8 is 48.  They want you to tell them the answer.  They want the easy way out.  The ones you start early, in P-3, it may work for, as you have to have the basic foundation.  If students don’t know how to add, subtract and multiply at their grade level, then CC will take longer to take effect, if at all.

Summary of Observations

As teacher Agboola Dada observes, essay-based questions are more cognitively engaging and more commonly employed by other countries.  They require and impart more cognitive, linguistic and content skills than simple multiple choice questions.  They are therefore a more accurate measure of language and content competency.  Having been trained via a regional curriculum and examination (i.e., the WAEC) that closely resembled the CCSS, this teacher wholeheartedly supports the CCSS.

The second high school teacher interviewed was trained in Canada.  She is concerned that preparing urban students—many of whom expect immediate gratification even in the academic realm-- for tasks that require more critical thinking and intuitive skills (versus guesswork) could be daunting.  She raises questions like the following:

  • Of what use is collaboration if students will be tested individually?
  • Can high school students be taught problem-solving skills after they have been accustomed to receiving cues and participating in less cognitively challenging tasks like multiple choice, guess work, simple fill-in-the blanks, and other relatively less engaging and more individual and on-the-spot responses?
  • Is it really too late to engage students in critical thinking and problem-solving?

One also wonders how having easy access to electronic gadgets like the calculator contributes to a reduction in the rate and quality of responses students provide, particularly at urban schools. 

Parents’ Perspectives

Three out of the five parents (four women and one man)4 interviewed had heard of the CCSS--through an orientation provided by their children’s school. The mother of a middle-schooler who attends Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, Maryland, observed that “Common Core is essentially an attempt to “return to the basics.”  She noted that educators and policy makers tend to “recycle curriculum,” and that CCSS isn’t as original as some might think.

In another parent’s words, “They (i.e., CCSS educators) want to connect subject areas.”  This parent of a seven and 10-year-old who attend Centennial Lane Elementary School went on to explain how words and reading are now prerequisites for math and science, as well, and how practically every subject area requires requisite language skills.  Another noted that the goal appeared to be similar to what she was accustomed to in India, “a common curriculum for all students, irrespective of your location, social background, and income.”  Her husband observed that CCSS would make selected “school districts not as appealing” any more, “since the curriculum will be same everywhere.”

Analysis of Parents’ Views

Indeed, CCSS might finally help to create a more level playing field for students studying in U.S. schools; rich, poor, black, Chinese, Hispanic, Korean, and so on. The real estate based rating of a school district might finally be less of a consideration in parents’ choice of a home than in previous years.  In the words of one parent, “All students will be taught the same curriculum and held to the same standards.” 

We should not be so quick to dismiss a set of guidelines, namely CCSS, whose overarching objective is to increase access to 21st century skills for all students by making resources (e.g., books) more readily available (e.g., via Nook), and learning more hands-on, collaborative, and ongoing.  After all, we learn best by brainstorming and doing so collectively is often more fruitful an exercise, since we hear multiple perspectives and the language of the exchange enhances our thinking—not to mention our language skills, as well as our debating, dialoging and intercultural communication skills.  Retelling a story or outlining the steps involved in a process (i.e., science) or explaining how we arrived at a solution to a math problem is arguably far more instructive than merely stating, writing, or pointing at the answer(s).  Reflection and inquiry, the basis of instruction and learning, necessitate increased student engagement through both increased individual participation (i.e., responses to questions teachers, peers, and others ask) and team tasks.   Not only do students grow their vocabulary in the process of engaging with core content, through their active participation, they develop an enhanced awareness of rules of engagement (i.e., politeness norms) or what Pandey (2012a) terms key “discourse structures.”  They learn to make sense of key concepts, to question them, and most importantly, to apply them.  What better way to learn (i.e., recall and evaluate the value of information)?  In this sense, the CCSSs reflect an attempt to streamline content delivery (i.e., content area instruction) with recent trends in language instruction.  We know, for instance, that current theories and approaches to language and literacy advocate sustained access to language input, interaction (i.e., collaboration), and scaffolding (i.e., feedback provision, reflection, and on-the-spot change implementation). 

A Superintendent Shares His Team’s Concerns

Like many States, Pennsylvania has one year to transition to CCSS and, by 2014, testing will commence.  Not surprisingly, many teachers are concerned about how best to implement the CCSSs.  In this section, Pennsylvania-based superintendent Nick Rotoli shares his teachers’ concerns. 

NR: Teachers are concerned that CCSS tests do not test for knowledge, but performance. 

R: Arguably performance or participation is the most accurate mirror of learning.  I find my think-alouds to help me organize my thoughts—the best brainstorming strategy I can think of.  Reasoning can be captured through nonvocal means, as well (your call, really).  Through oral retelling of a story or step-by-step exploration of a scientific process (i.e., performance) or a math problem, for instance, children finetune their organizational, problem-solving, and content skills, and learn to analyze and strategize (i.e., become strategic thinkers).  In short, they brainstorm and organize their thoughts simultaneously, not merely mimicking or modeling (a behavioristic tendency) but actually learning by mentally engaging with language and associated content.  When a child self-corrects herself (e.g., You broughted, brought those fans from the ice-cream place), her utterance or speech performance helps her identify what needs to be modified.  Hence, performance serves as an instructional strategy or prod.  This is literacy (oral and orally stimulated) and strategy at its best!  Indeed, performance is an essential learning tool.   We should habitually invite students to explain their answers (i.e., encourage dialog) for the same reason we use retelling as a reading-facilitator.  Research shows that retelling promotes understanding and through this, learning.

NR: Students will be tested on their reasoning according to CC standards.  This one-size-fits-all approach will not allow for variations in learning styles. 

R: Inviting student input (i.e., reasoning) is key, not the format per se. 

NR: Teachers wonder about the speed with which students are supposed to progress under these standards in the earliest grades.

R: First, we must remember that these standards are merely guidelines, not hard-and-fast mandates, nor curriculum or assessments.  To that end, they should not be construed as one size fits all.  Second, the skills we are asked to emphasize at each grade level are not so much calendarized or grade-based as progressive.  Clearly, imparting them early (e.g., world language skills) has clear advantages, as the next section clarifies (see also Pandey, 2012a). 

What we need to do is dialog (with our internal teams, for instance) about how best to align our curriculum or thematic units and associated lesson plans and assessments with these standards, so that we have a similarly structured (i.e., skills-criterioned) and implementable means of monitoring student progress.  For example, just as no-texting-while-driving and hands-free cell phone mandates prompted the creation of blue tooth technologies to accommodate smart phone technology in vehicles, we must revamp our existing assessments to measure student’s steady mastery of specific skills prioritized by the CCSS (i.e., their progress in critical thinking, as evidenced by level of interest, persistence and/or time spent solving a math problem or writing a response and/or retelling; their level of engagement and role on teams, alongside the ease with which they engage with others).  We could also await the creation of such (i.e., timely) measures.

NR: Some teachers are asking: “Are our youngsters being asked to do things that many of them are not developmentally ready to do?”

R: There’s only one way to find out, right?  In my experience, one is never too young or too old to learn, and it’s better to overestimate our children and to set the bar high than to underestimate them.  If a three-year-old can translate for adults (Pandey, 2010) and we can have insightful conversations with a three-year-old and she can identify impolite behavior and explain what makes it less than desirable (i.e., she can reason) and in some cultures (e.g., mainstream U.S.), she even has some input in what she eats and wears and how she gets to spend her weekend, why is it too early for her to learn about the area or space a ball occupies—that is, the circumference?  And let’s not get carried away by the polysyllabic label.  We don’t have to use the exact terms used in the CCSS.  It’s the concept behind them that matters.  The cliche “a rose by any other name is still a rose” applies here.  Besides, if preschoolers can decode congratulations, why would circumference be any different?  As you know from experience, given your fluency in at least one Romance language (Italian), many words we might consider complex for young children, like comprehend, and comprehension, centipede, and fabricate are, in fact, a piece of cake for many, especially for those knowledgeable in Spanish, French, Romanian, and/or Portuguese (see Pandey, 2012b).  Knowing that mal means bad, for instance, makes decoding high school vocabulary like malpractice, malnutrition, malicious, and malignant so much easier.  Indeed, language competency gives us access to complex concepts and multidisciplinary content, and the more languages we expose our children and young adults to, and the earlier, the more they are likely to learn (much through inferencing, deduction and other critical thinking and problem solving processes characteristic of hands-on out-of-class learning) and the more international their thinking and the better their changes of success in today’s global world.  The CCSS welcome early world language programs, yet there are still those who harbor misconceptions that two or more languages could slow children down and/or confuse them.  Many, including special educators, child psychologists and pediatricians-- believe that more (sounds, syllables, languages) automatically equals increased complexity.  I’m certain you will agree with me that even before the CCSS were adopted, we had some unreasonable—or should I say questionable expectations.  Are preschoolers and kindergartners, for instance, developmentally ready for hard-and-fast speech and language disability diagnoses?  After all, they are still developing their language receptive (i.e., listening and decoding) skills and speech production (i.e., ease of articulation) is not the same for each child.  Some take longer to master certain sounds, morphemes, words, sentence and discourse structures (see Pandey, 2013), and it has nothing to do with their IQ or innate capabilities.  One skill we can’t rush is language, the basis for all learning—as well as assessment--so we must first focus on building students’ oral language skills.  Is expecting third graders to pass a reading test a developmentally appropriate practice when we know that reading a non-phonetic language like English--that has borrowed from so many—is especially challenging, and speech and interaction are essential prerequisites and key catalysts for vocabulary development as well as reading (see Pandey, forthcoming)?  As an African proverb goes “If a potter worries more about how many pots he will sell, he’ll have trouble getting them made.” 

NR: One of my language arts teachers worries that since many boys acquire literacy skills later than girls, they are being asked to read and write far earlier than they are ready to and will fall behind in academic achievement.

R: Again, we must beware of generalizing, and remember that language acquisition is more an individual process than a gender-based one.  The research on gender-based differences in literacy skills is inconclusive and since literacy is contingent upon collaboration and socialization (in literacy habits of reading and writing through sustained access to literacy materials and ongoing journaling—which, in turn, help finetune vocabulary and other language skills) .  As I’ve noted on numerous occasions, in this reading-and-writing-oriented culture, we tend to prioritize secondary literacy over and above primary literacy (i.e., listening and speech).  We end up putting the horse before the cart.  This emphasis on literacy is not unique to CCSS; we’ve always put reading first but not focused on the requisite speech and vocabulary building skills that ensure success. 

NR: What, for example, will happen to a youngster who doesn’t manage to accomplish the following new kindergarten standard in language arts by the time they start first grade:

“Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

or

“Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is...)."

Or the first grader who hasn’t grasped how to read well yet but, according to the Standards, is supposed to be able to do the following by the time second grade rolls around?

"Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding."  "Read grade-level text orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression." 

"Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary."

R:  We must remember that there are multiple ways to read text—not all alphabetic--just as there are many ways to read our students!   To me, these (CCSS) benchmarks are breaking down the key components or ingredients in reading --instead of assuming that educators have a shared understanding of what it means to read.  Also, they are emphasizing the use of grade-appropriate and individualized readings, as well as reading strategies (e.g., multisensory and multimedia tools and context cues).  They remind us to give some thought to what consitutes grade-level text.  An effective criterion we should use to identify this is grade-level language (see Pandey, 2012a).  In the case of writing tasks, engaged writing is advised—the kind of writing in which students not only summarize but go one step ahead, namely, analyze text.  Clearly the value or applicability of a concept or theory is best determined when one gets to apply it to one’s individual experiences. What better way to teach relevant content and real-life and application skills?  So, in the final analysis, while reading is the ultimate goal, we are given specific guidelines (see italicized segments above) to get our students to the finish line, and asked to give serious consideration to identifying grade-level text.  On some levels, CCSS raises a key question addressed in Pandey (2012a), namely: Is it the case that Alex can’t read or that we are unable to read Alex?

NR: Are children who still have trouble reading in second grade labeled failures already?

R: No.

NR: If districts don't have ways to help these kids catch up before they are too far behind to catch up, well-structured and ambitious and cohesive standards won't mean a whole lot. 

R: It’s not so much about catch-up as keeping up—with our global competitors, for instance—as in the STEM areas.

NR: Math – mastery of fractions is expected by the end of 4th grade and the concepts are seen by teachers as far too complex.

R: Compared to what we are accustomed to, the CCSS for math might appear aggressive, but when we compare our math focus and coverage to our competitors,’ like China, Korea, and India, we actually have quite a bit of catching up to do.  In short, complexity is a relative term. 

Reading on the Toilet Seat?: Strategies for Continued Student Learning & Concluding Remarks

In my view, the CCSS are very valuable and seamless implementation of CCSS requires a focus on informational depth and not just breadth; that is, we mnust recognize that quantity isn’t quality, and that it is more important to know a little and to understand it, alongside its value or applications than to know just a little bit about a whole lot.  Appealing to multiple learning styles and learning in diverse contexts—beyond the traditional classroom--are also essential/key differentiators, as evidenced by the greater emphasis on technology.  “And we also purchased technology and we put books on Nooks. And so students got the ability to, in fact, engage with rich literature” and, as DC Chancellor Henderson observed in her nterview with journalist Kodjo Nnamdi, “we're not just depending upon a centralized location” (i.e., libraries) to motivate students to read and to be the sole repositories or providers of content.  As such, we must not only accept but welcome multiple approaches to problem-solving, including, for instance, varied approaches to a division problem.  Honduran middle schoolers typically use a one-step process that requires the problem solver to simultaneously verify their answer (e.g., “comprobar,” roughly equivalent in meaning to prove or provide proof). 


Indians trained in the Vedic math tradition are likely to use a two-step process; they first identify the highest common factor and subsequently follow the conventional steps to divide the numerator using the denominator.

As regards next steps, I propose providing professional development over the summer to students at all levels, and not just to teachers and administrators.  Why not provide interesting collaborative workshops to students, especially during the summer?  Interested parents and/or community members could offer short intergenerational and cross-age sessions on a variety of relevant topics, such as world languages or cultures.  The goal could be to pique students’ and parents’ interest and provide an opportunity for dilaog and reflection—the catalysts for learning that undergird CCSS.  This summer, for instance, the author offered a 9-day session (2 hrs. per day) session titled "Spanish for STEM Success.”  The session description follows:

This intensive beginner Spanish course is primarily for children and young adults.  Adults are welcome to participate.  Times will be proposed by participants. Students will learn to identify the Latin roots of science words in English, and will also learn to understand/read simple exchanges and to respond (verbally and in writing) appropriately.  

On Day 2, after participants had learned to count to 20, they were asked “Why is cuatro similar to quarter?”  A nine-year-old’s response follows:

Because cuatro means 4 in Spanish and a quarter is ¼ of a dollar and “QUA” means 4, so when you add QUA in front of a word, you know the word might have something to do with 4 like the words listed below

Quart – ¼ of a gallon

Quarter – ¼ of a dollar

Quad – 4-sided figure

Quadrangle – a 4 angle figer (sic)

Quartet – 4 musitions (sic)

As soon as they heard that cuarto means fourth in Spanish, as well as room, a 10-year-old volunteered an explanation: “Oh!  I think I know why!  A room has 4 sides!”  At the end of the day’s lesson, the instructor observed “Muy bien!  Now you can participar in basic conversations in espanol” and the same child responded “Wait!  Participate!”  That she made the connection between these similar cognates is indicative of her engagement in critical thinking and exactly the kind of instructional skill the CCSS aim to engender.  The homework prompt (see below) for that day required students to reflect on similarities between Spanish and English:

Has Spanish class helped you learn and understand English words?  Explain.

Each participant responded yes and provided at least five examples of words, including cent, century, centipede, centennial, centimeter and centigrade that they could decode, now that they understood what the root (“cent”) referred to.  Interestingly, the oldest student (11) exclaimed “Really? Centipedes have 100 legs?  Now that makes sense.”  His ability to appreciate the morphology of familiar English words in English, technically his third language (after Telugu and Tamil) is added evidence of the value of early bilingual education and a bilingual approach to vocabulary instruction, particularly for dual language learners/DLLs (see Lems, Miller, L.D. & Soro, 2010). Consider the bilingual (Spanish-English) word pairs below. Ask yourself which of each is more scientific--while simultaneously serving as the root of other terms frequently employed in the STEM fields?

  • arbol/tree
  • luna/moon
  • avion/plane
  • cerebro/brain
  • circa/close
  • crudo/raw/unprocessed
  • significado/meaning
  • fabrica/clothes/fabric/manufacture
  • fin/end

As one 5-year-old rightly observed, “Mama, carné makes more sense than meatCarnivores eat carne!”  What this means is that all students stand to benefit from exposure to other languages, particularly Latinate ones.  The heritage language is especially beneficial for DLLs, as they could actually have an edge in some areas, and we can either insist on teaching them so-called simple words first (i.e., mostly Anglo-Saxon) or grow their existing vocabulary and content knowledge by using what they know to introduce similar but more complex concepts in English (e.g., azuchar --> sugar).  The English-only approach, in contrast, only widens the achievement gap so often reported for so-called English language learners (a culturally biased subtractive term and approach that undermines and overlooks students’ language strengths) and puts linguistic minorities at a disadvantage. 

For additional clips and a summary of outcomes, please contact the author.  Remember that curricular standards are just one piece of the success equation and that a guideline, like any other resource, is only as effective as the uses to which it is put (Pandey, 2011).  Fortunately, with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we can move beyond word spelling to usage—to understanding and performance and, more specifically, to promptly engaging students in tasks that require language and content use or application (e.g., via interactions and/or explanatory activities).  This way, we can be sure they have learned words and key concepts.  This missing component, namely, student engagement or participation is an essential ingredient, critical to vocabulary and other forms of learning, across age and grade levels.

It is worth mention that the learner-centered participatory pedagogy that undergirds CCSS is not new to the field of second language acquisition (SLA), as evidenced by the greater emphasis--since the 90s--on more communicative approaches to SLA (Pandey, forthcoming) versus grammar-centered and teacher-centered approaches like the audiolingual method.  Interaction is one of three factors found to be essential for successful vocabulary acquisition and/or learning, in the case of both the first and “second” language (Harris, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2011), the others being comprehensible input or understandable language and scaffolding (i.e., feedback and implementation).  Since language and content learning proceed more or less simultaneously in the early years (see Pandey, 2012a), there is no reason why the same instructional principles shouldn’t apply to content area instruction, as the CCSS make clear. CCSS requires active student involvement and, as such, more intuitive skills (i.e., higher order thinking and hands-on application).  As such, it requires flexibility in instruction and assessment, as well as in coverage or pacing.

A rich vocabulary, as research shows (Yardley, 2012; Graves, 2009; Marzano, 2010), is a student’s passport to success in interpersonal communication, and a professional career in the STEM or other areas.  Yet students can only decode words when they are familiar with the concepts behind them.  Ask yourself which of the following terms is more meaning-ful(l)?  Spanish altavoce(s), which literally means “loud voice(s)” or the English word speaker?  Most would agree that altavoces is more transparent.  Even those unfamiliar with Spanish will have a relatively easy time decoding the (core) meaning.  Altavoces combines three smaller language components, namely alta (high), voz (voice from voca, meaning mouth or the source of language and the root of vocal and vocation) and plural -s.  Unlike speaker, it implies auditory amplification.  How about Hindi tri- (prounced /thri/), the root of three, tricycle, trilogy, and triangle, and of the Sanskrit words tricone (i.e., three-cornered shape, namely, triangle), triloch (i.e., three worlds) and trishul (trident), words still used in over a hundred descendant languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, and Bengali?  Similarly, the Hindi word pancha (from pãch, the word for five, uttered with a nasalized “a” sound) refers to both a fist and the palm of the hand.  Unlike their English equivalents (fist and palm), these terms are self-explanatory; their five-finger composition is immediately evident and easily de-code-able.  We must therefore make vocabulary (learning) consistently meaning-ful(l) for all students.

As the conversations shared here demonstrate, language is at the core of Common Core.  Since language undergirds core content and learning; that is, language is the medium, as well as the message (Pandey, 2012), and vocabulary is arguably the most important language unit—and the prerequisite for reading and enhanced vocabulary and content skills, researching each student’s vocabulary—and using this as a bridge to English concepts and associated terms--is a key first step in individualized language and content instruction.  Knowledge of its building-block composition will help teachers and other educators (administrators, parents, community leaders, and policy makers) effectively interpret and implement these and other language-based standards. After all, instruction and assessment are hinged on it (Pandey, 2012a). 



References

Common Core State Standards (2010).  Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

Lems, K. Miller, L.D. & Soro, T. M. (2010).  Teaching reading to Englsih Language Learners.  New York: The Guilford Press.

Marzano, R. (2010). Teaching basic and advanced vocabulary: A framework for direct instruction. Boston: Heinle.

Pandey, A. (forthcoming). Chapter 3. In Young English language learners at school: A guide for early childhood and elementary leaders, edited by K. Nemeth, Caslon Publishing.

_________. (2013a). Say Sí, Oui, Ee, Yee, `A-ha, Da, Jee/Ji, Haa(n), Ja, Jeje, Ye(s), Yo!: 6,000 Voices Alive & Strong! Perspectives [The Magazine of the National Association for Bilingual Education] 35 (1), Jan.-March.

_________.  (2012a). Language building blocks: Essential linguistics for early childhood educators.  New York: Teachers College Press; http://store.tcpress.com/0807753556.shtml

_________.  (2012b). Issues in education: Language building blocks for climbing the learning tree, Childhood Education, 88 (6), 388-390. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00094056.2012.741485?journalCode=uced20

_________.  (2011). The content teacher’s ESL Kit: A handy resource for all teachers, Language Forum, 37 (1), 17-24.

Endnotes

  1. The author wishes to thank all those (students, parents, and educators) who shared their views. 
  2. The show reported that 43 percent of pubic school enrollment in the District was charter school-based.
  3. When I sat for it, my classmates referred to it as the “Almight June.”  We were told that if we fell sick or missed the exam, we would miss the opportunity to attend university (i.e., college).
  4. The author would have liked to dialog with more individuals, yet access to educators was fairly restricted in the summertime.
  5. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Putting the Cart before the Horse?  

I move that we emphasize oral literacy in the early years, especially in preschool, and that we ensure that children steadily grow their language skills, since language  is the foundation for all learning. This includes developing  a sizeable vocabulary and understanding what words mean and that words and other language units communicate specific meanings. 

When we emphasize reading and writing, instead of first ensuring that students have a firm grasp of basic words and have mastered the basics of interpersonal communication (i.e., polite language that varies across dialects and languages), we set ourselves up for failure. We must first work on providing interactive contexts for students to grow their oral language skills, especially their vocabulary.  Through play and other avenues for language extension, children (like adults) can grow their language skills much faster (at the rate of roughly 1,000 words each school year) and make the connection between speech and writing.  If we were to rely on classroom instruction alone, this rate of language growth would be near-impossible. 








Play
Play is for fun
It's a way to feel
Younger
Refreshing for both mind and heart
Anybody can play
It's a game, it's a way
To get out of homework and
Deep dark dismay. -Nina Shin, 9

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