By Vicki Cobb
President and founder of iNK Think Tank, LLC /children’s nonfiction author
The protests over the Common Core Standards have been more about the destructive effects of testing to assess how we’re meeting the Standards than about the actual Standards themselves. If you read them, you see that they benignly describe the behavior of literate people who can internalize ideas through listening and reading and express themselves clearly in both speaking and writing. The people who wrote the Standards believed that schools were not graduating sufficient numbers of students who could exhibit such behaviors. So the Standards were supposed to be a game-changer, compelling educators to reexamine traditional instruction and improve it. This is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, before that could be done in a thoughtful manner, the test creators threw a monkey wrench into the process, creating a national uproar that is an unintentional consequence of something that could produce positive change.
Here’s the kind of problem the CCSS are trying to address: In western New York State, home of a booming optical technology industry, every professional engineer creates job openings for three technicians; jobs that are largely unfilled. To help solve this problem, my optical engineer son, Josh Cobb, teaches optics at night in a community college. Much to his surprise, before he can get into optics, he has to teach his students English. Technicians must be able to clearly report, in writing, the activities of a lab so that others know exactly what’s going on. Most of his students are lacking this kind of writing skill. How could this have happened? In traditional education, reading is taught through fiction and science is taught in science classes. Reading in science classes was limited largely to textbooks, which are not noted for high interest and engaging writing. ELA classes focused on the human experience in literature and on narratives, not on expository prose, reporting of events, or step by step instruction. There has been little or no integration of disciplines and literacy skills. Students don’t read a variety of science books in science class. Dr. Wendy Saul, Endowed Professor, University of Missouri-St. Louis has been beating this drum for many years:
“Science literacy is about interpretation and figuring out what to believe. What is significant, credible evidence? What is an embryonic notion and what is just an anecdote with little to back it up? To understand this distinction, students need multiple sources and guidance about how to question these sources. Good science trade books help us think and question, first by having a competent author guide us as we encounter ideas, and second, by amassing information and setting it up for examination. Textbooks don’t help us with interpretation; they present themselves as a single voice of authority; thus there is no opportunity to learn to think critically.”
That could be about to change. The National Science Teachers Association and the International Reading Association have discovered each other and are partnering a new initiative focusing attention on literacy. In fact, the Executive Director of the IRA, Marcie Craig Post, told me this past weekend at an NSTA conference that, early next year they are going to change the name of their venerable organization to the International Literacy Association. “Literacy” is a much broader concept than “reading.” It includes the ability to do something with knowledge. At a time when information is coming at us from all kinds of media all the time, students need to know how to read content from many points of view so that they can formulate their own ideas. Juliana Texley, President of the NSTA, concurs and is spearheading a drive to make reading children’s science trade books a part of science classroom instruction. This is creating a paradigm shift for teachers. Now they need to show students how to capitalize on reading and writing rather than just teaching reading and writing. Teachers in other disciplines need to show students how reading and writing fit into history, science, music, art, and physical education. In other words, academic skills are now to be applied to content in a practical and personally meaningful way for students.
I have come to understand that real change comes only when individuals come together to work for a common purpose. With all the disruption to education from the thoughtless imposition of governmental policies the last twelve years, I would hope that we take a deep breath before we levy another rash policy that affects the education of our children. Let’s stop the testing insanity and give the NSTA and the International Literacy Association a chance to work some magic.