Friday, April 12, 2013

Speaking and Listening Standards for Common Core: Common Core Now Part Two

One of the many new wrinkles in the Common Core State Standards is embedded in the speaking and listening standards across all grade levels.  This aspect of student learning has seldom been formally assessed and the inclusion of speaking and listening skills assessments in the CCSS has implications, aspirations and complications.

The initial rubric begins similarly across grade levels: “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on {grade level topics, texts and issues} building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” This is straightforward enough and clear.  However, as we delve more deeply into the sub-sections, the complexity begins to emerge.  For example, sixth grade students will be expected to “review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection and paraphrasing.”  They will be asked to “delineate a speaker’s argument and claims, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.” Furthermore, sixth grade students will be expected present their own “claims and findings”, often supported by “multimedia components and visual displays in presentations to clarify information.” As if this is not enough, they will also be required to “Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks”, in order to “demonstrate a command of formal English…”  And, they will be asked to “use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume and clear pronunciation.”

It’s hard to find fault, at first glance, with these standards. Indeed, they seem even more comprehensive and worthy as one travels up the hierarchy of grades into high school.  College and career readiness is the goal and so it seems laudable that we should ask high school seniors to “work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines” as well as asking them to “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives” and to “resolve contradictions when possible…” Those who meet these standards are the congressional representatives of the future we all hope to elect! For many years, many educators have bemoaned the poor quality of our achievement in the realms of public speaking and of course most of us genuinely want to inculcate listening skills, not least because they are most obvious in their absence these days. However, there is uncertainty as to the right way to proceed in encouraging these skills.

A deeper look at the standards raises questions, perhaps even some doubts.  How, for example, are the PARCC assessments going to define “formal English” once the tests are in place?  What does that mean in the modern context? Will there be room for cultural norms and cultural shifts?  Whose pronunciation counts as “correct”?  Will our local districts be able to train student sufficiently to use “multiple media” to give presentations?  Will our teachers of eighth grade students see their youngsters reflected in the language of this standard: “Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in  a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume…” etc? What is appropriate eye contact and how do we account for children from cultural background where eye contact with adults is problematic? Even in cultures where we teacher “look me in the eye” strategy, it seems more than a little unreasonable to include this in the standards.  Perhaps all this will come out more clearly during the pilot period but the language of the standards gives weight to those teachers who fear that the strategy of CCSS is to ratchet up the standards in the hopes that somehow this will have an achievement impact.  There is, however, no natural causal connection between high standards and high achievement. Indeed, all of the research suggests that using standards to promote achievement will be a fruitless strategy.

There are funding obstacles: we all know it takes an enormous amount of instructional time to promote speaking and listening skills and time costs money.  We are painfully aware, also, that districts with high poverty schools and communities, which means inner cities and rural, isolated regions, will struggle with these standards.  The language of the rubrics is stringently middle class and this does not mean we are stereotyping struggling communities or labeling them with lowered expectations.  Expectations should imply resources and where resources are minimal, this kind of achievement, this level of expectation, is hamstrung at the outset.

The Common Core State Standards have much to recommend them.  They are lofty; they are hard to challenge academically; they are concise in their expectations, even if not yet in the actual language of the tests.  However, we are right to ask questions about the models that will support CCSS, models of budgets, models of teacher training and models of in-service professional development.  We want our children to be pushed and raised.  We just don’t want to have them fall hard onto the other side.