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09.30.16On Text Complexity and the Long Run Calculus of Teaching

Image result for jamaRecently New York’s education department announced its intent to make changes to the state’s “common core” learning standards. I get that the standards need to be more user friendly and that responding to what teachers say about them is a good idea on many fronts.  But as Robert Pondiscio wrote in today’s Daily News, one proposed change is (IMO) a huge mistake:  The state’s proposal to de-emphasize complex text.  As Robert writes:

If New York’s new standards don’t explicitly specify complex text, there’s no guarantee kids will be taught or tested with the kinds of challenging materials that put them on a path toward college. As written, any text at any level will satisfy this standard. And that’s not good enough.

A colleague wrote me this morning to ask me what I thought about the changes and I probably overshared in my response, which was written as an educator but also as a dad. In the course of it I tried to articulate some thoughts on long- and short-run incentives for teachers that I think are important.  Anyway, I’m sharing the note below in case it’s useful

Making sure students read lots of complex text is super critical… maybe the most important thing that will prepare them for college and maybe the one thing that makes common core worth the fuss in the long run.  I think it’s terribly sad.

I worry about this as much as a dad as I do as an educator.  You know more about this than me but “flipped classrooms” seem to be increasingly winning the day in science classes, for example, and what that appears to mean is that [my son] comes home and watches the lecture or demonstration on video and then goes to class and does a lab or an activity. At open house the teachers tell me how engaging this will make science classes and I get that… it’s nice… and I see that there are some clear learning benefits.  But then I notice that he never has to read the text book anymore!

Again you know a lot more than me about the Sciences than me but my gut is that in the long run he can love science all he wants but if he can’t read and distill information from the literature of the discipline, which is often complex and difficult and requires a lot of practice to master, he can’t be a scientist.  Reading complex text isn’t fun and its payoff—while massive—comes years later.  That’s the problem as I see it. If you want to be a scientist you have to be able to read complex text and  I’m not sure you can just start doing that in college if you never reads scientific text now….

Every teacher faces some version of this challenge: How do I balance short run with long run? How do I balance doing what will make my students enjoy and engage in my class (and not incidentally make my class easier to teach and therefore my job easier) on one hand with what will prepare them to succeed when they pay the piper five years after they leave my classroom on the other (that’s the long run incentive).  All the calculus is stacked towards skewing over time towards the short run. Without some other incentive only a massive act of will that few can sustain preserves ideal long run decision-making.


Take Bruce Lewis. Lord, I did not like him when I had him as an 8th grader.  We respected him but he had to develop a whole “I don’t care what you think of me” persona to be who he was as a teacher. You got Lewis and you said, “Oh, crap.” But 7 and 8 years later, in college, I basically realized I was channeling what he taught me about essay writing again and again and again.  He made me the student I was years later but he had to be unpopular in the short run to do it.

The danger I see is teachers reacting to a short term incentive—let’s read what’s fun and what kids will love!–without sufficient balance with the long term one—let’s also read some things that are going to prepare them to read Origin of  Species or the Fairie Queen when they get to college.

This was true of me, by the way.  I unrealistically but earnestly signed up for Bio as a freshman or sophomore.  And I remember the first assignment.  We had to go to the stacks and read a bunch of scientific research and write a short paper about it.  And I couldn’t understand anything I read.  A week later I dropped the class.  It was the last science class I ever took.


Sorry for the long-winded over sharing.  But I think Robert is right.