What journalists need to know about covering education reform

Scott Elliott, incoming president of the Education Writers Association, is the education reform reporter at The Indianapolis Star.

That’s a pretty unusual job title and a beat that Elliott pretty much carved out himself. During a live chat, Elliott talked about how he crafted that beat and why it’s increasingly important and relevant. He addressed the complexities of teacher evaluations and education reform, and offered tips on how education reporters can navigate the challenges of covering these topics.

The chat was held in advance of a Specialized Reporting Institute workshop, Grading the Teachers. You can find out more about the McCormick-sponsored workshop and apply for it here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004799013590 Jung Dong Ki
  • Clayton Burns

    Let’s step back a stage, with model classrooms for ‘”middle school,” anywhere from grades 5 to 9.

    Do we see clear opportunities for better practice in language teaching? One would be introducing the Oxford ESL Dictionary for learners of English (2012) and then transiting to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

    If every city such as New York and Atlanta had model classrooms, it should be easy to have businesses fund testing of technology, such as the Samsung Galaxy 4 and the ASUS VivoBook. Internet resources are helpful for instilling good dictionary habits: m-w.com has excellent spoken pronunciations, and onelook.com is valuable. For example, the American transcriptions for the words in “It was not Death, for I stood up,” in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary at onelook.com are sharp and accurate.

    Reporters should be able to visit such model classrooms and have discussions with teachers and students. The EWA should initiate its own summer school for reporters who want to understand tools for middle schools. “The Hunger Games” (first novel) is an interesting case because it has power in its sound patterns, its historical present and its past tenses, and its visualizations.

    I also recommend “Jane Eyre,” “Oliver Twist,” and “Kim” for students at these ages. To introduce Shakespeare, the Oxford School “Romeo and Juliet” is useful, but only if the model classes aggressively pursue the new Arden “Romeo and Juliet” later on as reinforcement, because it is outstanding for its introduction and notes.

    Dickinson raises the question of the value of phonics, phonetics, and phonology, all under performing because inadequately related to texts (looking back to “Winnie-the-Pooh,” and forward to “Macbeth”).

    In fact, the incoherence and aridity in teaching the sound systems of English, including sound symbolism, is inexcusable, and unfairly limits the education of learners of English. The federal government should order the universities to produce the systems. It is the same as the relentless and damaging holidays: the government should tie funding to reform.

    The COBUILD Intermediate English Grammar is one of the most beautiful texts for middle school. The reason that we need to build latency in poetry, fiction, Shakespeare, dictionaries, grammar, and technology is that we have to have global integration of all these skills, only possible if we have extremely good methods for every area and the patience to wait for cognitive plasticity to be engaged.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    At this point, I am no longer debating you as much as I am trying to find out how these ideas would ever be feasible. I don’t see how reading large sections of text aloud is a great use of class time or even individual time. Also, just saying the dialogue is “The Great Gatsby” is not difficult does not make it easier.

    Accelerating learning is a great idea. Simply introducing complicated literature earlier in the process is not the way, however.

    “That is a mystery of human development, and a product of the weaknesses of schools.” Disagree. In fact, there are theories that explain precisely why introducing a book of the scope of “Heart Of Darkness” is not a great idea at the 10th-grade level.

  • Clayton Burns

    Proust’s “Time Regained” and Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” are valuable for study of the First World War. We might say that it would be impossible to categorize Fussell as History, or we might say that it would be too difficult to engage with Proust without poring over Fussell first. Or perhaps we would need to absorb “The First World War” by John Keegan before attempting either Proust or Fussell.

    I do not see any need to think in that way. Students would benefit from reading all three, in any order. What students can do is a product of their level of development, and the culture of the schools. By accelerating learning and creating more powerful knowledge pathways, we would make it far easier for students to read “Heart of Darkness” in grade 10, and then review it intensively in grades 11 and 12. Many students are asked to read this novel and think it to be harder than it is. That is a mystery of human development, and a product of the weaknesses of schools. It is not an inherent property of “Heart of Darkness.”

    “The Great Gatsby” is not hard either, but some students get overpowered by it. That is why it is important to drop the little character development worksheets and read the text out loud, concentrating on comprehension. Some students imagine that the dialogue is dull or difficult. It is not. As for the music of the text, a good understanding of Keats, especially “Ode to a Nightingale,” is essential.

    James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” is being translated into Chinese, with some success, as reported in The Wall Street Journal today. High school students can manage “The Dead” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” if they are not phobic about the texts. Some teachers suffer from that condition. Reading Joyce out loud is effective. Students need to build latency so that when they read the novel the second and third time they will get it.

    Much literature has distinctive latency. For a time I was not especially fond of Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”, but after a while I came to see that it is fascinating, and the best introduction to Dickinson in terms of reader cognition because so many students see easily that “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” is great literature, but are confused by “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    “Students in grades 10 to 12 should assimilate “Beloved,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Heart of Darkness,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in texts with good introductions if they exist.”

    “Heart of Darkness” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” are not 10th-grade level works. Even if we assume, as you seem to, that simply introducing complex literature earlier in life will increase reading skills, students need to have some knowledge of world history to understand those works.

  • Clayton Burns

    Joe Grimm, The front page article in The New York Times Sunday, “Curious Grade For Teachers: Nearly All Pass,” by Jenny Anderson, pretty much explodes the idea of reform as being a mirage.

    Oddly, there is not an overwhelming acknowledgment of that article at the EWA site, which is rather stale, to tell the truth.

    I noted that neither Poynter nor CJR, nor others in that category, did well at the 2012 National Awards for Education Reporting.

    Let’s have a discussion about how to do this work, based on my 40,000 hours of research and direct work with students.

    First, it will not be possible for reform without model classrooms. Let’s say in Atlanta there were model classrooms for students in grades 1-3, run by highly motivated and creative teachers. What they should do is spend half their time on a White House national curriculum, and half on exploring their own ideas and those of colleagues.

    Normally, there are outstanding texts only feebly being employed in schools, if at all. For students who have had some experience of preschool and have some minimum proficiency in English, even if they are not native speakers, “Winnie-the-Pooh” is remarkably entertaining, good to read out loud, and rich in vocabulary. Students in grades 1-3 need to work with stories, sounds, and vocabulary, more than on formal grammars.

    Still, they need to look ahead to future elements of the learning pathway, such as “The Wind in the Willows,” an excellent target for students in grades 4 or 5.

    The Oxford ESL Dictionary for learners of English (2012) is quite a beautiful tool for beginners, native speakers included.

    Teachers in grades 1-3 should have the little (3×4 1/2 inch) “The Pocket Emily Dickinson” so as to introduce words and sounds and read some of the poems, so that they can build latency for far downstream projects, absorbing Dickinson in middle and high school.

    Strangely, the EWA failed to pen an editorial in which it would have pointed out that having principals “observe” teachers for evaluation is nonsensical. They would have to be skilled in the curriculum, and engage with the teachers and students. They would have to invite reporters to do the same.

    The extreme artificiality explored by Jenny Anderson Sunday cannot continue.

    Clayton Burns PhD Vancouver.

  • Clayton Burns

    Michael Winerip, Thank you for your excellent report on Atlanta Saturday.

    The books and tools available for students now are an order of magnitude better than when I was in school.

    The uptake is pathetic.

    What I suggest is that you explore my concept of latency opportunity costs in American education. After decades of research and working with students, you realize that latency is still poorly understood.

    If in each area of the English curriculum we had sharp procedures and the patience to wait, we could revolutionize education. Shakespeare is indicative: we could introduce students to “Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth,” and “Hamlet” in grades 7 to 9 through the Oxford School Shakespeare, then in grades 10 to 12 study intensively the new Arden texts of the exact same plays, as part of a national curriculum for high school seniors and as part of a formal national college admissions curriculum. I also include a dozen Shakespeare sonnets in my forty lyric database, which I attach.

    You may have noted that standardized tests are not based on such a carefully designed curriculum, so they have heavy opportunity costs. Instead of orienting students to how to focus on Shakespeare with exact texts and minute concentration on reading, we mislead them into imagining that performance on multiple choice has value.

    I am recommending 6 years of dogged and “recursive” engagement with Shakespeare, plays and poems, because that is how long the latency is for the encounter of the modern student with this greatest of writers.

    There is nothing to prevent schools from teaching other Shakespeare plays, but they would have to do the national curriculum, with no substitution of texts. The new Ardens have brilliant and well written introductions and notes, in the main.

    In poetry, the Helen Vendler “Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries” is powerful. For education reporters, the Shambhala Pocket Emily Dickinson is handy. A fascinating education story is in the fact that despite the value of Vendler’s text she just about completely misread the greatest lyric in English, “It was not Death, for I stood up,” which should be easy to decipher if compared with “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” a good poem for memorization.

    Why does Harvard have no formal admissions curriculum, which would include Vendler’s “Dickinson”? (Most of the 15 poems I have chosen from Vendler for my lyric database are at Poetry Foundation online.)

    Until education reporters show up at schools with “The Pocket Emily Dickinson” and discuss the poetry with teachers and students, we will never get focus on core issues. It is impossible to do the work by remote control.

    Students in grades 10 to 12 should assimilate “Beloved,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Heart of Darkness,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in texts with good introductions if they exist.

    A profound difficulty with education in literature is bureaucratic reduction, in which a teacher avoids the text and downloads little schemes for summaries from the Internet. Or students in IB or AP perform the “Fahrenheit 451″ maneuver, turning down the opportunity to write about “The Great Gatsby.”

    In grammars and dictionaries, since 1990 we have had many products from the corpus revolution in linguistics, the best of them the COBUILD English Grammar and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. It is ridiculous that these books are not in use in even one American school in an integrated and intelligent way. The New York Times should initiate breaking this impasse by making these books official for its operations.

    In each area, Shakespeare, poetry, fiction, grammar, and dictionary (the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms is my 12th essential high school text for English), there are clear opportunities to build latency so that when students get to college they will not be so helpless. What is most important is that the opportunity to build global latency–integrating the skills in each such area of English–is now patent.

    Clayton Burns PhD Vancouver.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Sorry, but memorizing poetry is not going to produce better education reporters.

  • Clayton Burns

    Despite the work of the EWA, the total education file in America remains a quiet and strange one. We might wonder why the 2012 National Awards for Education Reporting at the EWA site include nothing from the daily education reporting of The New York Times.

    Nothing. As if the daily education reporting at the American paper with the best general resources hardly figured at all. I have pointed out to The NYT the limitations of its education reporting. Repeatedly. Despite some solid responses from the Public Editor’s office, there has been little change.

    Americans, including education journalists, should aspire to become good readers of Emily Dickinson and Henry James, for if that were to happen, much of the rest would fall into place.

    Helen Vendler’s “Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries” should be part of a formal admissions curriculum for colleges. Even though her book is the best introduction to lyric poetry, it has some limitations. (Her analysis of “It was not Death, for I stood up,” is very shaky.)

    I have chosen 15 poems here below from Vendler’s 150. (Poetry Foundation is a reliable Internet source for most of them.) Students and education reporters should memorize “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” and “It was not Death, for I stood up,” so as to be able to explain how a Dickinson poem works, and why the Vendler analysis of these two poems can only be seen as unsound.

    Unless we accept the challenge of discussing such content, we are not really reporting on education. We are just running a minor business commenting on externals. I am sure that that is not the goal of the EWA.

    Emily Dickinson:
    1. How many times these low feet staggered –
    2. There’s a certain Slant of light,
    3. I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
    4. It was not Death, for I stood up,
    5. A Bird, came down the Walk –
    6. After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
    7. Because I could not stop for Death –
    8. The Angle of a Landscape –
    9. I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
    10. The Tint I cannot take – is best –
    11. The Way I read a Letter’s – this –
    12. My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
    13. The Wind begun to rock the Grass
    14. Color – Caste – Denomination –
    15. A narrow Fellow in the Grass

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Curious how your argument kept getting narrower, until the conclusion that one pocket volume of one writer’s poetry would be the salvation. Before that, I could at least see some specks of reason.

  • Clayton Burns

    I found the points about unintended consequences, Common Core, (college) remediation, the five-step paragraph, standardized writing tests, and evaluation generally, to be incisive.

    A concept that has perhaps gone unexplored is latency opportunity costs, particularly heavy in education, and seemingly very hard to recognize.

    A method that journalists could consider is the selection of sample texts for comparison. We might pick the McGraw-Hill’s SAT 2013, its SAT Subject Test: Literature, Second Edition, and compare them with some of the best tools for teaching English: Teaching Pronunciation, by Marianne Celce-Murcia, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, and the Shambhala Pocket Classics “The Pocket Emily Dickinson.”

    What should strike a reporter is that an inherent limitation of the SAT method is that there is no powerfully designed curriculum, so that the latency opportunity costs are prohibitive on that ground alone.

    Secondly, the SAT fails intelligently to separate out the levels of English (Sounds, Words, Sentences, and Meanings), and fails to offer dedicated and penetrating tools for each level. Therefore, again, it falls into the latency opportunity costs trap.

    If I focus minutely on comparing Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” with “It was not Death, for I stood up,” if I learn the poems by heart, eventually I might become skilled enough to challenge the Helen Vendler interpretations of them in “Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries.”

    By carrying the Shambhala Dickinson around with me and asking students questions about the lyrics, I can develop my expressive powers so that when I study the COBUILD grammar I will have content about which to write.

    Such would be a real world practice which years downstream would help students with college writing. The SAT, with its heavy bias towards artificiality in multiple choice, and in stale writing topics, is alien to learning. It is a factitious bureaucratic procedure.

    Why reporters cannot grasp such latency opportunity costs puzzles me.

    Every reporter should confront issues of content in education, for example in English, as I have presented here. (The greatest failure of The New York Times is the churning of College Board initiatives.)

    Poynter should make the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the COBUILD English Grammar official for its operations. Every serious education reporter should carry the pocket Dickinson (just 3x 4 1/2 inches) and be ready to discuss the poems in it with students and teachers. Otherwise, we will continue to have no real measures for education reporting, but just the familiar journalist’s rule of thumb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I don’t see much here about “what journalists need to know,” or at least anything regarding what they need to learn. My “favorite” part concerns evaluations, and it falls into the pattern of typical journalism — bash the old way as failing, but don’t try to learn or analyze the new way.

    Also, there is next to nothing here about the problem of states requiring all sorts of new things but not paying for many of them. Just focusing on evaluations is an open door for journalists who don’t really know much about the issue to gripe and throw stones.