Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fancy math in educational research

I was reading an economics blogger who sometimes writes about inequality, and a post of his ( me to a paper by an economics grad student at MIT about charter schools. The paper ( seemed competent--the author is handier with his math than I am--but basically just marginal embroidery. The paper is another angle on the inadequacy of educational research. Basically, the lesson I take away is that fancy math doesn't matter--what you need is more and better data.  

First, I haven't read that many papers about education that attempt such elaborate mathematical modeling as this one.  Here is a screen shot of one of the pages:

Second, it  was remarkable that such elaborate modeling allowed the author to achieve virtually no new insight. The paper begins by acknowledging that there are two ways to understand the success of Boston charter schools: either the success is due to the non-union faculty and "No Excuses" practices of Boston charters, or the success is due to the self-selected student population. Yes, true--and the author's extremely elaborate model only allows him to conclude that if charter schools make a big difference in the achievement of poorer students, then it will be important to figure out how to get more poor students into charters.

This is an entirely obvious conclusion that you might have reached without doing any of the fancy modeling and without spending years in graduate school at MIT. The key issue here is whether it is the schools or the non-school factors that lead to the higher test scores, and this paper sheds no light on that issue.

Economists often write about education, because of the apparent strengths of both the economists (they're arguably better at math than ed school Ph.D.s) and the education data (it's arguably more abundant and rich than economics data). But this paper shows the limitations of both of these apparent strengths: the economist's fancy math is deployed to no effective purpose; and the education data is clearly inadequate.

If we want to know whether the Boston charter schools are markedly more effective than the rest of the Boston system, we would probably have to conduct an actual scientific experiment: randomly assign a large number of students, not allow the charters to drop their lower-performing students, and see what happened. Until then, I will continue to assume what I have never seen disproven, that schools alone cannot overcome achievement gaps, and that the higher test scores of students in Boston charters does not mean that eliminating teachers' unions and adopting "No Excuses" policies would help poor kids learn more.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Death of Theory in Education?

In literary studies, the age of "theory" was coming to its end when I was in college, twenty-some years ago.  I took a class or two in which we read Terry Eagleton's little primer on literary theory and sampled work by a various people who'd been read a lot in the seventies and eighties (Derrida, etc.), but as I recall, my friends and I thought the more theoretical stuff was pretty much a joke. Today I read a piece by an economist making the case that the decline of theory has been a trend in economics, too, and indeed across all the disciplines.  Physicists have hit a theory wall; empirical sciences like biology are ascendant; published economics papers are down from over 50% theoretical in the 60s, 70s and 80s to less than 20% theoretical in 2011; and math is increasingly reliant on proving things by means of brute computing force rather than theoretical deduction.

Why has theory declined?
That last example points to one obvious reason for the shift from a theoretical approach to an empirical approach. Computers allow for data-crunching and simulation-testing that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. But computers are only one possible factor. The economist whose post I read suggests that the waning of theory might be due not only to competition from the now-stronger alternative of empiricism, but because theory itself has been played out (he expresses it in econ terms: "Maybe we've temporarily exhausted the surplus gains available from ramping up our investment in theory.")

As I see it, computing is certainly a huge part of the decline of theory, and the endogenous "exhaustion" of theory itself may be another. I wonder if another factor could be the fall of the Soviet Union. For over a hundred years before the time I was in college, the world had a very vigorous non-stop debate over how to see the world. Then, with the rise of the USSR, competition between the two hegemonic political systems fueled theoretical debates even in fields very far removed from politics (literary studies, for one). When I was in college, the global political competition abruptly ended, and the theoretical debates started to taper off as well. The decline was particularly steep in economics, but it happened in lots of other fields, too.

Connection to Education?
Is this related to education?  I think so.  It's certainly true that theory is less important in education than it used to be. This is true in the literature, but we can see it all around us. When I taught in Harlem in the mid-nineties, the headmaster of my school was an old poet who talked about Paulo Freire all the time. By the time I left, a few years later, he'd been forced out by his board and been replaced by a young corporate executive. Twenty-five years ago, Peter McClaren came out with Life in Schools, my copy of which cites the author's "cutting-edge theoretical work"; last year, when I first read something McClaren had written, my first instinct was to make fun, not only of his rock-star style choices, but also of his Marxism.

So the decline of theory in education does seem related to the triumph of capitalism. Recently I've been thinking about how education is both a public good and a private good. Over the past twenty-five years, the standard view of education has moved away from seeing it as a public good and has come to see it more and more in individualistic terms. There has also, of course, been a push for a more "free-market" system in education.  Both of these shifts, I think, would have been very different if the USSR were still around--not because the USSR was doing education in particular so differently, nor because Diane Ravitch or whoever would be at all sympathetic to the communist system, but because theoretical debate in general would be so much more vigorous. As it is now, we find it difficult to believe in theory at all anymore.  I remember reading Flatland in high school and being really struck by the idea that in a two-dimensional world you just can't imagine a third dimension.

What will happen? 
We will eventually rebuild our theoretical discourses. But it might take a while. In the meantime, while we are stuck with capitalism and with appeals to "evidence-based" approaches, we need to be wary of going with the flow.

What should we do?
I like liberation theology's idea that we should have a "preferential option for the poor"; in the current era, maybe we should have a preferential option for theory and against the rich and powerful. That is, maybe we should:

  1. Look very critically at the evidence, and remember (recalling the Foucault we read lo those many years ago) that when we claim our approach is based on evidence it is probably based on assumptions that have nothing to do with evidence, and 
  2. Look very critically at anything that is supported by rich people or would serve to benefit rich people.
Other ideas?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ETS calls for Graduate Schools of Educational Public Health and more attention to poverty

ETS (!) has sponsored an excellent report on poverty and education.  Written by Richard Coley of ETS and Bruce Baker of Rutgers (and schoolfinance101), the report says what should be obvious to any observer and what many other excellent reports have said over the past forty years: that poverty is a problem for education, but education alone is not a solution to poverty.  Most of the report does the noble work of making (again) a detailed case that there is way too much poverty in the US, that we don't do enough about it, and that this poverty has serious negative educational consequences. The whole report is worthy, but I noticed a couple of things in particular:

A call for a focus on educational public health
The report's executive summary contains a wonderful sentence expressing a sentiment I wish we saw more often:

Given the strong connection between educational success and economic disadvantage, we might
expect education policy to focus on ways to overcome the effects of poverty on children.

In other words, they want schools of Educational Public Health!

What to do
Despite the report's clear implication that fixing poverty would be a good way to improve educational outcomes, the authors unfortunately choose, apparently from modesty, not to recommend any non-educational measures: "There are other strategies that fall outside of the education arena — tax policy, job creation, minimum wage policy, etc. — that also are outside of the purview of this report." The report does, however, make seven specific suggestions for actions within the "education arena", all of which ought to be common sense:

Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences. Child poverty costs the United States hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Current poverty levels, combined with the growingwealth gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution, threaten to destabilize our democracy and limit the upward mobility of children of future generations.
Equitably and adequately funding our schools. The economic downturn has taken a toll on state school funding and on targeted programs like preschool that can help disadvantaged children. There is a need for better coordination of federal and state education programs targeted at poverty.
Broadening access to high-quality preschool education. High-quality early childhood education programs improve the educational outcomes of all children, but particularly for low-income children. The administration’s proposed major expansion of preschool programs across the country should be supported.
Reducing segregation and isolation. Many of the nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by race/ethnicity and income. Each student should have the opportunity to attend schools with peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds.
Adopting effective school practices. School policies that have been documented by research and practice to be effective should be broadly adopted. Examples include class size reduction, longer school days and years, and tutoring.
Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce. Attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in high-poverty classrooms should be of the utmost priority and may require special incentives. 
Improving the measurement of poverty. The poverty rate is an important social and economic indicator that is used to allocate resources for scores of federal, state, and local programs. Work should continue to expand the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize cost-of-living differences across regions.

These aren't new ideas, but as the poet says, it is necessary to write about the same old things
in the same way, repeating the same things over and over. And who knows, maybe this report will get a lot of attention, and we'll stop spending so much time designing ways for schools to compete for the richer students (in Hirschman's terms, we need a system where change is based on voice, not exit).  And, yes, we need a lot less poverty.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Atul Gawande's recent article is relevant to education, too!

There is an excellent Atul Gawande piece in the New Yorker this week about improving medical practice.  There are two main ideas in the article, both of which apply beautifully to education:

1) consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas is more important than fancy new technology
2) to achieve consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas we should use one-to-one coaching--in Gawande's words, "people talking to people."

Every teacher and education wonk in the country should read Gawande's whole article, which is, like his other work (checklists! standardizing good practices!), clever, important, and very readable.

Consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas
A lot of us teachers--me included--worry a lot about what the right curriculum is, think a lot about the big picture of lesson planning, argue about, say, whether kids should be assigned reading or should pick it themselves, and spend hours and hours on new technologies.  These are important things to worry about, and we should certainly be figuring out what matters for our students' learning, but what is probably much more important is our consistent and effective execution of what we already know matters.

Gawande's article begins by contrasting the immediate adoption of anaesthetic use during surgery with the many decades it took for antiseptic measures to take hold, even though the antiseptic measures were known to be hugely important and could have saved many, many lives.  One reason for the quicker adoption of anaesthetics is obvious: anaesthetic, unlike antiseptic measures, has very immediate and direct benefits that are obvious during surgery.  Surgery is painful and difficult without anaesthetics, and it's pretty easy with them.  Easy, but not necessarily effective.  To be effective, the surgery has to be antiseptic--the doctor has to wash his hands and instruments, has to wear freshly cleaned/sterilized clothing and mask, and has to soak up the blood and fluids with fresh gauze instead of the sea sponges that doctors used to use over and over, never sterilizing them. According to Gawande, these antispetic measures didn't catch on not only because they didn't have immediately observable benefits in combatting a visible and obvious problem, but because while anaesthesia made life a lot easier for doctors (imagine cutting into someone who's screaming and writhing in pain), the antiseptic measures actually made life considerably harder for them (Gawande describes early aseptic surgery as requiring surgeons "to work in a shower of carbolic acid").

This distinction between what is easy for the patient and what is easy for the doctor has its analogy in education.  Often, what is good for the student is not particularly easy for the teacher.  And often what comes naturally to the teacher is not what is best for the student.  It's hard for teachers to see this, and we need people to help us.  And even when we know what's important, we don't always manage to do it.  Again, we need people to help us. But what we need is not what we get.

One-to-one Coaching, not evaluation
If we know what teachers must do, but they (we!) don't always do it, how can we help them (us!) improve? In education, too often the only feedback teachers get is through an annual evaluation by a supervisor. These evaluations can be helpful, but we need much, much more.

I have a really great department chair.  She is thoughtful, hard-working, funny and wise, and she has gotten better and better at her job over the past eight years. I always learn a lot from my biannual evaluation.  But it is not nearly enough. I was evaluated this year, and Mary came to my class three times for a total of about an hour.  An hour every two years is just not enough observation. It's great, but it's not enough.

The other problem with our current scheme is that it combines coaching with evaluation. Having any observer in the room will probably change your teaching in some way, but having an observer who is going to be writing a report that goes into your personnel file and could theoretically be used to fire you is definitely going to change the teacher's practice--and the conversations afterward cannot possibly be as free and open with a supervisor as they might be with someone who was only a personal coach. The obvious answer is to have peer coaches who would not judge or evaluate, but only help.  This is essentially what Gawande describes in his article, and it is the obvious way forward for improving teaching--a much more humane and effective alternative to the methods pushed by ed reformers.

This is what teachers' unions should be working on. Instead of abolishing teacher tenure, peer coaching. Instead of a revamped evaluation system, peer coaching. Instead of VAM evaluations, peer coaching. Unions should be leading the way in designing non-punitive teacher-improvement programs.   Of course this is happening to some extent (for instance, one of the wise consultants Leafstrewn has had helping with its work on reading in the content areas is, I think, an expert in peer coaching), but we need much, much more of it. 

How it would work
A peer coaching system would take time. I've done some observing of other teachers, and I've been observed by my colleagues, and the problems have always been twofold: (1) the observations aren't targeted enough; (2) the observations and conversations haven't continued long enough for a comfortable working relationship to develop and for problems to surface, be discussed, and be worked out. Gawande's article addresses both of these problems.

Gawande describes programs that are aimed at specific issues: teaching cholera patientsto treat   themselves with a simple rehydrating solution (a treatment that is actually more effective than the intravenous rehydration that, though the high-tech standard, is impracticable in many places); and teaching obstetric nurses to make sure to execute the couple of dozen practices most important for the health of the mother and child (washing hands, encouraging skin-to-skin contact, monitoring the baby's temperature, etc.), practices that if followed could save millions of lives each year. These programs are staffed by coaches who, though trained, are neither powerful nor very experienced, and the coaching is not compulsory (the nurses don't have to take the advice if they don't think it's helpful). The key is the personal relationship and trust that develops over time.

Gawande describes a young nurse who observes and coaches an older, more experienced obstetric nurse.  After many visits, the older nurse started to change her practice. Gawande asks the older nurse why she listened to the younger, less experienced one; in the beginning, the older nurse said, she didn't.

"The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing." From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.
    "Why," I asked.
     All the nurse ccould think to say was "She was nice."
     "She was nice?"
     "She smiled a lot."
     "That was it?"
     "It wasn't like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes," she said. "It was like talking to a friend."

We need to observe each other more, and not just for one or two times, but repeatedly over long periods, and like these nurses, we need to focus on the basics. I don't think teaching is quite as amenable as doctoring to standardization (for schools to use The Cheesecake Factory as a model, as Gawande wants hospitals to do, would be a mistake), but some questions are relevant for all English classrooms: what is the ratio of teacher talk to student talk? how much are the students reading? who is paying attention and who is not? where are the questions and ideas coming from? are our instructions clear? how much time are we spending/wasting on transitions and instructions? 

Teachers can certainly work on these basic issues on their own, and some of these questions are amenable to checklists or in-class assessments, but the same is true of the fundamentals of obstetric nursing. As Gawande's article shows, and as I know from long experience, just because we know what we should do doesn't mean that we actually do it. To learn to break our bad habits we need lots of sympathetic, non-judgmental help--and not just in the office around lesson-planning, but in the classroom, around execution. So when the current wave off top-down, authoritarian ed reform finally subsides, I hope we will see a boom in peer-to-peer coaching.

In any case, I recommend the whole Gawande article.

Why do we need MOOCs when we have books?

Over the past few years I've gotten interested in economics, and this summer I decided to finally go through an introductory econ textbook.  It's a good way to learn.  I go at my own pace, I can re-read the parts I don't understand, and I can do, or not do, as many of the problems at the end of each chapter as I think I will be helpful. Would taking an actual econ 101 course be better?  Maybe, but maybe not.

Learning economics in this way makes me wonder, of course, about school. I think about the high school courses I teach, and I think, as usual, that we should try to have a lot of our students' learning be done through independent reading. But I also think about online college courses--MOOCs, to use the appropriately silly acronym. And I wonder--what's the point of a MOOC, when we already have books?

Of course, you might ask, what's the point of lectures, when we already have books.  Lectures, as the name implies, started before there were printed books: the lecturer read his book/lecture notes, and the students copied down what he said, so that they could read and re-read it later, at their own pace.  After Gutenberg, lectures weren't as important, but they continued for various reasons (people like watching people, there could be personal contact with the lecturer at other times, etc.). But as many college students have noticed, lectures are not a very good way of teaching.  I skipped at least half of my lectures in college, and I did okay; I had the textbook.

So why MOOCs? And why now? 
If watching someone like Michael Sandel is so great, we could already, before the internet, watch him on videotape or film.  Why didn't community colleges in the seventies and eighties just show films, instead of hiring actual professors? Why are MOOCs happening now?

To answer that question would require going into a whole array of cultural shifts, but it's worth pointing out that places like Harvard and MIT are not, I don't think, going to outsource their teaching to virtual professors anytime soon. MOOCs, like so many other "disruptive" educational innovations, are a matter of providing a cheaper and shoddier product to the middle and lower classes, while providing ever more artisanal craftsmanship to the upper classes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Moving to a free market in education could lead to much higher costs

In between dealing with personal business this summer I've been teaching myself economics and reading a bit in the socioloy of education, and a news story today connects to both.

Health Care and Education: competition in excluding people
There are a lot of similarities between health care and education. One significant similarity is that some people are much more difficult and expensive than other people to educate or keep healthy, so there are huge economic incentives to simply not serve those people. In health care, what this means is that private health insurance companies have often been essentially competing with each other, not to get customers by providing better service, but to not get the customers who are unhealthy--exactly those who most need it.  The same is true in education.  The children who most need a high quality school are exactly the children that schools in a market system would be doing their damnedest to exclude, and that many if not most charter schools are excluding (Bruce Baker, at schoolfinance101, just wrote a piece about this phenomenon in some of Newark's most highly touted charters, which are dropping young black men from their grade cohorts at amazing rates--up to 75%). 

The economic truth of this dynamic--that there are huge costs and inefficiencies in a market system that allows competition in excluding people from your services--can be seen really clearly in health care. The dynamic is clearer in health care than in education, because in health care the US has for many years had a "market-based" health insurance system.  As compared to other developed countries, all of which have some form of government-imposed universal health care, the US spends close to twice as much on health care, with worse results. This is an amazing argument for socialized medicine, and by extension for socialized education. 

Universal = Inexpensive
The same dynamic can be seen in the remarkable news, reported in today's Times, that health insurance premiums in New York are, now that Obamacare has required everyone to get health insurance, going down by at least 50%.  New York State used to have a system in which health insurers were required to take anyone, but not everyone was required to buy health insurance.  This is in some ways analogous to a school "choice" system in which not everyone has to go to the local public schools.  What happens is that the most able students get siphoned away by charters, private schools and other districts, and the core local schools are left with the most expensive and difficult cases.

The Ed Reformers want to move from a more efficient, more socialized system, to a less efficient, more expensive "market" system.  What will happen is the reverse of what is happening under Obamacare.  We will go from having, like every other developed country in the world, an education system that offers reasonable and safe schooling for all, to having an education system that is as dysfunctional as the US health care system has been: not only completely excluding 15% of the population, but costing more for everybody else.

Horace Mann knew this a long time ago Here's what the wise Horace Mann, Nathaniel Hawthorne's brother-in-law, said over a hundred and fifty years ago, when he was the Secretary of the Board of Education in the great state of which Leafstrewn is just a muddy puddle: 

"Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor... Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men,--the balance wheel of the social machinery."

Horace Mann's words raise a number of questions about the purposes and effects of education. I'll write about these questions a bit over the next few weeks.

Monday, July 1, 2013

What might the new NAEP scores mean?

The "Nation's Report Card," otherwise known as the report on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP (I always thought it rhymed with "Jeep," but it may rhyme with "tape"), has just come out.  The NAEP is widely considered a good test, and since the NAEP is not high-stakes, there is little reason for schools or students to cheat, or for schools to attempt to teach directly to it.  I remember Mike Dukakis telling an auditorium full of Leafstrewn students that NCLB was unnecessary because we already had the NAEP.

The NAEP is a good test, and because it is such a good test, and because reading and math abilities change so extraordinarily slowly, there aren't the kinds of variations in the NAEP that there are in, say, the MCAS.  MCAS scores have gone up dramatically over the past fifteen years, while the NAEP scores are always more or less the same.  Therefore, the release of the NAEP scores is a little like a Rorschach  test.

Optimists who favor ed reform will point to little fluctuations and say, See, NAEP scores have risen over the past four years!  People who are against ed reform will say, Look, 17-year olds reading scores are below where they were in the nineties! Nerds will rightly point out that the demographics of the students taking the test have changed significantly over the years, and that breaking out subgroups can be interesting (for instance, black kids' scores have improved much more than those of white kids).  Contrarians might say, the scores haven't changed much, so school doesn't matter.

I'd like to point out an interesting feature of the new report and suggest a possible explanation for it.  I'm not sure I'm right, but my explanation goes along with some of what I have said in the past about the difference between short-term thinking and long-term thinking.

NAEP scores rise for 9 and 13 year-olds
The new "Nation's Report Card" has a very clear lede, and here it is:

Both 9- and 13-year-olds scored higher in reading and mathematics in 2012 than students their age in the early 1970s . Scores were 8 to 25 points higher in 2012 than in the first assessment year. Seventeen-year-olds, however, did not show similar gains. Average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year.

In other words, the most significant result coming out of this year's data is that over the past forty years, scores of nine and thirteen-year olds have gone up somewhat, but scores of seventeen-year olds are not significantly different than they were forty years ago.

One way to interpret this is to say, Well, we sure are doing a better job in the elementary schools; but high schools just aren't getting better.

This view--that elementary schools are improving but high schools are not--doesn't seem totally unreasonable, but there's an interesting problem with it that I have not seen anyone point out. The problem is that this result doesn't fit well with the standard theories of education, which would expect increased achievement by K-8 students to lead directly to increased achievement by 17-year-olds. The standard theories of education--that is, the views of people like Tim Shanahan, the ed reformers, and so on--see learning as essentially a step-by-step process of learning skills. According to this view, it is important to teach reading early, and to focus heavily on skills.  But if you have this view, then the higher scores of 9 and 13 year-olds would predict higher scores of 17-year-olds, and so the lower scores of 17-year-olds would seem to imply, not only that high schools were not getting any better, but that they were actually getting significantly worse.  For you would expect that if you took two 13-year-olds and put them through the same secondary education, the one who was a better reader as a 13-year-old would end up a better reader at 17. For a much better reader at 13 to end up the same as his less-skilled peer at 17 would seem to imply a much worse secondary education.

Have US high schools gotten worse over the past 40 years?
The NAEP scores are, if you follow the standard model, evidence that high schools have actually gotten worse over the past forty years.  This is certainly possible. It's also possible that there are demographic issues involved (changes in dropout rates could affect the scores of 17-year-olds).  But there is another possibility: it could be that the short-term thinking that has been increasingly prevalent over the past few decades has actually led to short-term success, but to a kind of short-term success that has not supported long-term improvement.

I can see two ways this could work.  One is a direct cost: the short-term teaching could be actively bad in the long run.  For instance, it might turn kids off to learning or reading.  If you drill kids for tests, the drilling might improve their scores but make them less creative thinkers.  Two, there might be an opportunity cost: by teaching skills or teaching to the test, you might do less of the kinds of things that prepare kids for learning later on.  For instance, you might read aloud to the kids less, or you might cut down on recess, or you might reduce the time allotted for free, creative play.  Any of these could be imagined to result in lower reading scores a decade later.

Evidence that this kind of short-term/long-term trade-off might be possible can be found in the studies on Waldorf schools that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Waldorf schools do not do any explicit teaching of reading skills until the second grade, and their reading scores are, not surprisingly, markedly below those of other schools in the early grades:

The Waldorf schools do, however, catch up.  I'd love to see data on where those students are at the age of 17.  It seems very possible that by the age of 17 the Waldorf kids, who while everyone else was drilling on phonics instead did a lot of listening to stories, singing songs, reciting poems, and observing nature, might be way ahead.  And that may be the same dynamic we see in the NAEP scores.

If our goals are long-term, why are we all thinking short-term?
As I have repeatedly argued, getting better at reading is a very long-term process, and yet far too much of our thinking as teachers, like far too much of the discourse about education, focuses on the short term.  Most discussion of lesson-planning, for instance, seems based on teaching students a discrete skill that they have never attempted before.  John Hattie, in the introduction to his magnum opus, Visible Learning, offers my favorite example of this short-term thinking: Hattie describes in loving detail the excitement of an initial lesson in rappelling down a building, and then says that this is "the heart of the model of successful teaching and learning."  This is absurd, since reading is neither dangerous nor novel to most of our students, and Hattie would find that teaching rappelling to people who'd already been rappelling for ten years would be very, very different. But Hattie's absurdity is just an extreme version of the kind of thinking we all do.  We are after all called "teachers," and just as it is natural to think to ourselves, "So, what particular skill am I going to teach today?", it is also natural to want to measure students' improvement over the relatively short time periods of a unit, a semester, or a year.  So, under MCAS and NCLB, we now give students high-stakes tests every year, and we are moving to a system by which teachers are evaluated by the results of these short-term assessments.

I doubt this is wise, but in the end it may not do too much harm. The remarkable stability of the NAEP scores is a healthy reminder that changes in educational regimes in the US have not made much difference to test scores. On the other hand, the NAEP may also mean that short-term thinking is ineffective: it may lead to short-term successes, but those short-term successes do not necessarily lead to longer-term success.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Results of a survey on independent reading

I asked one of my ninth grade classes to write my a quick note about how independent reading went for them this year. I asked specifically about how they felt about independent reading, how it had changed, if at all, over the course of the year, and what they foresaw for the future. A few kids were absent; I got thirteen responses.  Two were weakly positive; two were strongly negative, and nine were strongly positive.

I expected to get more responses like the two that were weakly positive, saying that reading "wasn't bad" but not granting that it was actually good.  Instead, most students seemed pretty enthusiastic.  Maybe they were just saying what I was obviously hoping they would say, but I like to think they were really pretty happy to get an English class that gave them a lot of time and encouragement to read what they were interested in.  The strongly negative responses were perhaps the most interesting.  One of the kids read quite a bit (a couple dozen books), and the other read very little (four or five books).  But both predict they will never read voluntarily.  This is probably true.  The tone of these comments is a bit defiant ("Reading didn't actually change my year in any way whatsoever"; "independent reading this year sucked.  I hated it."), but I think they were pleased to get a chance to vent their feelings about having to do something every day that they feel they're really bad at.

In the end, I think the independent reading was a good idea.  I have some ideas about how to change it in the future, but I still think this is a direction we should all be taking.

Here are the responses, unedited except for redacting the name of one elementary school.

Weakly positive:

  • It wasn't bad.  I liked it better than class work.  If the book was good, I liked it.  It got better over the year.  I'll probably read more.
  • I think that the independent reading this year wasn't that bad.  It helped me read a lot, which increased my vocabulary.  I have read more this year than last year.
Strongly negative:
  • My independent reading has greatly increased.  I still don't like reading, but if I have to then I will.  Reading didn't actually change my year in any way whatsoever.  I most likely will never read again unless I have to.
  • I thought the independent reading this year sucked.  I hated it.  I never liked to read, and I never will.  the only time I would like to read is if I find a book that I actually like that doesn't happen often.  I Hate independent reading and I think you shouldn't do it next year.
Strongly positive:
  • My independent reading got a lot better for me this year as far as how much reading i did.  Because of the amount of reading we did this year i will continue to read a lot and enjoy reading.
  • I really started to like reading again.  This really going to help me in the future because I want to actually pick up a book and read compared to last year when I would spark note everything.
  • By reading a lot this year, it made me read more books that I really liked.  I also read a lot at home.  I definatly became a better reader and really enjoyed the unit. I think that I will read a lot this summer and next year.  I haven't read more in my life than I did this year.
  • Independent reading this year was at least for me an improvement over the past couple of years. At __________ our teachers never forced us to read that much because we would always be reading a book as a class.  The only problem was I didn't read that much compared to the others in our class.  I would like to keep improving on the amount that I read because my family do so much of it.  This was still a very good year for me even if it may not look like much it's probably the most that I've ever read in my entire life.
  • I liked independent reading a lot more than assigned reading. It gave me an option to find a book I liked rather than a boring book. I didn't read many books over the course of the year, But I read more than I did last year. I would like to read more in the future.
  • I thought that the independent reading this year was a great idea.  I hate reading as a class because I read slower so I have trouble staying up to date.  It has made me more enthusiastic about reading.  I think I will definately do more independent reading this summer.  At first I wasn't thrilled with the idea of reading on my own but as the year progressed I began to enjoy it.  Thank you for encouraging me to read more and thus making me enjoy it more. Definately do this next year.
  • Independent reading this year has helped me advance to a faster reader.  I've read 3 books the whole way through this year, and I haven't done that before.  I've challenged myself with more challenging books this year and I've also figured out what genre I'm most interested in.
  • Independent reading really opened my eyes to reading more.  Some books I really liked and some books I hated.  Independent reading in class really improved my reading skills.  I think you should continue to allow your students to do independent reading.
  • I thought independent reading was great for me.  Whenever I have to read, I really feel like I am reading for myself.  Reading did change for me.  I have developed my interest and skills in reading. In the future, reading will be closer to my fashion.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NOLA schools "improvement": Ed Reform is likely less important than time, funding and demographics

The NYT has a post up about Ed reform in New Orleans that's getting a lot of attention.  The post basically says that ed reform is helping lift student achievement but may be hurting communities in other ways.  The part about hurting communities is interesting, but the part that attributes increasing student achievement to Ed Reform seems dubious to me.

Bruce Baker of Rutgers (and schoolfinance101) has been pointing out for years that all charter successes are completely explicable by looking at two factors: (a) increased spending and in-school time (as at HCZ etc.); (b) different populations.  If you spend more money and time on a school, and if your student population has fewer poor, ELL or special ed students, then your test scores will be higher.  Baker has repeatedly shown that highly touted charters are actually spending more money and/or enrolling more advantaged populations.

The New Orleans schools have both increased spending (as the NYT article mentions but passes over quickly) and a distinctly different population (as the article does not mention at all, as far as I could see.)  This second point is important. The population of New Orleans is distinctly different post-Katrina (as the NYT reported).  It is smaller overall, it is more white and less black, and it is less poor.

My guess is that these factors are easily enough to explain the higher test scores.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waldorf Schools are an interesting natural experiment showing that explicit reading instruction in the very early grades may be unnecessary

We have some family friends whose kids used to go to a (private) Waldorf school nearby.  The kids were wonderful, but I didn't know much about the school or its methods.  A few days ago, when I was saying something about whether children needed to read "informational text" in the very early grades, my wife said, "That's silly. Waldorf schools don't teach ANY reading until second grade, and those kids end up just fine."

I looked this up, and, as usual, my wife was right: Waldorf schools generally don't teach reading until second grade, use a whole language approach and avoid much explicit strategy instruction when they do teach it, and their students apparently end up reading just fine.  This is an important result, because it would seem to show that explicit reading instruction in Kindergarten and first grade may not be necessary, and that students certainly don't need to read much informational text to themselves in kindergarten and first grade in order to learn to read well later on.

Recent Studies
Until recently, most Waldorf schools were private, so skeptics could argue that if Waldorf students ended up being good readers, the students and families at those schools were distinctly different from the norm, so no comparison was possible.  Over the past couple of decades, however, a number of public Waldorf schools have opened, most of them in California, and two recent studies in the U.S.(Oberman 2007(pdf); Larrison et al. 2012) compare the results at these schools with those at traditional schools with comparable student demographics. The two studies find the same result: when it comes to reading on their own, students in the early grades in Waldorf schools are dramatically worse than their peers in regular schools, but by the later grades, the Waldorf students have caught up or surpassed the regular-school students.

The graphic below shows some of the results obtained in the 2012 study. The scores of the Waldorf students start well below average, then catch up by fourth grade, then seem to pull ahead.

These results are striking. When the same researchers looked only at the California Waldorf schools, so as to avoid issues with cross-state comparisons, the same pattern was seen, though with less dramatic divergence in the upper grades. When Oberman did a similar comparison on a more limited scale and with data from two years earlier, she found a somewhat similar pattern--Waldorf students starting out behind and catching up, if not pulling ahead.  A New Zealand study comes to the same conclusion: Waldorf students do badly on reading tests when they are 6 and 7, but by the time they are entering adolescence, they have caught up or even pulled ahead.

Now, of course the students and families at these schools are self-selecting, and of course there may be other ways to explain away these results, and of course this is not a very large body of scholarly literature.  Nevertheless, I can't find any studies that contradict these three, and these results are consistent with thinking that what is important is not explicit instruction in discrete reading skills, and not reading a minimum proportion of informational text--but, instead, developing students minds by engaging their imaginations, creating a culture of engaged intellectual inquiry, doing lots of reading stories aloud and having them sing songs and repeat poems.

So these studies aren't definitive, but they are enough to call into further doubt the blithe assurances of people like Tim Shanahan and David Coleman that their preferred approach is consistent with the available empirical evidence.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Summer Reading Redux

I've been so busy that I haven't followed up on some stuff I posted about a long time ago and meant to come back to.  Here's a quick follow-up on one thing.

A few months ago I wrote about being on a summer reading committee, and about my cousin's seder-table diatribe against summer reading programs in which everyone reads the same book.  After that post, a few emails, and a discussion in our department meeting, I somehow ended up on a committee of two--me and a wise librarian--charged with creating a summer reading program based on (mirabile dictu) student choice.

So we made up a suggested reading list and wrote up a simple plan for students to recommend books to one other in English class this spring, read books of their own choosing over the summer (they must read at least three books) and then report back on their reading in the fall.  I'm a little worried that some of my colleagues will be pressed for time and won't bother to do the activity; I'm a little concerned that we haven't tried to provide kids with books; and I wish we had had more time to make sure everyone was on board--but at least in principle we now, at least for this year, have a summer reading program that is entirely based on students' choosing their own books.


When shown that there's no solid evidence for their side, literacy gurus demand evidence for the other

Over the past month or so, Tim Shanahan and I have been having an interesting discussion in the comments section to one of his blog posts.  I've been pleased that he's taking the time to respond thoughtfully, but he's not convincing me.  I'm writing this post, even more than some others, to clarify my own thinking--apologies for getting too much into the boring weeds here.

Initially I asked for evidence that reading more informational text led to better comprehension of such text. He said there was lots of evidence, I asked for specifics, and he finally admitted, after a few back-and-forths, that "You are correct that there is no study showing that increasing the amount of the reading of informational text has had a clear positive unambiguous impact on reading achievement or student knowledge. "

Shanahan did not, however, address why he had written in his blog post:CCSS is emphasizing the reading of literary and informational text to ensure that students are proficient with a wide variety of text. Nor did he address why, when I asked for evidence that reading more information text led to greater proficiency with informational text, he responded by saying "Actually there is quite a bit of research showing that if you want students to be able to read expository text, you have to have them read (or write) expository text."

Instead of explaining why he had made incorrect statements about the evidence for reading informational text, Shanahan asked me to show the evidence for reading literary text.  He doesn't seem to get it: my whole point is that there is not strong evidence either way, and it is dishonest to pretend that there is.  He, and many other scholars who engage in education discourse aimed at teachers and the general public, are continually pretending that there is strong scientific evidence for their pet curriculum ideas. Very often there is no such evidence.

When I suggested that a lot of "evidence-based" educational policies are not founded on particularly strong evidence, Shanahan made an interesting move: he essentially said that I was demanding too much.  As he put it, "the basic problem here is with your understanding of research and how causal claims are put forward." He said that what he and others do is to look at some available evidence and come up with a "logic model" that fits the facts.  Not all research is done, because some questions, like " Is third grade really necessary?", are not going to be studied.

So he seems to think if you have a story that is not inconsistent with some emprirically established facts, then apparently you have the right to say that "there is quite a bit of research showing" that your story is true.

Maybe.  But it seems to me that if there is debate about a question, like the question of whether it is worthwhile to make young children read more informational text, then if you say there is "quite a bit of research showing" that your side of the debate is true, you have to have evidence that is not only consistent with your side of the debate but also inconsistent with the other side.

And it's not like we couldn't do some studies!  Nell Duke, a prominent proponent of more informational text in the early grades, has gotten millions of dollars in grant money and has spent over a decade studying the issue of how much informational text children "are exposed to" in school.  Couldn't she have taken some of that large amount of time and money and done a controlled experiment?  Surely some district would have been happy to have a huge library of informational text provided to half of their K-4 schools, so that Duke could check whether students at those schools would actually do better, a few years down the line, at understanding informational texts?  But she didn't do it, and Shanahan didn't do it, and now Shanahan is implicitly suggesting that such research would be as silly as a controlled experiment in which we got rid of third grade.

I'm still trying to figure out what I think about "research-based" arguments.  I guess my position now is: research can be useful and informative, but it is only rarely, to use a legal term that has been cropping up a lot lately, dispositive; and we should have a lot more of it before we take the kind of authoritative tone that Tim Shanahan and a lot of educational experts take when they are writing for a popular audience.  In their scholarly papers, and when pressed in debate, these experts are circumspect and honest about the limitations of their certainty; I'd like to see more of that circumspection in the advice given to us teachers and to the public.

Monday, June 10, 2013

NYT sees no evil in ability grouping; but I wonder if it enables boring curriculum

According to a piece in yesterday's New York Times, ability grouping in elementary school is seeing a resurgence.  The article gives very short shrift to the potential problems with tracking, so it might be worth pointing them out. In general, kids in higher groups like tracking; those in lower groups don't, so most of the problems with ability-grouping are obvious Matthew-effect issues: kids in lower-level groups might feel ghettoized; kids in lower-level groups might learn less. But there's one problem that is less obvious, and that affects students at all levels: tracking may allow teachers to get away more easily with less-interesting curriculum that they might otherwise have to rethink.

The Times article describes one teacher's practice:

Ms. Vail teaches the same lesson, whether it is a math concept or a book, to the entire class, but gives each group a different assignment. Working on each week’s set of new vocabulary words, all four groups draw illustrations and write captions using the assigned words, but she encourages team C, her highest-achieving group, to write more complex sentences, perhaps using two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. She also asks children in team C to peer-teach students in the other groups.
“At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance,” she said.
When she moves students to new groups, she tells them it is because she can best help them there, and she believes they see the grouping positively, she said.
“It has to be done properly — you can’t make a kid feel small because they’re in group A,” her lowest-achieving group, she said. “If you don’t have a stigma attached to the group, then I don’t see the problem.
The teacher doesn't see any problems here ; I see three:
  1. There is probably, despite the teacher's assurances, still a stigma attached to the lower groups.  How can she really know?  And how can she know what the long-term effect of always being in the lower group might be for some kids? It could be pretty harmful, and she would have no idea.
  2. Even if there were really no stigma, there might be harm done to the lower-level kids if they aren't exposed to the more interesting work done by the higher-level kids.
  3. Vocabulary study may well be largely pointless, so there is a large potential opportunity cost here: the kids could be reading instead of doing vocab work.  This is especially important for the kids in the lower groups, who are much more likely to essentially never read.
This last point may seem the least germane to the debate, but is actually potentially very important. Ms. Vail's vocabulary lesson strikes me as pretty tedious, but by adapting it to different levels, she makes the boring lesson workable. Tracking, then, may enable boring curriculum, by allowing its weaknesses to be masked by some made-to-measure tailoring. To offer another example: a curriculum that mimics a standardized test won't work with a heterogeneous group, because the test questions will be too hard for the less able students and too easy for the highly skilled.

My theory is that to make heterogeneous classes work well, you need to do more interesting curriculum. The more meaningful the activity, the more it will allow students of different abilities to engage with it in their own ways. An open-ended discussion can be joined in by students of all abilities, and a mini-lesson on Modernist poetry may be appreciated by everyone as well. If you really want to do vocabulary, why not have every kid write something meaningful (a story, a book review, an argument) using the words? That way each kid could write at his or her own level, and stories tend to be less boring than isolated sentences. If you want kids to push themselves, ask all kids to write the piece using and reusing as many words as possible, or offer variations adapted to the meaningful assignment.  In any case, the more the assignment fits into a larger purpose, the better: instead of isolated sentences, have students use the vocab words in the book reviews they are writing of their independent reading books after having read a bunch of book reviews pulled from a variety of publications, with the eventual goal of putting together a class magazine modeled after the London Review of Books--or whatever.  The point is, meaningful tasks can almost always be done at a wide range of levels; meaningless tasks depend on teacher-created difficulty levels, and if you don't have those levels the meaninglessness is perhaps more exposed.

So though I don't actually know if tracking is always a bad idea (though I'm sympathetic to Jennie Oakes's arguments), I think as a general rule we should have whole-class lessons that aren't tracked, have individual work that is appropriate for the individual kid, and have group projects that are mixed-ability.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

If disruptive innovation is so great, how come the elite eat artisanal bread and cheese, drink artisanal wine and send their kids to artisanal schools?

Disruptive Innovation has been a big buzzword in business and tech circles for nearly two decades now, but it's only recently that people have started trying to apply it to education.  The basic idea is that in any industry, the established players are focused on incremental improvements, and that big changes only happen when new producers enter the arena, usually with a shoddier but cheaper product that they sell to a new, untapped market.  As I've written, this paradigm doesn't fit K-12 education very well, since there wouldn't seem to be a large untapped market available, and the market is fairly closed to new producers--but one way of seeing the Ed Reform movement is as an effort to open up the market, especially at the low end.

In a previous post, I argued that, seen in the light of disruptive innovation, ed reform was mainly about  serving poor kids with shoddier products that cost less money. In this post, I discuss the flip side of disruptive innovation: the way in which our era, which has been famously amenable to disruptive innovation, is also quite amenable to its opposite: conservative, traditional artisanal products.  These traditional artisanal products are not, however, aimed at the mass market, but at the high end.

The other problem with disruptive innovation: it's often not as good!
"Disruptive innovation" is discussed so much in the media that people tend to forget about the flip side of the shoddier/cheaper dynamic.  In recent decades, a lot of people have also done very well by making things somewhat less cheaply but also of dramatically higher quality. You might call this "artisanal non-innovation."  Especially among the elites in our society, and especially over the past few decades, as the rich have gotten richer and the wages of the bottom half have stagnated or fallen, there has been a movement back toward ultra-high-quality traditional products.  This has been true in education as well, and there is no reason to think this trend won't continue.

Artisanal non-innovation
Artisanal non-innovation means going against the grain of our mass market economy and, inspired by a tradition and learning from its masters, trying to do things the old-fashioned way and do them really, really well.  Artisanal non-innovation has been a fine business model both for those who don't need to grow (often family businesses, like Limmer boots)--and for those who do want to grow (Starbucks, for example).

Artisanal schools
Even as the powers that be promote "disruptive innovation" in education, nattering on about Baumol's disease and productivity, they are, of course, choosing artisanal schools for their own children. In New York City, private schools that used to be considered third-tier, schools that anyone with tuition could get into, are now seen as elite, and some of the elite schools are doing away with testing altogether. If they have to do test prep, they'll do it the old fashioned, artisanal way and get a tutor.

So it seems likely that what is coming in education, as in other areas, is a bifurcated America, in which the masses get sold lots of crappy test-prep products, and the elites, who cheerlead the crappiness of the crappy test-prep regime by calling it "disruptive innovation," will be choosing for their own children education that is ever more artisanal.

Other kinds of disruption
In other words, we public school teachers, parents and children will have this...

...and the elites will have this...

...until, perhaps, we get the more political kind of disruptive innovation that we haven't seen in this country for 80 years or so...

Friday, June 7, 2013

In education, "Disruptive Innovation" means new, worse schools

A couple of years ago Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the high priest of "disruptive innovation," was eagerly anticipating the rise of disruption in K-12 education, even suggesting that by 2019 "half of all classes for grades K-12 will be taught online." A more modest new white paper from Christensen's institute scales back these ambitious predictions, suggesting instead that what's coming is "hybrid" or "blended" innovation, in which novel methods will combine with elements of the old regime.  

Perhaps it's a good thing that the Christensen institute is realizing that traditional schools have more staying power than previously suspected. Still, the new paper is an occasion to reconsider the whole idea of "disruptive innovation." After looking into it a bit, I think that if Christensen's first idea was a bit extreme, his basic idea is partly right: we are getting disruption in our schools--but in a bad way, not a good way.

What is "disruptive innovation"?
The basic idea behind "disruptive innovation" is that the status quo is upended by doing something (making cars or steel, providing music or movies, etc.) somewhat more shoddily but also dramatically more cheaply or conveniently.  Clayton Christensen has made a career out of describing and glorifying this process, and it may be a useful way to think about a lot of things: the rise of the Japanese car-makers, for example, or of Netflix's streaming video business.  Christensen, and many others, have predicted that the education status quo will soon be upended by disruptive innovation, usually imagined as some form of online learning.  This may eventually happen, but there are some significant barriers to it, especially at the K-12 level.

Why disruptive innovation won't come naturally to K-12 education
Every year my alma mater's alumni magazine, which fancies itself a major force in journalism, publishes a list of 50 "disruptive companies"; this year, for the first time, an education company made the list.  Predictably, the company was Coursera, which provides free online college courses, and not a company involved in K-12 education, which is particularly resistant to change.

Disruptive innovation typically requires one or both of the following: (1) low-end consumers; (2) new producers who are doing things differently.  First, there has to be a market for the crappier product.  Often the untapped market is in a niche where the crappier product is more convenient, like cell-phone cameras, or where the old product was exclusively expensive, as when personal computers displaced mainframes.  In education, it is very clear that colleges and universities are ripe for disruptive innovation, since colleges are getting so expensive (to be sure, some of this is happening because states are defunding their own public universities).  As for the second requirement, producers who are doing things differently, higher ed. has always had a fair amount of "churn," or Schumpeterian creative destruction, and there are naturally, then, lots of groups working on doing things differently: Coursera, EdX, etc. But K-12 education is fairly different from higher ed, and is less naturally open to disruptive innovation.  K-12 education has not seen the same skyrocketing prices, it has a stable and in some sense captive consumer base, and doesn't have a significant sector of alternative producers to serve the (non-existent) low-end market.

It's interesting that K-12 education costs have been fairly stable. Despite Baumol's cost disease, which is supposed to lead things (like teachers) that are not amenable to technology improvements to become more expensive over time, teacher salaries have been pretty much flat since the early seventies; moreover, the cost of K-12 education has not, unlike that of higher ed or health care, increased as a share of GDP.  So the low-end market that is required for disruptive education is nonexistent; to create it will require political action. Another thing that would be required is a significant sector of producers who are doing things differently.  And in K-12 education, the only producers who are doing things differently are private operations (open schools like Sudbury Valley, homeschool operations like Calvert, etc.). In the traditional system, these private schools do not have access to the low-end market, which has been limited to public schools.

It's possible, then, to see Ed reform as a movement that is attempting to create the conditions for disruptive innovation by (1) creating a low-end market and (2) encouraging a new education sector that is, in Christensen's words, "remote from the mainstream."  Ed Reform is creating a low-end market by starving districts of funding, partly by channeling funds to charters; and this heavy support of charter schools and vouchers, etc., it aims both to increase the number of education providers who are doing things differently and to allow them access to the low-end market.

In other words, in education disruptive innovation may mean a race to the bottom for our poorest kids, even as the rich go to ever-more artisanal schools
The reformers want to open up the education market to low-cost producers.  This is a strategy that has not worked in any other country, and if the history of the free market in other products is any guide, even at its best we will end up with the poorest and most vulnerable children in our society being almost completely cut out.

The rich and powerful, on the other hand, will probably not send their kids to disruptively innovative schools.  Because when it comes to services and human experiences (food, coaching, nature experiences, opera, education, etc.), the rich and powerful very rarely use the products of disruptive innovation.  Rich people don't get take-out via their smartphones; they hire a personal chef.  For rich people, the trend is not toward disruptive innovation, but toward artisanal non-innovation, and the same will probably be continue to be true of schools for the rich.  More on that in another post.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so difficult?

Kids don't read it because it's difficult--but why is it difficult?
To Kill a Mockingbird is the very text that William Broz used as his prime example in his article, "Not Reading: The 800-pound Mockingbird in the classroom."  Broz argues that most students who are assigned the book don't actually read it.  Broz doesn't mention the text's difficulty in his article, but I wonder if his students--and many others--aren't reading it not only for the obvious reasons (have other priorities; think they can get away with not reading; don't like reading, period; want to read other stuff; etc.), but also because the book is so difficult. I certainly find that the book is too hard for at least half of my ninth graders. But why?  The difficulty is not captured in the book's lexile score, which is about the same as The Fault in Our Stars, but students don't seem to have trouble reading the John Green book.  On the contrary, they gobble it up at astonishing rates.  What, then, makes Mockingbird so difficult?

It's not the vocabulary, sentence structure, or background knowledge
Mockingbird's difficulty is not because of its vocabulary, though that is not easy.  (Any book that uses "seldom", "assuaged"," apothecary", "Methodist", "strictures", "chattels", "piety", "stinginess", "Cornwall", "sustain", "impotent", "apparel", "dictum", "persecution", "Battle of Hastings", "read law" and "taciturn" in the first two pages is pretty difficult, but The Fault in Our Stars manages to use sophisticated vocabulary and still be accessible.)

It's not the sentence structure or the background knowledge that's required, although again, many young readers will be put off by a book whose second page contains the sentence "Mindful of John Wesley's strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel."  

Instead, what makes Mockingbird so difficult is the jumps in time, continuity and logic. Nearly every paragraph requires the reader to make an inference or catch a subtle subtext--and to make these inferences not only so as to appreciate shadings of meaning, but just to follow the basic events of the story.

A sample chapter (seven types of ambiguity!) Chapter 25, which I read out loud to my classes last Friday, is a case in point.  The chapter has a series of very confusing time-shifts, and neglects to mention some key information.  I go through the confusing sequence below, but the specifics aren't so important--what matters is that there are at least seven separate times in the first half of the chapter in which the main plot information is unspoken and needs to be inferred.

1. The chapter starts in medias res, with Jem telling Scout to put "him" out on the back steps.  We don't know what or who is to be put out. A few lines later we learn that it's a "small creature," and that Scout does put him out, scooping him up, putting him on the bottom step, and going back to her cot.

2. Then, after a bit of scene-setting (it's September, they're still sleeping on the porch, etc.), we hear that a "roly-poly" is in the house.  It might occur to us to wonder if this is the creature Scout put out on the back steps, but we wonder, if so, what the thing is doing back inside.  

3. Putting down her book, Scout watches the roly-poly for a while, and then, feeling sleepy, she "decided to end things."  (Not all of my students realized that she was going to kill the bug.)  

4. Scout says, "My hand was going down on him when Jem spoke."  The next paragraph begins, "Jem was scowling.  It was part of the stage he was going through"...  Again we are thrown off balance: Jem "spoke," but what did he say?  We aren't told; we are supposed to remember the first line of the chapter, which was, "Don't do that, Scout. Set him out on the back steps."  But the narration goes on, not mentioning anything about Scout's scooping him up and putting him on the back steps, so we're not really sure.

5. Over the next few paragraphs Scout lies on her cot thinking about things, and soon, she says, she is "wide awake, remembering what Dill had told me."  What had Dill told her, we wonder; are we supposed to know?  

6. She goes on to describe a time Dill and Jem were walking back from swimming at the local swimming hole and get picked up in the car by Atticus and Calpurnia, who are headed to Tom Robinson's house.  Now, if we remember the previous chapter we may wonder if this is the time, the previous month, when Atticus and Calpurnia go out to tell Tom's wife that he has been shot, but we certainly are never told this straight out, and at least half of my students had no idea that this was the particular day that Scout is remembering.

7. Those students would have been confused, then, when Helen Robinson ("Who's Helen?" one of my students called out as I was reading) suddenly collapses just before she reaches Atticus.  Not only has Atticus not told Helen that her husband is dead, Harper Lee hasn't told us that Helen is collapsing because she sees the truth in Atticus's face--nor even that Atticus is there to deliver the news.

Conclusion: maybe we shouldn't assign it so widely?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful, intricately constructed novel, but it is often needlessly obscure, and I sympathize with those of my students who say they would never want to read it to themselves.  My 13-year old son was given the book a few years ago by his grandparents, and it has sat unread on his shelf to this day. In short, I think we should reconsider assigning it as widely as we do.