Thursday, May 05, 2016

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Signing Off

It’s all about finding the center.

I had been on the faculty for around fifteen years, and I had found my comfort level in the classroom. My philosophy had gradually evolved from the rigid authoritarianism of my youth to a more open and accepting stance. I was helped along by some wise community college students who made me see who they were, not who I wanted them to be. Probably the one who pointed me most was an inmate at the state penitentiary—a lifer—who moved me away from promoting education as a way to construct a job, a career, an expected pattern to understanding that the purpose of education is to more fully live and understand the lives we find ourselves in.

It was about this time that I attended a Roger Garrison Master Teachers’ Seminar in Portland, Maine. Garrison had it right. He believed that the voices of authority at the seminar should not be hired consultants who talked the talk, but instead the authoritative voices should be the faculty who have been doing the work. After all, we knew the questions, and we had struggled with answers. Garrison believed that if we had time to work together on our own questions with our own answers, we could find better solutions. What the seminar gave me, in the final analysis, was the personal authority to teach my students, not to teach a field. I came away grounded in my own center.

What happened the first night of the seminar speaks closely to my most recent work. The first event was a social, and we all introduced ourselves by telling a snippet about who/what/why that gave a sense of who we were. A man from the Washington, DC area introduced himself and identified his community college. I don’t remember if it was Prince George’s, Montgomery, or Northern Virginia, but it was one of the recognizable ones from the DC area. He said he liked living close to DC because that is where it’s at. The center of everything. All the political power in the world is right there.

However, I knew that across the Missouri River from Bismarck is a reconstruction of a Mandan Indian Village on its original site. In addition to reconstructed earth lodges, in the center of the village is a wood palisade about 6-8 feet in diameter. Inside that palisade is a hole in the ground, and that is the Arc of the First Man; the hole through which humans emerged unto the earth. There is the center of the universe—the center of everything.

It is the balance between a natural center and our constructed centers that we must achieve. In many ways that is the heart and soul of writing, and what gives such power to the fictive voice. We must find a way to construct a narrative that reveals the unconstructed whole.

Three years ago I traveled east in my little Jeep, and when I came through the eastern divide in the West Virginia, western Maryland and western Virginia mountainscape, I listened to Judy Collins “Amazing Grace.” I began the long slide down the Chesapeake watershed to Washington, the place where it’s at, and when I hit the beltway, I shoved the Chicago Brass into the tape player and cranked the volume. I needed all the brass I could muster to survive.

These kids from the high plains of the western Dakotas survived nicely. Accustomed to the long landscape and the long wind that sweeps down from the western divide and across the great plains, we adjusted to the haze-shortened vision and crowded landscape where large buildings hold the imagination of the world. We reveled in the constructed reality within the art museums, the Kennedy center performances, the words and ideas of our political heritage, the artifacts of the natural science museum and the constructed birds in the air and space museum. Here, everything is one step or more from reality. Artifacts in museums and constructed ideologies reflect and represent the actuality that is the real workaday world.

I have cleaned out my office, the accumulated detritus easily disposed of. I have packed my apartment and it waits for the van. On Monday I will do the ceremonial turning in of my keys, cell phone, credit cards, and other paraphernalia necessary for this work. Then I will toss my bedroll (okay, that’s a metaphor) in the back of my little Jeep, shove Peter, Paul, and Mary singing "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land" into the tape deck, and climb out of the lowlands and over the eastern divide to head out for the original Northwest Territories. When I come out of the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul heading north on Interstate 35, the traffic will be traveling at 75-90 miles an hour—not unlike the beltway down here. Then, at Forest Lake, I will turn off the interstate onto a two-lane blacktop country road that winds over hills, around lakes, and has no passing areas. The speed limit is 55, and I will fall in line with traffic that moves no faster than that. So, I will meander along the curves and hills, watch the blue sky over the blue lakes, roll the window down and smell the fresh fields and hear the birds. And I will be home.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Increased Stipends for NEH Summer Grants

The National Endowment for the Humanities has announced the Summer Stipend awards for 2009. The grants have increased to $6,000, and there is a new method of applying. Regular faculty members must be nominated by their institution, but each institution can nominate up to two faculty members. Adjunct or part-time faculty and independent scholars may apply for the grants without nomination. The deadline for application is October 1, 2008.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It is Advocacy Time

The period from March through May is the advocacy period for getting voices heard on Capitol Hill. That is because the President issues the budget in February, and Congress hears from consituents in a constant parade across Capitol Hill for the next few months. If you haven't already received your information about NCTE's "Literacy Education" advocacy month, here is the link to our site.

One of the groups we belong to and work with is the National Humanities Alliance which had its Humanities Advocacy Day on March 4. Since then, the National Humanities Alliance has been following the progress of the legislation for humanities programs, and adding more testimony. Here is the latest update from the NHA.

You will notice that they have posted the NCTE advocacy site on their site. This is another example of the work we do with other organizations to continue to have a common voice on issues of common concern. One of the advantages of advocating for multiple issues, whether in the home district office or in Washington, is that your representatives and their aides begin to recognize you as a concerned citizen who represents a common set of values. As we build trust with the offices, we become a more powerful voice.

I guess everything is a writing assignment--message, audience, voice. Did somebody mention rhetoric??

Friday, January 11, 2008

Humanities Update

We start the new year with Congress in recess, but news from the National Humanities Alliance. Here is the January update from NHA.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, Conclusion

Well, there you have it. We have all posted our comments based on our talk at the NCTE Annual Convention. We learned that dialogue is good, that both the Department of Education can learn from us, and we can learn from them.

In the continuation of the Dialogue, there will be a Featured Session at CCCC in New Orleans, April 3-5. It is scheduled for 8.00. a.m. on Friday. Appearing at that session will be Vickie Schray from the Department of Education, and the NCTE/WPA leaders for the NCTE/WPA joint task force that is preparing resources for assessment. Several of the posts in this series have alluded to those documents. So, in addition to Ms. Schray, we will have Howard Tinberg and Linda Adler-Kassner as the co-chairs of the task force. Also, we will have Jeff Andelora and Asao Inoue as the leaders of the resource packet and the white paper on assessment.

In addition to our session, the Department of Education hosted a meeting of many of the disciplinary associations representing the major undergraduate fields this past October. At that meeting, the Department outlined its plan to conduct another summit in March of 2008 followed by regional meetings again next June.

When Margaret Spellings announced the Commission that sparked all this discussion, she said she wanted to start a dialogue to address the needs of higher education. As Duane points out, the needs are there, and we already know them. As John and Anne caution, we do have serious problems, but we need to be careful of strangers offering gifts. Linda reminds us that our field, rhetoric, needs to be central to how we discuss our work, and Shelley shows us how to think about the public-ness of true scholarship. We are part of the dialogue.

Now we would like to hear from you. Do you have questions of us? Or comments you wish to make. Please feel free to use this space to extend our dialogue.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, VI

Duane Roen attended the Phoenix summit. As head of Humanities and Arts at Arizona State University, Duane brings the perspective not only of academic work, but also of how that work relates to our many publics. In his piece he reflects on the needs of higher education, whether there had been a Commission Report or not.

Speaker Six
Duane Roen
Arizona State University

The U.S. Department of Education held one of its regional summits in Tempe, Arizona, on June 12, 2007. Before I arrived at the summit, I was skeptical, concerned that the day would be spent listening to the Department of Education’s party line. However, the day proved to be a productive exchange of ideas among people who care about students. Summit participants included legislators, business and community leaders, and educators from Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, Washington, and New Mexico. The schedule included some presentations by Department of Education staff, as well as conversations that engaged most, if not all, people in the room. The major topics, of course, were accessibility, affordability, and accountability.

It is important to note that Vicky Schray, Senior Advisor at the Department of Education, profusely complimented Paul Bodmer for his efforts to engage NCTE in the national conversations about “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” commonly known as The Spellings Report. Paul has obviously worked diligently to make certain that NCTE is at the table. We should be grateful for all his work. Paul’s work should serve as a model for how we can find ways to participate in national conversations about education.

Sara Martinez Tucker, Under Secretary of Education, opened the summit with some of the general concerns about accessibility, affordability, and accountability. For example, 46% of seventeen-year-olds do not have the math skills required for factory floor jobs; thirty-seven million American adults do not have access to higher education because of time, cost, or institutional inflexibility. Noting that it’s important to encourage local ownership for a national agenda, she commented on the need to align the K-12 curriculum with expectations from both higher education and employers. She also mentioned some existing and proposed initiatives for addressing issues such as greater financial aid for students.

Kristin Conklin, Senior Counselor at the Department of Education, led the discussion on accessibility. She provided sobering statistics about the number of Americans who don’t finish high school. She talked about the P-16 commissions in each state, which are chaired or co-chaired by the governor. She suggested—appropriately—that institutions of higher education need to consider the needs of adults who have work and family responsibilities, commitments that make it difficult to take on-campus classes at certain times of the day and week. She emphasized the need for the business community to provide financial and moral support, and to participate in discussions about learning outcomes. My own view is that discussions about learning outcomes should be as inclusive as possible, seeking input from groups such as faculty, administrators, students, alumni, employers, accrediting agencies, professional organizations, and the general public.

Robert Moran, Senior Advisor at the Department of Education, led the discussion on affordability. Although organizations such as NCTE may have less to contribute to the affordability conversation than to the conversations about access and accountability, we need to be aware of the financial needs of students. For example, faculty can be mindful of textbook costs, which are of concern to students, parents, governing boards, and legislators.

Lyle Hillyard, a state legislator from Logan, Utah, offered an elected official’s perspective on many of the topics that surfaced during the day, emphasizing that all stakeholders (students, legislators, universities, employers, the general public) need to take responsibility for enhancing access, affordability, and accountability.

Vicky Schray, Senior Advisor at the Department of Education, ended the day by leading a discussion on accountability, a topic of great interest to NCTE, CCCC, WPA, and many other professional organizations. She noted—appropriately—that policy makers, institutional leaders, and faculty need to work toward greater transparency in assessment. My own view is that we can enhance our credibility substantially if we share our program and institutional assessments widely with stakeholders. Assessment can serve us in many ways if we carefully design it to find out how well we are doing our work with students. Investing much time in teaching is important, but it is more important that we know how much learning results from that teaching.

Even if the Spellings’ Commission had never existed, there still would be great interest in access, accountability, and affordability. These concepts are familiar to anyone who has spent any time visiting Arizona State University, which is focusing much attention on “access,” “impact,” and “excellence.” When we demonstrate that we are concerned about students and their learning, we show our true colors, for our field is filled with teachers who are deeply committed to student success.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, V

In this, the fifth in our series, Anne Herrington looks at the major players in the accountability game and raises some serious questions. Here are her comments from our Featured Session at the NCTE Annual Convention November 17.

Speaker Five
Anne Herrington
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Accountability and Assessment of Learning Outcomes

With the others, I want to thank Paul Bodmer for securing invitations for NCTE members at the regional summits that the DOE was holding to follow up on the Commission report. At the Boston meeting, about eight of us from NCTE joined senior administrators from state systems and colleges and universities, heartened that we, too, could represent our views. It was a bit unsettling, though, to meet at the plush corporate offices of EMC and receive a leather valise and handsome pen as welcome gifts.

Some Key Players and Key Words

The U.S. Department of Education (and state governments to varying degrees) is but one of at least three key players in shaping policy and practices regarding accountability. The others are the major testing corporations (ETS, ACT, RAND) and national higher education organizations (National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges [NASULGC], American Association of State Colleges and Universities [AASCU], and the Association of American Colleges and Universities [AAC&U]). We—as individual faculty and disciplinary, professional organizations—are presently positioned as ones impacted by those policies and with lesser power to shape them. This current hierarchy of power makes collective action and advocacy by us through our professional organizations all the more important: NCTE, CCCC, WPA.

The ideology of assessment that drives these policies is evident in the key words that circulate in documents by these key players. These key words figure prominently in the report of the Federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the “Spellings Commission”) that formed the basis for the Secretary of Education’s Action Plan and, in turn, shaped the Regional Summit discussions: “robust culture of accountability and transparency,” “value-added,” “allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning.” To achieve these goals of accountability, calculation of value-added, and comparability, the report called for higher education to be held accountable for learning outcomes, and cited two tests as examples of quality-assessment instruments: ETS’s Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, (MAPP) and the RAND Corporation’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Already the interconnection among key players is evident, here the testing corporations and the federal government.

With this frame in mind, I will make a couple comments on the Regional Summit and then two related initiatives that are impacting assessment and also show the links among the key players.

Boston Regional Summit

At the Boston Regional Summit, Vickie Schray, Senior Advisor to Under Secretary Tucker, led the discussion on Accountability. I was heartened that of the key words, transparency was stressed, not comparability (benchmarking) or value-added calculations. To paraphrase Schray, it’s each institution’s responsibility to define learning outcomes and determine the best means to asses them. She went on to say, “that doesn’t necessarily mean standardized tests.” When asked explicitly about bench-marking, Schray said, “there is no expectation for bench-marking.” She did stress, though, that having external criteria is important. Reflecting at least in part the input of other NCTE voices at the earlier summits, Schray also mentioned having heard a lot about e-portfolios.

Later, in her talk, Secretary Spellings said the Department was “not calling for a one-size fits all manner of accountability.” She also affirmed that decisions as to what and how to assess should be left to institutions.

In an email report to my University’s Provost, I summed up my impressions: “These comments encouraged me as they seem to be backing off expecting institutions to use reductive tests like CLA, CAAP, or MAPP to assess outcomes and compare ourselves against ‘peers’, i.e., other users of one of those tests. While an institution might still choose one of these, of course, it seemed that the option to select context-sensitive, locally developed assessments was opened to us. That’s certainly more in line with recommendation of AAC&U and also, for writing assessment, the National Council of Teachers of English.” (As you may have inferred, in writing to her, I was trying to make a case for our locally developed assessments and position NCTE with AAC&U.)

Voluntary System of Accountability

Unfortunately, that approach to assessment is not in line with the one taken by NASULGC and AASCU, which over the past year had been developing its “Voluntary System of Accountability,” an effort to develop a template to provide potential students and parents with comparable, and easily accessible, information on basic cost and demographic information, graduation rates, time to degree, and, what is more controversial, learning outcomes. For learning outcomes, they identified three tests that participating institutions could select from for the measurement: ETS’s Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress (MAPP), RAND’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) and ACT’s Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP)--three standardized tests. The rationale for this outcomes testing provision has essentially been that “if we don’t do it, the feds or someone else with do it for us.” Peter McPherson, President of NASULGC, argues, “If we can’t figure out how to measure ourselves, someone else will figure out how to measure us,” he said. “It’s inevitable.” How adopting these three standardized tests represents higher education “figuring it out” for ourselves is hard to understand. It seems instead to be higher education using what someone else, the testing industry, has figured out.

The template, called the College Portrait, was officially unveiled in early November at the NASULGC annual conference. According to an article in (Jaschik), participating institutions already include the California State University, University of North Carolina and University of Wisconsin systems, as well as the Universities of Iowa and Tennessee. Interestingly, not the University of California system. While praising other aspects of the College Portrait, Robert C. Dynes, President of the University of California, questioned the value of the outcomes testing provision: “The university has concluded that using standardized tests on an institutional level as measures of student learning fails to recognize the diversity, breadth, and depth of discipline-specific knowledge and learning that takes place in colleges and universities today.”

DOE FIPSE Funded projects : The Postsecondary Achievement and Institutional Performance Pilot Program

As one way to push forward with assessment, the Department of Education dedicated $2.45 million of FIPSE grant money to assess existing measures of learning outcomes and develop new ones. As reported by Lederman in, the three projects involve the major higher education organizations and one or possibly two involve the major testing corporations:

  1. NASULGC receives funds to review the effectiveness of CLA, MAPP, and CAAP. And incredibly, according to, the testing companies themselves will work with other testing “experts” to assess the tests reliability and validity. Like trusting a drug-company to research its own drugs.
  2. AASCU’s part of the project (in which AAC&U will also participate) focuses on developing tools for measuring student outcomes in new areas, including “civic engagement, teamwork, personal and social responsibility.” Stay tuned for more testing! I do not know if the testing companies will be involved with this project, but it would not surprise me if they were. AASCU has been advocating value added assessment and use of “recognized and tested national instruments” for quite awhile. Also, in a “webi-nar” I participated in with CLA, the CLA leader said that they are working on developing an assessment of ethics.
  3. The Association of American Colleges and Universities is leading a project to conduct an audit of campus-based assessment projects to identify best practices, with e-portfolios being a focus ( Kathi Yancey is on the Advisory Board of this project, a promising sign.

So where does this leave us? Advocacy, action, and research:

As individuals, we need to engage in advocacy and action at our local institutions and with our professional organizations. We should be guided by NCTE and CCCC positions—ones also in line with AAC&U I might add--calling for locally based assessments that are closely linked to curricula and derive from locally identified objectives; assessments that use multiple measures; assessments that engage students in contextualized, meaningful writing.

The WPA and NCTE Resource Guide will also be a valuable tool for us. Participate in NCTE’s Advocacy Month this April, too (
As an organization, we need to keep trying to impact the U.S. DOE and our states.

We also need to find ways as an organization to be in conversations with the major higher education organizations, certainly to follow the FIPSE projects. Will writing assessment experts be involved in NASULGC’s review of CLA, MAPP, and CAAP, for instance? And in AASCU’s project?

We need to pursue systematic research on the formulation and implementation of “accountability” policies, trying to hold accountability accountable. That research would include examination of the interrelation among key players and the ideologies driving present policies.

We also need to get some questions on the table that the accountability and comparability frame obscures:

  • How much and what sorts of assessment do we—including institutions and public stakeholders—need beyond what occurs in classrooms? This is a key question for faculty to address at the institutional level and to be brought into policy discussions within higher education associations and DOE.
  • How important is having comparability of data with other institutions? Is transparency enough?
  • Who and what should drive curriculum decisions?
  • Where are the dollars going? If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that a good deal of money is flowing to the testing industry. At our own institutions, if money is being spent for standardized tests, is any also going for locally developed and implemented assessments?
  • What is the investment in assessment in relation to other academic needs? And, how are costs and benefits of assessment to be assessed?

Jaschik, Scott. “Accountability System Launched.” November 12, 2007.

Lederman, Doug. “Meeting of the Minds.” September 27, 2007.

“U.S. Department of Education Awards $2.45 Million for Improved Measures of Achievement for Post-Secondary Students.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, IV

Shelley Rodrigo went to the Phoenix summit, participated in our featured session, and came away from the experience with a new take on the scholarship of teaching and learning that also speaks to Boyer's scholarship of engagement. In this piece she explores why going public is now part of our everyday, workaday world.

Speaker IV
Shelley Rodrigo
Mesa Community College
Disciplinary Representation & Professional Responsibilities

As was already mentioned a couple of times by the time I spoke, the summer meetings were primarily made up of high level administrators, regional business, industry, and public officials, as well as individuals from educational industries, especially testing services. If these individuals had ever been in a classroom, it had been a very long time since they had seen the inside of one. At the Phoenix meeting, where I attended, the only people in the room who were still teaching classes where the individuals who had been invited at the suggestion of NCTE. As English instructors, especially of universally required first year composition, many of us regularly work with a representative cross-section of students at our institutions. Not only should we be thankful to Paul Bodmer and NCTE for getting us invited to participate in these discussions, the Department of Education should be thankful to Paul and NCTE for getting actual faculty, who have the closest connect to actual students, participating in these discussions.

During the various discussions of access, affordability, and accountability the faculty representatives were the ones who were able to give detailed examples and anecdotes to help elaborate or sometimes complicate the issues. To put this in terms of Linda Adler-Kassner's discussion of framing, it was the faculty lead discussion of specifics that allowed for the expansion, reinterpretation, and even breaking of the frames that the various high level administrators, business persons, and politicians used to make meaning of the issues.

Participating in these discussions helped me to realize that there is a shift in what it will take to be a faculty member in the 21st century. This shift in faculty roles parallels the description of the different types of teaching that Shulman (2000) discusses in his definition of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). We are all Good teachers, critically reflecting on our teaching practices and revising as necessary. Most of us take pride in being Scholarly teachers, teachers who base our teaching practices on the sound pedagogical practices based on the research and theories we read in scholarship. While faculty who practice SoTL research their own practices and take the big step of making that research public so that others can benefit from what they have learned.

Teachers in the 21st century, especially English teachers responsible for making sure Johnny can write, need to make similar distinctions about their scholarly service, especially going public. Good service includes participating at the institution and in the discipline. Scholarly service, however, requires going public. And what we've learned from participating in the regional summits is that going public in scholarly service includes the need to be political. Participating in the political discussions that affect decision making about educational practices and policies is crucial. Going public also includes being transparent, inviting administrators, business persons, and politicians into our classrooms so they see what is going on. To be a faculty member doing scholarly service in the 21st century means to go public, the former "private" classroom is now political.

Finally, to help faculty make this step from good service to scholarly service, we need institutions like NCTE, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), and the Association of American Colleges and University (AAC&U) promoting a scholarship of political service. For example, both the NCTE and AAC&U have developed robust public outreach elements that help to change how the press represents English studies and higher education respectively. This is critically important and individual faculty members need to know about these resources so they can refer to them; however, promoting a scholarship of political service would be more like what the WPA is starting to do with their Network for Media Action. The WPA's Network for Media Action is asking individuals to participate. The group also occasionally provides literature and workshops to help individuals do political service. A scholarship of political service would help individual faculty members figure out how to fit political service into their already busy schedules, what to do, and what to say to start facilitating positive change at a local level. Not many of us signed up to be teachers thinking advocacy would be a regular part of our job; however, being a faculty member in the 21st century now demands it. Reference:

Shulman, Lee. (2000). From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 48-53. Retrieved October 30, 2007, from

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, III

This is the third in our series on the NCTE Annual Convention Featured Session on the Spellings' Commission report, "A Test of Leadership." In this piece, John Webster talks about his conflicted feelings when he attended the summit, and the continual conflict as he thinks about how we talk and act about access for all our students.

Speaker Three
John Webster
University of Washington
Access and the Seattle DOE Summit

When people have asked me what I was to talk about at this session I have kept having to begin by describing a certain precariousness in my own position. On the one hand I—like many, I think—am suspicious of any Department of Education initiative that would use No-Child-Left-Behind-linked rhetoric to force change in postsecondary education. On the other hand, I’ve also watched as big research universities like my own have more or less effortlessly ignored much of the last two decades’ worth of pressure towards promoting more fully learning-based teaching. To the extent the threat of government action can bring better support for teaching and learning, I’m all for it.

So I arrived at the Seattle Summit with mixed feelings of reserve and enthusiasm. I left with what was probably a little less reserve, and the biggest reason was the hour our summit spent on Access. For to my surprise, these 60 minutes produced something of a love-in, as the whole room, DOE and postsecondary people alike, expressed enthusiastic agreement on the need to expand our efforts to bring non-traditional and underrepresented students into higher ed. Many people spoke in this hour. Some described extraordinary recruitment efforts to bring potential students and even their parents to campus; others described specially designed transition courses and elaborate scholarship and tutorial programs to boost retention.

But lurking at the edges of this conversation were two issues that kept my suspicious self from too-full an embrace of this magic moment. First was the DOE notion that much of the problem with Access was of someone else’s making—specifically, the public high schools; second was an underlying contradiction between the embracing of all the programs people described in this hour on one hand and the implications of the rhetoric of “remediation” on the other.

For the first, the report is quite clear. The public schools are failing in their proper job. That job? “Establish[ing] rigorous graduation requirements and course work” based on “college and work-ready standards.” To be sure, the report also contains language about both states’ and higher education’s responsibility to work with high schools to clarify what “college-ready” standards might be, and they make recommendations for better need-based financial aid as well.

But it’s disturbing that the negative frame of NCLB dominates the report’s analysis. Like a lot of No Child Left Behind talk, the report’s language is top down and over-simple—and finally deeply unrealistic. One of conservatism’s voices is relentlessly and rationally pragmatic: define the problem, analyze solutions, create an action plan. This report uses just that voice, and from a certain distance, it all seems ironclad. But when you actually get nearer the problem you see how many contextual factors have been ignored, and here, I felt, was an example of just exactly that. One hopes that one effect of NCTE’s attention to the commission’s work will be a better understanding of this issue’s complexity.

For the second issue, I felt our conversation too easily passed over the way the access programs people described here represented a remarkable conceptual change over our practice of 20 or more years ago. For once upon a time all of these efforts could have been labeled “remediation”—programs undertaken to address holes in students’ preparations, and therefore not worthy of college credit, often, even, offered only at extra expense to the students involved. (Indeed, at my university this is still our model for English as a Second Language students.)

Yet little of the conversation at our meeting credited the way our new programs tend to replace, not just complement, remediation’s deficit model. For most higher ed people no longer look at these students as liabilities to our institutions; rather we believe that it is very much in our interest to engage them in order that our entire student body can benefit from the extraordinary diversity they bring.

But while our Summit conversation included talk about this conceptual shift, the Spellings Commission’s base-line rhetoric very clearly does not. For they like to cite the statistic (repeated by DOE personnel at our meeting) that 40% of all first-year students need some form of remediation at a cost to taxpayers of one billion dollars a year—a scarily expensive thought, and all, one is left to infer, avoidable if high schools just did a better job of preparation. But rightly understood much of this expense might better be seen as a wise investment in precisely the goals DOE would urge us to embrace (better acceptance and graduation rates for underrepresented student groups) than as a wasteful diversion of scarce resources.

Because I think neither of these two issues trivial, I left the summit only slightly less conflicted than when I arrived. As positive as our Access hour was, even in its enthusiasm there was evidence of much more clarification to be sought and much more work to be done.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, II

This is the second in a series of reports on the 2007 NCTE Annual Convention featured session, "The Future of Higher Education: Responses, Reactions, and Recommendations from the Secretary of Education's Action Plan." In this report Linda Adler-Kassner frames all our discussions with a commentary on frames, and how we need to approach our work.

Speaker Two
Linda Adler-Kassner
Eastern Michigan University
What’s in a Frame?: Policy Reports and Higher Education circa 2007

Whether we use the term or not, we all know the theoretical construct known as “framing.” Frames are ideological boundaries that form the outlines for interpretations of meaning. They shape what “makes sense,” what is in fact “commonsensical,” and what is not. When President Bush repeatedly invoked 9/11 during the 2004 Republican National Convention, he was using that event to establish a frame that linked Republican stances on everything from national security to healthcare to the September 11 attacks. More to the point, when Undersecretary of Higher Education Sarah Martinez Tucker used the metaphor of a train wreck to describe American higher education, she was using that image to frame our work.

The principles reflected through frames are shared, do persist, because they are incorporated in and perpetuated by stories. The more often the stories that extend from frames are told, the more they reinforce the frame that shapes them. Ultimately, individual stories become linked parts of a larger narrative that comes to be taken as ‘commonsensical,’ the way that things are, because they exist within and are linked by a very tight frame.

"A Test of Leadership" tells a story about American (higher) education through a very tight frame that is repeated in a number of related policy reports. The power of this frame comes, in part, from its invocation of an enormously powerful story deeply embedded in American culture. In this narrative, America is always progressing toward the achievement of a virtuous democracy. Obstacles to that progress, known as declensions, constantly arise. But these obstacles are also crucial for the nation’s progress, because they force Americans to put their heads together and develop methods, systems, and strategies to overcome the problems. No progress without struggle, as the saying goes – and this mantra extends directly from this powerful story. The challenges to progress compel citizens to demonstrate their ingenuity and commitment to democracy; in doing so, they further the democracy beyond where it might have been otherwise.

This narrative of overcoming struggle to achieve progress has been especially powerful for teachers, especially as the system of American education developed through the 20th century. Through it, education and educators have been charged with cultivating in students the critical intelligences necessary to analyze situations, identify problems, and develop processes and methodologies through which these problems can be overcome. This story about the purpose of education is so ingrained, in fact, that it literally constitutes the air that we breathe. We often say that our jobs as teachers are to prepare students for participation in democracy. As writing teachers, we say that our work is central to this participation because we focus specifically on the role of language in this process. We might say, for instance, that we help students learn to use language to develop and express their ideas so that they might contribute to the democracy as critically literate citizens.

This narrative and the frame from which it extends also forms the backbone of the Spellings' Commission Report, "A Test of Leadership." The report says that the purpose of education is to prepare students for democracy by cultivating their critical intelligences. But it says that teachers and schools are failing in this purpose because they no longer understand the nature of the democracy. To illustrate, I’ll read two paragraphs from the Report. Before these paragraphs, the report has established a declension taking place within higher education because today, “too many Americans just aren’t getting the education that they need – and that they deserve” (Miller vii). Following the establishment of this internal declension, two paragraphs signal the application of principles emanating from the jeremiad. The first anchors the report squarely in the jeremiad’s narrative:

To reach these objectives, we believe that U.S. higher education institutions must recommit themselves to their core public purposes. For close to a century now, access to higher education has been a principle – some would say the principle –means of achieving social mobility. Much of our nation’s inventiveness has been centered in colleges and universities, as has our commitment to a kind of democracy that only an educated and informed citizenry makes possible. (ix)
The key words here– core public purposes, access to higher education, achieve[ment] of social mobility, commitment to … democracy, educated and informed citizenry – all emphasize that achievement of a virtuous democracy relies upon the development of critical intelligence through education.

But the next paragraph indicates that the educational system itself has fallen into declensionposes an obstacle to the achievement of the democracy because it is no longer cultivating appropriate intelligences. It further intimates that educators, experts charged with the authority to direct this cultivation, no longer understand the nature of the virtuous democracy. It reads:
But today that world is becoming tougher, more competitive, less forgiving of wasted resources and squandered opportunities. In tomorrow’s world a nation’s wealth will derive from its capacity to educate, attract, and retain citizens who are able to work smarter and learn faster – making educational achievement ever more important both for individuals and society writ large. (ix)
Today, this paragraph says, the world is different, and teachers just don’t get it.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the authority for overseeing education and making sure that students are being trained to participate as citizens in the democracy has rested primarily with the federal government. Within this frame, then, it is still the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that this training is taking place. That’s why, in the frame surrounding the Spellings Report, it is necessary for other entities who do get it – the federal government in the persona of the Education Department, or other sanctioned partners – to step in.

But we need to be very careful about how we read these documents and the information emanating from them. Even a quick examination leads to a potentially disturbing revelation: they’re saying the same thing that we teachers often do about the purpose of education, and they’re drawing on the same story about America’s progress through struggle that we are. In other words, we wind up in a conundrum: the frame that we might use to argue against the charges in the Spellings Report and policy documents like it, that is, the story that says that
the purpose of education is to prepare students for participation in democracy, is exactly the frame that is being used in the Report to argue against teachers’ authority and expertise. The difference is that these reports say that teachers no longer understand what that democracy is, can no longer can no longer teach to it, and thus require intervention from outside.

The question is how we should respond. In considering that issue, I find it helpful to keep in mind one of George Lakoff’s maxims: when you negate a frame, you reinforce the frame. It’s no good to say, “They’re wrong! Teachers really do understand the nature of 21st century democracy.” We also can’t just rely on critique, like the critique of "A Test of Leadership" and related documents of the sort I’m discussing here. We MUST quickly move beyond critique and develop strategies to address important questions currently circulating about education, such as “What are students learning, why are they learning it, and how do we know it?” We need to situate the responses we issue and the actions that we take within our values, our principles. We need to think about what we do want and can do. We also need to acknowledge that these solutions will be all the more complicated because, in many respects, we do share the same frame as that surrounding the Spellings report. Imagine arguing that the purpose of education isn’t to prepare students for participation in the 21st century democracy, for instance. What, then, is it? The broader question, instead, is who gets to define “democracy”, and who should shape how students are prepared for it. We need to be prepared to present our own evidence-based conceptions of what we mean.

NCTE and The Council of Writing Program Administrators are currently involved in one effort to propose a response to this conundrum, the creation of a resource guide for program administrators and writing instructors to develop valid, reliable, and appropriate assessments. This is but one effort, though, and I hope we’ll continue to talk about other possibilities through this session and afterward.

Accreditation, Accountability, and Control

Many of us were surprised last month when the U.S. House Committee stripped language from its version of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that would have given final authority for institutional student outcomes to the institutions. What some of us suspected seems to be confirmed in this Chronicle of Higher Education's story. The language in the House version would have given final and full authority for establishing student learning outcomes to the institution. The accrediting agencies, and in particular the program accreditors, wanted some say in student learning outcomes. Stripping the language gives time to the accrediting agencies and the institutions to work out a compromise so that the language in the law does not become too restrictive to either side.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, I

Paul Bodmer

At the 2007 NCTE Annual Convention in New York, we had a featured session focusing on some of the potential actions stemming from the Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education. To gather information to address the report's recommendations, the Department of Education convened a series of regional summits to focus on the issues of accessibility, affordability, and accountability for higher education. The regional summits were attended by institutional representatives, including faculty, and we had representatives at all the summits. Our convention session was composed of me (Atlanta summit), Linda Adler-Kassner of Eastern Michigan University (Kansas City summit), Anne Herrington of University of Massachusetts, Amherst (Boston summit), John Webster of the University of Washington (Seattle summit), Duane Roen of Arizona State University (Phoenix summit), and Shelley Rodrigo of Mesa Community College (Phoenix summit).

To extend our conversation, we decided to use my blog space to send out our comments. I will start with an overview, and then the others' pieces will follow in the next few days. Of course, we invite commentary.

Speaker One
Paul Bodmer
National Council of Teachers of English
How We Got Here

How did the greatest system of higher education, one that educated more of its own citizens, and more of the world’s citizens than any other, all of a sudden find itself under attack, with a Commission appointed to find out what is wrong, and the undersecretary of Education declaring that we were headed for a “trainwreck”? How did we get here?

Throughout the last decade or more, there has been a growing public perception, at least in the think-tank and policy world, that something was amiss. This was fueled by the publication of various reports starting with “A Nation at Risk” through “The Gathering Storm,” as well as recent studies that claimed students’ literacy and numeracy skills were no better, and perhaps worse, at the end of a college education than they had been at the beginning. In addition, the cost of attending college was rising faster than other costs. To be frank, we in the higher education community did not do much to dispel some of those assumptions and fears. With that, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings established a commission to initiate a dialogue about costs, quality, and access to higher education.

That report, “A Test of Leadership,” was issued just over a year ago. The report identified problems in affordability, accountability, access, and quality. Secretary Spellings issued an action plan that would address the issues through three initiatives, affordability, access, and accountability.

Affordability is being addressed through a streamlining of the financial aid application process and Congressional action to increase funding for financial aid. In addition, institutions are being asked to control cost increases, and as we speak the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has language dropped in and pulled out that punishes or rewards colleges for cost curtailment.

Academic accessibility needs to be addressed through the states as they are the ones who control state high school graduation standards. But, the Department of Education is very impressed with ACHIEVE and the American Diploma Project. Accountability, however, is much closer to us, as that is being addressed through accreditation, and that affects each of our institutions.

To address accountability, the Department of Education convened a forum a year ago this month to address the issue. The attendees were higher education officials and consultants from across the country. In their public conversation, they began talking about establishing outcomes. I suggested to the Department of Education person in charge, Vickie Schray, that outcomes needed to be articulated through the disciplines and institutions that actually deliver the education. She agreed, and asked for names for regional summits held last June attended by institutional people. We provided names, and we had an average of five of our members at each of the regional summits.

Our attendees at the summit were able to speak frankly with the other attendees and with the representatives from the Department of Education. What follows are the comments from the attendees, reflecting their observations and reflections on the meetings. In the next few days, in this space, you will see comments from Linda Adler-Kassner, Anne Herrington, Duane Roen, Shelley Rodrigo, and John Webster, not necessarily in that order.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Is NCLB ever going to be reauthorized?!

Yesterday I received a call from an NCTE member in Colorado who asked,"Is NCLB going to be reauthorized soon? Will it ever be reauthorized?" I understand that member's puzzlement. Each day in Washington, a pronouncement about a probable schedule for voting is heard in the Capitol, in the newspaper, or on the air.

For example, in the middle of October Senators Kennedy and Reid issued language for portions of a possible NCLB bill; they continue to hope for action on a full bill by the end of the year. Since earlier in the summer in the House a full bill draft has been circulating, with a range of responses from enthusiastic endorsement by a number of legislators to President Bush's October 15 statement that he will veto any bill that "weakens" NCLB, including any changes in accountability measures like those in the House bill.

NCTE is keeping close tabs on almost daily statements from legislators, associations, and other groups that have definite stands on what needs to be changed in NCLB. Our organization's own latest action has been to write joint letters with four other subject area associations to both the House and the Senate committees responsible for NCLB to advocate for increased support within the bill for professional development for teachers. Encouraging news is that more and more legislators are talking in public forums about their understanding that teachers are the most important asset in our schools and, therefore, deserve support through professional development.

NCTE members have been wonderfully proactive in sending letters to their legislators when prompted by a call from NCTE or on their own initiative. These letters matter. They matter a great deal right now when legislators need data and experiences from classrooms, districts, and states as they sort out all the calls for changes in NCLB. When NCTE suggests or when you have ideas to share, please continue to write or to visit your legislators. They need to hear the voices of those professionals who count most, teachers who act on behalf of promoting their students' learning.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Individuals and Types

“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”). In spite of our recognition that Fitzgerald is right, we continue to work from the general back to the specific, which is why we so often have misquided policy. If we pay attention to a new report from the Department of Education, there is a chance that this time we might see that community colleges are different--not just from the rest of academe, but from each other.

The report, titled "Differential Characteristics of Post-Secondary 2-Year Institutions," establishes seven categories of two-year colleges; small, medium, and large publics, allied health non-for-profits, other not-for-profits, degree-granting for-profits, and other for-profits." This is a start, and it begins to give us good information on who attends what category of two-year college, what the faculty cohort looks like in very general terms, and what kinds of completion (or non-completion) experience students have. Maybe this beginning categorization will help us see that we need to step back to look at what an education ought to provide, how it ought to provide it, and how we need to educate all our publics about the purpose, value, and significance of post-secondary education.

Of course, I could make the same argument for Post-Secondary 4-Year Institutions as well as for all of higher education. The Commission on the Future of Higher Education's report last year highlighted that. It treated all of higher education as the type. So those of us who understand our individual institutions could easily say, "Doesn't really apply to me." And that is why the call for some easy method of comparability must be answered with our knowledge that we are not all of a type, but that our differences are good.

That also means that we in the academy must educate ourselves to our individual institutions, and work with our colleagues at their individually different institutions, to find the underlying principles and values that should be established as comparable educational benefits. Then we can show that not all post-secondary educations are the same, nor that they ought to be the same. Students should attend the institution(s) based upon what they see as their educational needs. But first we have to clearly identify and articulate those various outcomes, needs, and values and correspond them to the individual institutions.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Dog Days

It's that time again, "the Dog Days of Summer." I don't know where that phrase came from, but I remember it from my childhood as a way to describe the long, languishing, hot days when dogs would lie on their backs in the middle of the lawn and doze away the day. Otherwise known as August. In the capitol city we are anticipating the hiatus that will come when Congress finally succumbs to the pressure to get out of town with work either done, partly done, or undone. The city will languish and those of us still here will dress down and saunter to work. So, as we approach the lax month, where are we?

Its hard to say where we are, as most of the key legislation for education has moved forward in one body of Congress, but not in the other. For instance, the House is busy moving forward on ther reauthorization of NCLB, but the Senate has yet to act. The Senate has passed its version of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but the House has yet to act. In the Senate version there is more money for students in the financial aid package, and there is a clarification of accrediation rules. On the latter, institutions are responsible for establishing what student success looks like in relation to their mission, and the accrediting agencies need to monitor that. Also, the institutions must be clear about their policies for transfer of credit from other institutions. The heavy hand of control has been reduced to the appropriate role of oversight. While this looks good, we need to wait to see what the House does.

The pressure, of course, is to try to get both the major pieces of education legislation, reauthorization of NCLB and HEA, passed before the end of the Congressional year. Much good work has gone into the reauthorization process, but if it is not passed and becomes law, we will have another continuing resolution, which leaves the old law in place.

The same is true for funding humanities issues. The House has passed its version with an increase for NEH and funding for Archives and Public Records. The Senate HELP committee has passed increased funding, but the full Senate has not voted, yet. Here is the full update from the National Humanities Alliance.

The good news is that both bodies are working to move legislation forward, and they feel the heat of summer's breath on their necks. With that, we hope the dog days of summer will provide the respite and lassitude to prepare us for the needed burst of energy to make the fall productive.

Our Voice Has Been Heard

"Serious changes" in NCLB must be made before House education committee chairperson George Miller (D-Calif.) will bring the law to the floor for renewal. For example, based on constituent input (including that from NCTE members), Miller insists that multiple measures must be allowed to assess student achievement fairly. Although Republicans like Buck McKeon (Calif) say that attempts to, in his words, "weaken the law" will draw Republican resistance, Miller said in a presentation yesterday that he expects that the House will vote in September on legislation to renew the law and that changes will be included.

With a September vote or not, NCTE member letters to their legislators can be influential in advocating for changes that support student learning. NCTE's recent call for letter writing was highly generative, and second contacts by those writers or first contacts for those who didn't get to write before are still quite important. As shown by Miller's adamant stand about multiple measures, legislators do pay attention.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Campus Accountability; Or, Assessment for "Them"

When the Commission on the Future of Higher Education's report, "A Test of Leadership," called for accountability, they were suggesting the idea that institutional success ought to be easily compared to other institutions--you could then "buy" an education, kind of like buying a car. Of course I am oversimplifying, but oversimplification is what the report did as well.

Assessment has always been a central part of education, but it has most often been the formative kind of assessment that we used in the classrooms and offices to see how we were doing, where we were slipping, and figure out how we could do better. That kind of assessment, however, seldom tells others how good our stuff is. And that telling others is both what the Commission called for, and what the Department of Education is striving for.

In the meantime, the two big public institution organizations, NASULGC and AASCU, have banded together to offer a voluntary program for their institutions to use. It works like this. Using a template devised by NASULGC and AASCU, institutions will post information on the web that allows parents and students to figure out cost, program availability, graduation rates, enrollment continuance, value-added learning outcomes (through CLA, MAPP, CAAP--all national tests that measure aspects of critical and broad-based thinking), engagement levels (through the NSSE family of assessments) and other bits and pieces of information to allow prospective students and their funders to see what they will get.

This is a step for transparency. If it stops here, it will do more harm than good, as it will begin to be reductive, and we will learn how to use this data for all the wrong purposes. What we need to do is continue to find more and better methods and processes to assess student growth and learning in our courses and across our courses and institutions. We must clearly indicate what is good formative work and what is good summative work. And we must articulate very clearly when those two kinds of assessment come together to give us a more complete picture. We must interpret the data.

Here is what I mean. I do believe that data ought to drive decisions, but, too often, raw data is incomplete. I have gone from drinking caffeinated coffee to drinking non-caf tea, to non-caf coffee, and now I am happily back on the drug. All because of the reports of the effects of caffeine on my system. What we need to remember is that all assessments give us information. The next step is to take all that information from as many assessments as possible and build an interpretation that is clear, articulate, meaningful, and trusted.

Otherwise, the assessment tool will drive the system, rather than the assessment tool informing the interpretations which will drive the system. When I go to my doctor, and he says that my last blood test showed something that he isn't sure about, but he would like me to take more tests, I comply. At our next visit, he tells me that he read the results, talked to so-and-so who is a specialist in this, and their conclusion is that maybe we should think about modifying my prescriptions. I feel good that he is using multiple assessments to gather data, and that he and his colleagues are using their best professional judgement to interpret that data, and that the interpretation may be different when we have more sophisticated tests. That is good assessment.

Good assessment begins with multiple tools, provides trustworthy data, ensures consistency, and is interpreted by professionally competent and knowledgeable people.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Updates from NEH and ACLS

The National Humanities Alliance has just issued its June update. Several of the issues that are on the advocacy platform of the NHA and were presented to Congressional offices during Humanities Advocacy Day in March have moved forward, notably increases in funding for NHA and for the National Historical Public Records Commission.

The American Council of Learned Societies held its first meeting outside the U.S. when it met in Montreal, Canada May 10-12, 2007. The theme of the conference was "The Global Academy and the Geography of Ideas." The program highlights will be published on the ACLS site later this summer.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Learning of the Teaching of Writing

I had mixed reactions to an article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education. It is a reflection by a developmental writing teacher on the power of the personal essay. In her article, she describes her discovery of how writing from personal experience allowed her developmental students, and ultimately herself as a graduate student, to find the voice that gave power to analytical essays. I had a good news/bad news sort of reaction.

It is good news because, appearing in CHE, it speaks across the academy to articulate the position many of us find ourselves in when non-composition academics rail against the kinds of assignments we use rather than the assignments they think we should use. The author of the article describes how she moved from the position of most of the academy--that students should only write academic essays on the great issues of all time--to the position she should have as a writing teacher--that developing and nurturing authentic writers' voices is the essential beginning for students to write convincing academic arguments.

Of course, most of us have known that since the 1970's when composition studies demonstrated the powerful effect of starting with the personal. And that is the rub, so to speak. How could someone be hired to teach writing when they had not had any courses in composition that would have prepared them? I know, dumb question. The problem is that we are still hiring unprepared people to teach writing because "anyone can teach writing."

And that is the bad news. The Conference on College Composition and Communication has advocated since 1982 that we need to have properly prepared writing teachers. However, as I discovered on my own campus, administrators and other faculty do not accept that position. One of the problems is the incorrect assumption that subject-knowledge automatically embues teacher-knowledge. We know it doesn't, and yet the position of most pundits is that subject matter is the primary concern. In the recent Time magazine article, "How to Fix No Child Left Behind," the reference to teachers is one line about ensuring subject matter knowledge. In a recent American Enterprise Institute panel discussion on the question of whether the American Competitiveness Initiative was in collaboration or competition with NCLB, the point was made that we needed to incentivise teachers who knew their material to get them into under performing schools. No mention was made of developing and nurturing teacher knowledge.

While there are occasional comments about the need to pay attention to learning theory, the major cry is still for ensuring that teachers, including highly qualified teachers, need to only know the content; after all, anybody can teach. Very little is said about teacher knowledge, growth of teacherly skills and attitudes, and the professionalization of our profession. Had the author of the CHE article above been required to show that she, first, had taken the appropriate coursework in teaching composition, and second, had been involved in a program where she could demonstrate that she could apply composition theory in her teaching, she would not have had to learn, through her students' expense, that good, strong writing starts with the development of the writer's voice.

I am glad the author has learned it. I am glad she wrote about it. I hope she joins us in insisting that qualified teachers not only have solid knowledge of their field, but they also have solid backgrounds in the theory and practice of teaching their field.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A New Media Literacy

Media literacy is becoming complex. We've gone from analyzing television and film for stereotyped images, to evaluating internet sources for validity and reliability, to youth media production. Youtube further blurs boundaries between news and information on the one hand, and entertainment on the other by allowing the highly personal, to the highly produced to share meta tags and subsequent placement on search menus.

What about critical analysis of images from surveillance cameras? Televisual images from these cameras are on the rise in public and commercial spaces. We are mostly familiar with cameras at stoplights, in train stations and grocery stores or banks. Casinos across the country have surveillance cameras with digital data banks of faces and face-recognition software. Who programs, positions and analyzes this material? That once-famous camcorder image of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and the other, a bit later of immigrants fleeing beatings in San Diego, have given way to a ruling whereby all LAPD squad cars will be equipped with video cameras. Reports from a recent eSchool News suggests that surveillance cameras under development will include software that interprets images and tips off security to prevent a crime before it happens. Other similar sophistications are planned to keep us safe from mayhem. What are the instructional implications for this changing area of literacy?

The case for media literacy in schools has more than been made. I am always excited when I hear about schools' various media literacy curricula. And I encourage English departments often to develop medial literacy programs that attend to analysis and production, even at the elementary level. Viewer-produced, professionally- produced, security and traditionally-broadcast images are all framed, positioned, lighted etc. Increased opportunities to produce digital video images, and to analyze those images is a necessary first step. But just as we wouldn't have a student produce a portfolio without a reflection on the artifacts collected, we need to not stop at production. Students should be taught to analyze the variety of categories of televisual production, just as we teach analysis of various forms of writing through writing and reading different genres.

And the next step: What kind of specialized training in the construction and interpretation of media images will administrative, security, legal, and policing professionals receive? How we will prevent the transference of racial profiling, sexism, etc. from distorting our interpretation and analysis of images in an effort to convey or consider televised truths?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

ACT survey conclusion=More grammar instruction

Today my copy of Aligning Postsecondary Expectations and High School Practice: The Gap Defined arrived in the mail. This ACT analysis of over 35,000 surveys completed by teachers from middle school through post-secondary institutions, including over 7,000 English teachers, yielded ten action steps for policymakers. One flummoxes me:

"Make sure that students attain the skills necessary for effective writing." OK, so far. But here is the next sentence: "The survey responses of post-secondary English/writing instructors suggest that high school language arts teachers should focus more on punctuation and grammar skills to better prepare their students for college-level expectations in college composition courses."

The explanation is that high school teachers ranked topic and idea development higher than postsecondary instructors, who ranked mechanics "more frequently among the most important groups of skills for success in an entry-level, credit-bearing postsecondary English/writing course."

My hope is to better understand this surprising finding by reading ACT National Curriculum Survey: 2005-2006, the booklet that accompanied the policy report. Perhaps I won't be so uneasy after I learn more about the specific survey questions and answers. My second hope, though, is that policy makers will not jump to conclusions based on a single statement that advocates greater focus on grammar and punctuation per se. Policy makers need to be helped to understand the importance of teaching grammar and punctuation in the context of authentic writing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

AAUP Report on Faculty Salaries

The American Association of University Professors has issued its annual report on faculty salaries. You can follow through both the Chronicle of Higher Education's take and the Inside Higher Ed's take on the report. Moving up does not mean equity.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ages 0-5: The Crucial Years

Second-grade teacher David Keyes laments in The Washington Post on April 9 that schools with wealthy white students have a "distinct advantage when it comes to testing" under NCLB. "Their students grow up with "the intellectual abundance their wealth provides: books, educational videos and Baby Einstein games, to name a few." Of course, poor and minority children also have rich backgrounds: they "speak foreign languages, make music, tell vivid stories, and have other skills not typical of their peers. Their backgrounds, however, often do not provide them with the academic skills needed to succeed on standardized tests."

The Hamilton Project, situated at The Brookings Institution, ( agrees with Keyes: "Before children even start kindergarten, there is already a marked difference in reading and math scores between the most advantaged and least advantaged children. Those who score poorly before entering kindergarten are likely to do less well in school and face an increased probability of being teen parents, engaging in crime, and being unemployed as adults." To address this problem a discussion paper by two researchers, Jens Ludwig and Isabel Sawhill, suggests in its subtitle "Intervening Early, Often, and Effectively in the Education of Young Children."

The authors note that the "largest disparities in cognitive and noncognitive skills are found along race and class lines well before children start school, even before they enroll in the federal Head Start preschool program at age three or four years. Most of America's social policies try to play catch-up against these early advantages--and most disadvantaged children never catch up."

The Success by Ten proposal challenges the country's commitment to young children and to their individual development and the country's future: "The most promising way to improve the learning outcomes of disadvantaged children would be to provide them with five years of high-quality, full-time early education and care outside the home, starting from birth." Yes, that is "starting from birth," so you can imagine the investment needed of resolve and resources. If you are interested in learning the features of such a program and on what bases the program is proposed, explore the report Success by Ten on the Hamilton Project website. Whether or not you agree with this particular program, the goal of supporting children during the crucial first five years of their lives deserves our serious attention.

Monday, April 09, 2007

TYCA West Makes News

What we have all known is now an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed. TYCA West member Jason Pickavance tells about his experiences at a small, regional conference familiar to many of us, one of the TYCA conferences. It is very refreshing to see coverage of some of the not-necessarily-so-newsworthy-but-ultimately-very-important events that help us shape the work we do.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

FIPSE Earmarks

If it quacks, flies, looks like a duck . . . I suppose could be said of earmarks. In 2005, congressional earmarks for higher education out of the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) eliminated the grant competition. Since then, congressional earmarks funded by FIPSE have disappeared, but that does not mean that the whole FIPSE budget will be in the open grant program for the next year. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, Secretary Spellings has set aside almost half of the money budgeted for this year for FIPSE.

It is completely within the Secretary's purview to do this, but it is unusual. The original intent of the program is to promote the improvement and innovation of higher education without particular limitations. However, the Secretary has made it clear in several instances that she wants to move forward on the recommendations from the Commission of the Future of Higher Education's report, "A Test of Leadership." The two areas receiving the most attention from the Department of Education have been accountability, and you should spell that a-c-c-r-e-d-i-t-a-t-i-o-n, and K-12 to college alignment. Expect to see programs addressing transparency in accountability and high school to college alignment privileged in this round of applications. Not exactly an earmark, but still quacks a bit.

Monday, April 02, 2007

National Humanities Alliance Convention

I have mentioned in recent blogs that the National Humanities Alliance annual meeting and Humanties Advocacy Day would be held on March 26-27, 2007, the Monday and Tuesday after CCCC. While most of us were scrambling to contextualize the CCCC convention with our campus work and ongoing scholarship, the NHA meeting combined with Humanities Advocacy Day was a great success. The shift to holding the annual meeting in conjunction with the visits to congressional representatives worked very well. The discussions we had with humanities agencies, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, at the annual meeting were good priming occasions for our visits on the hill the next day. Here is the report that the Associate Director of NHA, Erin Smith, posted. And, as Erin says, come back to the NHA site later to see more about the meeting.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Earlier this week I observed a student teacher in an alternative certification program based out of San Francisco State University. The student teacher was teaching a vocabulary lesson to a diverse class of about twnety ninth-graders at Albany High School.

I was impressed with how the teacher who I'll call Gary taught the lesson, and how the students engaged the material. In a class period lasting about fifty minutes, Gary explored language with the students orally, in writing, and in pictures. Gary worked with students to have a kind of rote definition, a conceptual understanding, an application and an example of the term. Toward this end, he enabled students to incorporate popular culture references as examples of the terms they were studying; Gary redirected students' whose understanding strayed with poise and affirmation. He spent time with every student individually and worked with them as a whole class; Gary allowed for collaborative work in small groups and pairs, and also required independent attention from students. Gary allowed students to move around and he moved around himself. And he incorporated tactiles and visuals into the lesson.

Gary did all of this with a group of students with considerable calm and connectedness and no real disruptions. This wasn't the "honors" class, either. It was a very diverse class in an urban high school.

Gary is going to make a fine teacher. He already is. Credit also goes to Principal Ron Rosenbaum who recently presented on a panel at NCTE's 2007 CCCC Convention in New York. Ron was joined by teachers and researchers to talk about high school to college writing transition.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

TYCA Makes News

One of the pay-offs for the CCCC initiative in general and the TYCA Research Initiative in particular became evident this morning when I opened up Inside Higher Ed. The reporter covering the CCCC convention, Scott Jaschik, reported on the teaching load of community college faculty by referencing our documents on recommended student loads for teaching composition. Kudos to all for your hard work. The knowledge about our own work that we are gaining, and making usable, helps not only to inform us, but to inform the academy, and the larger public.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Summit on Higher Education

The Department of Education held their summit on the Future of Higher Education March 22 in Washington, DC. I was not able to attend, as I am at the CCCC convention in New York. But here are the two stories posted, one from Inside Higher Ed and the other from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Based on their stories, the dialogue is continuing. It might be a bit back and forth, but all good dialogue is. What we need to hope for is that the discussion will continue until good ideas begin to emerge.

News From CCCC

The CCCC Annual Convention this week in New York City is a great success. Record-setting attendance, great sessions, good dialogue. In fact, so good that Inside Higher Ed is here and reporting on significant news for us. Here is their story from today.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Political Petitions and Social Network Site Solicitation

A recent issue of eSchool News reports on an apparent contradiction: elected officials who supported legislation to block social networking Internet sites from schools and school libraries have put up profiles of themselves on MySpace, said to be the most popular of such sites.

Perhaps as candidates for their parties presidential nomination, they see new value in these sites that many artists, educators and activists already note. The article includes comments from the American Library Association pointing out the candidates' contradictions.

While contradictions count, I am concerned more about ethical communication.

Last year the Washington Post reported that staffers in the current administration were altering Wikipedia entries about officials in opposing parties with inaccurate information. The practice cut across both political parties. As teachers we are always concerned about our students successful navigation of information on the Internet. It is especially ironic when this process is impeded by persons with power over many facets of the lives of teachers and learners in educational settings.

The push for production increases, but the importance of critically navigating information remains. In fact, with increased opportunity and ease in production, the need for critical media literacy not only remains, it becomes even more important than ever before.

Is someone going to put up a Comment about this seeming change of perspective on the politicians' MySpace pages? Perhaps we should all send bulletins to our Friends List encouraging visits to the pages with critical eyes ready to comment on the politicians message, use of new media, and context for its use.

More opportunities to teach...

Monday, March 19, 2007

March Updates

For those of you getting ready to head to New York for C's, hope to see you there. Cheryl Glenn has put together an excellent program, which you can access online to customize your own schedule. As you know from my reporting, assessments and accountability are high on my list, and there are sessions addressing those issues, as well as the multiple sessions addressing all our issues across the membership of CCCC.

The National Humanities Alliance has published its March update on humanities activities. You can find it here.

And the American Council of Learned Societies has just announced that their History E-Book is going to become the Humanities E-Book. All the details can be found here.

See you in New York.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Short Post on Video Games

Last semester a guest speaker in the Urban Education course I co-taught with Jabari Mahiri asserted that she had heard video games are now outselling films. Intrigued, I asked where she had heard this info. She read it somewhere, but couldn't dig up the cite. I was disappointed.

As English teachers we have been teaching film as text for a long time. NCTE's books Reading the Reel World along with many other articles and presentations at NCTE conferences confirm film's place in the curriculum. And even as there are some who still feel that watching movies and television has no place in school, most have found a way to articulate instructionally valid and valuable uses for film. How many ninth grade English teachers have taught Homer's Odyssey alongside Lucas's Star Wars?

With film we explore content themes, literary and contextual elements and syntactical elementscuts, frames, fades, composition, etc. These are fixed elements constructed collaboratively (sometimes contentiously) by the film crew under the direction of producers and directors and occassionally creative consultants. There may be different versions of a film or teachers may select segments to show rather than a full feature. This undoubtedly makes things a bit more dynamic.

But video games by their nature are dynamic, unfolding narratives where each effect experienced is based on a conscious cause by the game player. The narrative is less fixed even as its origins may be rooted in a specific and perhaps well-known literary source. What new ways will educators use the games that are related to classic and diverse mythologies, film and other literary genres? On what will we focus and how? Will the act of conscious construction of a narrative take precedence over understanding fixed content upon which the game was based? Should it?

I look forward to teachers incorporating video games into instruction in the same way we pair films and novels or short stories.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Increased Literacy in Content Areas-Grades 4-12

In Washington I work on behalf of NCTE with other subject area associations to discover what we can learn from one another about helping teachers to help students learn. Last week when Dr. Joseph Torgesen from the Florida Center of Reading Research and the Center on Instruction at Florida State University reported here on a major study on academic literacy instruction for adolescents, my antennae were up especially for what he had to say about improving literacy-related instruction in all content areas.

The five major recommendations about this topic in the 180-page report are

1. More explicit instruction and guided practice in the use of reading comprehension strategies

2. Increasing the amount of open, sustained discussion of content and ideas from text

3. Maintaining high standards for the level of conversation, questions, and vocabulary that are used in discussions and in assignments

4. Adopting instructional methods that increase student engagement with text and motivation for reading

5. More powerful teaching of content and use of methods that allow all to learn critical content

Do you notice that these recommendations focus a good deal on the use of language in a social context, pedagogical strategies to promote engagement and learning critical content, and high levels of expectation about the quality of discussion? Rather than finding the elements of reading emphasized by the National Reading Panel, this report gleaned through studying other major studies about adolescent literacy that these five strategies contribute in the most effective way to increased literacy among adolescents.

If you can share this report with colleagues in other subject areas, you will have much to talk about together. The report will soon be available in downloadable form at In the meantime, you might think about how the recommendations fit your own work. In answer to a question about English teachers' being responsible for teaching reading, Torgeson replied that ALL teachers are responsible, including English teachers. Using these recommendations in our English classes can make us more credible in talking with teachers in other subject areas--and increase students' desire and ability to read.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

FY08 Budget

For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is the Chronicle of Higher Education’s chart of President Bush’s FY08 budget plan as it affects higher education. Now the real work will begin as Congress will decide what to shift where, what to save, what to enhance--in short, what to fund.

Most of the FY07 spending that was not approved by both houses and signed into law before the election will be extended on a Continuing Resolution. The House has passed its version, and the Senate is expected to follow suit. Essentially, it leaves in place the spending levels of the FY06 budget for FY07. This isn’t an election year, so we can hope that Congress will work to pass the necessary allocations for FY08 before the year is out.

Very shortly the NCTE EC will approve its legislative platform for the year. Our next step is to work for NCTE advocacy either through your work with your legislators in your home district, or come to Washington for the NCTE Advocacy Day activities April 26th. Or, better yet, both. Click here for the Education Policy and English Language Arts Day information.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Pell Increase?

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has announced that President Bush will request a signficant increase in the Pell grants for the FY08 budget, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education's special report. The 14% increase will raise the grant to $550. As the story mentions, no one is talking about where this money will come from, but the federal budget will be released February 8. We may even know before then as more details of the budget become available over the next week.

While it is all political at this point, with one party trying to trump the other, what is obvious is that the Commission on the Future of Higher Education's Report is having an effect. Both Congress and the President have moved on the affordability issue by asking for an increase in the Pell grant. The Department of Education has been pushing for change on accountability and accreditation that the accrediting groups are taking seriously.

Where does this lead? We will have to see. After all, this is the political year of posturing before the political year of campaigning.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Six Challenges of High School Reform

On January 26, 2007 James Kemple of MDRC presented conclusions from a multi-pronged study of talent development high schools, first things first schools, and career academies. The study looked at impact, not outcomes: that is, the study valued incremental change and value added, not simply meeting desired outcomes.

The study has identified six major challenges of high school reform, and I wonder how these six fit the experience of NCTE members who teach high school.

1. Creating a personalized learning environment. When students have a supportive environment and positive relationships, particularly with faculty advisory systems, students do better. This alone, however, does not prevent dropout or raise achievement.

2. Enhancing basic literacy and math skills. The two enhancements studied were sequential transitional courses in 9th grade, which were associated with substantial improvements in performance and promotion to 10th grade, and double-blocked schedules to support the transitional courses. Focusing on the critical 9th year is crucial.

3. Improving instructional content and pedagogy. Because NCTE provides professional development, I was particularly interested in the three conclusions drawn are: (a) "Teachers benefit from well-designed curricula and lesson plans that have already been developed." (b) "Teacher professional development and coaching appear to be necessary for building instructional capacity and responsive teaching." and (c) "Student achievement may be enhanced when teachers work together to make sure that curricula and lessons are engaging, aligned, and rigorous."

4. Preparing students for the world beyond high school. "Career awareness and development activities, in and outside of school, provide effective tools for transitions to employment without limiting access to college."

5. Stimulating change and sustaining high performance. Two pieces of evidence here speak to NCTE activities. (a) "External expertise and intensive support appear to be critical to capacity building." and (b) "District support may not be a necessary condition for intitiating reforms, but is required for scaling up and long-term sustainability."

6. Building knowledge. The most interesting point here is that "a focus on outcomes and not on impact has left a track record of getting the wrong answer to the right question." Kemple believes strongly that "Modest improvements are policy relevant." Sharing progress at conventions, in publications, within schools, with policy makers, and in the media begins to correct the notion that only meeting an outcome is significant. Do you agree that incremental improvement is the reality and a positive reality?

If you are interested in more about this study, it is available in a MDRC publication
titled Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform. See

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Today when I read "Hello, Grisham--So Long, Hemingway?" in The Washington Post, my heart sank. The article identifies the following books as being dumped from various branch libraries in Fairfax Virginia because they had not been checked out in the last 24 months: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Wiliams, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by Maya Angelou, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, and The Works of Aristotle. Not to be weeded out are the most checked-out books in December 2006, books by such authors as John Grisham, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, and Stephen King.

With more electronics and less shelf space, libraries are "struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes." This topic seems ideal for consideration in English classrooms. Students could do original research into the decision making processes at their local public libraries. They could consider what they think about the function of a public library. They might explore the decisions that determine what makes the shelves of their own school libraries. The discussion and debate that revolve around the function of libraries could lead to consideration of the reasons for reading materials in their classes, to their reading choices, to choices of their parents or family members, and to the place of literature in a society.

A number of neighborhood libraries in DC are bolted shut because of lack of funding. Why is that fact appalling to some and of little interest to others? Where do libraries fit in our priorities? If libraries remain open, what should they contain? All important questions.

Barbara Cambridge