College-readiness, math, and reading… Part II

This is the third in a series of posts where I ask you for help understanding the idea of “college-readiness”.

The first post examines “college-readiness” as one of several competing ideas about the goals of a public school education.

The second post looks at math through the lens of reading and how some pretty influential people seem to support the idea of math and reading being combined for assessment purposes.

Math and reading both have the ability to act as gatekeepers. The ability to read is a classical form of empowerment. It was, for centuries, the primary way that powerful people controlled less powerful groups. In the last century a variety of different folks have suggested that math beyond basic computation is creating unnecessary barriers. (W.H. Kilpatrick was writing about this after WWIAndrew Hacker and Steve Perry are championing this cause in modern times.)

So, combing math and reading together could be troublesome. Kids are having to get through two gates with separate keepers in order to attain this “college-readiness” label that is so important.

And unfortunately, at least some data sets cast some doubt on whether or not our educational structures are properly preparing students to enter high school ready to take on the challenges of a system that is going to require to both read at a high level…

… and to perform mathematically at a high level.

So, we have reason to believe that the majority of our students are entering high school not proficient in math or reading… possibly both. (I am fully aware that this is just one measure… and one that isn’t universal beloved either.)

Let’s recap:

The College Board is writing college-readiness math tests that are written at about an 8th grade reading level to complement their college readiness reading and writing exams. And we are going to give this test to 11th grade students who have a better than 50% chance of entering high school below grade level in either reading or math.

Sounds like those of us in the education profession have a tricky task ahead of us.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the first person exploring this problem. Thanks to the work of those who are championing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) we are starting to discover that creating structures, supports, and access points for those who struggle either because of disabilities or lower prerequisite skills improves the experience for everyone.

The idea is that we can flex on the methods, the means, and the tools in order to keep the achievement expectations high. In math, this often means sticking to the learning objective without unnecessarily complicating the task by including areas of potential struggle. For example, students struggle with fractions. When you are introducing linear functions (a topic that doesn’t immediately depend on fractions), don’t use any fractions in your activities, materials, or assessments. In this way, you don’t create an artificial barrier to the learning of new content.

This thought process also applied quite readily to reading. If your students don’t read well, then why make them do it when we are trying to learn math? Dan Meyer suggests that there are student engagement points to be won by reducing, what he terms, “the literacy demand.” Rose and Dalton from The National Center on UDL discuss the variety of benefits of creating opportunities for our students to listen instead of reading. (One of which is creating better readers.)

And all of this makes so much sense…

… until our resident decision-makers decide that reading comprehension (in the traditional sense) is an essential component of a “college-ready” math student.

This puts math teachers between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we can follow Dr. Meyer’s sage advice to reduce the literacy demand on our students. I’ve done this. He’s darn right about what it does for engagement.

But on the other hand, if the College Board knows what they are talking about (and I’d really like to think they do), do we risk eliminating an essential element from our courses if we work hard to limit the reading?

Perhaps this isn’t as tough a spot as we originally thought. Simply put, the work of the math teacher is complete when the student has developed the ability to solve a targeted set of math problems. This requires helping the students learn certain tools: Equation-solving, data collection and representation, strategic guessing and estimation… These (among others) are all essential problem-solving skills.

Most math teachers have mechanisms in place to support students who are in a variety of developmental levels on the  journey toward proficiency of any of those skills. They aren’t uncomfortable with a student who struggles to solve equations. We see it all the time. We know it’s our job to help support that student. So we do.

What if we looked at reading the same way? What is reading if not an essential mathematical problem-solving skill? A skill that our students are in a variety of different places on?

As math teachers, perhaps it is our job to teach reading.

In my next post, I’ll lay out what it might look like for a math class. I don’t mean a math class with a high literacy component. I mean a math class where the teacher and students all recognize that role of the math teacher is to help the students develop as math readers.

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