Student Shows 23 Percent Growth in Finding Central Idea

The classrooms were all aflutter on Student Growth Day at the High School for Innovation and Social Metrics in New York City. In addition to receiving a standards-based instructional lesson, each student was to learn his or her profits or losses with respect to the second Reading Standard for Informational Text in the Common Core State Standards:

Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

“I predict about 10 percent growth for me, and about 15 percent for the class,” said sophomore Alan Prorok. “That’s because one day I had a net loss when I got the standard wrong and answered the question I thought was being asked, not the question that was being asked.”

“The way to get a good bar graph in this school is to follow all the directions within the time limits,” added his classmate Sandra Zakon. “My growth should be really good this quarter.”

“Don’t rub it in,” retorted Alan, as the teacher, Stu Merritt, put up the first bar graph display.

“Freddy,” Mr. Merritt said, “the first bar graph is yours, and I want you to stand up and take ownership of it.” Freddy dutifully stood up in the back of the room and brushed his dark bangs from his eyes.

“Take a look at this, class,” Mr. Merritt continued. “Last week, when we were reading Aristotle, I asked you to identify the central idea of the passage. Freddy not only provided the central idea—remember what it was, scholars?”

“Something about how it’s good to have a middle class,” a student ventured.

“Exactly right. Freddy here identified this central idea. Then he took it one step further, which is something he failed to do most of the time in the last quarter. He actually showed how this idea is shaped and refined by specific details. For this reason, his bar graph is showing 23 percent growth. Let’s give Freddy a round of applause!”

The hooting, stomping, and cheering that followed would have led a passer-by to think that the teacher had announced a pizza party. Mr. Merritt gave a hand signal; the room fell silent instantly.

“Now Freddy,” he said, when we go on to our next text, your task is going to be to do everything you did before, but also to identify how the central idea emerges. Are you prepared to meet that goal?”

“Yes, I am, Mr. Merritt,” Freddy replied.

“Do you predict growth for yourself in the next quarter?”

“Yes, I do, Mr. Merritt,” Freddy replied.

“That’s great, Freddy. You may sit down now. Alan, please stand up.” He proceeded to the next bar graph, which showed a loss of five percent. Alan’s eyes filled with tears.

“Now Alan, you have opportunities for growth in the future. Let’s take a look at why you showed a loss this time. I want you to take ownership of it. Remember when we were reading Plato, and you identified the central idea as—as what? Can you remember?”

“That the just man is happier than the unjust man.”

“That’s right. That really was a central idea. Now, this time, with the Aristotle, you identified an idea that I’d say was close to central but not quite. You said the central idea was that virtue is found in the mean.”

“I don’t see how that isn’t a central idea,” said Alan, his voice trembling.

“Alan, what is the title of the Aristotle book?”


“That’s right. Now, is the book about politics?”


“Is it, in the same way, about the mean?”

“No, but—“

“No ‘buts’ here. You see the point. The idea of the mean is very important, but it doesn’t quite count as central. Do you follow me now?”

“Yes, but I still don’t—“

“That’s just fine. When you’re in doubt about it, just follow the TTT strategy. Who remembers the TTT strategy? What is it, class?”

“Title! Topic Sentence! Turn-and-talk!”

“That’s right. If you’re unsure of the central idea, look at the title. If you’re still unsure, look for the topic sentence. If you’re still unsure, turn and talk during group success time. Sit down, Alan. Marisa, it’s your turn.”

After class, Mr. Merritt told  us that the teachers had to do the same thing in their meetings. “We all get growth charts and have to account for our profits and losses,” he said. “And those come directly from the students’ profits and losses. So it’s essential for the students to know why they’re growing or not, so that we can all grow next time.”

The school’s next step, he said, was to show growth in real time. “At a professional development session last spring,” he said, “they showed us the new technology, and it just looked like the coolest thing. You’re in the middle of teaching a strategy, you have them implement it, and you see those bars get taller on the spot. If they don’t, you give them a minute of student success time so that they can talk in groups and figure out where they went wrong.”

Asked about how this focus on growth affected discussion of Aristotle, Mr. Merritt shook his head. “A lot of people think it’s about the Aristotle,” he said, “but it isn’t. It’s about student progress, which is displayed on these charts. The Aristotle is just a text with respect to which the kids generate data that then provides the basis for these charts.”

“Well put,” said a well-dressed personage who had just entered the room. “I can see, Mr. Merritt, that you’ve done your homework. You will show growth in the professionalism category, if not across the board.”

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  1. IWIWS …

    (I Wish It Were Satire)

  2. I am fed up with looking at bar graphs of results of tests that do not measure what I want them to measure, I did not write, and are badly aligned to instruction I feel that students need to be receiving. And then having someone refer to them as if they are meaningful data. Data is only as good as the instruments you use to collect it, and if you use poor instruments, you will get poor data. I am also fed up with administrators looking at data gathered using different instruments and assuming the results are related in some way. Numbers do not always have meaning.

    Data has its place, but it needs to be good data. It is like expecting to solve a crime using sloppy forensics. You will not, and if you do, your evidence will not be good enough to convict anyone. We use sloppy data and try to convince the public teachers need to be convicted based on it.

    • Indeed. And that’s part of the danger of the CCSS and standards in general. They can be useful as guidelines, but when they’re treated as the goal of education and, moreover, a goal that can be broken into measurable sub-goals, the meaning of education gets lost.

  3. Savage satire, Dr. Senechal. Had you run this in Education Week, I daresay we could’ve had another Sokal hoax and an extra laugh. Alas, your satire rings too true as it is.

    • Thanks, James. And thanks for posting the scary “data is fabulous” video on your blog. I remembered that video but didn’t have the link.

  1. District Purchases New Goal Package | Diana Senechal

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