Monday, December 31, 2007

Stopping the Re-authorization of NCLB

A recent article in the New York Times documents the rising opposition to the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which has stalled. Democrats tend to oppose NCLB because of concerns from teacher unions that NCLB has undercut the professionalism of teachers. Many Republicans oppose NCLB because they believe it intrudes on the role of states to make educational policy.

This situation gives hope to those of us who feel that NCLB has harmed teachers and students across the US by limiting the professional discretion of teachers and by denying students in low achieving schools access to challenging, high expectation curricula. It is also clear that NCLB has failed to alleviate the so-called achievement gap. As I wrote in an earlier posting, based on the most recent NAEP report, “at the current rate of improvement since 1992, it will take another 135 years for the average performance of Black students to pull even with White students. Using the same logic, it will take 375 years for the average performance of Hispanic students to catch up to their White classmates.”

Given the current political realities, the time couldn’t be better for NCTE members and other teachers of the English language arts to contact their congressional representatives to voice their opposition to the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. When I was a member of NCTE’s Executive Committee we heard from a number of congressional staffers that they rarely hear from teachers. Now is the time for our voices to be heard. Contact your representatives but be clear that we are in favor of high standards, but not standardized testing and uniform curricula. We also favor accountability for teachers but not an accountability based on test scores.

So let us resolve in the new year to make a difference in American education by making our voices heard by contacting our congressional representatives to oppose the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. This is a real chance to turn things around for ourselves and our students.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Being Accountable to Children's Needs

I just finished grading exams and papers. For my reading methods course, I ask my Boston College students to write about how they will teach reading when they have their own classrooms. I’m particularly interested in they’re being able to provide a rationale for how they will teach reading. Certainly, I hope that they will be able to cite a research base that supports their decision-making, but I expect more than that. I also want my students to be able to talk about theories of reading (how people read and how they learn to read) that inform their reading program. Do they believe that reading is the fluent, linear processing of visual information (a cognitive-psychological view)? If so, how does their instruction – and the research base they cite to support their reading program – comport with this model of reading? If they view reading as a range of sociocultural processes that vary according to the text, the reader’s purpose, the cultural context, and so on, how does this affect their instructional decision-making and the research they draw on to support their work? Is their reading program theoretically coherent or does it include (theoretically) contradictory practices that send confusing signals to developing readers? To my chagrin, my students sometimes argue that their teaching will draw on both cognitive-psychological and sociocultural views of reading.

In any case, I think it is a reasonable expectation that all teachers of reading be able to provide a clear rationale for their instructional decisions. What they do as teachers of reading should make sense (that is, it should have some theoretical support), have a research base, and, perhaps most importantly, be based on the assessed needs of individual children. This is something else I tell my students (over and over and over again): what they teach must address the individual needs of their students. They should not teach what students already know nor should they teach what students are not ready to learn. Put differently, teachers should be held accountable for showing that their reading instruction supports INDIVIDUAL students’ developing reading abilities within a theoretical coherent framework. Regrettably, narrow standards and high stakes testing often leads to whole class approaches to reading that do not consider the needs and abilities of individual children.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Negative Portrayals of the Poor

One of my students and I have been writing a critique of a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that attributes the high proportion of academic failures among poor students to limited language opportunities in their homes. Hart and Risley claim, for example, that by age 3, children in professional families have heard more than 30 million words spoken in their homes, children in working-class families 20 million words, and the children in poor families only 10 million words. This particular finding has been widely quoted in the professional literature and the popular press and has been used to support calls for universal pre-school, especially for poor children.

When we submitted a conference proposal based on this critique one of the reviewers complained, “you just don’t like Hart and Risley’s negative portrayal of the poor.” The reviewer was right. I don’t like negative portrayals of families living in poverty that blame the poor for their academic and economic struggles. I don’t like Ruby Payne’s program based on the assumption that the poor share a dysfunctional “culture of poverty.” Nor do I like family literacy programs that portray the literacy environment in poor families as deficient. And I certainly don’t care for the repeated claim that children in poor families fail in school because of linguistic and cultural deficiencies in their homes.

All children come to school with an amazing repertoire of language and literacy skills although not all children come to school with the same experiences. The problem is when the differences between middle-class and non-middle-class families are portrayed as deficiencies. No good ever comes from teachers viewing their students and their families as deficient. There is considerable evidence that successful teachers of poor and minority students respect their students and the communities from which they come. Deficit-based approaches to teaching poor students are inherently disrespectful.

A respectful approach to literacy instruction for students from non-dominant groups begins by acknowledging the literacy experiences students bring with them to school. Respectful language arts instruction recruits students’ cultural and linguistic resources in support of school learning. Respectful literacy instruction challenges children attending under resourced schools with the same rich, high expectation curricula common in more affluent schools. Finally, a respectful literacy curriculum addresses crucial literacy skills in the context of schooling.

In the context of a respectful language arts program, parents aren’t the problem, the problem (teaching children school literacy practices) is the problem.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Improving Academic Achievement with Cell Phones

A recent article in the New York Times (“Reaching out to students when they talk and text,” November 13, 2007) describes a planned campaign in New York City Public Schools to improve the academic performance of students in underachieving schools using mentoring and various incentives for high performance. According to the Times article, the incentives will include “free concerts and sporting events and free minutes and ringtones for their phones.” That’s another part of the program. Each student in participating schools will be given a cell phone even though the Mayor of NYC has banned cell phones in City schools.

The program will also include the use of text messages created by an advertising agency that promote academic achievement. This is an effort to “rebrand” educational achievement. The article cites a study undertaken by the NYC schools that many poor Black and Latino students in the city’s poorest neighborhoods “had a difficult time understanding that doing well in school can provide tangible, long-term benefits.”

I guess the problem is that academic achievement has a bad “rep.”

Apparently, the antidote to under resourced schools, impoverished curricula, a shortage of “highly qualified” teachers, and the material effects of poverty is an advertising campaign. This all seems incredibly na├»ve to me. And, if the stakes weren’t so high, I might find such blind faith in the power of advertising charming.

But the stakes are very high and ads and incentives miss the more important point. Students in high poverty schools need better facilities. They need better teachers. And, most of all, they need challenging, high expectation curricula.

Sarah Michaels and I are currently examining data we collected in a South Bronx elementary school that used Shared Inquiry and Accountable Talk as part of its reading program. In this program, students read and discussed challenging texts, using textual evidence to make sophisticated arguments. We also found that, during the time students were involved in Shared Inquiry, reading scores increased and teachers’ perceptions of their students’ learning potential were transformed. Our findings are consistent with the work of Jeannie Oakes and other urban scholars who have demonstrated the power of high expectation curricula to turn around low achieving schools.

Maybe if I had the cell phone numbers of NYC school officials I could text them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Homework 2

In my last posting I wrote about homework. I wrote that there is little research supporting the efficacy of homework in the elementary grades. I also cited evidence from my own research that homework can seriously disrupt the lives of many families, depriving parents of the pleasures of parenthood. But I want to address a particular kind of homework practice, what I’ll call “school-to-home” literacy practices.

School-to-home literacy includes various efforts to encourage parents to read with their children at home, to set aside time for children to read independently, or for parents to model reading for their children. These school-to-home literacy practices are motivated by the sense that children do better in school when their parents provide rich reading experiences in the home. There is also the worry that some parents, particularly poor urban parents whose children experience higher levels of academic failure, need lots of guidance to help them provide appropriate literacy experiences in their homes.

Because I was curious about the degree to which various home-to-school literacy practices were considerate of the values, beliefs, and time demands of urban parents, I undertook a study of how parents perceived these initiatives. Toward this end, we interviewed African American and immigrant, ESL parents in two large, underperforming urban districts not far from Boston College.

What we found was that school-to-home literacy practices, as experienced by the parents we interviewed, did not always fit well with family routines, cultural values, or expectations. We also found that the interaction between parents and schools was marked by a one-way model of school-home communication that provided few opportunities for school-to-home literacy initiatives to respond to the needs of individual families.

One of conclusions I drew from this study is that, although we may believe that practices like shared and independent reading in the home are crucial literacy experiences, there is no reason to believe that parents will automatically share this belief. Moreover, merely asking parents to embrace school literacy practices common in middle-class homes does not mean that non-middle-class parents can or will embrace these practices.

So what is a teacher to do? Here are a few suggestions I have come up with.

Teachers should be clear with parents that there are kinds of school literacy practices that are quite different from out-of-school literacies. Encouraging/modeling independent reading, for example, is more than something fun to do after the homework has been completed. But we can’t just tell parents what to do. We must also persuade them that it is important.

Teachers/schools should be clear about the kinds of support they can offer parents to encourage family literacy practices particularly supportive of schooling, how to read with their children, for example. But we need to leave it to parents to determine what they are able to do. In other words, teachers must be prepared to accept the possibility that some school-to-literacy practices don’t fit well with cultural patterns in the home. Other parents may just not have the time to do one more thing.

If teachers feel that there are crucial literacy experiences (shared and independent reading, storybook reading) all children need to have then they should make space for these experience IN SCHOOL.

Teachers must recognize the various literacy practices students have experienced in their homes and find ways to build on students’ knowledge of literacy. ALL children come to school knowing something about literacy. We need to discover what children know and build on that.

Finally, recognizing that the home literacy practices of some students (i.e., middle-class students) more closely match school literacy practices than the home literacy experiences of other students, teachers MUST be much more explicit about how school literacy practices work.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The burdens of homework on parents and children

This past week-end the Boston Globe published an article (Sara Rimer, “Less homework, more Yoga,” October 31, 2007) about the principal at Needham (MA) High School who has undertaken a number of measures to reduce stress among his students including “homework free” days to help students catch up on their school work. Apparently, this has provided fodder to conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh who have accused the Needham principal of “coddling” students.

Homework continues to be the subject of heated debates among parents, students, politicians, educational reformers, and the general public. Newt Gingrich once argued that children who weren’t required to do at least two hours of homework every night “were being cheated for the rest of their lives.” A new book by Alfie Kohn (The homework myth, Da Capo Press), on the other hand, presents a mountain of research evidence documenting the negative effects of homework on parents and children. But I suspect most people are likely to ignore the research and side with Gingrich on this issue even if they might wonder about the requirement of two hours of homework for every child.

When my children were younger I learned to loath homework that disrupted our family routines and often created nearly unbearable tensions in our household. Thinking about the time my daughter lost a major homework assignment that took weeks to complete in fourth grade still makes me sick to my stomach.

Motivated by our experience with homework I undertook an interview study with 24 parents of elementary aged children who struggled in school to learn how these parents experienced homework (A family affair: When school troubles come home, Heinemann). Over and over again parents shared stories of stress and turmoil. In these households, homework created tensions between parents and children and mothers and fathers. Several parents claimed that tensions around homework had permanently damaged their relationships with their children and sent a few couples to marriage counseling. It was worst for the single mothers who struggled to work, manage their households, and support their children’s schooling. In general, homework robbed the mothers and fathers I interviewed of many of the pleasures of parenthood.

So why are parents, teachers, and the general public so supportive of homework, even in the earliest grades? I suspect most people believe that, whatever its downside, homework
supports academic achievement. But an extensive body of research indicates otherwise. Homework has not been shown to have beneficial effects for elementary students and the benefits for high school students are modest at best. And, as my research shows, homework often has a negative effect on the emotional lives of parents and children.

There are critics of American schooling who argue that the cure all for educational failures is “scientifically-based” research. I don’t agree for reasons I’ve discussed in previous blogs, but I have to wonder why we persist to push homework in the early grades in the absence of research support.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Tyranny of the Norm (or, it’s normal to be different)

According to the Boston Globe (“Student takes his C to federal court,” October 4, 2007), a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has gone to court to challenge a grade in one of his courses. The student determined he had done “A” work in the course but, because the final grade was computed “on a curve,” he got a “C” for his final grade. Lots of high school and college teachers grade “on a curve.” It’s more or less assumed that the bell curve provides a natural description of most human behaviors, including academic performance. The idea that, in general, human behavior distributes “normally” is a powerful idea that stands behind whole-class instruction (most kids cluster around the average), special education (students who depart significantly from the norm require a “special” education), educational testing (students are often compared to the “average” student at their grade level), educational research (statistical comparisons between groups or instructional interventions are based on the mean), and, sometimes, grading practices.

One of my doctoral students and I have been researching the history of the normal curve. Almost everyone assumes that the normal curve is an accurate model for representing variation in human behavior, but does the evidence actually support this common-sense assumption? As it turns out, some physical characteristics like height do distribute along a bell-shaped, normal curve. The vast majority of human behaviors do not, however, distribute normally. Weight doesn’t. Running speed and reaction time don’t. It’s not clear that intelligence or academic achievement distribute normally, either. Standardized tests are designed to produce normal distributions so the degree to which traits like intelligence and academic achievement distribute normally says more about the skill of the people who construct tests than it does about the human condition (and, even then, actual test scores often do not produce normal distributions). So, as it turns out, normal distributions are not the norm and this has been apparent to a few statisticians and social science researchers for over 100 years.

If the normal curve is a myth, as we believe that it is, then beliefs and practices based on the assumption of normality must be challenged. One particularly troubling practice that emerges from the “myth of normality” is the use of means (or averages) to represent groups of people, especially school children. The problem of using averages to represent the performance of children in our schools is that averages obscure the natural variation that characterizes the behavior of human beings. The claim that boys do less well in school than girls does not consider the fact that many boys do very well in school (better than most girls) and many girls do poorly in school (worse than most boys). Similarly, research on fourth grade readers or students with learning disabilities, for instance, obscures the individual needs of real children who are not statistical averages.

The assumption of normality has led to a range of educational practices and research that ignore the variety of ways children learn and the wide range of experiences they have in and out of school. We need to replace the notion that it’s normal to be average with the idea that it’s normal to be different. This will lead us to shift the focus of research and instruction from the mythical average student to the needs of individual learners.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Remedying the Achievement Gap

The recently released results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal a persistent achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and their White counterparts. The data also indicate that the achievement gap has held fairly steady since the results of the first NAEP were released 15 years ago.

Why has the achievement gap proven to be such an intractable problem? Presumably, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was drafted specifically to ameliorate the chronic underachievement of poor Black and Hispanic children, especially in reading.

My sense is that NCLB has promoted teaching practices that largely sustain the achievement gap. NCLB and related programs like Reading First promote circumscribed, skills-focused reading curricula that deny students in under-performing schools the rich reading experiences routinely provided to students in more affluent, higher-performing schools. It’s no surprise that students in poor urban and rural schools are plagued by a “fourth-grade reading slump.” An obsession with discrete skill instruction to the near exclusion of reading connected text virtually insures that many underachieving students will struggle when the expectation changes from learning to read to reading to learn.

I don’t understand why many policy makers think that students in underachieving schools – places overpopulated by poor Black and Hispanic children – require qualitatively different reading curricula from students in high performing schools. If students in high performing schools have lots of opportunities to read and discuss engaging texts – and they do – then this is what students in low performing schools need, too. If high achieving students have time for sustained engagement with various kinds of texts through practices like sustained silent reading – and they do – then this at least as important for low achieving students.

The antidote to the achievement gap then is high expectation curricula informed by the practices and opportunities common in high achieving schools. The evidence that the rich and varied curricula found in high achieving schools “work” is obvious: the students in these schools do very well academically. The evidence that low expectation curricula common in underachieving schools do not is equally obvious.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Latest NAEP Results and No Child Left Behind

The results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “nation’s report card,” were released yesterday. The NAEP report indicates that here have been modest gains in reading achievement for 4th and 8th graders since 1992 when the NAEP was first administered. These gains generally hold for all groups – Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics and males and females. But the data also reveal the persistence of the so-called “achievement gap” between White students and Black and Hispanic students. For example, although the gap in reading achievement between White and Black students has narrowed slightly since 1992, the average reading scores for Black students in 8th grade still lag 27 points behind their White classmates, down from a 30 point gap in 1992. The difference between White and Hispanic in 8th grade is now 25 points, down from 26 points in 1992.

The primary goal of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation was to eliminate the achievement gap, particularly in reading, by focusing on children too often “left behind.” The report of the National Reading Panel, Reading First grants, and the establishment of the What Works Clearinghouse were all intended to help achieve this worthy goal. Following the release of the NAEP report yesterday, President Bush called the results “outstanding,” adding that the NAEP scores confirm that No Child Left Behind is working” (New York Times, “Scores Show Mixed Results for Bush Education Law,” September 25, 2007).

My reading of the NAEP report is less optimistic. At the current rate of improvement since 1992, it will take another 135 years for the average performance of Black students to pull even with White students. Using the same logic, it will take 375 years for the average performance of Hispanic students to catch up to their White classmates. A cynic might conclude that NCLB is working to maintain existing educational inequities.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What works: Not for Everyone

A recently released review of beginning reading programs from the What Works Clearinghouse found that few commercial reading programs could claim evidence that they are effective in raising student achievement (Kathleen Manzo, Education Week, “Reading Curricula Don’t Make Cut for Federal Review, August 15, 2007). This isn’t particularly surprising to those who have studied commercial reading programs, but it raises a question that is seldom asked: what does it mean to claim that a reading intervention “works?”
To begin with, no reading intervention has been found to be effective with all children, all of the time. So a reading strategy that “works” does not work for everyone. From a statistical point of view, strategies work only for a mythical average student. The reliance on means for determining statistical significance obscures the fact that a strategy that was found to work did not work for everyone and may even have been detrimental for some.
The claim that a reading intervention works must be further qualified with the phrase, “compared to what?” Typically, reading research compares one intervention to one or two other interventions. In some cases, the intervention may actually be compared to nothing (i.e., the intervention is better than no intervention). In any case, a strategy that works only works better than the interventions to which it was compared and, even then, because of the reliance on the mythical average student, a strategy that didn’t work could still be effective for some children.
Finally, the assertion that a reading intervention works begs the question, “works at what?” Some researchers will be satisfied that an intervention was effective if it improved students’ performance sounding out nonsense words. Others will only be satisfied if the intervention improved students’ reading comprehension and, even then, reading researchers have different views on the meaning of reading comprehension.
So to say that a reading intervention works really means that the intervention was effective for some children compared to one or two other interventions on measures the reading researcher(s) – but likely not all reading researchers – believed were related to reading.
From this perspective, the ultimate arbiter of “what works?” is the teacher who determines the efficacy of various reading interventions with individual children in her/his classroom.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Taking Responsibility (Don't do as I do)

Accountability is the linchpin of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. This is as it should be. Teachers are professionals and they must be accountable for student learning. There has, however, been considerable debate over the meaning of accountability in the context of NCLB including what teachers should be accountable for and how they should be held accountable. As a keen observer of American politics I think that teachers can learn a lot by observing how members of the Bush administration take responsibility for their actions.

When, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report that gave the Iraqi government failing grades for not meeting a series of political benchmarks, the White House complained that the GAO’s standards were “too high.” Following this example, I suggest that teachers whose students do poorly on state achievement tests utilize the same tactic. Claim that the test makers’ standards were just too high.

Alberto Gonzalez, Scooter Libby, and even the President have attempted to deflect criticism of failed policies and inept performance by occasionally asserting, “I don’t recall….” When teachers are chastised for their students’ failures, I suggest they consider a similar defense: “I don’t remember that student.”

Accountability in Washington often involves blaming failure on somebody else. The failure to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina? The fault of state and local officials. Recommending Harriet Myers for the Supreme Court? It was John Roberts’ idea. When students fail, I suggest that teachers consider blaming parents, administrators, students, or even custodians (“my classroom was too dirty for learning to occur”).

But sometimes teachers need to be prepared for the ultimate gesture of accountability. Teachers must be ready to tell parents, administrators, and students that they take full responsibility for low test scores. There is no better way to show that they are doing a “heck of a job.”

Friday, August 31, 2007

“Failing our geniuses, poor Black and Hispanic students, boys, girls, students with disabilities….”

In a recent article in Time magazine (“Failing our geniuses,” August 16, 2007), John Cloud writes about an education system so focused on the goal of minimal proficiency for all students that “we may be squandering a national resource: our best young minds.” The problem, according to Cloud, is an “education system [that] has little idea how to cultivate its most promising students.” Although I was put off by the elitist themes in the Time article, Cloud does have a point. There are lots of students, not just gifted students, whose needs are not met by the trend toward one-size-fits-all curricula focused on bringing all children to the level of minimum proficiency. Lately, many educators and educational policy makers have argued that schools do not do a very good job of meeting the needs of boys. This follows more than two decades of research showing that many girls are poorly served by public schools. The persistent achievement gap, in which poor Black and Hispanic children, on average, under perform relative to their White counterparts, provides strong evidence that schools aren’t meeting the needs of many poor and minority students. The continued expansion of special education is further evidence that significant numbers of children are poorly served by public schools.

I have a somewhat different perspective on public schooling in this country. I think there is lots of evidence that many students – boys, girls, Blacks, Hispanics, special ed. and gifted students – are well served by their teachers and schools. Still, increasingly standardized curricula inspired by No Child Left Behind make it difficult for many teachers to accommodate the diverse needs and backgrounds of their students. The problem isn’t teachers, students, school administrators, or teacher educators but inflexible structures that imagine homogeneous groups of mostly “average” students who are expected to learn the same things, at the same time, at the same rate. To truly meet the needs of all students, pushing all students as far as they can go as learners, we need to create classroom structures that are congenial to the range of students in our classrooms. Readers and Writers Workshops, for example, provide teachers with large blocks of time to collect rich assessment data and to work with students individually and in small groups. However classrooms are organized, teachers must have the flexibility to provide instructional support that responds to the needs of individual students and the opportunity to conduct the kind of assessment that insures that instruction is targeted to what students need to learn. I believe that flexible classroom structures targeted to the learning of individual students can accommodate even “our best young minds.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Uniform(ed) Schooling

When I was a young boy growing up in Cleveland in 1950s, when the cold war was at its height, there was no shortage of propaganda on the evils of communism. Media images portrayed the dreary, humorless existence of men, women, and children unfortunate enough to live behind the Iron or Bamboo curtains. In these popular images, there was no room for joy or laughter, self-expression, or personal or political freedom. For me, the most persuasive portrait of human misery in China or the Soviet Union was captured in films depicting life in Chinese classrooms. Even now I have no idea if these films were real or not. But the image of school children dressed in military-style uniforms, sitting rigidly in their seats, chanting patriotic slogans, and being abused by unvarying, insipid lessons terrified me. From my perspective in the Midwestern United States, this was the antithesis of the personal freedom that was the birthright of Americans (as a 10 year old in Ohio I was unaware of the legalized racism in parts of the country that denied African Americans their birthright).

This all came to mind as I was reading a recent article in USA Today (Carol Motsinger, “Ironing out policies on school uniforms,” August 6, 2007) about the increasing trend in American schools to require children to wear uniforms. According to the article, one in four public elementary schools and one in eight public middle and high schools now require school uniforms. There is evidence that this trend is particularly prevalent in under-performing rural and urban schools serving large numbers of poor and minority students. Apparently, left to their own designs children choose clothing that will distract their classmates from learning although this doesn’t seem to be a worry in more affluent public schools.

Along the same line, Jonothan Kozol’s (2006) book, The Shame of the Nation, documents numerous instances where urban students begin their school day by chanting mind-numbing, “motivational” slogans. In a Seattle school Kozol visited, the entire student body stood and chanted “I have confidence that I can learn” 30 times at a morning assembly. Slogans are big in many versions of urban school reform.

And then there is the tendency toward dreary, one-size-fits-curricula in urban schools, a trend evident in the growing popularity of scripted reading programs in underachieving schools.

Taken together, classrooms overpopulated by poor children of color wearing identical school uniforms, taught through uniform curricular practices, and chanting mindless slogans paint a picture that for me is no less disturbing than the images of Chinese school children from my youth. Politicians and educational policy makers often situate the need for educational reforms in the context of globalization. US companies need better educated workers to compete in a global economy. At least that’s the claim. The irony is that the desire for economic success in a globalized economy may be undermining fundamental American ideals, at least for Americans already disadvantaged by poverty and discrimination.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Accountability in No Child Left Behind

As the Congressional vote to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) gets closer, we can expect the debate over NCLB to intensify. Most of my colleagues in the NCTE leadership are extremely critical of NCLB and the effects it has had on American education. I share this dissatisfaction with NCLB. Still, NCLB has had a few positive effects. The requirement for disaggregating testing data by race, for example, has shone a bright and useful light on shameful racial disparities in our schools. The demand that all children be taught by “highly qualified” teachers is also worthwhile even if I am disappointed by the way the Bush administration has defined “highly qualified” so that it means minimally qualified. I also think it is entirely reasonable that teachers be held accountable for teaching all the children in their classrooms. But accountable for what? In its present form, NCLB holds teachers accountable for improving student performance on state achievement tests. This form of accountability has led to narrow, test-focused instruction that has diminished the quality of literacy education for many students, especially students in low-performing schools. Arguably, the fourth-grade reading slump that plagues urban schools is a function of an over emphasis on discrete reading skills measured by state tests at the expense of wide reading of engaging literature. Test-based accountability has also had a negative effect on teacher discretion as more and more teachers are being asked to teach reading through the use of prescriptive reading programs. Again, my complaint isn’t whether teachers should be held accountable, but what they should be held accountable for. Therefore, I would like to propose a different model of accountability that would not be based primarily on test scores. I would like every teacher to be accountable for documenting to parents and school administrators that they have pushed every child in their class as far as they could go as readers and writers during the time they were in the teacher’s class. The documentation of student progress would have to be based on regular, wide-ranging assessments of students’ reading and writing. Further, if students were not making adequate progress teachers would also have to show how they adapted or modified instruction based on their ongoing assessment of students’ needs. This model of accountability is based on the assumption that instruction and assessment – and accountability – must be focused on the individual needs of each and every student.

This is a far more rigorous standard of accountability than is called for in the current version of NCLB but I think this model of accountability would go much further in insuring that no child IS left behind.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Effect of Talking Trash, Part 2

Writing in the New York Times, Anna Jane Grossman recently wrote about parents’ resistance to the Junie B. Jones series (July 26, 2007, “Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?”). In a previous posting, I took issue with Grossman’s characterization of whole language, but there is another issue that Grossman discusses that I’d like to comment on. According to Grossman, some parents are banning Junie B. from their homes because they’re worried that Junie B. Jones is a poor model for their children. The problem is Junie B.’s mischievous behavior and her non-standard language (she uses words like “funnest” and “runned” and her adverbs often lack the “ly,” for example). But will exposure to Junie B.’s naughty behavior and non-standard English undermine children’s morals or their language development? Lots of folks seem to think so. The popular press routinely reports on the dangerous influences of reading materials on children’s language, morals, and learning. Children’s books featuring dialect or informal language registers promote “bad” English. Reading books in Spanish discourages literacy in English (Governor Arnold Swartzenneger asked Hispanics to stop watching Spanish television programming). Reading instant messages encourages unconventional spelling. Harry Potter promotes Satanism. Books including gay characters forward a “homosexual agenda.” And on and on. The common thread in all this criticism is a lack of faith in children. Children may be impressionable but they can distinguish between fictional texts and reality. They can distinguish between good and bad behavior. And they’ll make their own lifestyle choices, influenced by their family’s religious and cultural values and their biological endowments. But, most of all, they know that language use varies according to the context. Informal and non-standard forms of English are appropriate to some settings like conversations between friends. More formal, standard forms are especially appropriate to schooling. These same forms are wildly inappropriate in most settings outside of school. Children learn to vary what they say and how they say it at a very early age. Eventually, they learn that spelling conventions also vary according to the context. IM-ing is not a threat to western civilization. Parents and teachers need to have faith in children’s remarkable abilities as language learners while helping children figure out which language forms are most appropriate for which settings. Our goal is to push student to learn a range of oral and written language forms appropriate to a wide variety of audiences and settings.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Effect of Talking Trash

In a recent article in the New York Times (July 26, 2007, “Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?”), Anna Jane Grossman raises a couple of issues that demand a response. Grossman acknowledges that popularity of the Junie B. Jones series, but argues that “more than a few parents have taken issue with Junie B.” (Section G, p. 1). At issue, apparently, is Junie B.’s mischievous behavior and, especially, her non-standard grammar (she uses words like “funnest” and “runned” and her adverbs often lack the “ly,” for example). The reaction to Junie B. Jones has reached the point where Barbara Park, the author of the Junie B. series, is now among the American Library Association’s 10 Most Challenged Authors.
Grossman characterizes controversy over Junie B. Jones as a “pint—size version of the lingering education battle between advocates of phonics, who believe that children should be taught proper spelling and grammar from the outset, and those who favor whole language, a literacy method that accepts misspellings and other errors as long as children are engaged in reading and writing.” I want to know is where Grossman found these people, presumably teachers, who “favor whole language,” but accept “misspellings and other errors?” Are there really whole language teachers out there who just accept students’ errors? If so, then the critics of whole language practices are right. But this is not my experience. Good whole language teachers don’t “accept” errors although they likely recognize students’ developmental attempts to spell unknown words using their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and the conventions of the English spelling system. Effective whole language teachers recognize that insisting on word perfect spelling can limit students’ writing fluency by discouraging students from including in their writing words they don’t know how to spell conventionally. These same teachers take a similar stance on grammar, preferring students write in non-standard English rather than not writing at all. This does not mean, however, that whole language teachers “accept” unconventional spellings or non-standard grammar. Good writing teachers acknowledge students’ existing knowledge of language forms and use this knowledge to push students to become more effective writers. But the goal is NOT that students simply learn conventional spellings and standard grammar. The goal of writing instruction is to teach students to learn forms of writing appropriate to their purposes and audiences. Sometimes this means using academic language associated with schooling as in the case of research reports. But effective writers also learn that the academic language of schooling is inappropriate for some purposes and audiences. It would be odd, for example, if I wrote friendly emails using the same forms I use for journal articles. For teachers, this isn’t a matter of accepting or not accepting particular spellings or grammatical forms but providing students with the explicit support and direction they need to learn how to use writing to fulfill a range of purposes with a variety of audiences. This is what good whole language teachers do.

Friday, April 13, 2007

We get no respect

Rodney Dangerfield, who died in 2004, was one of my all-time favorite stand-up comedians. To me, his signature line, “I get no respect,” never grew old. Rodney never seemed to run out of material. Still, if Rodney Dangerfield had been a teacher he would have discovered the mother lode of disrespect. The teachers I work with never seem to run out of “I get no respect” stories, either. I’m beginning to feel the same way. The last few years there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism of teacher education. For many critics, a host of educational problems can be laid at the feet of teacher educators who, it is claimed, have emphasized trendy, feel good pedagogies over teaching practices that have been proven to “work.” Perhaps the most widely-reported critique of the way reading is taught in teacher education programs (“What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading--and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning”) was produced last year by the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ). NCTQ describes itself as an organization that advocates for educational reforms at the federal, state, and local levels to produce more effective teachers. The NCTQ Board of Directors and Advisory Board are dominated by conservative critics of public education who have long advocated for market-based solutions to educational reform.
NCTQ’s report on how prospective teachers are taught to teach reading begins with the assumption that how reading should be taught is a settled question. To support this assertion, the authors of the NCTQ report point to the National Reading Panel. The authors of the report then ask whether the teaching of reading in schools of education is faithful to the findings of the National Reading Panel. To answer this question, they examined course syllabi and assigned readings from reading methods courses at 72 colleges and universities across the US. Based on this less-than-rigorous survey, the authors concluded that most universities are not teaching prospective teachers the “science of reading.” But, despite the lack of rigor, the basic findings of the NCTQ survey have been reported in newspapers across the country. Once again, teacher educators get “no respect.”

What should NCTE members and other progressive educators make of the NCTQ report? The most important thing to do is to be informed. The NCTQ report must be read critically. Readers of the report shouldn’t accept (or reject) the NCTQ findings without considering the point of view from which the report is written or without assessing the quality of the research. My sense is that the authors of the report subscribe to a narrow, behavioral view of reading and reading instruction that is not widely accepted among reading theorists and researchers. Further, I’d argue that the NCTQ report doesn’t meet even minimal standards for research so I think it’s fairly ironic that the authors of the report take such a strong position on “scientifically-based” research.

Two of my colleagues at Boston College and I have written a detailed critique of the NCTQ report which can be access via the NCTE Council Chronicle website. URL:

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Blame the Teachers

When students who attend poorly resourced schools with overcrowded classrooms underachieve academically it is teachers who are blamed. When American school children fare poorly on international comparisons in math, science, and reading teachers are faulted even though these comparisons are often unfair. When it is found that, on average, girls are outperforming boys on various measures of academic achievement the “blame” is placed on female teachers who are insufficiently considerate of boys’ needs. When Massachusetts introduced its new teacher test several years ago the prospective teachers who failed that test were labeled “idiots” by a leading Massachusetts politician even though the content of the test had been kept secret and the test did not align with state curricular frameworks. High stakes tests and prescriptive curricula are often justified on the basis of claims that teachers are too easily taken in by educational fads. Given this trend, it isn’t much of a leap to imagine that, when high stakes testing and prescriptive reading and math programs fail to remedy the achievement gap teachers – not publishers, politicians, or policy makers – will be blamed. A recent article USA Today referenced in the NCTE InBox offers a glimpse of the kind of criticism teachers can expect in the not-too-distant future.

The USA Today article (“Study gives teachers barely passing grade in classroom,” (March 29, 2007) summarizes a study published in Science Magazine which concludes that US elementary teachers spend “too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies.” I agree. Many teachers are spending far too much time on the reading and math skills that are the focus of state tests to the exclusion of higher order problem-solving, science and social studies. I’ll go even further. Many teachers focus on basic reading and math skills to the exclusion of higher levels of reading and math. Some students spend far more time sounding out words than they do reading authentic texts. Many beginning readers may not even read texts in school at all. But it is difficult to fault teachers who are forced to follow prescriptive, teach-to-the-test curricula. If, in the context of No Child Left Behind, problem solving, science, and social studies (not to mention art, music, and even recess) are being pushed out of the school day, let’s put the blame where it belongs. The real culprits are politicians and policy makers who have taken curricular decision-making out of the hands of teachers and placed it in the hands of test developers and textbook publishers. I’m not above blaming individual teachers when students fail to learn. I was certainly dissatisfied with some of my children’s elementary teachers. But individual teachers can only be held accountable when they have some control over their work and, regrettably, many teachers in schools today have relatively little control over their work or students’ learning.

Monday, April 2, 2007

"Onerous" Testing in Public Schools

My wife’s mother bought her a subscription to the Wall Street Journal for Christmas. The generous explanation for this gift is that my mother-in-law wanted to encourage the development of my wife’s investment skills. The less generous reading of my mother-in-law’s motives suggests that she bought the Journal as an antidote to my liberal views. In this case, the Wall Street Journal is the equivalent of a garlic necklace for warding off vampires. Ironically, when I’m sufficiently desperate for reading material I sometimes read the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed pages.

On Saturday the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed piece by Brendan Miniter, a regular contributor to the opinion page of the Journal, bemoaning the defeat of a school choice bill in South Carolina (“A Day Late,” March 31, 2007, p. A10). There was nothing remarkable about the topic of this piece since the Wall Street Journal has consistently championed school choice as an essential element of educational reform. No, what grabbed my attention was Mr. Miniter’s assertion that opponents of school choice in South Carolina “attempted to derail ‘opportunity scholarships’ [an Orwellian term for a kind of voucher plan] by attaching restrictions that no private school could live with” (p. A10). And just what were these intolerable restrictions? “Requirements for teacher accreditation, submission to onerous state testing, and limits on tuition,” said Mr. Miniter.

In the context of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) teacher quality and state testing are presented as fundamental to “fixing” American public schools. Recent calls to relax the testing requirements of NCLB are being fiercely resisted by the Bush administration. But for the Wall Street Journal and other proponents of vouchers who would see taxpayer dollars flow to private schools in the form of vouchers teacher certification and (onerous) testing are “restrictions that no private school could live with.” For people possessing unquestioned faith in market forces to solve a range of human problems including disproportionate educational failures among poor and minority students I guess this makes some sense. Still, I’m mystified why state testing is “onerous” in the context of private schooling and a cornerstone of reform in the context of public schooling. Why such faith in (often uncertified) private school teachers and so little trust in “highly qualified” teachers working in public schools? I certainly agree that many parents are sending their children to private schools to escape “onerous” state testing practices that dumb down the curriculum. This is one of the reasons we sent our children to a Waldorf School. But why aren’t these same testing practices viewed as “onerous” for the children and teachers who work in public schools? Maybe the problem is that folks like Brendan Miniter just aren’t talking to the right people. My guess is that if they talked to the children and teachers who daily endure the tedium of test-based curricula they would discover that high stakes testing practices are equally despised in public school settings.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Improving Schools

The chancellor of the New York City Public Schools recently announced a new plan to hold principals accountable for improved student performance on standardized exams. ( New York Times, Metro Section, Tuesday March 6th 2007). The Department of Education is paying IBM 80 million dollars to develop a new storehouse for data that will track each of the city’s 1.1 million students. IBM. 80 million dollars. Data storehouse.

It’s hard to believe we are talking about places where young children fall in love with Stuart Little, create Valentines for their classmates, cut pizzas to learn fractions and give out cupcakes on their birthdays. And the result of all that data collection will be a letter grade. Yes, each school will become known as an A to F. That ought to make the real estate agents revise their neighborhood advertisements.

We don’t need better storehouses for data. We need better schoolhouses for children. Principals don’t become better leaders because they are graded. They become better leaders because they know quality instruction and they know how to attract, inspire and support wonderful teachers.

What would you do to improve the education of 1.1 million students if you had 80 million dollars in your pocket? I’d be tempted to add to my shopping cart such essential educational items as luxurious classroom libraries, more plentiful and effective professional development, as well as sufficient funds for field trips- here in New York City- to all our museums, historical sites and Broadway shows. Then too, I’d want all students to have access to such life-affirming and life-changing experiences as quality instruction in art, drama and music. Or cooking, carpentry, gardening, playing chess, etc. (Students immersed in a world of fascinating studies do become committed readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and overall problem solvers. Isn’t that what schools are for? Isn’t that what all parents, those who work at IBM and those who teach in our schools and those who drive our buses and those who cut our hair, isn’t that what all parents want for their children?).

Yes, I’d be tempted to place those high-ticket items on my shopping list, but above all I would use that money to encourage the folks with the most instructional know-how in our city, our best classroom teachers, to want to become principals. I know of no other way to close the achievement gap than to improve instruction. I know of no other way to improve instruction than to have brilliant instructional leaders at the helm of every school. I know of no other way to attract quality teachers than to have a principal who knows how to hire, inspire, and support those great teachers.

(Such brilliant leaders, even on shoestring budgets, but with their priorities in order, often find ways to provide abundant classroom libraries, field trips and specialty classes. And they themselves can offer powerful professional development).

Some of that 80 million, of course, would be used to finance administrative degrees. Some would be used to raise salaries. But some must be used to restore the role of principal to instructional leader. Surely, we can come up with ways to remove the mounds of bureaucratic trivia that are now drowning city principals. If we work hard to attract wonderful educators into the principals’ office, wouldn’t it be shameful if they then had no time to be in classrooms?

Brilliant teachers will not aspire to administrative positions if they know that their days will be filled with answering e-mails, filing reports, filling in surveys, hosting evaluators, and of course, staring at data reports until their eyes burn.

If all schools, in all neighborhoods, in all towns and all cities are ever to be considered “A +,” we must rethink our priorities. Schools don’t become better because we have better systems for data collection. Schools become better because all the adults involved in that community are relentless about improving teaching and learning.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Here we go again

I was more than a little dismayed when I read the following in this morning’s New York Times. “Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“’Pumpkin,’ ventured the boy, Parker Kuehni.

“’Look at the word,’ the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?’”

These are the lead paragraphs in an article entitled, “In war over teaching reading, a U.S.-local clash” (Schemo, 2007). The article details a conflict over the teaching of reading in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently, the Madison Public Schools refusal to accept Reading First guidelines cost the district $2 million in Reading First funds. As a former resident of Madison, I’m pleased that Madison has rejected the federal intrusion into local reading instruction (“Way to go, Madison.”). Still, I’m disappointed that Madison should be punished to the tune of $2 million for attempting to maintain some semblance of local control over curricular decision-making. I’m also frustrated – very frustrated – by the way the New York Times article positions whole language instruction as antithetical to phonics. This isn’t new, of course. Whole language has long been presented in the media as anti-phonics. Whole language has taken on such a negative connotation that Heinemann, a publisher long associated with whole language, no longer permits its authors to use the dreaded phrase (“whole language”). A former dean took my affiliation with whole language as a prima facie evidence that I did not teach my students at Boston College how to teach phonics. And, despite my best efforts, my own students frequently write about the desirability of combining phonics and whole language when they become teachers. So this has reached the “I’m-sick-and-tired-of-this-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” stage.

No one – and I mean NO ONE – believes that phonics isn’t part of what mature readers do and what beginning readers must learn to do. People do not read with their eyes closed. They attend to the print. However, they simultaneously attend to meaning, the grammatical structure of texts, and their knowledge of the world. And it’s a good thing too since the rules governing the representation of sounds in written English (i.e., phonics) aren’t particularly reliable. But, again, whole language teachers do not ignore phonics. Nor do whole language teachers reject the explicit teaching of phonics. Whole language teachers I know might respond to the child who read “pumpkin” for “pea” by going back the child’s miscue (oral reading error) and asking, “does this make sense?” However, they might also go back to “pumpkin,” cover up “kin” and ask the child to read “pump,” then cover up “pump” and ask the child to read “kin.” “What does it say now?” “Pumpkin.” If that same child regularly had difficulty breaking words into syllables, the teacher might design activities to help the child learn this skill. They might also design other activities to help the child learn how phonics works in the process of reading. In my “Teaching Reading” class at Boston College I use Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, Johnnson, 2003), which is chock full of word analysis strategies, as one of my primary texts. The issue is not whether whole language teachers address phonics. They do. But they differ from the folks who believe that beginning reading instruction must focus solely on isolated phonics instruction, sometimes to the degree that books are seen as an impediment to learning to read. The issue isn’t whether phonics should be taught but when and how. For whole language teachers, phonics skills are best learned in the context of reading connected text since this is how readers actually use these skills. Whole language teachers teach reading this way because their work is informed by a coherent, research-based theory of reading which indicates that this is how people actually read.

There are grounds for legitimate debates in the teaching of reading. But characterizing these debates in terms of pro- or anti-phonics is uninformed nonsense.


Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2003). Words their way (3rd. ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schemo, D.J. (March 9, 2007). “In war over teaching reading, a U.S.-local clash.” New York Times (Online). Available at

Monday, January 22, 2007

Teacher Quality and Heroic teachers

Writing in the New York Times, Tom Moore, a 10th grade history teacher in the Bronx, laments Hilary Swank’s portrayal of a courageous and committed teacher in the movie Freedom Writers ("Classroom Distinctions," January 19, 2007). Freedom Writers is the true story of a freshman English teacher who uses writing to reach a group of students living in poverty-stricken, gang-infested neighborhoods. Freedom Writers is merely one of the more recent entries in a long history of films portraying idealistic, inspirational teachers who manage engage troubled, unmotivated students (e.g., Blackboard Jungle, To Sir with Love, Conrack, Dangerous Minds). Over the week-end, I saw another film in this genre, the History Boys, which portrays a group of working class boys whose love of learning (and entry to exclusive Oxford University) is nurtured by caring, quirky, and intellectually challenging teachers.

Quoting from Tom Moore’s thoughtful Op-ed piece, “the great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit — many schools in poor neighborhoods are clean and orderly yet still don’t have enough teachers or money for supplies. No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.” The myth of the heroic teacher who, against all odds, reaches her or his students resonates in the popular imagination and recent public policy. The notion of teacher quality embodied in No Child Left Behind presumes that quality teachers are virtually the only factor in student achievement. If teachers are smart enough, tough enough, demanding enough, caring enough, work hard enough, even the most disadvantaged children will learn.

I work with future teachers every day and I believe that the bright, caring, and committed students with whom I work will make a difference in the lives of their students. But students in poor, urban communities do not need heroes who will save them from their communities and culture. The myth of the heroic teacher insults students, their families, and the communities from which they must be “saved.” More to the point, in the end, teachers, no matter how bright, hard working, or demanding will be insufficient to overcome the effects of crippling poverty, under-resourced schools, or pervasive racism. Educational policies that rely solely on better teachers cannot succeed.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Why can't all students have respect?

Recently, I was asked to participate in a review of the English language arts program in a Boston-area school district. What made this particularly interesting was the fact that the school district was Weston, Massachusetts which Wikipedia lists as one of America’s “100 richest places.” I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the rich so I was a bit uneasy about spending two days in what I imagined would be schools overpopulated by rich, over privileged, white kids.

What I saw in the Weston Schools generally confirmed my expectations. I observed smart, articulate teachers and bright, talented (and overwhelmingly white) students working in wonderful facilities. But it wasn’t the beautiful physical spaces and rich teaching resources that impressed me most during my two days in the Weston Public Schools. What really struck me was the level of respect teachers had for their students. When Weston students talked, teachers listened, even if the talk was somewhat off-task. Teachers engaged their students in thoughtful discussions and challenging work. There weren’t a lot of silly rules here, either. If a student wanted to go to the bathroom or get a drink, for example, they merely signed out.

I once heard a sermon by a Unitarian minister in which he argued that “respect begets respect.” This is how it was in Weston. Weston’s school administrators treated teachers as thoughtful professionals who they expected would draw on their expertise and experience to plan lessons and work with students. Teachers, in turn, treated their students as the bright, interesting people they are. The students – at least in my presence – treated the teachers and each other with similar respect. And, of course, the beautiful facilities evidenced the respect the Weston community has for its children and their teachers.

The beautiful, well-cared-for facilities, well-equipped classrooms, and small class sizes in Weston contrast sharply with the dreary, under-resourced urban schools I often visit. And, if “respect” is a dominant motif in rich, suburban schools like Weston, “disrespect” frequently dominates the experience of students and teachers in many urban schools. Tedious, scripted curricula, rigid behavioral policies, poorly maintained facilities and under-resourced classrooms found in many urban schools suggest a fundamental lack of respect for students and teachers working in these schools.

My experience in Weston is a dramatic illustration of the “savage inequalities” that Jonathon Kozol has documented. But I don’t begrudge the Weston students and staff their wonderful facilities, extensive learning resources, and humane working conditions. They deserve them. I just wish students in Boston, Cleveland, New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles had the same advantages. The students and teachers in these communities deserve them, too.