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.