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.