Thursday, October 2, 2008

Adequate Yearly Progress

One of the requirements of No Child Left Behind is that schools make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The US Department of Education defines AYP as follows.

Under No Child Left Behind, each state has developed and implemented measurements for determining whether its schools and local educational agencies (LEAs) are making adequate yearly progress (AYP). AYP is an individual state's measure of progress toward the goal of 100 percent of students achieving to state academic standards in at least reading/language arts and math. It sets the minimum level of proficiency that the state, its school districts, and schools must achieve each year on annual tests and related academic indicators. Parents whose children are attending Title I (low-income) schools that do not make AYP over a period of years are given options to transfer their child to another school or obtain free tutoring (supplemental educational services).

Of course, the goal of 100% of students (including ELL and special education students) achieving state academic standards is impossible. According to MassPartners for Public Schools, 74% of public schools in Massachusetts will fail to meet AYP by 2014. Since Massachusetts tends toward the top in various categories of academic achievement the situation will be worse in other states.

In the meantime, parents who children attend low income schools that do not meet AYP over a period of years can elect to transfer their children to another school or obtain free tutoring. But not all parents can take advantage of the possibility of transferring to other schools. Some schools find that only parents with means can easily arrange to move their children to other schools.

But what’s ridiculous about the demand for AYP is that it fails to recognize the extraordinary challenges that some schools face. Schools with large ELL and special education populations will have little chance to meet the standard of 100% proficiency (if students meet the standard for proficiency it seems unlikely they qualify for special education. The same is true for ELL students).

Yesterday I heard about a school which serves new immigrants that has failed to meet AYP goals for at least two years and now faces being reorganized. The principal and teachers are being told that they have failed their students because they have been unable to get students who speak little if any English when they arrive at the school to reach academic proficiency. Certainly these teachers and the principal should be held accountable to some standard but not the standard of academic proficiency. This is grossly unfair and points to the urgency of revising (or scrapping) at least some of the provisions of No Child Left Behind.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Faith and the Power of Free Markets

In his book, One market under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, Thomas Frank documents the quasi-religious faith many Americans place in the power of the free market to regulate the economy and the behavior of ordinary people. This faith in the power of free markets stands behind a wide range of educational reforms including teacher merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, and paying students for doing well on tests (or just coming to school). Vouchers, for example, are based on the assumption that schools will (necessarily) have to reform themselves if they have to compete for students. Chronically underperforming schools will disappear because parents (read: consumers) will not choose them for their children. In a free market environment schools will have to respond to market demands (for higher test scores) by either improving or going out of business.

This faith in the power of the free market to reform schools is largely ideological, unsupported by research. The evidence does not support the claim that free markets necessarily result in higher quality. The de-regulation the broadcast industry, for example, certainly has not resulted in better TV programming (we get over 300 channels and still can’t find much worth watching).

But reports on the economy over the last few months ought to shake the faith of even the most committed believers in the power of unfettered free markets. The commitment to unregulated free market capitalism has left financial markets in shambles and most of us are going to suffer the pain. My 401K plan has taken a beating the last six months or so.

This experience ought to give us all pause when we consider educational reforms based on unquestioned faith in free markets. As current events indicate, the invisible hand of the free market is capable of delivering a painful blow.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who is responsible when children fail in school

The (un)comic strip Mallard Fillmore is continuing its attack on teachers for a second straight week. Yesterday the National Public Radio show, On Point, featured educational reform (as if schools haven’t suffered from enough reform). There is also a blog on that has been featuring stories of educational reform. Yesterday, Barack Obama outlined his vision of educational reform. Perhaps the reform story that has gotten the most attention lately is the effort of Washington, DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s to push for merit pay for Washington teachers. I’m not opposed to merit pay in principle. I work at an institution where pay increases are largely based on merit. The problem with merit pay for teachers is how to determine which teachers are meritorious.

The most common approach rewards (or punishes) teachers based on student test scores. This approach ignores the complexities of student learning. It is difficult to claim, for example, that gains made by a particular fourth grade student are attributable only to the efforts of her fourth grade teacher. Learning does not follow a neat trajectory even in the best of circumstances. More worrisome is the assumption that the fourth grade teacher should be held solely responsible for students who don’t do so well as if previous teachers no longer influence student learning. Or that class size, curriculum, classroom resources, and school learning climate don’t matter. Or that, in the case of schools districts like Washington, DC which serve large numbers of poor children, that the conditions of poverty don’t affect student achievement.

When students fail in school it isn’t just the teacher’s fault. Many students fail despite the best efforts of teachers. Nor can the blame be placed solely on students themselves or their parents. When students in poor urban schools like Washington fail it is everyone’s responsibility. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a nation to allow her to fail.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Get Ready for some Teacher Bashing

The Boston Globe carries a cartoon strip called “Mallard Fillmore” which presents itself as a conservative alternative to Doonesbury. Except that “Mallard Fillmore” is neither clever nor funny. But it does give some idea of what’s on the minds of conservatives and this week it’s teacher bashing in its most mean-spirited form. This week’s strip is set up as series of examples of “teacher speak” and “translations.” Yesterday, the teacher speak was “I'm not going to make you memorize a bunch of dull, dry dates and places….” Translation: “I have no idea when or where anything happened.” Today is worse: Teacher speak: “Real communism has never been tried….” Translation: “I was stoned for most of the 20th century.” I’ve heard the accusation before that progressive educational practices are evidence that teachers are lazy, but this is the first time I’ve seen teachers libeled as “dope heads.” That the comic strip can get away with this is a measure of teachers’ low standing with even the readers of the Boston Globe.

And while teachers are being maligned in an unfunny, third-rate comic strip, a series of articles this week in Slate indicates that some educational reformers are gearing up to push hard for merit pay which is also based on the assumption that teachers need incentives to work harder. Teachers certainly deserve more pay, but the teachers I work with cannot possibly work harder.

My advice to teachers is to get ready for another round of serious teacher bashing as reformers get ready to push once again for market-based solutions to educational problems -- at the expense of teachers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Being Political

Politics is dominating the news as the presidential election nears. In the context of the upcoming elections, being political means keeping abreast of the campaigns and taking the time to vote in November. But we educators need to be willing to go beyond just casting our ballots and do what we can to influence candidates’ positions. After all, one of the big issues in the campaign is about us. Writing in Slate today, Paul Tough writes: “The next big debate in the politics of education is going to be about teachers: how to attract them, how to compensate them, how to evaluate them, how to fire them, and, perhaps most importantly, how to get good ones in front of the students who need their help the most.”

Most of us assume that one of the political parties is more sympathetic to the voices of teachers and I think that’s true. Still, neither party has been willing to give teachers much credit or trust. In his acceptance speech at the recent Democratic Convention in Denver Barack Obama gave some indication of his education priorities. “I’ll recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.”

I like the parts about recruiting teachers and higher salaries. I’m a bit uneasy about the desire for “higher standards” and “more accountability.” To me, the desire for “higher standards” implies that teachers are at fault. If only teachers had higher standards students would do a lot better. And “more accountability.” What do we make of this? Isn’t the demand for accountability (in terms of higher test scores) part of the problem?

The point I want to make is that over the last twenty years or so neither political party has been particularly warm to teachers. NCLB has been described as “George Bush’s policy” but Ted Kennedy has been an enthusiastic support of this legislation. So, again, we must write to our congressional representatives and let them know what teachers think about “standards” and “accountability.” I’m sure most agree with me that teachers MUST be accountable for student learning but tests scores are a poor measure of what students have learned.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dollars for Scholars and Texas justice

As I was paging through the Boston Globe one morning last week my eyes were drawn to a headline that startled me: “Racial disparity found in school paddlings.” Pardon my ignorance but I really didn’t know that students were still being spanked in school. In turns out that although the majority of states and over 100 countries have banned spanking in school, it is still widespread across the U.S. South, especially in Texas and Mississippi. I was less surprised, but still very disappointed to read that African American and Native American were more than twice as likely to be spanked than their white classmates (I am well aware that similar racial injustices are common in northern schools). It also turns out that students with “exceptionalities” are also more likely to be paddled than their classmates. Overall, I’m more than a little shocked that we allow school personnel to use any form of corporal punishment in the year 2008. I went to elementary school in the 1950s and 60s (I even had nuns) and I never saw a fellow student spanked or even slapped with a ruler (something I’ve always heard nuns were famous for although I thought the nuns were scary enough without rulers). In any case, I do not see how fear helps to create a positive learning environment.

Another indication of how little respect some people have for students comes from another story I read in the Globe about the Harrold Independent School District in Texas which has authorized its teachers to carry concealed handguns to class. (I wonder if teachers who share their guns during “show and tell” will have fewer discipline problems?) If teaching is about relationships – and I think that it is – what kind of relationship can students build with teachers who are armed? This is nuts!

Finally, I read in the New York Times that in New York City they’re finding that paying students to do well on tests is having mixed results. This doesn’t surprise me but, again, where is the respect? Is it respectful to pay urban students to do well in school but expect that students in suburban schools will be engaged by learning for its own sake? In any case, how much will you have to pay students to overcome dreary schools and tedious curricula common in so many urban schools? Money is no substitute for respect.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Exporting our worst educational practices

I just returned from six weeks in Toronto where I taught a course on inclusive educatin at the University of Toronto/OISE. Teaching at OISE gave me a chance to re-immerse myself in the Canadian educational scene. I had taught at York University in Toronto from 1984-1998 before moving to Boston College. When I moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s Ontario was a leader in progressive education, particularly holistic literacy practices. There were no US-style basal readers in Canadian classrooms. Students were not subjected to frequent standardized testing. Teachers exercised considerable professional discretion and most elementary teachers were generally familiar with Frank Smith, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Jerry Harste and other progressive literacy theorists. What was particularly impressive is that this stance toward teachers, students, and literacy theory was emphasized in Ontario Ministry of Education documents and policy.

But things have changed as educational policy in Ontario and the other provinces looks more and more like educational policy in the US. Students are now tested regularly in reading and math and many teachers emphasize the literacy test over broader notions of teaching students to read and write. One of my former colleagues at York University told me that her daughter’s third-grade teacher devoted at least two reading periods a week to having her students take practice tests. My students at OISE indicated that this is no longer uncommon. Increasingly teachers and administrators focus on test scores as schools across Canada are ranked by the Fraser Institute on the basis of their test scores. Canadian literacy education is looking more and more like literacy education in the US as the Canadians emulate many of our worst practices.

Being more like the US in this regard benefits neither Canadian school children nor Canadian teachers. In this environment Canadian teachers find it more difficult to address the needs of individual students. They also find it more difficult to find professional satisfaction in their work as their ability to exercise discretion has been diminished. This is a concrete example of the negative effects of globalization in which education is just another product.

How I yearn for the good old days….

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More on Inclusive Education: Making Children Smart

In her book, What we call smart: A new narrative for intelligence and learning, Lynda Miller discusses four principles that I believe are fundamental to creating inclusive schools and classrooms.

(1) everyone is taken to be smart and capable of learning;
(2) everyone is seen to be motivated by unique and often different things;
(3) individual variation is accepted as normal, not as a disorder;
(4) discovering each person’s individual story is the starting point for designing
meaningful and relevant instruction. (L. Miller, 1993, p. 75)

For now I’d like to address just the first principle: “everyone is taken to be smart and capable of learning.” This principle has important implications for how we think about learning success and failure. First, if we recognize that ALL the children we work with are “smart” – and there is plenty of evidence that all children are very smart indeed – then we will be suspicious of evidence to the contrary. When a child seems unable to make sense of what she’s read, instead of asking “what’s wrong with her?” we might ask, “what’s going on here?” What conditions made it possible for her to conclude that meaning was not at the core of the reading process? What conditions were in place to create this struggling reader and how do we change them?

Put differently, what conditions are necessary to enable this student to be “smart?” There is a substantial body of literature indicating that the conditions of learning are often very different for successful learners and students who fail in school. Successful learners are much more likely, for example, to engage in meaningful curricular opportunities than less successful learners. Some would argue that struggling readers, for example, need to focus on isolated – and less meaningful – skill instruction before they’re ready to engage with meaningful texts. I would argue that engaging in meaningful reading is one of the conditions that makes good readers “smart.” The same conditions are necessary to make struggling readers smart. In other words, when students struggle in school we need to examine the curriculum and how we interact with students and not just assume that school struggles indicate that something is wrong with students.


Miller, L. (1993). What we call smart: A new narrative for intelligence and learning. San Diego: Singular Publishing Group.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Creating Inclusive Schools and Classrooms

I’ve been thinking a lot about inclusion lately. One reason is that I’m getting ready to teach a course on inclusion at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto this summer. My wife, a speech and language pathologist in a Boston area school, has also made me think hard about inclusion when she shares a now daily report on a little boy in one of her schools whose behavior seems to demand exclusion. So how do we create inclusive schools and classrooms that are congenial to the diverse range of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds and life experiences and abilities students bring with them to school?

From my perspective, inclusion isn’t about special methods or getting all teachers the right sort of training although these things can help. Inclusion is about school structures, how schools and classrooms are organized. For example, large classes organized around one-size-fits all curricula will never be congenial to the needs of many students, especially students who are not the “average” students curriculum developers imagined (and this means most students).

So how do we create inclusive schools and classrooms?

Many children need small group and individualized instruction (actually all children need this but some need it more than others). How do we create structures that enable teachers to provide these kinds of instructional opportunities?

All children need to find ways to connect classroom learning to their experiences. How do we create a literacy curriculum that allows children to draw on their out-of-school experiences?

All children need to be able to draw on their linguistic resources in support of their learning. How do we enable students to draw on their own language to make sense of school learning?

All children need to feel that their language, culture, background knowledge and experience are respected. How do we counter the disrespect inherent in so many school reforms (no recess, zero tolerance, tedious focus on meaningless skills, and so on)?

All children require instruction that responds to their individual needs and abilities. How can we create assessments that focus on what children know, not what they don’t know?

Inclusive schools are welcoming places. How do create schools where all children feel safe from physical and psychological violence including racism, sexism, and homophobia?

Are there students who can’t be included? This is heresy for some inclusion educators, but I suspect we’ll never be able to accommodate the needs of all students in some classroom environments.

What about exclusion as a means of achieving broader forms of political and economic inclusion? Here I’m thinking about the move in some places to gender segregated classrooms or so-called Black-focused schools?

My guess is that we need very different kinds of classroom structures to achieve these goals. Hopefully, the questions I posed will stimulate some conversation (write a comment) and, for the next month or so I’ll keep writing about these issues.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Endangered species

The other day I stumbled upon an excellent article by David Pearson in the Journal of Literacy Education entitled, “An endangered species act for literacy education.” The basic thrust of the article is captured in the following quote:

Three principles and practices we have compromised even though we never meant to . . .
. Insistence on transfer of learning, faith in teacher prerogative, and regard for individual
differences as the hallmark of learning and assessment – have all but disappeared from the
educational landscape. (p. 145)

On the transfer of learning issue Pearson is referring to the NCLB inspired fixation on students’ performance on various reading assessments without any regard for whether reading as measured by various assessments actually predicts other kinds of reading. Does DIBELS predict how well students will read connected text, for example. (Bess Altwerger and her colleagues have provided convincing evidence that it does not.)

Loss of teacher prerogative refers to the increasing tendency toward whole-class, teacher-proof literacy curricula. Pearson refers to Dick Allington’s work which indicates that effective literacy educators are knowledgeable about literacy and in a position to exercise professional discretion in their day-to-day work with individual students. The presumption that teaching should be guided by “scientifically-based” reading research is misguided since this kind of research addresses the performance of groups of students (represented by the average), not individuals. We must rely on the professional judgments of teachers – informed by their knowledge of appropriate theory and research, their experience, and their ongoing assessments of students – to provide for the individual needs of students in their classrooms.

Loss of regard for individual differences as the hallmark of learning and assessment is related to teacher prerogative. The tendency toward whole-class instruction makes it difficult for teachers to consider the needs of individual students. Whole-class reading instruction leads many teachers to teach skills and strategies many students have already mastered or aren’t ready to learn. The notion that we should leave “no child behind” is inarguable. In practice, however, No Child Left Behind has resulted in practices and policies that have left many children behind and prevented others from getting too far ahead.


Pearson, P.D. (2007). An endangered species act for literacy education. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(2), 145-162.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Lack of Respect

I’ve read a couple of seemingly disparate stories recently that are linked by a common theme. The first was a New York Times article that described the use of electronic monitoring devices to discourage truancy in students with a history of truant behavior. Quoting from the article:

“Jaime Pacheco rolled out of bed at dawn last week to the blaring chorus of two alarms. Then Jaime, a15-year-old high school freshman, smoothed his striped comforter, dumped two scoops of kibble for the dogs out back and strapped a G.P.S. monitor to his belt.
By 7:15, Jaime was in the passenger seat of his grandmother’s sport-utility vehicle, holding the little black monitor out the window for the satellite to register. A few miles down the road, at Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas, he got out of the car, said goodbye to his grandmother and paused to press a button on the unit three times. A green light flashed, and then Jaime headed for the cafeteria with plenty of time before the morning bell.”

The article went on to conclude that electronic monitoring is seen by some educators as a promising tool for improving school attendance.

The second article is a piece from the Boston Globe that documents resistance in some affluent communities to full-day kindergarten. Here’s an illustrative quote from the article:

“A growing chorus of parents now say they want their children home more, and accuse school districts pushing full-day kindergarten of depriving them of quality time together. They say that those districts are meddling in the fundamentals of parenting, such as how much structure to build into young children's lives and how much time to leave unfettered.”

The article cited the warmer reception full-day kindergarten has received in many urban settings where longer school days for five year olds has been linked to improved academic outcomes (at least that’s the hope).

Here’s what I think these two articles have in common: a lack of respect for children and childhood as a special time of life. Electronic monitoring may improve attendance but does so by treating students as criminals. Full-day kindergarten may relieve parent concerns about daycare and provide more time for learning, but is it developmentally appropriate? Should all five years olds be spending six hours a day engaged in structured – and increasingly – academic activities?

Just because these practices “work” does not mean that they are moral, ethical, or even sensible.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What Kind of People Does High Stakes Testing Make Our Students Into?

I’ve just finished reading an excellent doctoral dissertation by Steven Van Zoost. Van Zoost is a secondary teacher in Nova Scotia and he is about to complete a doctoral program at the University of South Australia. The evidence from his dissertation is that Steven is a good and caring teacher who relies on authentic assessment to gauge student progress in his classroom. While he is committed to authentic assessment, his dissertation asks: what kind of people do authentic assessment practices make his students into?

This is a question we might well ask about the assessment practices that dominate in the United States. What kind of people do high stakes achievement tests make our students into? We might also wonder what kind of people these sorts of assessments make teachers into.

Arguably, testing practices in this country make students into winners and losers. No matter how well students learn, no matter how hard they work, some students will fail relative to their peers. NCLB may include the goal that all students pass state achievement tests by 2014 but this doesn’t mean that we expect all children to achieve at the same level. In the end, we identify the best students in terms of the failures of other students. If everyone was successful, we wouldn’t know who was “the best.” This is the real worry about grade inflation. There aren’t enough failures.

To the degree that high stakes tests lead to teach-to-test curriculum, these assessment practices construct students as empty vessels to be filled with skills and facts that will be on the test. Students may (or may not) do better on the tests, but they aren’t better readers and writers, for example.

The emphasis on skills and facts that will be on the test also turns students, even kindergarteners, into little workers who have no time for recess or frills like art and music. The push to full day kindergarten and extended school days are based on the assumption that too much unstructured free time diminishes learning. This affects not only the learning identities of individual children, but also the meaning of childhood.

High stakes testing is turning many teachers, particularly those working in underperforming schools, into highly stressed technicians who are pressured into putting test scores above meaningful student learning. Nichols and Berliner (2007) indicate the enormous pressure of high stakes testing is also turning at least some teachers (and administrators) into cheaters.

Resistance to the narrow range of teaching and learning identities made available in high stakes testing environments is turning many teachers into “former teachers” and many students into “dropouts.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Poor Boys

Today’s New York Times and Washington Post both feature articles summarizing a recent report commissioned by the American Association of University Women entitled, “Where the girls are.” According to the Post the authors of the report found that: the literacy gap between boys and girls is not new nor is it increasing; a gender gap still exists favoring boys in math; the percentages of students scoring at higher levels of proficiency on the NAEP are rising for both boys and girls; students from lower-income families are less likely to be proficient in math and reading but gender differences vary significantly by race and ethnicity; there is virtually no difference between boys and girls entering college immediately after high school. Further, to the degree that the academic performance of girls has improved over the last several decades (in math, for example), these gains have not been achieved at the expense of boys (“Where the girls are,” Executive Summary).

Whatever the facts, there is a widespread perception that there is a “boy crisis” in our schools. The Washington Post quotes incoming Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, Paul Reville who observes that “we just have a variety of indicators that should cause us to be alarmed and to recognize that there is a real gap, and quite possibly a growing gap, between boys and girls that is going to take some concerted effort.” To alleviate this “crisis” gender segregated schools and classrooms have been established in Boston and elsewhere in the nation. Presumably, all male classes will focus on pedagogical practices that are most effective with boys. It is further assumed that all male schools and classrooms can encourage boys by focusing on writing topics, for example, that are most interesting to boys.

The problem is, of course, that there are no pedagogical practices that are effective with all boys (or all girls). There are no interests shared only by boys – and not girls. Nor do all boys respond to stricter discipline or even male teachers. Whether or not there is a “boy crisis” in our schools, no educational reform can proceed on the assumption that there are essential gender differences between boys and girls. There are not. But there are significant individuals differences among boys and girls which suggest that all students are best served when we can structure schools and classrooms to better meet the needs of INDIVIDUAL students. Reading and Writing Workshops, for example, give teachers opportunities to work with students individually and in small groups based on careful, ongoing assessment of each student’s needs. Whole class instruction and one-size-fits-all curricula do not.

I have another worry about single-sex classrooms and schools. Public education isn’t just about educational achievement. In the ideal, public schools allow people from different backgrounds and different experiences to get to know each other. Segregated schooling of any kind (by gender, race, ethnicity, language, etc.) does little to promote understanding and respect for the differences that makes each of us interesting people, and, increasingly, separate us. Unfortunately, as Jonathon Kozol documents in his book, Shame of the Nation, racially and economically segregated schools are already a plague on American education and, more seriously, American democracy. Same-sex schools and classrooms may only make this situation worse.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Disheartening: Teaching Children What They Already Know

At Boston College students in our teacher education Masters program must complete an “inquiry project” in their practicum classrooms. To celebrate this achievement, each year Boston College hosts a “community of learners” mini-conference where students share their projects.

This year I sat at a table with seven students who shared their projects with me and with each other. I must say, it was a pretty disheartening experience. Our program at BC emphasizes teaching reading in the context of rich, challenging literature; yet all these students shared projects that focused on decontextualized phonics and sight word instruction. We may stress holistic approaches to reading at BC, but in their classrooms the emphasis was on skills, skills, and more skills. It was particularly discouraging to hear a student named Anne (who had been in one of my classes) rave about a new phonics program her (suburban) school had adopted. All students in grades K-2 now spend 30 minutes a day on phonics and, according to Anne, next year the program will be extended to 3rd grade.

Research indicates that lots of kids enter first grade with strong phonics skills and many of these children already read independently. This may be particularly true in affluent, suburban schools like Anne’s. Putting aside my objection to decontextualized phonics instruction, why are the teachers in Anne’s school – and in other schools across the country – teaching so many children what they already know? Why would we force potentially hundreds of hours of phonics instruction (in Anne’s school children will have had over 350 hours of phonics instruction by the time they complete 3rd grade) on children who already read independently? The only answer I can come up with is this. Many schools have stopped asking how well children read and instead ask: “How do they do on DIBELS?”

No wonder David Pearson has warned that “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flashcards” (p. v).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Trouble with DIBELS

I’ve been grading my students’ research papers the last few days and I’ve been surprised how many students made some reference to the use of DIBELS in their schools. What particularly surprised me was the fact that some of these students taught in affluent, high-achieving schools. I had assumed that DIBELS was mainly used in underachieving, Reading First schools. It seems that I was wrong.

In the forward to Ken Goodman’s book, The Truth About DIBELS: What It Is - What It Does, David Pearson warns that “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flashcards” (p. v). Pearson takes this strong stance because, in his opinion, “DIBELS shapes instruction in ways that are bad for students” and “bad for teachers.” Pearson believes that DIBELS is bad for students because it shapes instruction in ways that do not promote students’ development as readers and bad for teaches because it requires that teachers shape instruction “based on criteria that are not consistent with our best knowledge about the nature of reading development” (p. v).

Perhaps the most widely used – and troubling – DIBELS measure is Oral Reading Fluency which produces a measure of students’ reading speed and accuracy (number of words read correctly per minute). What’s troubling is the behavioral theory of reading that underpins this measure. DIBELS is informed by a developmental model of reading that assumes learning to read is a matter of learning to sound out letters and words to a level of “automaticity” and, once children read with sufficient fluency (speed and accuracy), they will be able to comprehend what they’ve read.

The theory of reading underpinning DIBELS predicts that fluent readers should be good comprehenders and, conversely, students who are not fluent (do not read with sufficient speed and accuracy) should be poor comprehenders. In their book, Rereading Fluency: Process, Practice, and Policy, Bess Altwerger, Nancy Jordan, and Nancy Rankie Shelton report a study they conducted that, among other things, examines the relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension. What they found was that some of the best comprehenders read slowly. Similarly, some of the most fluent readers (those who read the most words correctly in one minute) were among the poorest comprehenders.

Altwerger, Jordan, and Shelton’s research challenges the basic theoretical assumptions underlying DIBELS. Their research also reinforces the argument that “scientifically-based research” isn’t just about sound methods. It is also about sound theory and the theory of reading on which DIBELS is based is fundamentally flawed.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reading First called "Ineffective"

I’ve been trying to post every Tuesday morning, but this was too good to wait four days. Today’s New York Times reports that “President Bush’s $1 billion a year [Reading First] initiative to teach reading to low-income children has not helped improve their reading comprehension, according to a Department of Education report released on Thursday.” The Times’ article goes on: “Reading First did not improve students’ reading comprehension . . . The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two or three whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level.”

This isn’t the good part. The poor performance of low-income children is a crisis in American education. I welcome federal dollars to support reading in low-income schools. The problem with Reading First is that it is has been plagued by serious conflicts of interest and a very narrow, behavioral view of reading.

Here’s the good part. The Times also reported that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had “no comment” on the report. However, Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant secretary of education, defended Reading First saying “that one of the consistent messages Ms. Spellings has heard from educators, principals and state administrators “is about the effectiveness of the Reading First program in their schools.”

The No Child Left Behind Act mentions “scientifically-based reading instruction” over 100 times. Education officials in the Bush administration have repeatedly challenged teachers to embrace reading practices that have been scientifically proven. Schools of Education have been severely criticized for not teaching future teachers “the science of reading.” Reading First itself claims to focus on “putting [scientifically-proven] proven methods of early reading instruction in classrooms.” Yet, an administration official contradicts a large “scientific” study that concludes that Reading First is ineffective by citing all the people who have told Margaret Spellings that the program is working. This is delicious.

I think this episode makes it very clear that “scientifically-based research” is valued by education officials in the Bush administration only when it supports their preferred instructional practices. From the administration’s point of view, only research that supports an exclusive emphasis on phonics in early reading instruction has merit. I guess when you just know that it’s true you don’t really need research.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Extended School Days

The lead editorial in yesterday morning’s Boston Globe urged Massachusetts’ lawmakers to approve a proposal that would double the funding available to support extended school days in Massachusetts’ schools. According to the Globe, “alert urban educators recognize that expanding learning time allows them to close the achievement gap between minority and white students.” The Globe editors also claimed that longer schools day will offer time for the art and enrichment programs “that are often lost to the demands of the standard six-hour school day.”

Extended school days have become one of the latest fads in urban schools desperate to improve the achievement of poor and minority students. The achievement gap between White and Black and Hispanic students is a real crisis in American education. There is little evidence, however, that longer school days can make much of a difference in remedying the achievement gap. A report from the non-profit Education Sector , for example, indicates that more academic time in which students are engaged correlates with higher achievement . . . but longer school days do not.”

The issue isn’t more time in the school day, but what happens during the hours that are available in urban schools. And the evidence indicates that time in many urban schools is spent very differently from how time is used in more affluent, suburban schools. Too often, students in urban are plagued by impoverished, basic skill curricula that limit their reading and writing development. While urban students are drilled in atomistic reading skills, their suburban counterparts are reading and discussing challenging, engaging texts. While students in low-performing urban schools are practicing writing for the test, students in high-achieving suburban schools are learning to write for a wide range of purposes and audiences. The rich get richer and the poor get instruction in skills, skills, and more skills.

As for the claim that longer school days will provide space in the curriculum for art and music, I’ll believe that when I see it. The current evidence indicates that, in low-performing, urban schools, if it isn’t tested, it won’t be taught. In many schools even science and social studies are largely ignored because they aren’t tested (see Nichols & Berliner's new book, Collaterall Damage).

In their book, Breakthrough, Fullan, Hill, and Crévola conclude that the goal of education for all students in the 21st century must be “learning to learn, about becoming independent thinkers and learners. It’s about problem solving, teamwork, knowledge of the world, adaptability, and comfort in a global system of technologies, conflict, and complexity” (p. 3). The key for achieving this lofty goal for students in urban schools is not more time, but engaging, high expectation curricula typically found in highly successful suburban school districts.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bushisms and Campbell's Law

President Bush is famous for his “Bushisms,” what Slate calls his “accidental wit and wisdom.” My favorite Bushism is the time he invoked The Who by saying, "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." Here’s a Bushism most educators will remember. “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” This one is only sort of funny since “passing the literacy test” has become the goal of reading instruction in many school districts across the country.

In one of my classes at Boston College we’ve been reading and talking about genre theory as it applies to the teaching of reading and writing. Last Wednesday during a discussion of an article we’d all read one of my students (I’ll call her Marsha), a veteran teacher in a large urban school district, shared a personal anecdote. Marsha said she had been telling her principal about some of the articles on genre she’d been reading and what genre theory had to say about how they taught writing in their school. The principal told her that she wasn’t to worry about different ways to teach writing in her classroom. Her job was to “teach the (state) writing test.” (“Teach a child to write and he or she will be able to pass the writing test.”)

I’m currently reading a book by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner called Collateral damage: How high stakes testing corrupts America’s schools. I recommend it. In Collateral damage, Nichols and Berliner refer often to “Campbell’s Law” which stipulates that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor” (pp. 26-27). Nobody has to tell Marsha’s how high stakes testing is distorting and corrupting the teaching of writing in her school.

In today’s Boston Globe there’s a comic (“F Minus”) in which a man is seated at a table across from a potential employer who says, “The job you’re applying for will require you to know long division, state capitals, and cursive writing.” The cartoon caption reads, “Dale’s fourth-grade education pays off.” I suggest substituting this caption with a different one: Thank goodness this was on the state test.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Language and Children Living in Poverty

All poor children are not alike. They do not share the same culture. They do not share common language practices. They do share economic deprivations but even then poor families tend to move in and out of poverty. Poor children are also at higher risk for academic failure but, as Jonathon Kozol has documented, children living in poverty are rarely offered the same, high quality educational opportunities experienced by their more affluent peers.

Yet school districts serving large numbers of poor children continue to undertake initiatives that implicitly blame the poor for their economic, social, and academic struggles. A recent article in the Boston Globe (“With babies, words for wisdom,” April 2, 2008) described Boston’s “Early Words” program that seeks to increase the amount of talk low-income parents direct to their children. According to the Globe, the rationale for this initiative comes Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s 1995 study that “showed that by age 3, most middle-class children had much larger vocabularies than children from low-income families. Middle-class parents speak, on average, 300 more words per hour to their children, according to the [Hart and Risley] study.” (See my earlier blog on Hart and Risley.)

I’m all for parents talking to their children. What troubles me is the presumption that low-income parents don’t talk to their children. It seems more that a little unreasonable to make general claims about parents and children living in poverty based on Hart and Risley’s study of six poor families from Kansas City, all of whom were Black. It would be very hard to argue that these families have much in common with poor families here in Boston or anywhere else in the country.

I think we should focus less on what poor parents may or may not be saying to their children and consider the frightful toll poverty takes on poor children and their families. Recent research by neuroscientists, for example, indicates that the heightened stress levels associated with living in poverty may impair the brain development of children, limiting their future life chances (“Here and Now,” March 6, 2008). This line of research makes it pretty clear that the problem for poor children is poverty, not parents who are poor.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Outrageous Claims

I seemed to have lost the blogging habit but I’ve been waiting for some inspiration to get me back on track. The inspiration came when I was Googling my name on Internet (another story) and came across the following quote from a chapter by Devery Mock and James Kaufman (2004) in a book entitled Controversial therapies for developmental disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (Jacobson, Foxx, & Mulick, 2004). Here’s the quote: “The 1980s whole-language instructional approach was introduced by reformers who openly and explicitly rejected the value of quantitative evidence of effectiveness and held to the belief that learning to read is as simple as learning to speak” (p. 119). For these assertions Mock and Kaufman cite Elaine Garan, Ken Goodman, and ME (it is an honor to be linked to Ken Goodman and I'm sure Elaine agrees).

The assertion that Goodman, Garan, Dudley-Marling or other whole-language theorists reject quantitative evidence out of hand simply is untrue. It is true, however, that many literacy theorists do reject the quantification of certain reading behaviors that misrepresent the reading process that has been verified in numerous research studies. For example, I can’t accept the quantification of reading fluency in a way that separates reading from meaning (see Rereading Fluency: Process, Practice, and Policy by Altwerger, Jordan & Shelton). This just isn’t what readers do in the process of reading text.

Similarly, it is not true that Goodman, Garan or anyone else I know “hold to the belief” that learning to read is as simple as learning to speak. First of all, learning to speak isn’t so simple. Learning to speak is an extraordinarily complex process that has never been adequately described by linguists or psychologists. Second, many whole language folks have argued that there are language-learning principles derived from research on oral language acquisition that can be generalized to written language acquisition. This is not, however, the same as saying that these are identical processes or that learning to read is “as simple” as learning to talk.

Mock and Kaufman go on to claim that 1994 NAEP data show that "40% of fourth graders instructed using a whole language approach were unable to read grade-appropriate texts" (p. 119). This is particularly curious since no such data are available for whole language classrooms. Further, Mock and Kaufman lament that whole language practices were "so universally adopted in the absence of credible evidence" (p. 119). "Universally adopted?" Where? Whole language has influenced reading instruction but it has NEVER been a dominant reading practice in the United States.

There are fair criticisms that can be leveled at whole language and some of these criticisms have contributed to the ongoing development of whole language theory and practice. Caricatures about whole language theorists and practitioners who reject research and equate oral and written language learning are neither fair nor helpful.