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.