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.


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