Thursday, July 28, 2016

Getting What We Pay For in Our Schools

In September of 1971, I was a 24 year-old third year teacher sitting in the auditorium of  Bristol Junior-Senior High School with my teacher colleagues. Our new superintendent, Dr. Michael Zotos, was up on the stage with transparencies and an overhead projector showing our school district's ranking, based on test scores, against the 12 other school districts in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bristol, a small, working class school district with considerable poverty, ranked in the middle of the pack. The superintendent found this concerning.

As a newly minted member of the Bristol Borough Education Association's negotiation team, I had some data, too. I raised my hand.

"Dr. Zotos, I see that the test scores show that we are about average in achievement across the county. Is that correct."

"Yes. As I have shown here."

"Isn't it also true that Bristol Borough teachers are the lowest paid teachers in the county?"

"Yes, from what I saw reported in the papers, that is also true?"

"Well then, Dr. Zotos, couldn't we say that the taxpayers of Bristol are getting a very good bang for their buck?"

"Why, yes, I suppose that is true."

I tell this story today, because forty-five years later research shows that this "bang for the buck" is still true. A report from the Brookings Institute yesterday cites a recent study by Erik Hanushek and others on teacher cognitive ability in literacy and math around the world. Now normally I am very suspect of research on education done by economists and especially research on education done by economist Erik Hanushek, who is the father of value added measures (VAMs) and fire your way to excellence. While I am circumspect, however, I think their is information of value in this study.

The findings of the study can be summarized as follows. As measured on the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, American teachers are about in the middle of the pack relative to other college graduates in the United States when it comes to literacy and numeracy. In literacy, teachers score slightly above the norm. In numeracy, teachers score somewhat below the average.

But the researchers also looked at teacher salary compared to other college graduates. What they found was that compared to the other 23 countries in the study, American teachers rank dead last in pay in comparison to other college graduates in their own country. In the US, teachers earn 20% less than the typical American college graduate. In Finland, teachers earn 12% more than the typical Finnish college graduate.

In other words, the taxpayers of the United States are still getting a great bang for their buck. Our teachers are overachieving. As the Brookings Institute's, Dick Startz put it,

American teachers don't have the great basic skills we'd like them to have, not compared to the rest of the world they don't. But, we way underpay for the skills they do have (emphasis mine).

Of course, there are many caveats to be applied when we look at this study. Teaching is a much more complex activity than a simple cognitive standardized test can measure. Teachers need superior non-cognitive skills as well as cognitive skills. Teachers need huge reserves of emotional intelligence and empathy. Cognitive ability is but one measure of the overall abilities of a teacher. It is also true that money is not a chief motivator of teachers.

Still it is clear that in the United States we have tried to do education on the cheap and it is costing us in many ways. In this country we are offering teachers a bad deal. Go to school. Earn professional credentials. Come out and go to work for 20% less than your college classmates.

You would think that corporate education reformers, with their market driven ideology, could figure this one out. In order to attract more highly qualified teachers, we need to pay more from the start.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Do Away with Grades for Reading

We should do away with grades for reading. Reading is a skill, not a subject. I do not like grades in general because they typically don't tell us much about how to improve learning and they can destroy the motivation of kids who get low grades. Grades do make some kind of sense, however, in content areas like social studies, science and math, because there is content to be learned and specific knowledge to be assessed.

Reading does not have a content, unless we artificially invent one for it. And when we invent content it often leads to bad instructional practice. For more than 50 years we have known that giving kids 10 vocabulary words in a list on Monday, having them look them up and write them in sentences, and them quizzing them on Friday, does not improve vocabulary knowledge. When I ask teachers why they still do it, the answer is often that they need some grades for the "Reading" section of the report card.

What goes into a reading grade? Typically these grades include, vocabulary quizzes, spelling tests, reading skill worksheet completion, homework completion, perceived student effort, and perhaps participation in reading group discussions. I ask that you notice that none of these things have anything to do with actual student reading ability. Under this system, it is possible, in fact, likely, that a student who is a poor reader could get an A and a strong reader could get an F. We have all had the strong student who repeatedly failed to complete assignments or put out much effort. Does that student deserve an F? And do we really want to report to a parent of a poor reader that the child is achieving an A in reading?

When I bring this up to teachers or administrators, I am often told that parents expect a grade. This is no doubt true, but parents only expect a grade because we have been providing these grades for 100 years. Parents think they know what grades mean - A is very good, F is very bad and everything else is somewhere in between. We need to show parents that grades carry so much baggage that they are practically meaningless in informing them about their child's reading performance. And we need to show them that there is a better way.

That better way would report to the parent on what the child knows and is able to do in reading. Simple brief answers to a few questions on a report card would do it.

  • Is the student below, at, or above expected reading level for grade/age?
  • Does the student read with appropriate fluency for grade/age?
  • Does the student read with appropriate comprehension for grade/age?
  • Does the student choose to read independently?
  • What are the student's reading goals for the next marking period?
Notice the item on "choosing to read." I think that it is important to communicate to parents that successful readers have both the skill and the will to read.

I have worked in two school districts that did away with grades in reading. It was not easy. It required visionary leadership and a great many teachers working together to make it happen. It required getting the administration on board. It required innumerable parent meetings to explain the changes and then individual teachers explaining the changes to parents at conferences. Eventually, it worked and the changes have stood. 

Why would anyone want to take this on? Because a better way of reporting about reading, will lead to a better way of thinking about reading and a better approach to teaching reading.

Friday, July 22, 2016

What Is the Best Way to Assess Early Literacy?

Recently a teacher wrote to me about her school district's plans to scrap Running Records and use a combination of DIBELS and AIMSweb for assessing early literacy abilities. She asked for my help in fighting this ill-advised policy move and I provided some research based resources. I am pleased to say that this teacher, through her informed and impassioned action, was able to prevail and the elimination of Running Records was shelved.

This incident got me thinking and I decided to write this post to clarify some issues on early literacy assessment. As I travel to schools around the country, I have noted the proliferation of DIBELS and AIMSweb. Both DIBELS and AIMSweb are called "curriculum based measures" or CBMs. This term sounds good, of course, and may help administrators sell the product to school boards, but as literacy assessment expert, Peter Johnston points out, neither of these measures is curriculum based, unless we consider counting correctly pronounced words in a one-minute reading a part of the curriculum.

I would like to compare these assessments of early literacy to two assessments that I think are more enlightened and effective: Running Records and The Observational Survey, both devised by literacy researcher/educator Marie Clay.

Both DIBELS and AIMSweb take a "bits and pieces" approach to early literacy assessment. Children are asked to identify the letters of the alphabet, to read nonsense words, to segment the sounds in words, to perform a timed reading for fluency, and to use given vocabulary in a sentence all under rigidly timed constraints. All of these abilities contribute to a child's ability to read and are evident in readers, but to suggest that these "components of reading" tell us much about readers is an error. As literacy researcher Michael Pressley has said, DIBELS

mis-predicts reading performance on other assessments much of the time, and at best is a measure of who reads quickly without regard to whether the reader comprehends what is read.

The Running Record and Observational Survey take a more holistic approach. The Observational Survey is generally used with children after the kindergarten year and specifically with students who are struggling to take on beginning reading instruction. The Running Record is typically used with students who have begun to read, but is also a part of the Observational Survey.

The Running Record requires the teacher to listen to a child read a chosen text on a particular reading level. While the student reads the teacher notes words read correctly, words read incorrectly, substituted or omitted, self-corrections, general fluency, etc. The Running Record session may end with some questions for comprehension check, or more appropriately in my view, with a retelling.

The Observational Survey has six components:

  • Concepts about print to discover what the student understands about the way spoken language is represented in print.
  • Letter identification to find out which alphabetic symbols the student recognizes.
  • Word reading to indicate how well the student is accumulating reading vocabulary of frequently used words
  • Writing vocabulary to determine if the student is building a perdonal resouce of known words that can be written
  • Hearing and recording sounds in words to assess phonemic awareness and spelling knowledge.
  • Running Records to provide evidence of how well the student is learning to use knowledge of letters, sounds, and words to understand messages in text.

So how do DIBELS and AIMSweb measure up with Running Records and The Observational Survey? When judging early literacy assessments, I am guided by six principles many of which come from the work of Peter Johnston:

  • Early literacy assessment must inform instruction in productive ways.
  • Early literacy assessment is best when it resembles actual reading.
  • Early literacy assessment is best when the child's teacher does the assessment.
  • Early literacy assessment must help teachers identify what a child can do independently and with different kinds of support.
  • Early literacy assessment must help teachers provide useful information to parents on their child's developing literacy.
  • Early literacy assessment must inform the school on how well a program is meeting the goals of optimizing student literacy learning.
Informing Instruction

The chief purpose of assessment is to inform instruction. Teachers use assessment to give themselves actionable information that will help them design instruction for learners. As literacy researcher P. David Pearson has pointed out, DIBELS (and by extension the similar AIMSweb), not only do not inform instruction, but lead to bad instruction. In Pearson's view, DIBELS like assessments drive teachers to focus on the bits and pieces of reading, rather than actual reading. DIBELS becomes the driver of the curriculum and the curriculum is narrowed in unproductive ways as a result. To quote Pearson directly:

I have decided to join that group of scholars and teachers and parents who are convinced that DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards.

In contrast, taking a Running Record of a child's oral reading provides the teacher with real, actionable information. By listening to a child's reading and taking notes on that reading, teachers get a window into what a reader knows and is able to do in reading. When the reader makes an error (or in Kenneth Goodman's terminology a miscue), the teacher gets invaluable information for future teaching points.

Following a Running Record, teachers can assess comprehension by asking the child to retell what was read. If a student has sketchy recall, the teacher can ask probing questions to get a fuller understanding of what the reader can recall with teacher assistance. All of this helps the teacher develop future instructional targets. I discussed probing for understanding in this post from two years ago.

Resembling Actual Reading

A Running Record, of course, has face validity because it is actual reading. With DIBELS and AIMSweb students do many "components of reading tasks"and read a passage to assess rate of reading, but not actual reading. As I pointed out earlier, this focus on the components of reading and reading speed can and does lead to wrongheaded instruction.

Teacher Adminsitered

Running Records are administered regularly by the classroom teacher. While AIMSweb and DIBELS assessments are often given by the classroom teacher, the information is not actionable as it relates to improved instruction.

The Observational Survey is typically administered only to students who are struggling to learn to read and take on reading behaviors at the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade. These surveys are administered by specially trained teachers who will use the information to inform their individual or small group instruction.

Identify What a Child Can Do Independently and With Support

Running Records provide the opportunity to assess students independently, but can be modified to see what a students can do with support. Support can take the form of a book introduction and practice read or prompting at the point of difficulty.

In assessing comprehension the teacher may ask for an unaided retelling or provide prompts to assist the student in retelling - either way, the results inform instruction.

Provide Useful Information to Parents

DIBELS and AIMSweb are sorting tools that provide teachers with numbers. Teachers can report these numbers to parents and explain what these numbers mean as far as a child's position on a normative scale of these numbers, but they don't really help the teacher say much about the child's reading.

A teacher who administers a Running Record has immediate evidence of what the child can and cannot do in reading, what instruction is needed and where the child is in reading compared to other children in the same grade or same age. This kind of specific information is more useful to parents than number scores in "reading-like" activities.

Informing the School on Literacy Progress

I suspect this is where DIBELS and AIMSweb  have their greatest appeal. They provide numbers that can be easily reported on graphs and charts that schools must provide to local and state accountability agencies. These assessments have the same attraction as an SAT score - they reduce complex processes to simple numbers. They also have all the problems of SAT scores because they reduce complex processes to numbers that are not very revealing of a what a student knows and does not know and what a teacher needs to do in designing instruction.

Systematic, documented and recorded Running Records, over time, can provide numbers for these reports and more detailed information about students actual reading progress.

AIMSweb and DIBELS do have the appeal of speed, but we need to ask at what cost. Does it really make sense to administer these screening tests to normally developing readers? The Observational Survey taps into similar information as these other assessments, but takes about 45 minutes to administer. This would be prohibitive if every child needed to be assessed in this way, but the Observational Survey is given only to those students who are struggling to take on reading. For these students it provides invaluable information and clear targets for instruction.

DIBELS and AIMSweb are artifacts of an assembly line view of reading. Children are placed on the conveyor belt and doses of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency and vocabulary are screwed on and tightened until the conveyor belt spits out a reader. This very American view of production may work for widgets, but it does not recognize the complexity of language or reading development. Rather than an assembly line metaphor, we need to think of the single cell embryo that develops increasing complexity as it grows. For children, increasing language facility develops by interacting with the world, by experiencing language, first orally and then in writing, and then by gradually making sense of that complexity so that they listen with understanding and read with comprehension. Parents and teachers can guide this development and thoughtful assessments that acknowledge this complexity can inform our instruction.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Five Ways to Fight Summer Reading Loss

I am sitting at my computer this morning looking outside at an absolutely sweltering mid-July day in southeastern Pennsylvania. The weather people are warning us that the combination of heat and humidity makes it dangerous to go outside. So, I am thinking that this is a great opportunity to keep the kids inside and have a family reading day (and for me to avoid the needed garden work).

These days most elementary schools provide dedicated in class time for kids to read from books they have selected because of their interests and reading abilities. Unfortunately, for many kids summer is not a time when books are readily accessible or reading time a part of a daily routine. This lack of practice in reading often leads to a phenomenon that reading researchers call summer reading loss or summer reading setback. Kids who don't read over the summer, lose reading gains they made over the school year.

There is plenty of research documenting summer reading loss and you can access some of it here and here. Not surprisingly, summer reading loss impacts children in low income families more than in middle income and high income families. While  there is less research on how to combat summer loss, there are some common sense ways that parents and teachers can use to help fight summer loss.

Give Access to Books

When kids have access to books that they want to read and that they can read, their reading improves. There is actually some good research to demonstrate this. In many lower income families access to books is limited. In order to combat summer loss we must get books in kids hands. Schools can play a role in this. Research has shown that just getting high interest books in the homes of low income children can make a difference in summer loss. Simply by giving kids books to take home at the end of the school year, schools can make a difference. Different schools have found different ways to do this. One way is to seek grants from federal programs like Reading is Fundamental or through PTA fundraisers or book fairs. Local businesses might be interested in underwriting a program of book distribution for low income children who need literacy materials.

One place money might be found to support such a program is the summer school budget. It may be that students would profit more from simply getting books to take home than from a summer school program. Literacy researcher, Richard Allington, who literally wrote the book on summer loss, puts it this way.

We now have the evidence that improving access to books for children from low-income families can have a positive and powerful impact on their reading development. Our evidence suggests that policy makers might reconsider summer school policies, especially for low-income children. Instead of spending a thousand dollars per student to support a summer school program, perhaps support the expenditure of $100 per student to provide kids with books they can and want to read.

Allington also points out that school library books sit idle on the shelves for three months in the summer. He suggests that no child in the school should be allowed to go home without ten books from the school library to read during the summer. We might call it a summer adoption program for books, where instead of taking care of classroom pets over the summer, kids take care of library books.

And here is another great way to provide access to books - open the school libraries during the summer. Education Week reports that the school libraries in 11 schools in Wilmington, N.C, are open and staffed by a certified school librarian throughout the summer. The idea is to have a professionally staffed library open to kids in their neighborhood.

Turn on TV Captions

Kids watch a lot of TV, but TV does not have to be the enemy of literacy. One powerful way to combat summer loss is to make sure that parents turn the captions on the television while the children watch. TV captions have been shown to improve children's reading ability in a variety of ways. Literacy specialist, Cynthia Mershon, explained what research has shown about captioned TV in a guest post on this blog last year.

Research reveals that when students read the words on the television screen and hear them spoken by the people in the television program or movie and see the pictures or images on the television screen that tell them what the words mean, their reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and general engagement with reading increases at a higher rate than those students not watching captioned television.

Parents- turn on the captions. Teachers - encourage parents to turn on the captions and make sure you have the captions on when kids view TV in the classroom.

Go to an Animal Shelter

Kids love animals. Animals love kids. Many animal shelters provide a program to match up children with animals for reading sessions. This ASPCA sponsored "Book Buddies" program is an ideal way to encourage reading practice from all kinds of readers, but especially reluctant and struggling young readers. Animals don't judge, they just enjoy the companionship and kids get a warm and wonderful way to get more reading in. You can check out the program here.

Go to the Library

Summer is a time for lots of outdoor fun - swimming, baseball, picnics, hiking, cycling - but it can also be a great time for quiet, cool and relaxing indoor activities. A visit to the library to hang out in the air-conditioning and read is a perfect follow-up to a day of sweaty outdoor fun. Do everybody in your family a favor today, if you do not already have one, go to the local library to get a library card. While you are there, help your children find books that they are interested in reading or ask the librarian to help. Summer should be a time for voluntary reading; for kids to explore their own passions and interests through the printed word.

Go to the Zoo (or Musuem)

Family trips to zoos and museums support children's developing literacy. First of all, the more experiences children have, the more information they have to draw on as they read. A rich store of knowledge about a variety of topics from animals to nature to history is a great ally for reading comprehension. The key to any zoo or museum visit is family talk. Children develop their language in conversation with others, so it is a good idea not just to look at the animals or exhibits, but also to talk to each other about what you are seeing and experiencing.

A trip to zoo or museum inevitably ends in the museum store, where I make it a habit to allow the kids to get a souvenir as long as they also pick out a book that they would like to read.

Summer reading loss is a phenomenon that is born of a lack of access to books and literacy experiences. As teachers we need to make sure our children have the tools of literacy and that parents are informed about what they can do to combat summer loss. As parents we need to be sure our kids have a library card and family experiences that encourage literate interactions.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Second Annual National Give a Kid a Book Day

Today, July 6, 2016, is the Second Annual National Give a Kid a Book Day. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I declared this day one year ago as a way to encourage children to read over the summer. The idea generated enough social media buzz that National Give a Kid a Book Day has actually become a thing. I have applied for the day to be placed on the calendar of national days.

Research indicates that many children lose reading gains they made in school during the summer because they do not continue reading (summer loss syndrome). Research also shows that when children have reading material available to them they are more likely to read.

So today, find a child in your life (son, daughter, grandchild, neighbor's kid) and give the child a book. While your at it, include a lollipop with your book gift to send the message that reading is sweet.

What is Give a Kid a Book Day? It is a day when every adult takes time out of a busy day to let a child know how important reading is by giving that child the gift of a book.

Why Give a Kid a Book Day? We have days for everything. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Grandparent’s Day. Administrative Assistant’s Day. Boss’s Day. National Tapioca Pudding Day (That’s on July 15 for those who wish to celebrate). Giving kids books seems at least as important as these.

Why July 6? It seems as good a day as any. July is a month when most children are off from school. Giving a child a book now will give them something productive, entertaining and even edifying to do. It may also help to combat summer loss syndrome, that pernicious affliction that causes students to lose their learning gains by not sufficiently exercising their reading muscles over the summer. It is also my son’s birthday and I have given him books on every one of his 39 birthdays and I am pleased to say he is a reader.

National Give a Kid a Book Day is dedicated to the many hard working people who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day we will recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Last year's inductees were Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever and Philadelphia's Words on Wheels. You can read about their contributions here.

This year’s Honor Roll inductees are as follows:

Dolly Parton - Dolly was nominated for the Honor Roll by blogger, Peter Greene. You can read his piece about Dolly's good works here. Dolly's Imagination Library seeks to place books in the hands of children who may not have access to them. Her program sends books to children once a month from birth through kindergarten. All you need to do to register a child and the books are sent to them for free. Dolly was inspired to start the program by her own impoverished background. She realizes books may be the possessions that spark children's dreams. Her program began in 1995 and has continued to grow across the country and around the world. You can read more about Imagination Library at her website here. 

Leland B. Jacobs - Leland B. Jacobs was a teacher, college professor and writer of children's poetry. Jacobs felt that the best way to help children become readers was to give them good books to read. Dr. Jacobs began his career as a teacher in a one room schoolhouse in rural Michigan and finished as a professor at Teachers College, Columbia.  He championed reading aloud to children to help them "lose themselves in literature." His poetry for children was published in books and anthologies. For Jacobs, exposure to great books was the key to making children into great readers. For his efforts to get teachers to "give children literature", Leland B. Jacobs earns his place on the NGKBD Honor Roll.

Margaret Craig McNamara - Margaret was the founder of the non-profit organization Reading is Fundamental (RIF). She came to Washington, D.C. with her husband, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the 1960s and immediately began work as a volunteer tutor in the D.C. schools. There she observed that many children did not have access to books. Using her political contacts and working with school district officials, she secured a grant from the Ford Foundation to get Reading is Fundamental started. Today, RIF programs operate in all 50 states and provide more than 16 million books a year to children.

Tomorrow my wife, Cindy Mershon, and I leave for Bloomington, Indiana to visit my son Bruce, his wife Jennie, and our brand new grandson, Henry William Walsh. We are taking lots of books as gifts. Need to get the newest Walsh off to a good literacy start. Why not do the same for a kid in your life today?

If you know people who deserve to be in the National Give a Kid a Book Day Honor Roll, please nominate them in the comments section and I will include them next year.

Monday, July 4, 2016

We Hold These Truths: Timothy Matlack and the Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, 
that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, 
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Timothy Matlack
Portrait by Rembrandt Peale
Today we celebrate the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most iconic of all American documents. As we look at these words today, we know that in writing "all men", author Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration were not being inclusive. "All men" did not include, of course, women, African Americans or Native Americans. The founding fathers were not so much radicals as they were entitled members of the new American merchant/landed class seeking redress from an unfavorable business environment enforced by King George III of England.

There is evidence, however, that at least one of the men wandering the halls and grounds of the Pennsylvania State House was, indeed, for his time, a radical. Timothy Matlack, a Philadelphia brewery owner and a lapsed Quaker, served as the clerk to the secretary to the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thompson. Matlack got the job after selling a few cases of Madeira wine to his neighbor, Benjamin Franklin, who, discovering Matlack's facility with calligraphy and penmanship, hired him as a scrivener. 

Matlack was unlike the others gathered to declare independence from England. He was far from elite or wealthy. He was drummed out of the Quakers because of his penchant for gambling, horse racing, cockfighting, public brawling and failure to pay his debts. His debtor status landed him in prison twice. Matlack further alienated himself from the wealthy Quaker businessmen of Philadelphia by publicly criticizing them for holding slaves. Finally, of course, Matlack favored war with England, while Quakers abjured all wars.

Matlack was a rabble rouser. In 1773, he led an angry protest of Philadelphia brewers against the Philadelphia elite who controlled commerce in the city. More importantly, he led a revolt against the conservative leadership of Pennsylvania who opposed independence and he eventually helped have the more conservative Pennsylvania delegation replaced by those pushing for independence. Later, Matlack served as a colonel in the Continental Army and fought alongside George Washington at Trenton and Princeton. He was an elected representative to the Continental Congress, and he helped write the new constitution of Pennsylvania, which was the most radically democratic of all the new States' constitutions. The Pennsylvania constitution, unlike all others, called for the direct election of representatives. It was a people's constitution.

Matlack's enthusiasm for rebellion was palpable. When the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Timothy Matlack, serving as clerk, grabbed the text, ran to the steps of the State House and read the proclamation aloud to a gathering of  citizens of Philadelphia. This was the first public presentation of the decision of the Continental Congress. Two weeks later, after the New York delegation finally assented to the Declaration, Timothy Matlack, known to the Congress for his expert penmanship, was assigned the task of "engrossing" the official document. Matlack finished the task in short order and on August 2, the final document - the one that was sent to King George III and the one that is on display in the National Archives in Washington, DC - was signed by John Hancock and the rest of the founding fathers.

Timothy Matlack is my sixth great grandfather. I wanted to tell his story because I think it represents all the small voices that have had a hand in the great legacy of this country - the singular idea that all human beings have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It really is the small voices, the unknown names, the people living and working and loving and striving and protesting that make this country what it is. We have been very imperfect in our pursuit of the ideal of liberty and justice for all, but those of us who keep trying to foster that ideal are living up to the words of the Declaration of Independence.

In 2004, Timothy Matlack was briefly rescued from historical obscurity when his name showed up in the movie National Treasure. A clue that the movie's characters find reads: "The legend writ, the stain affected, the key in silence undetected, fifty five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can't offend." The clue leads to the Declaration of Independence and a map on the back supposedly placed there by Matlack.

Timothy Matlack offended many in his day. He does not fit comfortably alongside our other founding fathers, but if today we are going to continue the fight for true equality, true democracy, we, like Matlack, are going to have to offend many, too.

Happy 4th of July!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Grammar as Meaningful Work

Probably no issue in the teaching of English can fire more debate than grammar instruction. Google, "Should grammar be taught?" and you can find literally thousands of arguments on either side. By the way, notice that I just used "Google" as a verb, which would drive my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. McGarry, up a wall; but I digress. The issue, of course, is not whether grammar should be taught, but how. On this issue the answer is clear: one-hundred years of research has consistently demonstrated that skill and drill, learn the rules, underline the subject and predicate, diagram the sentence, do practice lesson 12 in your Warriner's, type instruction does not improve writing.

Grammar instruction must begin with what students already know about grammar (quite a lot it turns out) and build from there based on the student's own writing. Like most learning, context is everything, and the best context for learning grammar is the student's own writing. Instead of thinking of grammar as a set of rules to be followed, we need to think of grammar as a set of tools to be used by the writer in the process of meaning making.

One of the great things about teaching writing is that evidence of what students know and don't know is constantly available on the page right in front of us. When we see second grade students beginning every sentence with "and", we know we can teach a lesson on sentence variety and have students practice in their own writing. This is so much more effective than decontextualized lessons about the "rule" of not starting a sentence with a conjunction, which by the way is not a rule. There is no rule in English that says we should not start a sentence with a conjunction. It is just that stylistically it is not a good idea to over use that structure.

If our third grade students are using a lot of short choppy sentences in their writing, we know to teach a lesson on sentence combining and coordination. If students are using dialogue in their writing, it is a good idea to teach them how to punctuate it (and also how to use dialogue effectively to move the plot forward or reveal character).

One of my favorite ways to teach grammar in context is to show students examples of professional writers breaking the rules. Here is a passage from the short story My Grandmother's Hair, by Cynthia Rylant.

We talked of many things as I combed her fine hair. Our talk was quiet, and it had to do with those things we both knew about: cats, baking-powder biscuits, Sunday school class.  Mrs. Epperly's big bull. Cherry picking. The striped red dress Aunt Violet sent me.

Some students will immediately spot that Rylant has three sentence fragments in this passage. I would ask them how they know? How could you make these fragments into sentences? How does changing them into sentences change the feeling of the paragraph? Why do you think Rylant chose to use fragments? When might it be ok to use sentence fragments in our writing? Is there a place in your own writing where you could use this technique of listing to good effect?

I believe that looking at the use of fragments in professional writing is an effective way to help students learn what fragments are, to spot them in their own writing, and if they choose, use them for effect.

Here is another passage from the same story.

But we didn't always talk. Sometimes we were quiet. We would just think, and my small hands would move in my grandmother's hair, twirling, curling, rolling that soft grayness around. We thought about good things, the big clock in the living room ticking, and sometimes my grandmother would shiver and we laughed.

And "Whoop! There it is!" Rylant using a conjunction to open a paragraph. Another point for discussion. I would also want my students to notice that Rylant varies her sentence length here, starting with two very short sentences and moving to two longer sentences. And then there is the alliteration of "twirling, curling, rolling." So much to talk about.

And then there is this compound-complex sentence:

 I was a thin, blond headed little girl, and I would climb up on the back of the couch where my grandmother was sitting, straddle her shoulders with my skinny six-year-old legs, and I would gently, most carefully, lift a lock of her soft gray hair and make my little pink comb slide through it. 

I would have the students work together to break the sentence down into component clauses and then put them back together again in a variety of multi-sentence and single sentence combinations. These lessons would always be followed by having the students go back to their own writing to see if they could apply what they learned.

One area where a focus on grammar as meaningful work is highly effective is in sentence clarity. Some of my students, whether in elementary, high school or college, have a great deal of trouble consistently writing clear sentences. I think lack of clarity is partly a lack of experience as a writer, but mostly due to a lack of a real audience in the mind of the writer. When students write without a clear sense of audience they often, in Flower and Hayes term, "write for the writer." That is they write something that makes sense to them, but not to a potential reader. 

In order to focus on clarity, students need to "write for the reader", recognizing that it is their audience who must make sense of what is written. When I see this problem in a student's writing, I try to provide the writer with a real audience, me, by asking questions of clarification. I am not clear what you are saying to me here, can you help me to understand? Can you tell me orally what you mean to say here? Can you rewrite this so that I can understand what you mean?

Even better, of course, would be to provide the writer with an audience of peers, who could listen to the piece and ask questions that show the writer where s/he was misunderstood.

As a seasoned writer, I don't so much apply rules when I write, as I do manipulate them. Grammar is my tool. Would using a parallel structure here make the point more dramatic? Would figurative language clarify my point here?  I only really think overtly about rules in the editing stage and even then what drives the editing effort is an attempt to make the writing as clear and communicative as possible for my audience. Will a comma here help my reader make sense of this sentence? Would a couple of shorter sentences here make more sense?

Ultimately, that is how I judge my own writing and the writing of others: Not by how "correct" it might be, but by its overall communicative effect.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Don't Look Behind the Curtain: The Education Reform Switcheroo

If you haven't yet read the New York Times article on what school choice has meant for the children of Detroit, please do. I could not read the piece without tears coming to my eyes and my blood coming to a boil. As I have said in previous posts and as many others have been saying for years, school choice will destroy public education. It has already done so in Detroit.

The Times piece lays bare the true motivation of corporate education reform: to try to get people to focus on schools as the problem, so that they won't look behind the curtain at the real problem facing the country - income inequity. As the historian and social theorist, Michael Katz, put it in the 2003 update to his great book, The Irony of Early Education Reform, "education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas - as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth." Education reform always fails because it is not meant to succeed; it is only meant to distract us from the real issue. 

I have been in education long enough to have been through several reform movements. In 1976, I was appointed to a Pennsylvania commission called Project 81. Project 81 was a five year plan aimed at strengthening high school graduation requirements in the state through "competency-based education.". The governor and legislature of Pennsylvania, had determined that schools were not being held accountable enough and that graduation requirements needed to be strengthened (sound familiar?). As a representative of my school district on the commission, I attended conferences, met with teachers from across the state, listened to the best minds on competency -based education and assessment, wrote reports and provided input to the commission. I was sincere, naive and hoping to make a difference. 

Millions of dollars were spent, hundreds of man hours were accrued, but by the end of 1979, Project 81 was not going anywhere. I asked a state official what had happened and this is what I was told, "Project 81 was always a political response to pressure from some people in the public and the government. There is a new governor in place now and the interests have moved elsewhere. Project 81 was never going to effect real change."

The Times had another story today that I connect to the Detroit story. although the connection may not be obvious. It is the story of Sunderland, England, a small depressed city in the northeast where 62% of the residents voted to leave the European Union, even though the EU has poured millions into the region and provided the economically depressed area with a car manufacturing plant to replace jobs lost when the shipping industry shut down. The people of Sunderland were convinced to vote for Brexit, against their own interest, because some political leaders distracted them with appeals to nationalism and xenophobia. 

And so it is with modern corporate reform efforts. They are designed to appeal to our desires for good schools, to our American faith in competition, and to our desire to wash our hands of the problems of the inner city. Most of all they are designed to distract us from the real issue of growing poverty and inequity, because these are problems that can only be resolved through income redistribution and that would cost the 1% money. Education reform is a genius move, because not only does it distract, but it provides the 1% with another market for making money. 

Look how that has worked out in Detroit.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Choice? Education Reformers Do Not Understand the Word

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I have been thinking a lot about choice lately, especially after the news came out of Florida that children whose parents opted them out of the state standardized test will be forced to repeat third grade. That's right, children who have high grades, as well as good reading and writing and math ability, will repeat third grade simply because they did not take a standardized tests. This policy exposes the hypocrisy of the entire school reform movement. The movement champions choice for parents and children in the form of vouchers and charter schools, but not choice when it comes to taking the tests on which their whole house of cards is built. When faced with parents actually exercising choice the reformers inner-fascist comes out and we are told, "No! No! You must choose the choices that we choose for you, not the choices that you choose to choose." Peter Greene has a terrific take down of this kind of thinking here.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines choice as the "opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities." Education reformers want to give parents choice when they pick a school for their children, but by making that "choice" parents are apparently expected to forfeit any other choices they want to make. Once children are enrolled in a charter school, parent choice ends. Charters are run by boards that, unlike traditional public schools, are not elected and often not responsive to parent and student concerns. As I reported in an earlier post, the parent of the child who was berated by a Success Academy charter school teacher was told that she could not file a complaint with the NYC Board of Education because Success Academy is a "private entity." Her only recourse was to go to the Success Academy Board of Directors, an appointed group of hand picked Success Academy supporters.

There can be no real "choice" without a real "voice" in the education of your child. Parents choose charter schools seeking the best for their children (as a recent study shows what parents deem best is often determined by factors other than academics), but when they do so they may not realize that they are forfeiting their voice in their child's education. Children attending charter schools also forfeit their voice in their own education and are often subjected to a harsh, militaristic, "no-excuses" discipline regime based on shaming and harsh punishment for minor infractions. When parents make the choice of a charter school, they are also often making a choice to send their child across town and far out of their own neighborhood.

For wealthy Americans, choice has always been available. Affluent parents have the option of sending their children to a private school of their choosing – a school that offers the type of curriculum and academic and social environment the parents find desirable. Less affluent middle-class families often exercise their choice by where they choose to live. I was once on a lengthy flight out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty Airport, seated next to an Indian-American man who lived in northern New Jersey. We got into a conversation where I learned that he had two young children and I happened to mention the school district I worked in. The man said, “Oh yes, I know the district well, my wife and I are saving to move there because we have heard the schools are so good.”

This story is repeated over and over throughout the country daily and real estate agents are sure to include the quality of the schools in their sales pitch when the schools have a good reputation. Of course, a reputation for high quality schools means high housing costs and usually high property taxes. A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded from making the "choice" to attend these “high-achieving” schools by economic inequity.

Education reformers seek to emulate the choice enjoyed by the affluent and the upper middle class by offering the choice of the publicly funded, but privately run, charter school and the school voucher, which provides parents with money, again taken from public funds, to offset the cost of sending children to private institutions. If parents have such “choice’, the reformers’ story goes, public schools, charters and private schools will compete for public monies and all schools will improve performance.

While all of this may sound good and may appeal to American sense of freedom, civilized societies have long recognized that choice is not an absolute good. In America, we have the choice to smoke if we wish. I am old enough to remember entering the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge in Bristol Jr.-Sr. High School in the 1970’s. Smokers and non-smokers graded papers, planned lessons, held meetings and ate lunch in a haze of cigarette smoke that yellowed the fingers of the smokers and the formerly cream-colored walls of the cramped room.

Today, of course, we may still smoke if we wish, but we do not have the choice to smoke in the teachers’ lounge or anywhere on school property for that matter. We have come to recognize that one person’s choice to smoke may infringe on another person’s choice to breathe clean air.

In our society, then,  we are guided by the principle that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ reasonable choices. What if an inner-city parent’s choice is to send a child to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally staffed, neighborhood public school? By draining away the limited funds available for public education, charter schools and voucher schemes infringe on that parent’s choice. Public monies are rightly spent to make that good local school a reality. In public education, as with smoking, the government must choose to limit our choice in order to provide for, as the Constitution says, “the common good.” Public education is a common good that privatization in the form of charters and vouchers will destroy.

Choice is meaningless if it also seeks to silence parent and student voices. Choice, as the dictionary definition says, includes power. No voice = no power. If reformers wanted parents to have real choice, they would be working against the economic inequity that is limiting real choice, not offering the false choice of alternative schools or vouchers.

Parts of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, NY: Garn Press.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chris Christie Punches Poor School Children in the Face

Many readers will recall that last year Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said he wanted to punch the teacher's union in the face. You might also remember that as a lifelong teacher and former union leader I offered up my face for the punch. On Tuesday, Christie one upped himself by outlining a school spending plan that amounts to a punch in the face to every poor, urban student in the the state.

He proposes a flat rate of aid in the area of $6,599 for every student in New Jersey whether they live in leafy, affluent Montgomery Township or cash strapped, property tax poor Camden. This "every one gets the same money plan" would provide a windfall to wealthy districts, many of which would see a dramatic increase in state aid to schools (and a reduction in property taxes) and conversely a death sentence to urban districts who would see their budgets reduced by tens of millions of dollars.

New Jersey Spotlight reported that it was hard to tell whether Christie's plan was "bold or delusional", but in talking to reporters after the announcement, Christie revealed what the plan really is - cynical, political and divisive. Referring to the Senate Majority Leader and a chief Democratic antagonist, Christie said, "Every one of Loretta Weinberg's [school] districts will see an increase in aid." In other words, Christie is playing politics with children's lives and pitting wealthy suburban families concerned about their property taxes against poor urban families with no property in order to foment class warfare and garner Republican votes.

It is, of course, clear that impoverished urban areas need more money to provide a decent education to children hobbled by the impact of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health care, high crime rates and unemployment. Recognition of this is what made New Jersey a national leader in providing extra resources to urban schools through the Abbott decisions of three decades ago. Christie says that the urban schools are getting the extra money, but are under-performing. He should know since for the last six years many of those districts have been under his control and he has failed at every turn to make improvements. So, he has determined that they should not get the money. But as Tom Moran of the Star Ledger points out the truth is much more nuanced. Some urban districts are doing well and others do well when compared to urban districts in other states.

Christie's one-size-fits-all plan for taxation does not meet our most basic understandings of fairness and justice. In any just system a student with greater needs would receive greater resources. My former boss, and one of the finest education thinkers I have ever known, Earl Kim, would call it "Rawlsian fairness", after the great American political philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls posited that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society." Just today, the Supreme Court upheld this principle in the University of Texas affirmative action case. 

Christie, apparently taking a page from his new political mentor, Donald Trump, is not interested in fairness, Rawlsian or otherwise. He has decided to foment a war between New Jersey's suburban rich and urban poor - and he is going to do it to the detriment of the hearts and minds of school children. This level of cynicism and political underhandedness is unworthy of anyone who calls himself a leader. Christie should be ashamed of himself. I hope the people of New Jersey, rich and poor, suburban and urban, reject this latest ploy to appeal to our baser instincts.

Perhaps the greatest of all presidents (and a Republican, lest we forget) Abraham Lincoln, famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Apparently, for Chris Christie, a house divided is just good politics.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Unqualified, Uncertified Teachers: Where is the Outrage?

To make sure your summer does not go untested, here is a multiple choice question for you boys and girls:

When faced with unprecedented teacher shortages, state education policy makers should do which of the following?

               a.  Raise salaries
               b.  Improve teacher working conditions
               c.  Give teachers more say in what is taught and how it is taught
               d.  Stop trying to remove teacher job protections
               e.  Allow anyone with a Bachelor's degree to teach

The Utah legislature has chosen "e." That's right, when faced with teacher shortages the state of Utah has decided to join Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama in declaring that preparation for a teaching career doesn't matter. Education reformers like to say they are following a "business model" in their reform plans. I would like to see the business model of any successful company that says, "Let's forget trying to make the job more attractive to top candidates, we can just hire someone who is unqualified for the job."

The move to get unqualified people into the classroom gives the lie to the real goal of education reformers. On the one hand we hear that "the teacher is the the most important single in-school factor in student achievement." This is generally followed with breathless treatises on how teachers suck and how we need to improve teacher performance in the classroom, get rid of bad teachers and measure that performance with standardized tests. On the other hand we hear, "Well everybody has been to school, so everybody should be able teach. Let's pass legislation that makes it easier to get warm bodies in the classroom."

All of this "who needs qualified teachers" baloney, of course, began with Teach for America, an organization that started out with a laudable goal of filling hard to fill teaching positions with temp teachers and morphed into the employment recruiting arm of the the charter school industry. Placing unqualified temp teachers in front of children, especially poor children, has been a practice of the reform movement from the beginning.

What I would like to know is this: Where is the outrage from education reformers when states continually lower the bar for what it takes to be a teacher? If good teachers are so important, why is there no hue and cry about this most obvious lowering of standards? If education of the poor is the "civil rights issue of our time", why are reformers comfortable with having poor kids exposed to unqualified temp workers? Why isn't Campbell Brown tweeting about states allowing people off the street to teach?

The answer is, I believe, that the reform movement doesn't want highly qualified, creative, autonomous professionals in the classroom. True professionalism is too messy for reformers. Autonomous, independent thinkers may rebel against employing draconian discipline policies, teaching to the test, and inhuman work hours. They may even, God forbid, want to start a union. What reformers want are compliant worker drones who take orders well, work like slaves and don't question or complain. How else to explain the lack of concern for the lowering of teacher qualification standards?

How can we possibly be surprised that we have a growing teacher shortage in this country? For the past 15 years the profession has been stripped of its autonomy, told it is failing the children, vilified in public, deprived of its health and pension benefits and subjected to wrong headed evaluation schemes. What young person would look at all this and say, "Gee, I want to sign up for this low paying profession!"

As Peter Greene, over at the Curmudgucation blog, has said, "If you are having trouble filling a teaching position, make a better offer." Right now teachers are getting a bad offer and young prospective teachers are noticing. Schools of Education around the country are suffering large dips in enrollment. How do reformers respond? They seek to lower standards and let anyone who can draw breath into the profession. Can they not see the irony in that?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jerome Bruner and the Power of Constructing Understanding

I read of the passing of the great education researcher and theorist, Jerome Bruner, in the New York Times on Thursday. No less a luminary than Howard Gardner, of multiple intelligences fame, called Bruner, "the most important contributor to educational thinking since John Dewey." Before Bruner, educational psychology was dominated by Behaviorism, the theory, most prominently expounded by B.F. Skinner, that learning was a matter of stimulus and response. In the classroom this theory translated into lots of instruction focused on rote learning and external rewards (like grades). Bruner showed how this theory underestimated the human capacity for learning. He posited the cognitive theory of learning where learners "construct" meaning and understanding through a dynamic interaction with the texts, the instruction, and the environment.

Bruner's studies led to a more enlightened view of children as learners and teachers as facilitators of learning, the constructivist theory. It is this theory that has come to dominate teaching and learning ever since, although vestiges of Behaviorism remain, as can be seen in the periodic "back to basics" movements that education goes through and by the still pervasive use of spelling lists and vocabulary exercises.

In my own teaching, I think that Bruner has had the greatest impact on the use of writing as a mode of learning. Bruner argued that human beings learn in three ways - enactively, iconically, and symbolically. In other words by doing, by seeing and storing images, and through the use of language (symbols). Writing integrates all three of these ways of learning and so provides a powerful reinforcement for all learning. When we write we are enacting through the movement of the hand across paper or keyboard, we see the product and visualize the words in front of us, and we use the symbols of language (words) to craft our message. When we write, we integrate all the ways that we can learn.

In my classroom, writing to learn takes many forms. Here are three that I believe are rooted in Bruner's constructivist theory of learning.

Quick Writes

Quick writes are brief (2-3 minute) written responses to prompts from the teacher that may happen before, during or after an assigned reading or a lecture. Before reading (or lecture) the prompt seeks to have students activate background knowledge and make predictions. During reading (or lecture) the prompt asks the student to rethink their original predictions and add information that they have learned since the reading began. After reading (or lecture), the quick write asks for a brief summary of the student's understanding.

Suppose, for example, you were reading about what makes manatees a threatened species. Your three prompts might look like this:

  • Before reading - Today we will read about a threatened mammal called the manatee. What do you know about the manatee and why do you think it might be threatened?
  • During Reading - Now that we have read some of the passage on manatees, go back and read what you wrote and add any information you can about manatees and why they are threatened.
  • After reading- Briefly summarize the reasons that manatees are a threatened species.
Quick writes may be used in any combination - either before, during and after as above or just before and after, or just after as you determine what will be effective for a particular lesson.

Reader Response Journal

The reader response journal allows students to construct meaning based on what they have read or what has been read aloud to them. Students record their personal reactions, feelings, emotions, ideas, connections and reflections on what they have heard, read or experienced. The written response literally assists the student in constructing meaning from the text. Writing, and thinking about that writing, is the connective tissue between experience and understanding. Reader response leads children to deeper understanding of text, with teacher scaffolding of course.

The response journal is fairly easy to implement, but we should not assume that students will know how to respond to text automatically. The teacher should model the activity for the students by constructing responses in front of the them and then displaying these models in the room as anchor charts for helping the students with their own responses. Students should be guided to retell, respond and react to what they have read. Retelling what happened, responding with their feelings about what was read, and reacting to the events, characters and situations they encounter. You can read more on response journals here.

The I-Search

The I-Search, originally proposed by Ken Macrorie (1998), is a research paper that is focused on what a student is interested in and already very knowledgeable about. In writng an I-Search Paper the student focuses on four aspects of research:
  • What do I already know about the topic?
  • What do I want to learn about the topic?
  • How do I carry out my research?
  • What did I learn?
The I-Search is uniquely constructionist because it proceeds from deep studnet knowledge and interest, toward greater learning and understanding. It also observes many of the conventions of colleg level research work such as a literature search, a research question, a procedure and a discussion of findings. If you would like to implement the I-Search paper in your classrooms, you will find excellent step-by-step instructions from teacher Scott Filkins here. While Filkins lesson focuses on grades 8-12, I have used the I-Search successfully in grades 3-7 as well.

American education has lost one of its greatest thinkers. One way to honor his work and his memory is through providing students with instruction built on his profound insights into the way children learn.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Reading about "The Greatest", Muhammad Ali

For reasons I don't quite understand myself, I have been enormously moved by the passing this weekend of Muhammad Ali. I never saw Ali fight, although all of his bouts occurred during my teens and early adulthood when my sports fever was most fervent. I had given up on boxing as "sport" when Bennie "Kid" Paret was killed in the ring by a punch thrown by Emile Griffith on April 1, 1961 and swore I would never again be willing spectator to these gladiatorial combats. I, of course, saw news footage of Ali "floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee" against Sonny Liston in the 1960's and "rope-a-doping" with George Foreman in the 1970's and jousting in TV interviews with sweet, sincere, Joe Frazier, his greatest opponent, but I never actually watched an Ali fight.

I think Joyce Carol Oates comes closest to identifying why Ali holds so much fascination for me in these few days after his death. In a New York Times editorial on Monday, June 6, Oates says that unlike past boxing greats like Joe Louis and Archie Moore, Ali refused to play the role prescribed for black men, even black sports stars in this country, that of being "a credit to their race" through modesty and public restraint. Ali would not play the game. He said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." He celebrated his blackness; declared himself beautiful; followed up winning the heavyweight championship of the world by declaring himself a Muslim and follower of Elijah Muhammad and then refused induction into the army because "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Ali's stance on the war and the draft brought about predictable payback from the white powers that be. He was stripped of his title, arrested, fined, forced to give up his passport and denied the right to make a living by boxing for 3 and a-half of his prime fighting years. America reveres its sport heroes, like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, who gave up parts of their careers to fight in our wars, but it could not tolerate a black sports hero who refused to serve on religious grounds.

Muhammad Ali transcended his violent sport to become one of the true game changers of the 20th century. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a necessary hero of the Civil Rights Movement, but so was Muhammad Ali. Ali showed the world that black people could proudly embrace their blackness, fully and unashamedly, and in doing so he helped the entire country redefine race relations.  It is still a bumpy road we travel in this country on race, but Muhammad Ali is a great and truly American hero because he redefined the game for all of us and forced us to hold up a mirror to our prejudices.

In his later years, Ali was justly celebrated for his accomplishments in and out of the ring and as a humanitarian and ambassador of good will. Sadly the Muhammad Ali of the last quarter century was but a shell of the physical specimen of his youth. His chosen profession brought him to the biggest stages of the world, but left him frail and damaged. One thing all those punches could not dim, however, was the ever present twinkle in his eyes. A twinkle that said, "I'm in here and I'm watching you. Remember me, because I am The Greatest."

One way of honoring the memory of Ali is to make sure that young people get to read and learn about him. To that end, here is an annotated list of good reading about a great man.

For Older Readers

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero, by David Remnick

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Remnick looks at the five formative years of Ali's life, from the time when Cassius Clay won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, to his conversion to Islam and name change, and to his second bout with Sonny Liston after which he proclaimed himself "The Greatest." A great read by one of America's finest journalists.

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, by Thomas Hauser

The definitive biography of Ali, the book won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Hauser interviews more than two hundred of Ali's family members, friends, opponents and enemies to pain the portrait of the consummate showman.

The Greatest: My Own Story, by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham

Ali in his own words, explaining the decisions he made in his career and including a 10 page conversation with his great rival, Joe Frazier.

The Fight, by Norman Mailer

The greatest boxing writer of all time takes on Ali and Foreman and the story of the "Rumble in the Jungle" bout in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. Great portraits of both fighters and an exiting retelling of the fight itself.

For Middle Readers

The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, by Walter Dean Myers

The great young adult writer Walter Dean Myers offers readers in their early teens a comprehensive view of Ali the boxer and the man. Contains a particularly strong evocation of the toll boxing takes on the body and mind of the athlete as well as the often shady business practices of the sport.

Muhammad Ali: I Am the Greatest, by John Micklos, Jr.

This book is a part of the American Rebels series and focuses on Ali as the conscientious objector refusing induction into the army during the Vietnam War. Ali is portrayed as a passionate man who spoke with conviction about what he believed in and who was willing to suffer the consequences of his controversial positions.

For Younger Readers

The Champ, by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by J. Gregory Christie

The Champ touches on the highlights of the champ's career in and out of the ring. The free-verse format and lively language make it an enjoyable read aloud.

Muhammed Ali: Champion of the World, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Francois Roca

Writing in Booklist, John Green says this biography captures "not only Ali's career and life story, but also his significance." Great oil painting illustrations add to the allure of this book.

For more on books and movies about Ali try this article in Express Sports, by Shahid Judge

I also recommend this newspaper portrait of Ali by veteran journalist, Jerry Izenberg: Muhammad Ali: Why they Called Him The Greatest and Why I Called Him My Friend.

Please add your own favorites in the comments section.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Improving Developmental Education in the Community College

In a post last week, I discussed what I called The College Remedial Course Hoax, which was critical of the system of remedial courses at four-year colleges. In this post I would like to address remedial courses on the community college level. Community colleges face challenges that most four-year colleges do not face because most have open enrollment policies that allow anyone with a high school diploma to enter school. Open enrollment is a good thing, because it opens the opportunity for a college degree to many students who lack either the financial resources or academic credentials to enter a four-year college. This good thing, however, comes with many challenges.

Faced with a large number of students who are not academically well-prepared for college instruction, community colleges have developed elaborate remediation programs designed to get students up to academic speed. Nationally, billions of dollars are spent on these programs, The courses are well-meaning and are developed and taught by people dedicated to helping students improve their ability to learn in a regular college classroom. And yet, just as in four-year colleges, these remedial or "developmental" courses, have proven to have had limited impact on student success in completing a degree.

This does not mean that the courses in themselves do not improve student performance in reading, writing and mathematics. Certainly many of them do, but they also set students up for failure to complete a degree. Students can find themselves locked in a maze of several levels of remedial courses, all costing them money and none providing them with college credits or progress toward a degree. According to Thomas Bailey, writing for the Community College Research Center Brief, fewer than 50% of students who enroll in community college developmental courses ever finish these remedial courses let alone complete a degree. Bailey concludes that the "developmental function in community colleges is not working well."

Bailey makes some sound recommendations for change in remedial programs at the community college level. Suggestions 1-3 come from Bailey, with some of my own thoughts. Suggestion 4 is mine.

  1. Rethink Assessment - A score on a placement test gives us very limited information on what a student needs to excel in college. There is a weak correlation between scores on these tests and student success. Bailey does not state it, but for me a focus on student needs would include an assessment of non-cognitive abilities including such things as student resilience, study habits, social skills and empathy, all of which have been shown to be important factors in student degree completion and all of which can be addressed in a college program (Sparkman, Maulding and Roberts, 2012). Placement in developmental courses should be based on a knowledge of the student gained through a combination of high school records, counseling sessions with community college learning experts and placement testing. In my ideal world, students would bring a portfolio of their high school work to the counseling session to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.
  2. Place More Students in College Level Courses with Learning Supports - Bailey's suggestion here is similar to what I wrote in the previous post. For many, if not most, students, the best way to improve reading and writing skills is in a regular college classroom with an embedded tutor and regularly scheduled group tutoring sessions led by the tutor outside of class. In addition, these early college level courses would be taught by professors who embrace an instructional design that incorporates skill improvement through sound pedagogical approaches.
  3. Explicitly Work to Minimize Remediation Time - For those community college students whose skills are not at a level to allow them to be successful even in a supported college-level course, Bailey suggests speeding up the remedial process and doing away with the layers of remediation so that these students move into credit bearing courses as quickly as possible. Intensive summer programs would be one way to accomplish this.
  4. Provide Instructional Coaches for Professors - Many K-12 institutions use literacy coaches and math coaches as a form of embedded professional development for teachers. A similar model could be used at the community college level. Essentially, a literacy instruction or math instruction expert would be teamed with the content expert professor to help the professor design and deliver instruction in a way that helps students achieve the learning objectives. This would be a more effective way to use staff who are currently providing instruction in de-contextualized reading, writing or math improvement classes. Students would be working to earn credit in a freshman level course, say Psychology 101, and at the same time receiving instruction designed to help them meet the reading and writing requirements of the course.
Some would take issue with the whole idea of developmental instruction in any college setting, whether in non-credit or credit bearing courses. Some might argue that the issue is in the high school and that high school graduates should, by definition, be ready for college. This is the genesis of the whole standards movement culminating in the Common Core. However, history would show us that raising standards does not, in and of itself, raise performance. Improved student performance in high school will require major societal shifts in income inequity, segregation and commitment to funding schools. Until that happens, a more enlightened approach to developmental education on the college level will remain a necessity.