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.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

What is a "Just-Right" Class Size in Public Schools?

This post is adapted from my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, now available in print and Kindle versions.

Class size matters. Class size matters because it is an issue that impacts the lives of the children in the classroom, the work load of the teacher and the school budget. Teachers and their representatives argue for smaller class sizes, while school boards try to balance parent and teacher desires for small classes, with the demands of keeping the budget under control. Apparently, private schools think class size matters. They advertise small class size in an effort to attract students to their schools.

Intuitively, most parents and teachers think class size matters, but from a research standpoint the impact of class size has been harder to pin down.  At the heart of the argument is the question, “Do the academic gains achieved through smaller class sizes justify the cost of hiring more teachers to accommodate those lower class sizes?” Some education reformers have even suggested that children would be better off if schools would identify their best teachers and then pay those teachers more to accept more students in their classes.

A research study done in Tennessee is considered the gold standard of class size studies because of its rigorous experimental design. This so-called STAR study(1995) found that students in small classes learned more than students in larger classes and were more likely to complete school and attend college, but those small classes were so small that the STAR study simply rekindled the cost/benefit debate.

More recently, Northwestern University professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach published a study through the National Education Policy Center that summarized what we know about class size. Considering all the research as a whole Schanzenbach concluded that

·         Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy.
·         The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.
·         The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.
·         Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall (NEPC, 2014).

So, class size does matter and it matters especially for low-income and minority children and it is likely to be worth the taxpayers’ money to attempt to keep class sizes down.

Research does not help us much with what the ideal class sizes should be. The STAR study targeted class sizes of 13-17 children, which may be out of the financial reach of many districts. As a school district administrator several years ago, I was tasked with developing target ranges for class sizes for a suburban school district. After reading the available research and consulting with the budget office, I came up with the following recommendations based on students in an affluent community.

            Recommended Class Sizes by Grade Range 
in Affluent School Districts
K-2                  20-22
 3-8                   23-25
 9-12                 23-27

If I were making these recommendations for a school district with a high concentration of students living at or near the poverty line the guidelines would be different.

 Recommended Class Sizes by Grade Range
 in High Poverty School Districts
K-2                  17-19
 3-8                   20-22
 9-12                 23-25

Courses designed for students with special needs or for students who need focused instruction on certain skills should be smaller, normally about 8-12 students.

I would recommend that school leaders, teachers and parents look at these recommendations as broad guidelines and not set in stone. A variation of a student or two from these numbers does not mean that students are necessarily being disadvantaged, but large deviations may be of concern.

To be effective, smaller class sizes require that teachers use less "stand and deliver" type of instruction. Teachers can take advantage of having fewer students in the class by having more small group work, more one-to-one conferences and more targeted attention to the individual needs of students.

For more information on class size issues, please see Leonie Haimson's wonderful website Class Size Matters.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The College Remedial Course Hoax

This week the New York Times ran an editorial entitled Guess Who’s Taking Remedial Classes? In the editorial the Times cites a study by the “think tank” Education Reform Now that shows that many students from more affluent suburban schools are taking remedial courses in college and claiming that this study is proof that high schools are not doing their job. Diane Ravitch responded by identifying Education Reform Now as an arm of the pro-reform Democrats for Education Reform and chastised the Times for taking their report as gospel. “Jersey Jazzman” Mark Weber eviscerated the report in a thorough analysis on his blog in an article I highly recommend you read. Weber asks all the right questions of this report and of the Times editorial, but I would like to take my own look at the implications of college remedial courses, especially as they relate to four-year colleges. These courses, while initially well-meaning, are a fraud perpetrated on the college student.

The vast majority of four-year colleges accept students based on their qualifications, usually in the form of an SAT or ACT score, a high school transcript, and perhaps a college essay and some other factors like community service or demonstrated leadership ability. Some students who are accepted to college may not meet the academic standards of the institution, but other mitigating factors, including athletic ability, having a parent who attended the institution or having the ability to pay the tuition without financial aid may get them admitted. When a four-year college admits a student, they also should be making a commitment to ensuring that student graduates in four or five years.

With the growing number of students attending college since the 1960s, colleges found that not all students had the skills in reading, writing and mathematics that professors were expecting when they entered the classroom. The colleges responded by creating non-college credit remedial courses that students were forced to take, almost always because of some score they received on a college “placement” test. And so a cottage industry of remedial, non-credit courses was created on campuses across the country, often taught by adjunct faculty of dubious qualifications and most often completely separated from the for-credit courses that other students were taking.

The results were inevitable. Students began collecting huge tuition debt paying for courses for which they did not receive credit. Often these students had to take these remedial courses over and over again because they could not pass the exit exam, which was frequently another standardized test. The students never got the chance to feel like they were regular college students. Within a year or two these students, frustrated with their lack of progress, dropped out of school burdened with student loan debt and without a degree or good job prospects.

Colleges, certainly the four-year colleges, I am addressing here, should not have and did not have to go the remedial course route. The schools could have and should have known that reading and writing courses that are removed from the context of a real course have very limited impact. (I will not address math remedial courses here because it is outside my expertise, but I believe the same principles would hold.) Rather than place students in courses designed for writing improvement or reading improvement, the colleges would have been much better off placing these students in the regular classroom and then providing them with the support they needed to succeed in these courses.

That support can take many forms. The first form it should take is in professional development for college faculty that would help them make their courses more student friendly. Remedial courses were put in place, in part, because professors complained that students did not have the necessary pre-requisite knowledge for their credit bearing course, but often times professors did not have the requisite instructional skills to scaffold student learning; skills that can be learned and used in the classroom to great effect for all learners. Other supports that have proven to be effective include embedded tutors, upper level undergraduates who attend classes with freshman students and who provide group study sessions and learning assistance to the students, writing centers and subject specific tutoring.

When I started out as a freshman in college in 1965, I was not required to take a placement test. I was placed in the credit bearing College Composition 101 like every other freshman in my school. After one week in the class, it was clear to me that I was not yet a college level writer. I got a C- on my first paper. Many of my classmates did much worse. My college did not have a writing center in those days, so I buckled down, sought the help of my more grammatically and rhetorically minded friends and squeezed out a B by the end of the semester. I think any student accepted to a four-year institution should be afforded the same opportunity. Today, I would add that the college writing lab should be a regular part of instruction in College Composition I and that an embedded tutor in the class would be very helpful in providing struggling students with the support they need to perform well in the class.

For students who struggle with reading comprehension and vocabulary, a similar model could and should be followed. Instead of some decontextualized, non-credit bearing “reading improvement” course, students should be enrolled in a typical college freshman course with a heavy reading load like Psychology 101. Again, the professor would be trained in methods like Pre-Reading Guides, Selective Reading Guides, Anticipation Guides and vocabulary development activities to help students with the daunting reading load. Embedded tutors would be available in the classroom to review readings and assist students with understanding difficult concepts at weekly meetings. The writing center would be available to help students with papers for the course.

Professional development for freshman faculty, embedded tutoring and writing centers are three effective ways to help students become college level readers and writers. It is not so much that we should expect our high school graduates to be “college ready”, but that we should expect our colleges to be student ready. Four-year colleges need to recognize that very few students are truly college ready when they walk in the door, unless we consider college ready to be ready and willing to learn in a college environment with the help that the college has the duty to provide.

The existence of college remedial courses is not so much about the quality of the high school, as the New York Times article posits, but a combination of more and more students seeking a college education and colleges coming up with the wrong solution to a perceived problem. Charging students admitted to four year colleges for non-credit bearing remedial courses is fraud. Not only is it fraud, but it is ineffective. More effective approaches are readily available, if these colleges have the will to make them work.

Students have the responsibility to work hard, attend class, seek help and meet the expectations professors lay down for the course. In fact, these abilities have been shown to be much more important to completing college than a score on an SAT or placement test.

Two-year community colleges with open enrollment have a different student population and different challenges. I will address what should happen in these schools in a subsequent post.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Bridging the Gap by Lesley Roessing: A Review

Mark Twain famously said, "Write what you know." Very sound advice for a would be writer. When we are teaching children to write, however, giving them this advice can be both scary and unhelpful. Years ago, after an unsuccessful conference with a young writer, I wrote this poem that I think captures the problem.

                                                           Writer's Block

 I am staring at this blank paper
Because I have nothing to say.
                 "Write what you know", says the teacher.
I guess I know nothing today!

As teachers, we must find ways to help children access what they know, value what they know, examine what they know and shape what they know into a piece of writing. In other words, we must build a scaffold on which children can build a memoir from their memories. For teachers looking for such a scaffold, and who wish to make memoir a central part of their writing instruction, I highly recommend Lesley Roessing's book, Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core. Roessing speaks from long experience and deep knowledge. She is a former high school and middle school teacher and is currently the director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and lecturer in the College of Education of Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. (Full disclosure: Lesley is also a former graduate student of mine and I am uncommonly proud of the great work she has done.)

One "gap" referred to in the title is of course the achievement gap and Roessing makes a persuasive argument that since memoir writing delves into a student's personal memories, all students come to the reading and writing lessons with sufficient background knowledge to be successful. But memoir writing is also a way bridge other gaps including the gap between reading fiction and non-fiction and the gap between reading something and writing something. According to Roessing, "memoir elevates the topics on which writing is based and, in so doing, elevates writing." For those concerned with where memoir fits into the Common Core State Standards, Roessing, as she suggests in the book's title, says that "through writing memoir, writers discover their own passions and convictions, leading them to choose more effective argument topics" and by reading memoir, students learn to "support their claims with logical and relevant evidence."

The heart of the book is a thoughtful and thorough plan for introducing students to memoir, gathering memories, reading memoirs, drafting diverse memoirs and analyzing and publishing memoirs. Roessing provides teachers with a guide to scaffolding the reading and writing experience for students to ensure student success. One key element of this scaffold is helping students to read memoir in a special way, to read memoir like a writer of memoir. In other words, sample memoirs provided in the book, work as mentor texts for students' growing understanding of the genre. Roessing wants the students to, in Frank Smith's term, "read like a writer" in order to bridge the gap between their reading and their own writing.

The instructional design suggested in the book, reflects Roessing's thorough understanding of best practice and the book provides clear direction and suggested resources for each step in the design. I think classroom teachers would find the design helpful, easy to follow.

  • Exposure - including suggested read alouds
  • Teacher Model - Guides the teacher in demonstrating the strategy
  • Scaffolded Practice - helps the teacher guide student work
  • Independent Student Practice - student samples are included in the text
  • Reflection
Appendices at the end of the book provide suggestions for read alouds and mentor texts, suggestions for student reading and a series of black line masters to support the various lessons in the book. Teachers could use the book as a guide for a complete unit on memoir, or select key lessons from the book to enhance their own writing units.

Busy classroom teachers need practical suggestions for writing instruction that are rooted in sound instructional practice and which promise to be engaging and successful with diverse students. With Bridging the Gap, Lesley Roessing has more than filled this need. 

I will give the last words in this review to author and writing teacher extraordinaire, Barry Lane, who wrote the introduction to this book.

When students start to write their stories, when they start to value their experience, something happens that cannot be measured by any test or quantitative assessment...I call it passion, and that is the one thing that will create a lifelong writer.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What Parents Need to Know About Spelling

My colleague, Christine Bittner Agee, who runs the Parents and Educators Preparing OUR Children for the Future Facebook page, recently posted an article from the Institute for Multisensory Learning Journal (IMSE) on spelling. The article is generally on target with its spelling instruction advice. I would like to add my advice to parents on spelling concerns, adapted from my new book from Garn Press, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for my Child. I think this could be useful for teachers looking to provide counsel to parents worried about their child’s spelling development.

What should I do if my kid can’t spell?

Of all the topics of concern I have been asked about by parents over my years as a literacy specialist, spelling is number one by far. I suppose this is because spelling errors are so visible and easy to spot. Reading errors are harder to see because they mostly happen in the reader’s mind, but spelling errors are out there for all to see.

In order to reduce spelling anxiety, I think there are a few facts about spelling that all parents need to know.

  1. Spelling is not related to intelligence. Many very smart people don’t spell well. Albert Einstein was a rotten speller.
  2. Spelling proceeds through regular developmental stages beginning with regularly spelled single syllable words (cat, bit), moving to irregularly spelled single syllable words (noise, weigh), proceeding to multi-syllable words (battle, motel) and finally to low frequency words, often derived from Greek or Latin (pneumonia, misogyny).
  3. Early readers and writers benefit from approximating the spelling of words in their writing (inventive spelling). All writers, even adults, approximate spellings of unfamiliar words.
  4. Good spelling is primarily a function of good visual memory. Good spellers create a mental picture of a word through their reading and replicate that when they write. That is why when asked to spell a word, we often write it down to see if it “looks” right.
  5. Some children and adults do not have a strong visual memory and are, therefore, not strong spellers.
  6. Most good spellers are also good readers, but not all good readers are good spellers.
  7. Studying ten random words for a spelling test at the end of the week does not improve spelling in real world situations.
  8. Poor spellers need to develop strategies to overcome this problem, These strategies include writing drafts of communication and then checking the spelling and using spelling aids such as the dictionary and spell check.
When working with your own children, it is a good idea to lower the spelling anxiety and provide understanding and support. Remember that using approximate or invented spellings is a normal part of the writing process. But we also want kids to develop a spelling conscience – an awareness that spelling matters. Children should be held accountable to spell correctly words that they already know how to spell and words that they can easily find in the classroom environment. By grade three children should be held responsible to correct their spelling on written work that is to be turned in.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My ESSA Accountability Plan

As I write this, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) apparently needs help. They have been unable to come up with consensus rules for the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on such issues as "supplement-not-supplant" (about how Title 1 monies are used) and "assessments" (what kinds of tests will be permissible). Apparently coming up with actual rules is more difficult than thinking up Orwellian doublespeak titles like "Every Student Succeeds Act." I wonder if the creators of this acronym know that it also stands for European Salmon Smokers Association? I am not kidding; you could look it up.

One thing is sure though, ESSA requires the states to come up with their own education accountability plan, rather than just having them glom on to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top (RTTT) acts. (Writing about federal law can give you a serious case of acronym overload.) As a public service. I would like to help the states out with a suggested plan. Here goes:

Section 1: Assault on Poverty

The chief culprit in the differential learning outcomes for children in the United States is poverty. No education plan can hope to be successful unless it is tied to a full frontal assault on poverty. We now know that poverty causes actual brain damage that limits the educational possibilities for many. We have long known that poverty greatly impacts the educational opportunities of poor children. An assault on poverty would include increasing the minimum wage so that every person working 40 hours a week can support a family with adequate food and shelter and emotional nourishment, government programs to provide jobs for those who cannot find work (rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, including dilapidated schools would be a good place to start) and high quality, safe and professionally managed daycare for parents who require these services to be able to work.

For those unable to work we must have generous programs offering food stamps, housing vouchers and cash to insure a reasonable standard of living.

Section 2: Health Care Services

Free neighborhood health clinics to insure effective prenatal care, regular pediatric checkups and screenings for vision, hearing, nutrition, lead poisoning and any other aspects of health that have been shown to harm a child's ability to learn. In school health services would include one nurse for every 150 children and one school counselor for every 200 students.

Section 3: Professionally Staffed Preschool

Preschool has been shown to be an effective way to combat some of the problems related to poverty. Often, however, the preschools available to children of poverty are substandard and not professionally staffed. Teachers in preschools should be fully certified in early childhood education and supervisors should have both early childhood professional credentials and also experience in early childhood education. The focus of preschool should be on learning through well-structured and purposeful play.

Section 4: Small Class Sizes

Smaller classes help all students succeed (Schanzenbach, 2014), but they are particularly effective for students growing up in poverty (Achilles, et. al, 2012). It is important to note; however, that class size reduction must be accompanied by changes in teacher instructional style to reap the benefits of smaller classes. With this in mind, this plan will include professional development for teachers to help them adjust instruction for the new smaller classes.

Section 5: Student Assessment Practices

Students will be assessed in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, health, art, music and physical education at every grade level. In coordination with and under the guidance of the teacher, students will gather a variety of artifacts to demonstrate their learning throughout the year. Artifacts will include writing samples, logs of books and articles read and written and oral responses to the reading, science lab reports, written history reports, math problem solving evidence, reports on a variety of topics, classroom tests and quizzes, and teacher designed common assessments. Scoring of the artifacts will be based on rubrics that define performance and test scores.

The state will trust the professional educators to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance by randomly selecting a dozen portfolios from the school as a check to ensure that the school is maintaining high standards of student learning.

Section 6: Teacher Evaluation Practices

Like the students, teachers will be evaluated through a portfolio that shows evidence of successful student learning throughout the year. The portfolio will contain samples of student work, sample student assessments, teacher lesson plans, evidence of student learning, evidence of teacher collaborative work, documentation of improved practice based on observation feedback, student surveys, teacher self-reflection and documentation of professional development activities.

The state will trust the professional supervisors in the building to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance by randomly selecting 6 teacher portfolios from the school as a check to ensure that the school is maintaining high standards of teacher performance.

Section 7: School Accountability Practices

Like the students and teachers, schools will be held accountable for student performance based on a portfolio that demonstrates that the school is meeting the needs of all children. The school portfolio will include student standardized test scores for the one grade where these tests are given in the school (say 4th, 8th, or 11th), reports on programs offered at the school, including minority enrollment in the programs, specific evidence of a rich and varied curriculum open to all students, documentation of meeting the needs of all students through support programs, special education and ESL, and documentation of efforts to include parents in the life of the school.

The state will trust the professional principals and vice-principals compiling these reports to do this work with a high level of expertise, validity and reliability. The state will verify compliance through a regularly scheduled visit to the school every other year.

Section 8: State Accountability

The state will be held accountable to provide the federal Department of Education with evidence that it is waging an assault on poverty through effective economic, health care and worker programs like those outlined above and that it is focused on developing the kind of professionally autonomous teachers needed to make this ambitious program work. If the state is unable to provide such evidence, they risk having the HELP rules committee taking up residence in the state capitol to bring its own special brand of legislative inertia down on the state.

So, that is my plan. If states are truly interested in acccountability, this is the approach they should take. I am sure you have ideas of your own. What would you add? I am going to sit back and wait for those state government leaders to come calling. I won't hold my breath.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

North Carolina’s Race to the Bottom

Greetings from Raleigh, North Carolina where I am attending the 3rd annual Network for Public Education (NPE) Conference. North Carolina has been in the news a lot lately because of the Republican governor and Republican dominated legislature has decided to strike a blow for ignorance and pass a law blocking anti-discrimination laws protecting gay and transgender people. This act has brought nearly universal scorn down on North Carolina. Bruce Springsteen cancelled a concert, Cirque de Soleil cancelled performances, PayPal and other companies are “reconsidering “expansion in the state.

This reaction is great of course and I applaud all of those who are using their considerable powers to protest this risible legislation. I only wish that all these folks would gather up the same righteous indignation for what this same state administration has done to destroy the public schools of North Carolina. The NPE is meeting in Raleigh because we seek to fly into the eye of the storm. And the storm clouds have been gathering over North Carolina’s schools for years. 

In the not so very distant past, North Carolina was the model for effective public education in the South. Only a few years ago North Carolina teacher salaries ranked 27th in the nation – in 2015 they ranked 47th. A teacher with 30 years of experience in North Carolina can make 50,000 dollars a year. That’s right, after 30 three years – talk about a career path! The state has also struck down any salary bump for completing a Master’s degree, so if you choose to make a career of teaching in North Carolina, you pretty much resign yourself to penury and a part time job at the 7 Eleven.

But of course, even if you do decide you can live on little money because you love the job and love the kids, there is no guarantee, even if you do the job really well that you won’t be fired because you got too expensive or because the school board president’s sister’s brother-in-law needs a job. That’s right, tenure is also under attack in North Carolina. The legislature has tried to strike down tenure several times, but the courts have blocked them, at least partially. In the latest ruling, the court said the legislature can’t take away tenure from those who already have it, but those who don’t and those who may wish to enter the profession will be denied this job protection.

And while North Carolina apparently can’t find the money to pay its teachers a living wage, they have found lots of cash for “Opportunity Scholarships”, money for parents to use to send their children to private schools. The money for these vouchers comes out of money that could be spent on improving public schools, of course, but North Carolina leaders seem hell bent on destroying a once very viable public school system.

The governor and the legislature of North Carolina have made it clear to teachers: we don't want you here. Some North Carolina educators have already taken the hint and are searching for jobs elesewhere. Many more will likely follow them. In fact, The Charlotte Observer reports that schools in Texas are actively recruiting North Carolina teachers and are offering them hefty salary increases.

So we gather in Raleigh, North Carolina this weekend to make sure these destroyers know that we will not be silent in the face of this unconscionable destruction.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

An Alternative to Standardized Testing? Portfolio Assessment

One sure sign that the Opt Out Movement is having an impact is the recent spate of increasingly hysterical defenses of the test from education reform advocates. When I responded to a typical anti-opt out piece in the reform minded Education Post, stating the obvious -  that the tests were biased against the poor and minorities, a featured Education Post blogger called me “immoral and classist.” So much for the Education Post’s goal of a “better conversation.”

While opt out is having an impact, states with corporate education reform friendly governors are plowing ahead with plans to make standardized tests like PARRC and SBAC a graduation requirement. Most recently, New Jersey made passing the PARCC test mandatory for students starting in 2021. This is wrongheaded in the extreme and is likely to result in chaos in New Jersey in a few years, as thousands of students miss the test’s arbitrary “cut score” and appeal to the NJ Department of Education seeking their diploma.

I do think it is fair of reformers to ask those of us opposed to high stakes standardized testing to offer an alternative. If high stakes standardized tests are poor measures of student knowledge, teacher effectiveness and school performance, what is a better way to assess these things? If high stakes standardized tests narrow the curriculum and reduce weeks of instructional time to test prep work, what is an alternative that broadens the curriculum and encourages genuine learning activities? The answer is portfolio assessment. 

Portfolio assessment is an authentic assessment that has the potential, not only to provide useful information on student, teacher and school performance, but that can also encourage genuine learning activities in the classroom and the broadening of the curriculum.

In New Jersey, portfolio assessment has been suggested as an alternative for students who fail the PARCC test. I would argue all New Jersey students would be better off if we just skipped the test altogether and went straight to the portfolio.

Here is how it could work.

A series of authentic assessments for each student could be gathered in a portfolio. Just as an artist, photographer or actor prepares a portfolio of work to show to prospective employers or clients, so too can a student, with the guidance of the teacher, prepare a portfolio of work that reveals learning accomplishments throughout a high school career. This portfolio documentation provides a much richer picture of the student’s learning for the teacher, the student, the parents and the state.

A teacher’s evaluation, too, could best be accomplished through a portfolio. A teacher’s portfolio might contain sample lesson plans, samples of student work, samples of assessments given to students, copies of observations, documentation of student learning, documentation of improved practice based on feedback from observations, documentation of professional development, samples of parent communication, student surveys and more. As with a student portfolio, the teacher portfolio gives a richer, more complete picture of the performance of the teacher than any standardized test could provide. A portfolio could form the basis of a genuine conversation between teacher and supervisor aimed at improved performance.

Finally, a school’s performance could also be best thought of as a portfolio providing evidence of meeting students’ needs. The school’s portfolio would include standardized test scores (given once every 3 or 4 years), but would also include reports on program, evidence of a rich and varied curriculum, documentation of meeting the needs of all children, documentation of efforts to invite parent participation in the life of the school, reports on hiring and evaluation processes and more.

Authentic assessments are time consuming and influenced by human factors that statistics cannot always control for. They are also much more valuable as tools for guiding decision making and for informing the public than are the quick, fuzzy snapshots provided by standadized tests.

Portions of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for Your Child. Learn more about the book here.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

10 Reading Instruction Non-Negotiables

A few years ago when I was working with several groups of teachers on a new language arts curriculum for a K-12 school district, I provided them with a list of “non-negotiables” for reading instruction to be included in all curriculum documents. I first heard the term non-negotiable in this context from literacy specialist, Cindy Mershon. These instructional practices were “non-negotiable” because research had overwhelmingly confirmed that they were effective practices. Over the years as new research has come out, the list has changed slightly. If I were writing the list today, here is what would be included.

Daily Read Aloud

One of the more disturbing aspects of current trends in literacy education is the reports I keep getting from classroom teachers who tell me that reading aloud is being discouraged because it is not "rigorous" enough or because more time needs to be devoted to test prep. So, let me state this as clearly as I possibly can, read aloud is a central part of effective literacy instruction and should be happening daily in every classroom. This is not open for debate. Don't take my word for it, here is a list of 13 scientifically based reasons for reading aloud to children. Among these well researched benefits are exposing students to a greater variety of literature, encouraging students to view reading as a part of their daily life, building background knowledge, providing a model of fluent reading, encouraging student talk about text, increasing vocabulary and helping students view reading as a pleasurable activity. Here is another resource on the importance of reading aloud.

When choosing a read aloud, I would encourage teachers to choose the very best that literature and informational text has to offer, whether that be picture books, novels, histories or scientific texts. When reading aloud, we can aim high because kids listening comprehension outpaces their reading comprehension by about two years and because we can easily scaffold their understanding by "thinking aloud" about the text as we read. Read aloud also provides a great opportunity for teachers to model important comprehension strategies. Just do it.

Sharing reading

Most elementary teachers are familiar with the instructional activity called "shared reading", but teacher, administrator, writer, Shelley Harwayne, offers a broader view of the activity, calling it sharing reading.  When teachers share reading they first choose something that is worthy of sharing, a poem, a big book, a song or chant and then display the piece so that students can join in the reading. Shared reading allows children to work together as a community of readers to enjoy, discuss and participate in a real reading experience. But sharing reading can also include the teacher sharing environmental print found in the classroom and hallways.

Sharing reading can also be effective with older readers, when texts are chosen wisely for specific purposes. Potential texts for sharing reading with older students include poetry, newspaper articles or particularly knotty passages from novels or informational texts. Displaying these texts on the Smart Board, document camera or overhead allows all students to share in the reading work.

Self-Selected Reading

Kids need lots of time to read independently in self-selected books to become proficient readers.   Independent reading is an important instructional strategy that allows students to practice and  consolidate all the good reading strategies the teacher has been teaching. Self-selected reading should not be confused with reading that is not guided by the teacher, however. In a quality self-selected reading program, teachers guide students to find books that they will enjoy and that they will be able to read successfully without teacher instruction. While students are reading, teachers have the opportunity to confer with the students to check on their progress. For more on independent reading try this article.

One-to-One Conferring

When students are reading indepently, teachers have an excellent opportunity to hold a one-to-one conference. These brief conferences give the teacher a chance to check that the book is a good choice, to listen to the student read and have the student do a retelling to assess comprehension. Anecdotal notes taken during these conferences provide the teacher with guidance for future reading instruction for the student. Jennifer Serravallo literally wrote the book on conferring with readers. You can find her webinar on the topic here.

Direct Instruction in Reading Strategies  

Direct instruction in reading strategies works. While many readers develop strategies on their own, many do not. The good news is that research has demonstrated that students can learn to use these strategies to improve fluency and comprehension. Among the strategies that can be taught and are shown to be helpful are question asking and answering, activating background knowledge, summarizing, visualizing and making connections. Much of the emphasis in the Common Core has been on knowledge driven reading comprehension, as has been promoted for 30 years by E. D. Hirsch and others. While lots of knowledge of a topic certainly aids in comprehension, so does a strategic approach to comprehension. For more on teaching reading strategies, you may want to look at Michael Pressley's article here.

Small Group Instruction

Children in any one classroom read at many different levels. This means that whole class texts or novels will be too easy for some, too hard for others, and just right for a some others. Only by teaching in small groups can teachers hope to be providing the majority of the students in the class with instruction that is "just right" for them at any given time in their literacy development. Grouping strategies such as those suggested by Fountas and Pinnell in Guided Reading and Guiding Readers and Writers in Grades 3-6 are very helpful in guiding teachers in the design of small group reading.


Rereading allows students to improve their fluency and comprehension of text. It is one of the most powerful instructional strategies available to teachers. Giving students opportunities to read and reread short texts is a best practice. Teachers can have students reread poetry, take books read in class home to read to parents, partner with other students to buddy read, and have students participate in reader's theater activities where they rehearse reading a story, poem or play aloud in order to prepare for a performance. For more ideas about rereading as a powerful instructional strategy, you can look here. 

Talk about Text
Literacy researcher, Linda Gambrell (2004), says that engaging students in discussion about text results in improved comprehension of text, higher levels of thinking skills and increased motivation to read. In encouraging student talk about text, we have many models to choose from including book clubs, literature circles and questioning the author. The teacher plays the role of model and facilitator, gradually releasing the children to talking to each other about text as we build their capacity both to talk to each other skillfully and to focus on important elements of the text. Here is a transcript of a talk by researcher P. David Pearson on getting the most out of talk in the classroom. 

Writing in Response to Reading

Writing about what we read is one of the strongest ways to improve reading comprehension. When we write we must reflect on what we have read and attempt to articulate our understanding through summary, analysis and critique. Writing activities engage the whole brain in thinking and responding to text and help us solidify our understanding. As with all reading/learning activities, students need teacher models, scaffolds and feedback on their writing to develop skill in responding to what they read, but research would indicate that the effort is well worth the learning rewards. You can see what literacy researcher Tim Shanahan says about writing in response to reading here.

Word Work

One aspect of becoming a good reader is facility in decoding words. Decoding is developed through daily reading activities including independent reading, sharing reading, rereading and guided reading, but class time must also be spent on learning sight words that cannot be easily "sounded out" (was, because), learning letter/sound correspondences, learning spelling patterns or word families (right, fight, might, flight), learning to break words into chunks (ch-unk-s), spelling and vocabulary development. Word work can take the form of direct teacher instruction, word wall activities, prompting at the point of difficulty during conferences or guided reading, making words activities and spelling instruction. Word work in kindergarten and first grade will also include phonemic awareness - developing the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words. As children get older and more proficient at decoding, word work will also include a greater focus on vocabulary development. 

These are my ten reading non-negotiables. It is a daunting task to balance all of these important aspects of reading instruction in the busy daily activity of the  classroom, but this is the challenge for the teacher of literacy. We must find a way to balance all of these priorities to help all students develop both the skill and the will to be excellent readers.