Sunday, January 22, 2017

No, Betsy, School Choice Is Not a Good Thing

With choice champion, Betsy DeVos, under consideration for Secretary of Education, I thought it would be a good time to revisit what school choice really means. This post is adapted from my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, published by Garn Press.

What could be more American than choice? The country was founded on the principle of freedom of choice in speech, in religion, in the press, in assembly. Corporate education reformers tap into this most American of values by stating that parents, who after all pay for their child’s education through taxes, should have choice in where they send their children to school. If a school is not performing well, and for the reformers this means the school is achieving low test scores, parents should have the right to choose a different school. As reformers are often heard to say, “zip code should not be destiny.” In other words, where you go to school and the quality of the school you go to should not be determined by where you live. 

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 (and efforts to limit affordable housing). A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded to access to these “high-achieving” school districts 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 the 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. 

I am also old enough to remember when seat belts were first introduced into cars in the late fifties and how we were more likely to sit on them than strap them around our waists. Using the seat belt was a choice. While we can still make that choice, when we do so we are breaking the law and can be fined for failure to “buckle-up.” The government came to realize that our choices needed to be limited for the public good. Seat belts saved lives and saved medical costs and so our choice was legislated away. 

Like many of my generation, I was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days there was much talk about choosing to withhold that part of our taxes that was being used to wage the war. Those who tried this were brought to court by the Internal Revenue Service. The courts, of course, ruled that because the government was charged by the Constitution to “provide for the common defense”, the government had every right to collect my taxes for the military. I was free to choose to speak out against the war, assemble peacefully to protest the war and write letters to the editor about the war, but I could not withhold my taxes. My choices were limited by law. 

In our society we have come to recognize that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ 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 and resources 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 and seat belts and the military, 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. 

For more on the damage that charter schools and vouchers do to public education see my earlier posts here and here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Building Bridges Beats Building Walls

Walt Whitman Bridge
From Bridges
By Bill Staines

There are bridges, bridges in the sky,
They are shining in the sun,
They are stone and steel and wood and wire,
They can change two things to one.
They are languages and letters,
They are poetry and awe,
They are love and understanding,
And they're better than a wall.

This song came on my Pandora channel yesterday (yes, my Pandora channel is the old fogey folkie station) and I couldn’t get it out of my head. As I sit here on the eve of the inauguration of a president who promises to be a “wall builder” one of my favorite singer/songwriters is singing of bridges, both physical and metaphorical. I cannot help to think back to a presidential inauguration of 56 years ago – the first one I can really remember and one I remember vividly. It was, of course, the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. One of the speakers at Kennedy’s inauguration was the great American poet Robert Frost, gray haired, and looking chilled and frail in the January cold. Frost, I am reminded, also had his opinions about walls.

From The Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

We teachers are bridge builders. At our best we build bridges to transport students from the known to the new, from ignorance to understanding, from illiteracy to literacy, from fear to comfort, from anxiety to calm. At our best we are among Frost’s “something’s” that do not love a wall. We break down walls of prejudice, of resistance, of self-doubt, of anger, of turmoil and replace them with bridges of tolerance, caring, encouragement, calm, and routine.

Great leaders, too, are bridge builders. Great leaders appeal to our better, not our baser, selves. On that long ago inauguration day, John F. Kennedy appealed to us to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” One-hundred years earlier, Abraham Lincoln warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” And 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate in Germany and demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Great leaders (and great poets) understand that the history of the world favors the bridge builders and opposes the wall builders.

Walls divide. Bridges unite. Demagogues divide. Leaders unite.

The in-coming president has called for the building of a literal wall between our country and Mexico. No matter how you feel about that piece of political policy, the metaphorical walls the president-elect is building between us are much more concerning. Political analysts say that the Trump candidacy has given voice to people who feel that they have not been heard. Fair enough. But if that unheard voice is the voice of ignorance, prejudice, violence, and base self-interest, then it is the true leader’s responsibility to guide these voices toward a better understanding of what America truly stands for. The new president will swear to “preserve, protect and defend The Constitution of the United States.” That Constitution says that its purpose is “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” We can disagree about how to accomplish these ideals, but we cannot disagree that these ideals apply to all Americans and that building bridges to make sure that all Americans (and especially the poor and powerless) receive these benefits is the chief job of any president.

I will be waiting anxiously to hear how President Trump plans to be a bridge builder. I am not really interested in any walls (or hotels) he wishes to build. Is Mr. Trump a leader or a demagogue?

The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day.
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Creating Life-Long Readers through Choice

I am pleased to present this guest post by Lesley Roessing, Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. Lesley is a former graduate student of mine at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, PA. Like any teacher I love to see my students make good.

By Lesley Roessing

A meta-analysis of 41 studies examined the effect of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes in a variety of settings with both child and adult samples. Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes.
-- (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

I wake up and roll out of bed. What shall I eat? Cereal? Oatmeal? Bagel? Breakfast bar? I have choices. No one tells me what to eat; I eat what I want and what I feel I need—limited only by what is available. Maybe I want to eat oatmeal fourteen days in a row; possibly I have a craving for a decidedly less-healthy donut on a particular day. The following day I try a multi-grain, no-sugar, vegan-friendly cereal bar, knowing that I can discard it if I take three bites and find I hate it. I go to my closet. Again, I can wear what I want, limited only by what I own and what I deem appropriate for the day ahead—my purpose, my audience.

I experience the same situation with what I watch on television, what movies I view, and what books I read. I make my own choices, sometimes with the advice of friends or colleagues and sometimes with the guidance of experts in the appropriate field. Sometimes I read a book because my book club is reading it, but again I have the choice of which book club to join and whether to read that month’s book so I can attend and contribute to the meeting. I experience some failures but a lot of successes along the way. I have come to know myself as a viewer and reader.

But as I talk to teachers and visit schools, so many students are being told what to read, when to read, and how to read. I held a literacy workshop and asked educators to free-write about what they read, when they read, where they read, how they read, and what they do after they read and what they do if they are not enjoying what they are reading. I then asked them to contrast what they wrote about their personal reading behaviors with the reading in their classrooms. The majority looked shocked, chagrined, embarrassed. Many shared that they were told what their students had to read and when. Some even said that all teachers in a grade level needed to be on approximately the same page in the same book at the same time. Some even admitted that the curriculum content was up to them as long as they covered the standards but that “having students all read the same book at the same time was easier—easier to implement and easier to assess.”

What is our aim in including reading and literature in the curriculum? If our aim is to grow lifelong readers, I contend that we are failing.

According to studies, about 50% of Americans polled are alliterate, which means 50% of Americans can read but rarely do so. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates.

There is a decline in, or even a halt to, reading both for pleasure and academics at the middle grades. Alliteracy occurs when students are capable of reading, but choose not to read. It is also known by the terms “nonreaders, literate nonreaders, and reluctant readers.”

The other day, a friend and I were talking about the classics, and I asked her, a former teacher, if she had read a certain novel. She laughed. “Yes, the Cliff Notes version.” That is not an anomaly. When I asked my university Adolescent Literature class how many had ever read Spark Notes or Cliff Notes instead of a novel or multiple novels, almost 100% raised their hands (even the pre-service and in-service English teachers). There is a reason these companies stay in business. And what’s the point? No one said they read the Notes along with the novel because they couldn’t understand the novel; they read them instead of the novel because they didn’t want to read the novel. If they are reading merely a synopsis and explanation, why assign the novel?

A few weeks ago I was talking to a middle school teacher about working with her class to read self-selected books in book clubs. She turned to me and said, “I don’t I can do this. I have to tell you; I am content-driven.” I looked confused. I said, “I can’t think of one novel where the content was important—unless the reader is appearing on Jeopardy.” I am not saying that students shouldn’t be introduced to all sorts of literature, including the classics. Many, including me, love many of the classics, but I was a reader first.

When I look back to what I remember reading in middle school and high school, it was what I read on my own—not self-selected choice reading for class, but reading completely outside school, for my own benefit. After all the Nancy Drew mysteries, I read anything about Edgar Cayce and Henry VIII, all the books by Dr. Tom Dooley, any biography by Irving Stone, and Daphne DuMaurier novels. There probably were more. I can’t remember anything I read for school. Despite school I continued reading, but many college students have told me that they stopped reading in middle school, when they were told what to read. In the two courses I teach which required reading YA novels, self-selected with a genre or issue, at the end of the course students tell me that they forgot how much they liked to read or that they didn’t know they liked to read.

You might have noticed that I have been using the term “students,” rather than “readers.” That is because we first have to grow readers, students who think of themselves as readers and are on their way to becoming life-long readers. I had many eighth grade students who admitted they never had previously read an entire book or had read only one or two books in the previous middle school classes or rather fake-read those books. Those same students became readers of twenty to thirty books by the end of that eighth grade year.

How? I would like to take the credit and say it was my amazing choice of whole-class reads and exhilarating discussions of plots, character, setting, and figurative language, and the spell-binding tests I gave. But in honesty, the answer was choice—theirs. Choice was the prime motivator. At the end of seventh grade, Dave told me that he was “not a reader.” On the last day of school, he turned to me and said, “I still don’t think I like to read but I haven’t read a book this year that I didn’t like.” (He read at least 25 books that year).

Think about it. There are very few topics or writing styles or genres that interest everyone. I did attempt each year to choose one such book for our one whole-class shared text. I introduced students to reading strategies, literary elements, authors, writing styles, plot variations through reading whole-class short stories, articles, and poetry, knowing that readers can’t make choices until they know something about themselves as readers and they can’t make text choices until they know something about text. I then let my students loose on a shared novel that I thought most would like and all could read within the shared experience. For me and most of my classes, that book was The Giver, but there was noting magical about the novel other than it is well-written, employs made of the terms and concepts of plot, character, setting, and mood we had been learning, has interesting concepts which can lead to deep ethical discussions with students, especially eighth graders who are mature enough to understand them, and touches on many interests. As Sean later told me, “The Giver was a good choice because it was a type of book most of us would not have chosen on our own, but many of us went on to read the other books in the [at that time] Lowry trilogy.”

I don’t employ a whole-class text to teach students how to read and what they should read, but to open up the possibilities of how to read and what to note and notice. When readers move on the self-selected individual reading or group-selected book clubs, I encourage them to read novels, memoirs, and nonfiction in diverse genres, formats, a variety of challenge level and lengths, and with multicultural characters, by multicultural authors. While I don’t require certain quantities, I want them to be aware of their choices and extend them.

I designed a chart for my university Bibliotherapy class which I would use if I still were in the classroom so that students could analyze, and reflect on, their reading diversity:

I introduce readers, and they introduce each other, to books though book talks, book blogs, book trailers, book passes, gallery walks, and featured books-of-the-week.

Reading should be personal. Not every book speaks to every child. However, when a student finds that book, a reader is born. It takes the right book at the right time for the right reader to make the match. This could be the topic, the issue, a character, the writing, or even the setting. I just read Jordan Sonnenblick’s Falling Over Sideways, and even though I already love his writing style and reading about the eighth graders I taught for twenty years, what hooked me was the father’s stroke. My mother had a stroke and lived for many years with the physical and mental limitations. I am an adult and my mother was older than Claire’s father, and I don’t know how common stroke is with middle-aged men, but many of my students lived with, or near, their grandparents who in many cases were their caretakers, or had an ill parent, and this novel would have resonated with them. Other books have hooked me for other reasons, but it is always personal.

The most important strategy a teacher can employ is to have books in the classroom, a diversity of books (refer to the chart above when adding to your library). I was lucky to be able to build a classroom library over the years and even though we had a wonderful school library and a librarian who gave the best book talks ever, most of my “reluctant” readers chose books from our classroom library which was shelved by genre and where an “abandoned book” (one that had been previewed but still not found to be enticing after 2-3 chapters) could be returned and the next book on a personal list could be checked out.

To build a library, the holidays are a good time to ask for library presents. Any student or parent who wishes to give a gift can contribute a book in their child’s name. Design a “Book Given in the Honor of…” tag for parents or students to complete and affix to books. The students could even take part in a contest and then the winning designs copied onto labels, the contest advertising the wish for books.

Imagine the pride when readers can point to favorite books they chose to share with others.

Lesley Roessing is Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. She designed and teaches a course in Bibliotherapy to use picture books and YA literature to help guide children and adolescents through problems. Lesley is the author of The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009), No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing Press. 2013), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Contact her at or follow

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Ten Questions for Betsy DeVos

As I am sure you are aware, Senate hearings on Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education begin Wednesday, January 11, 2017. When the nomination was first announced, I wrote of my concern to my Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. Toomey sent back a letter indicating his full-throated support of DeVos. This time I am writing to the other Pennsylvania Senator, Democrat Bob Casey, who serves on the Senate HELP committee who will interview DeVos and decide on whether or not to send her nomination forward. Trying to stop this dangerous nomination is an uphill battle, of course, with Republicans controlling the Senate, but Casey, through recent actions expressing concern about DeVos' conflicts of interest, has at least shown some concern about this nominee. And Casey is actually on the HELP Committee that will interview DeVos, so it is worth a shot.

I won't detail here why DeVos is an historically lousy choice for the job. Peter Greene, over at the Curmuducation blog, has already done a terrific job of that. What I offer here is a list of questions that I suggest Senator Casey, or someone on the panel, ask.

The Hon. Robert P. Casey
393 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Casey,

I am writing today to suggest some questions that you might ask candidate for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos at the upcoming Senate hearings. DeVos is an extremely ill advised choice, as I think will be readily apparent if you can get her to answer the questions below.

  1. Ms. DeVos, would you please state, concisely, any relevant experience you have had in public education, either as a student, a teacher, a school leader, a public school board member, a parent of a public school child, a PTA member, a volunteer in a traditional public school or as someone who once drove past a public school?
  2. You have a long record of advocating for school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools. What if parents' first choice, as it is for most American families, is to send their children to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local neighborhood public school? How would the voucher and charter school schemes you advocate support this kind of choice?
  3. In your home state of Michigan, you and the foundations you support have fought hard to make sure that governmental oversight of charter schools is extremely limited despite indications of widespread fiscal mismanagement and poor academic performance. Should charter schools be subject to the same financial and academic scrutiny as traditional public schools? If not, why not?
  4. The Detroit Free Press has called you the lobbyist "at the center" of the current "deeply dysfunctional" school choice landscape in Detroit. Policies you have heavily advocated for and supported are on full display in that city. How is that working out? Would you care to take the committee on a site visit to Detroit to see the impact of your good works?
  5. Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, has called you "the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward" since forever. Talk about how you will develop good working relationships with the 2.5 million teachers represented by unions.
  6. Your family made much of its fortune through Amway, a quasi-legal pyramid scheme that, according to one suit that cost the company 150 million dollars to settle, "induces salespeople to buy thousands of dollars of overpriced products and useless success tools and then to recruit others to do the same thing in an endless chain scheme that dooms, by design, nearly all to losses." Do you think as Secretary at DOE you might be able to use such a multi-level marketing scheme to raise needed money for public schools? Do you think pyramid business schemes should be taught in school?
  7. In interviews you have discussed visits you have made to charter schools and the wonderful programs you saw there. Would you discuss any visits you have made, ever, to a traditional public school and talk about the programs you saw there? 
  8. Your predecessors at the federal Department of Education have faced a great deal of criticism for advocating the use of standardized testing to rate schools and teachers. Explain in detail the pros and cons of these so called Value-Added Measures, how they are calculated and whether or not you think they are a good way to evaluate teacher or school performance. Can we see the valued-added scores of the charter schools in Detroit, please?
  9. Lightning Round. Please identify these education program acronyms:
    • IEP
    • RTI
    • PARCC
    • SBAC
    • CCSS
    • ELL
    • ESL
    • FERPA
    • IDEA
    • PAC
    • WPA (Oops! Sorry, that one sneaked in from the Roosevelt administration)
  10. In the end, Ms. DeVos, as the person designated to lead the federal Department of Education, overseeing the programs and resources for the 90% of American school children who attend traditional public schools, does  a viable system of public education matter to you at all? Take your time with this one, but not as much time as you have taken to sign your required financial disclosure forms.
As I am writing this, I have learned that Senate Democrats are calling for a delay in the hearing because DeVos has failed to file financial disclosure forms necessary for approval. We'll see how that goes, but I would certainly find the hearings to be entertaining, if Senator Casey or someone else would just ask the questions above - and I do think that a site visit to Detroit is a great idea for the full committee.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Beyond Grades: How is My Child Doing?

Part 3 in a series on grading and feedback

In previous posts in this series on grading, I have argued first that grades fail to motivate genuine learning and second, that they provide only vague unhelpful feedback to students. But what about parents? Many teachers say that they must give grades because parents demand them. It is true that most parents view grades as useful feedback, primarily, I believe, because we teachers have sold grades as effective feedback for 150 years. Parents want an answer to the question, "How is my child doing?" For most parents, grades seem to provide the answer to that question.

But what if we showed parents that that question is only poorly answered by a letter or number grade and that we can provide them with much richer information? What if we could provide parents with the answer to that question and at the same time let them know what we can do together to help the child achieve even more? The transition might be bumpy, but ultimately, I think parents will see that a different approach to answering the "How is my child doing?" question will be much more rewarding.

First, let's understand that the question, "How is my child doing?" is a complex one. Parents want to know how their child is doing academically, but they also want to know that their child's social and emotional needs are being met. Educators have long recognized that a grade on a report card can't provide all this information, so we have typically been given a checklist of behaviors to tick off like "Works well with others" and "Participates in class discussions." Still grades and checklists or written comments carry a fuzzy picture of a child's progress. We would do better to answer a few questions that are suggested by the this complex, "How is my child doing?"

In a skill based subject like reading, what are the questions we want to answer for parents? I would suggest the following.

  • Is my child reading at, above or below expected reading level for grade and age?
  • Does my child enjoy reading and read for increasing lengths of time?
  • Does my child read with adequate fluency (decoding, expression, rate) for age and grade level?
  • Does my child understand what is read at an adequate level for age and grade?
  • What strengths does my child exhibit in reading?
  • What challenges does my child have in reading?
  • What are you doing in school to help improve my child's reading?
  • What can I do at home to help improve my child's reading?
I would discourage sharing with parents a specific level of reading or a specific grade level score in reading. This is information for the professional and not necessary for the parent. At, above or below level seems adequate for parent information.

In content based subjects the questions to be answered change a bit, but the goal of actionable feedback stays the same. Let's take a social studies example.
  • Did my child demonstrate a knowledge of the social studies content in the curriculum?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to think and work like a social scientist?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to read and comprehend social studies materials?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to conduct research in the social sciences?
  • Is my child developing an adequate social science vocabulary?
  • What is being done in school to help my child improve performance in social sciences?
  • What can I do at home to help my child improve performance in the social sciences?
At first glance this may seem like a lot of information for the teacher to gather, but on closer inspection I believe that the answers to these questions are readily available to any teacher who has been observing the children in the class over several weeks. The answers to these questions come from running records, student in class work, anecdotal records of students performance taken by the teacher as students are engaged in a variety of activities, as well as from traditional tests and quizzes. The information is richer and more informative than any single grade or standardized test score could provide a parent. This approach also argues for the primacy of the teacher as being in the best position to assess a child's abilities.

It may appear that reporting like this is best suited to a parent teacher conference, which typically happens once or twice a year in school. While a regular conference might be the best way to deliver this information. other methods could be just as effective. One alternative is the narrative report card, where answers to questions such as those above are shared with parents in a narrative format. Teachers are provided with a report card template with question prompts to respond to in a narrative form. This approach would be time consuming, but perhaps less so than having 4 conferences a year. Another possibility is using technology, like Skype or Facetime, to make conferring more convenient for teacher and parent. Ultimately, technology may replace the need for periodic reporting out, with details of student performance available to (older) students and their parents as soon as teachers enter the information on a school database dedicated to the purpose and password protected.

Whatever the method of reporting, I think we need to admit that grades are a woefully inadequate form of feedback that actually does damage to the true motivations for learning. If we start from tat proposition, than problems related to changing the system become less daunting.

I am sure that my readers who teach middle and high school are saying to themselves that this may be fine for elementary teachers who have 25 students, but how can I do this when I have 125+ students?Well, we first need to remember that while elementary teachers have fewer students they are reporting on more subjects, so any class of 25 in elementary school with 5 subjects to report on is more or less equal to a secondary class of 125 with one subject. There are issues with grade reporting in the secondary schools that are different, however, and I will deal with them in a future post in this series.

To read about a procedure that two school districts used to do away with grades in elementary schools click here.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Best Education Books of 2016

Time once again for my annual listing of the best books on education that I read in the past year. My selections are, of course, limited by the books that I chose to read and the time I had for reading them, but I think you will find both informative and entertaining reading in these pages. My thanks to these authors and to all the writers who champion the causes of public education and sound literacy instruction - your voices are needed now more than ever.

I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids, by Kyle Schwartz. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Schwartz, a fourth grade teacher at Doull Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, asked her students to complete the statement that is the title of this wonderful book and the children's responses changed everything for her as a teacher. When she shared the lesson with others it became a Twitter sensation with the hashtag #iwishmyteacherknew.

As might be expected, student responses to this question were eyeopening for Schwartz who had been teaching for just 4 years when she presented the lesson. She learned stories of absent parents, homelessness, no pencils for doing homework and sadness over parents being deported to Mexico.

In the book, Schwartz takes the insights she gained from the exercise and expands it into a study about the importance of community in the school and classroom. She takes an admirably holistic view of the children and their needs, talents and resources. One aspect of the book I found particularly compelling was the Resources and Barriers Chart. It can be tempting to look at children of poverty only from the perspective of what they do not have. Schwartz helps us see how all children have resources and we need to build on those resources to help them learn. In this view, speaking Spanish at home becomes a resource, being physically active is a resource, showing interest in current events is a resource and these are resources that can be used to combat barriers like having difficulty paying attention or struggles with time management. 

Schwartz also gives excellent advice for teachers who work in a community where students are highly mobile. After telling the heart-breaking story of Ronaldo, the bright, eager student who had to leave school because his father was deported, Schwartz builds on the lessons learned to create Welcome Kits and Transition Mementos for children coming into or leaving her classroom. Other chapters discuss supporting students in trauma, grief and loss, building structures to develop student self-efficacy, and creating a culture that develops character.

What I admire most about this book is that Schwartz has taken one good lesson and one key insight and expanded it into a richer understanding of how we can build a classroom community against the apparent barriers of poverty, trauma and transition.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'All Too, by Christopher Emdin. Beacon Press.

Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, is out to explode the mythology of the hero teacher riding in on his/her white horse to save urban youth by teaching like a champion. He calls this very white, savior mentality what it truly is - colonialism. He argues that we will fail to make a difference in urban schools, filled with children of color, if we fail to recognize that their reality is not our reality. Indeed we need to start from an understanding of the reality of these children and teach them with a focus on that reality. Emdin calls his approach "reality pedagogy." 

Reading this book gave me a better understanding of why the achievement gap has been so intractable a problem for educators. We are applying a white, middle-class pedagogy to a non-white, non-middle-class culture. Until we, as educators, dig in and understand fully the culture of the children we are trying to teach, the achievement gap will continue, but what we really need to understand is that this achievement gap is in many ways an "instruction gap." It is not that white teachers who teach in the hood do not care, it is that they care in ways that are not productive for the children they are teaching.

While I was reading this book, I could not help but think of the work of Larry Sipe, late professor of literacy at the University of Pennsylvania. Sipe studied minority children's interactions with read-aloud and found that children of color interact with text in very different ways from white, middle class kids. They tended to not sit quietly and listen and then raise their hands when they wanted to comment, but rather to enjoy a book as a kind of call and response activity where they engaged with the book, calling out and interacting as the book was being read and sometimes even expanding and innovating on the story. This type of behavior, a normal part of these students' cultures, might not be tolerated by teachers seeking orderly dialogue and so Sipe posited that the way that minority children learn may be disadvantaged in the classroom.

I often tell my prospective teacher students that they will know what to teach if they follow the child, observing closely what the child needs. Emdin takes this insight to a whole new level. In order to teach urban youth well, we must fully understand and embrace the rich culture they bring to school, which is their greatest ally in learning.

Whether you teach in an urban environment or not, read this book to gain a better understanding of what teaching will need to look like in our increasingly diverse society. Old models of teaching simply will not suffice.

Education and the Commercial Mindset, by Samuel E. Abrams. Harvard University Press.

Abrams is a veteran public school teacher and administrator and currently the Director of the Center for the Study of Privatization of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In this book, Abrams takes a detailed look at the school privatization movement through two notable privatization experiments: Edison Schools and KIPP Charter Schools.

Edison was one of the first companies into the school privatization game. Led by media mogul, Chris Whittle, the company started out as an experiment in private education for public school students, morphed into a troubled school management organization and finally died a quick death in the face of disappointing educational results and a rising tide of community opposition. It is a compelling story that plays out against a background of outsiders experimenting with educational designs on the predominantly poor children in urban areas like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Ultimately, Edison could not deliver on its promises of profits to its investors or improved academic performance for its clients. The company died an ignominious death and Whittle left in 2015.

The KIPP Charter chain is a different story, but just as compelling for those worried about the privatization of public education. KIPP schools are non-profits who receive public funds to provide education to public school students, mostly in urban areas. As Abrams shows, KIPP schools also receive considerable funding from wealthy donors who wish to invest in school privatization. This money allows KIPP schools to spend more than $3,500 more per pupil than the public schools. KIPP is known for its harsh discipline practices, its compliance oriented school environment and its test-score focused curriculum. KIPP"s success has attracted a great deal of attention, but Abrams asks us to consider what the costs are of this success to the kind of citizens we really want to produce in schools.

This is a must read for those who wish to get a richer understanding of the privatization movement well-beyond what we generally read in the newspapers, magazines and TV reports. Diane Ravitch wrote a full-blown review of the book for The New York Review of Books.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, by Steve Nelson. Garn Press.

Steve Nelson is the Head of School of the exclusive private Calhoun School in New York City. Nelson's book may seem like an odd choice for this blog which seeks to champion public education, but Nelson's book gives us a clear-eyed, thoughtful and well-written account of what Temple University Professor, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek calls "school the way it should be." This is what Nelson has achieved in this book, shown us school they way it should be for all children, rich or poor; black brown, or white; urban, suburban, or rural. 

Nelson shows us that it is actually the current education reformers who are the conservatives, seeking to maintain a system of public schools that was designed to spit out compliant factory workers 150 years ago and is now designed to educate a compliant work force subservient to the privileged 1%.

Nelson's vision of a progressive education is one that has never been tried on a large scale, no matter what you have read about the 1960s and 70s. A progressive education, he says, is one that follows two main principles:
  • To stir in each child a continuous commitment to be thoughtfully engaged in the ongoing evolution of our democratic republic and to exercise his/her individual and collective responsibilities within a global community.
  • To allow all children to grow into deeply satisfying and ethical lives.
Nelson's child centered vision of school and schooling is certainly idealistic. But it is important for all of us to have a clear understanding of the ideal, so that we have a worthy target to shoot at in the service of children.

After you read this book, you may find yourself looking at your students, your curriculum, and your instruction a little differently.

Who's Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More, by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. Stenhouse.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are among my literacy instruction heroes. Not only do they maintain a terrific blog on literacy Think Tank for the 21st Century, but they are prolific writers of wonderful books, filled with keen insight and an orientation toward a balanced literacy approach. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing their book, Reading Wellness, and this year they are back with another very helpful book, Who's Doing the Work?

For all teachers of literacy our goal is to help children become skilled, strategic independent readers of fiction and non-fiction texts of all shapes and varieties. In their new book, Burkins and Yaris show that sometimes in our zeal to scaffold student literacy development, we are overly helpful of students, turning them into readers who are dependent on teacher intervention rather than independent readers. 

Organizing their book around the key elements of balanced literacy, read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading, Burkins and Yaris clearly and methodically show us how to scaffold literacy in a way that leads to independence rather than dependence. Dividing instruction into conventional practice and next generation practice, the authors first show us what is and then suggest what should be. This very useful construct provides, if I may say it, the scaffold for the teacher to learn how to move from the conventional to the next generation smoothly and effectively. Useful charts comparing conventional and next generation instruction clearly drive home the key points of each chapter.

What the authors are really asking is that we all fine tune our practice to make sure that the gradual release of responsibility so important to creating student independence happens in each component of balanced literacy instruction. This is a book that all teachers in grades K-8 will want to have on their professional reading shelf and will find themselves referring to often.

These are my choices for best books on education 2016. Of course, there were many fine books from the past year that I did not get to. What books would you add to the list? Please add your comments below or on my Facebook page.

Looking forward to much great reading in 2017. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Least of Russ on Reading 2016

This is my third annual publication of posts that, for one reason or another, attracted little attention the first time around. It has been a year of gratifying growth in this blog; a year filled with the excitement of the publication of my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, and a year of great consternation and disappointment on the political front. Through it all, this blog has allowed me to give voice to my beliefs about good literacy instruction and sound education policy and to make new friends and greet new readers from throughout the country and around the world.

So, as Noble Laureate Bob Dylan would say, while "writers and critics throughout the land" publish their year end "Best of ..." lists, I present The Least of Russ on Reading. I hope you will give some of these posts from the last year another glance.

Happy New Year!

Reading Our Way to Empathy

A great classroom conversation leads me to an insight on the importance of fiction and poetry in helping students see the point of view of others - to develop empathy. This development of empathy is a key "outcome" of the reading of literature in the classroom.

Accountability in Public Schools: The Three-Legged Stool

Corporate Education Reformers seem to forget that the bargain struck on accountability in the schools was that students and teachers would be held accountable for improved performance, while policy makers and state and federal governments would be held accountable for making sure the resources were available for students and teachers to be successful. Somewhere along the way, that third part of the three-legged stool fell by the wayside, while reformers doubled-down on student and teacher accountability.

The Importance of Making Mistakes

Mistakes are the lifeblood of teaching. It is through student error that we learn what to teach next and through our own errors that we learn how to teach better.

Can Fiction Save Democracy?

Right before the election I found myself musing about the importance of good fiction to a functioning democratic society. Could it be that the lower status of fiction in the public school curriculum today is the exact wrong way to go right now?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2016

Today, I continue a four-year tradition here at Russ on Reading, spreading the joy and wonder of the holiday season through poetry. Happy Holidays and a joyous and fulfilling New Year to all of my loyal readers. One way to ensure joy in the coming year is to bring more poetry into your lives and into your classroom. Here are three to get you started.

I wrote this poem for my second grade students more than 20 years ago. It was inspired by a refrain I heard them saying during the week before Christmas.

I Just Can’t Wait for Christmas
By Russ Walsh

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas; 
Oh please, please, get here fast
With candy, toys, and presents
It’s going to be a blast.

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas;
Mom says to settle down,
But how can I be patient
When Santa’s due in town?

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas;
Did Santa get my letter?
I hope I get that brand-new bike
And not another sweater!

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

I just can’t wait for Christmas;
And now it’s Christmas Eve.
Dad just hauled me off to bed
A tuggin’ at my sleeve.

I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

And now I’m lying in my bed
Staring out at a full moon
Trying hard to get to sleep.
Oh! Christmas please come soon.


I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait.
I just can’t wait
For Christmas!

Here is one from a favorite poet of my middle school students.

by Walter De La Mare

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone, 
Just one candle burning on, 
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Someone came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe), 
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen - and kissed me there.

And finally, a Wallace Stevens riddle for older students.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Beyond Grades: How Am I Doing?

Part 2 in a series on grading and feedback

In a post two weeks ago, I argued that we need to move away from grades for reporting student achievement. I argued that grades are ineffective in reporting student learning, encourage a grade acquisition orientation rather than a learning orientation, and destroy the motivation of lower achievers. But if I am going to argue against grading, I need to be ready with suggested replacements for grades. I begin an attempt to do this below. I would appreciate it if you tell me what you think of my ideas.

First, I think we need to decide what our goals are for reporting out on student achievement. I would argue that there are three reasons we wish to assess and report out and all of them have to do with providing feedback to stakeholders. First, we want to report on student learning to the student so that the student can answer the question, "How am I doing?" Next we want to provide feedback to parents, so that parents can answer the question, "How is my child doing?" Finally, we want to provide feedback to the school/district to inform curricular and instructional decisions moving forward and to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

In today's post I will address the first question; the one related to reporting out to the student.

How Am I Doing?

Learning is a process of adding new information to information you already know. Any assessment program should inform a student about what she already knows and what she needs to learn. Reporting a grade to a child provides only a vague notion of what is known and not known. Better to give more specific feedback. Let's take reading as an example. Here is the information that a child needs to know about reading progress.
  • What am I doing well in reading right now that I should continue doing?
  • What aspects of reading do I need to work on?
  • What do I need to do to improve in these areas?
  • What are we going to work on together to improve in these areas over the next few weeks?
Ideally, students participate in this assessment through their own self-assessment. In my reading classroom, my students and I would periodically brainstorm a "criteria chart" of reading behaviors that we had learned about in class. After developing the chart, I would ask the students to identify on a T-chart those things on the list they were doing well and one or two things they still needed to work on. I would then sit individually with the students to discuss their strengths and weaknesses (sometimes lists would change based on my input) and then develop goals for the next few weeks.

OK, I think I know what you are thinking. This may be fine and good for a skill based subject like reading or writing, but what about a content-based subject like science? Again, I think a similar strategy would be most effective. The key will be identifying what you want the children to know and be able to do in any particular science unit. The assessment/feedback loop must be focused on the knowledge you want kids to acquire and feedback on how well they have acquired that knowledge.

Let's say we are in a fourth grade classroom studying a unit on Earth Science. The objectives for the unit are as follows:
  • Students will be able to identify various ways that land forms change rapidly and slowly.
  • Students will be able to identify the elements of the rock cycle.
  • Students will learn that rocks can be identified by their properties and will be able to to identify various types of rocks.
  • Students will be able to identify the differences between rocks and minerals.
  • Students will be able to work like a scientist by conducting experiments in crystal formation and rock formation.
Through authentic assessments (in-class activities where students get a chance to demonstrate their understanding), observations, written work, quizzes and tests, the teacher gathers knowledge about what the student knows and is able to do. During the unit and at the end of the unit, occasional conferences, often brief and informal, occasionally a bit longer and formal, are held to provide specific feedback to the students. By the end of the unit teachers report to the students on their success in achieving the objectives. In this scenario the questions would be as follows.
  • What do I know about land forms, elements of the rock cycle, rock identification, and the differences between rocks and minerals? What gaps in my knowledge have I shown in these topics? What can I do now and in the future to fill in these gaps in my knowledge?
  • To what extent have I shown the ability to think and work like a scientist by conducting experiments? What do I need to work on to make more effective use of scientific problem solving?
  • What are my strengths and challenges in reading science content?
  • What progress am I making in acquiring science-based vocabulary?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses in writing about science content?
This kind of direct and specific feedback is much more helpful than a vague, imprecise grade, which tells me almost nothing about what I have learned and what I need to work on. If one reason for grades is to provide feedback to children, surely some system like the one described above provides far superior and much more useful feedback.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is all well and good, but parents will never accept it. Parents want grades. Parents believe grades have some meaning, primarily because we have tried to convince them that they do over the past 150 years. We all know better. We need to tell parents we were wrong, We need to show them there are better ways to report on learning. In a subsequent post, I will address how we can best answer the parent question, "How is my child doing?"

To read about a procedure that two school districts used to do away with grades, click here.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Our Schools and Prejudice: The Need to Connect

Three articles in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times this week resonated strongly with me in this time of greater and greater division in my country. First was a report by Ben Austin on Violence and Division on the South Side of Chicago, which reported on efforts to get some dialogue going between the mostly minority inhabitants of the South Side of Chicago and the mostly white area of Mount Greenwood, just adjacent to it. The area has been the sight of protests, sometimes violent, in the wake of a killing of a Black man by a white police officer. A small group from both sides of the issue are working to get a conversation on race and prejudice and "Black Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter" going. Progress has been difficult, but at least the discussions have started.

Next came a piece by Heather C. McGhee titled, "I'm Prejudiced", He Said. Then We Kept Talking. This was the remarkable account of the author, the president of Demos, a public policy organization, and a man named Garry who called into a show on C-SPAN to make the startling confession of the title. The caller asked for help with his prejudice. This led to several meetings with McGhee in which both of them learned a great deal about each other and about the character of prejudice itself. As McGhee puts it, "Gary asked, 'What can I do to change?'" and his ability to acknowledge the persistence of prejudice allowed her to answer.

Finally there was, The Roots of Implicit Bias", by Daniel A. Yudkin and Jay Van Bavel. Yudkin and Bavel assert that implicit bias is real, but it is not rooted in prejudice, so much as in the human tendency to divide the world into groups. In other words, what may appear as prejudice may actually be "a manifestation of a broader tendency to see the world as "us vs. them." The good news is that according to the author's research, implicit bias van be overcome by "rational deliberation."

These three articles, I think, point to both the great tragedy and the great potential of American society and, by extension, the great tragedy and great potential of the public school. In American society we are learning everyday of the toll we have paid through systematic efforts to divide us and see others as "them", those about whom we know little and with whom we share little. When I say this is deliberate, I mean that the segregation our society faces has been the deliberate result of economic and political forces that have conspired to keep the races separate. In our schools, it is no accident that once vibrant urban schools have fallen into disrepair. This is the result of white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s and then the deliberate under-funding of inner-city schools once those with political and economic clout had relocated outside the city. The movement toward charter schools in the cities has further segregated the public school community.

But as I look at these three articles, I can see how the public school can play a role in helping us improve this long-standing stain on the America of all of our imaginations. These articles suggest that what we need more than anything else to combat prejudice is to connect, to talk, and to deliberate.

I grew up in the 1950s in a segregated community. African Americans where prohibited, through tacit agreements between the builders and real estate agents, from buying homes in Levittown, PA. African American families were forced to live on the outskirts of town, in developments largely reserved for them. The first Black family to move into Levittown was greeted with angry protests and burning crosses. But Levittown's schools were integrated and I had the great good fortune to go to school with people of all races and colors. This allowed me to connect. To make friends across racial lines, to play ball and study and goof off and go to parties with all different kinds of people. The experience was absolutely formative. All of my classmates at Woodrow Wilson High School came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, and while there was not always unified agreement on all issues, the basic humanity and belief in the equality of all human beings was unshakable for that group.

With the highly segregated schools today, not only divided along racial lines, but also economic lines, these connections become harder to make. We need to come up with deliberate strategies that allow students from all different groups to connect. As long as neighborhoods are segregated along economic lines, this cannot happen, unless we begin to think of neighborhoods more broadly. Yes, I am talking about busing across school district lines to achieve a better racial balance. And yes, I am aware of the narrative that busing was tried in the 70s and failed. The truth is that busing did not fail. In the period when busing was prominent in the late 70s through the late 80s, the achievement gap in schools actually narrowed. It was only after reactionary forces declared busing a failure that the achievement gap and school segregation began to grow again. Busing did not fail, people failed and they failed because of a failure to connect with each other and to continue the dialogue on how to make it work. True integration of schools would help narrow the achievement gap and help children make the connections they need to learn to live with those other Americans they will be living with in the future.

In the meantime, if we cannot make these direct connections right away, we can certainly get some dialogue going between and among kids of all different races, religions and ethnicities through some basic technology. Lately, my wife and I have been thrilled to have Facetime available so that we can get periodic visits from our new grandson, Henry, who lives 1,000 miles away. Facetime allows for our regular Henry fix. Technology should allow children to connect across school district borders. When I was in 4th grade, my teacher arranged for us to have pen pals from Germany. It was a powerful learning experience that led me to study German culture and language in high school. If pen pals during the snail mail era can make powerful connections, whole classrooms, suburban and inner city, should easily be able to design and work together on all kinds of projects that open them up to dialogue and understanding. This seems to me to be a way to truly use technology to advance learning in a large way. If we are up against artificial borders that limit dialogue, why not use technology to break down those borders. This seems like a smart way for Bill Gates to spend his education dollars.

Third comes rational deliberation. If any place is well suited to rational deliberation it should be the school (I know, many things going on in schools these days hardly seem rational or deliberative, but still...). If it is true that human beings have implicit bias, it is also true that school children have an innate sense of fairness. They want to be treated fairly. They want their classmates to be treated fairly. The get indignant when they sense someone is not being treated fairly. We can build on this through what we read, what we write, and what we talk about in class. Here is a great bibliography of books, divided by age groups, for addressing issues of race and prejudice. We need to read these books aloud to children and we need to assign them to be read. We need to be talking about these books with children and we need to provide the children opportunities to talk to each other about what they have read. We need to allow children to reflect on what they are reading in informal and formal writing activities. Deliberation is the essence of education. A child who deliberates on these issues, may grow into an adult who can deal with these issues in a deliberative manner.

Recent current events have exposed rifts in our society that many of us have had the luxury to ignore for the last many years. We can no longer ignore them. Fortunately, school is a good place to deal with them and school children are the ideal audience.