Sunday, January 17, 2016

New Jersey Study Commission on Testing: Keep Weighing the Pig

New Jersey's Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments issued its report this week after a year and a half of deliberations. The commission was ostensibly formed to look into over-testing in New Jersey schools, but anyone who follows New Jersey politics at all will not be surprised that this commission told Governor Christie exactly what he wanted to hear. That is what study commissions in New Jersey are for.

The report is  a densely written 34 pages long and contains 49 recommendations, so to save you some reading time, Russ on Reading has dug into the report to summarize the findings here.

1. Keep weighing the pig every year

In the introduction the commission acknowledges the "anxiety and fear" surrounding the testing issue, but concludes that this is just so much smoke and mirrors. The report says:

... one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC)

And why must New Jersey students in grades 3-8 be required to take this test every year?

Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students. High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information.

So there we have it. The same old education reform mantra. We need to keep testing because we need to know how students are progressing and to hold schools accountable for serving all students. In other words the Study Commission has bought into the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind, which the federal government left behind a few weeks ago.

This leads me to ask a few questions.

Are standardized tests an effective way to hold schools accountable?

All the evidence would indicate no. According to testing watchdog FairTest, multiple choice, standardized tests "cannot provide meaningful accountability" information.

Are PARCC tests "high quality?"

This is highly debatable. In New Jersey, less than half of the students who took the test in 2015 scored proficient or above. This would indicate that the test is not appropriately rigorous, but just too damn hard. New Jersey typically ranks second or third in educational attainment across the states, yet half of New Jersey's student couldn't pass the test. You can find my full report on the test results here. I have also done an analysis of readability issues with the PARCC here, here and here.

But don't take my word for it. The Gordon Commission report, produced under the sponsorship of ETS of all people, concluded that Common Core tests are currently "far from what is ultimately needed either for accountability or classroom instructional improvement.

Are standardized tests effective in narrowing the achievement gap?

Of course not. We have twelve years of evidence through NCLB's test and punish policies that the achievement gap is not narrowed by weighing it. Narrowing the achievement gap requires a full frontal attack on inequity. Standardized tests can show us that our society and our educational opportunity are inequitable, but all we really need to do to know that is to look at the neighborhoods in leafy suburbs where kids score well and the long deteriorating neighborhoods in the inner-city where kids struggle to score well.

I have an idea. Instead of yearly testing, let's all just stipulate that the achievement gap exists and that it is in reality an opportunity gap. Then we can do away with all the tests that keep telling us what we already know and focus our attention on things that are likely to reduce the opportunity gap like cleaner, safer schools, wrap around health and wellness programs, and attracting high quality teachers.

2. What we have here is a failure to communicate

The commission seems to believe that the real problem with the testing in New Jersey is a failure to communicate just how wonderful all this testing is and those insidious grumpy pants on social media (including, I suppose, me and other bloggers) who keep spreading nastiness about testing and who fail to grasp the wonderfulness of it all. To that end they make several recommendations for putting new lipstick on the old pig.

The recommendations include creating a shared vision, a proactive communication campaign, a communication team in the NJ Department of Education and a professional email database for the quick dissemination of information. Maybe the NJDOE could enlist the services of a Hollywood public relations firm to make this all baloney look good.

3.  If there is too much testing, it must be the school districts' fault.

The Study Commission seems to not understand what all the fuss is about over-testing, since the Statewide assessments are only done once a year and are mandated by State and federal law. So, if there is over-testing, as many people who testified before the commission complained there was, then it must be the fault of the local districts. To that end the Study Commission recommends that school districts "conduct a thorough inventory of their own assessment systems." School districts are encouraged to make sure their own testing regimes are efficient and used effectively to improve student learning. 

I am sure the districts are grateful for the encouragement and waiting with bated breath for the monies that will support said inventory.

4. Using standardized tests to measure teacher accountability is honky dory.

In the area of teacher accountability and standardized tests, the Commission finds that "the positive and encouraging results of the educator evaluation system thus far, indicate that the system is working." The Study Commission dismisses educator concerns about using test scores for teacher evaluation by saying that much of the concern should be mitigated by the fact that the vast majority of teachers in the first year of the evaluation design were rated as "effective" or "highly effective" and that the ratings were pretty much the same whether student growth scores were used or not.

Once again the Study Commission thinks the biggest problem is a failure to communicate well. If only the NJDOE could get all the good news out about teacher evaluation, people would be embracing it. The Commission calls for professional learning efforts and greater transparency about how teacher evaluations are calculated. They further recommend that the NJDOE "encourage" school districts to use the information for teacher improvement, "particularly of novice and struggling teachers."

The Study Commission might have spent some time looking at all the evidence that shows how the use of standardized test scores in any proportion as a part of a teacher's evaluation is simply unsupportable. They might have read the work of Audrey Amrein- Beardsley (Vamboozled and Rethinking Value Added Models in Education) or looked at the white paper from the American Statistical Association calling into question any significant use of standardized tests as a measure of teacher effectiveness. They might have then said that these measures should be removed entirely from formal teacher evaluation, but that is not the message the Governor wanted to hear.

5. Lots of professional development will help fix the problem

Again, all this noise about standardized testing is simply a matter of misunderstanding. Professional development for teachers, developed under the NJDOE in conjunction with other statewide associations and advocacy groups, will raise the assessment literacy of the teachers in the state and help them to see how useful these standardized tests are. I can see the teachers lining up for these sessions now.

No amount of professional development will change the fact that standardized tests are not very useful for making instructional decisions about individual children because the information is not timely nor does it provide enough detail on individual students. Standardized tests have their place in long range school district curriculum planning, but we don't need yearly tests to get this information.

There is some good news for parents and educators in the report.

1. Special populations of students need special treatment in testing situations.

The Study Commission clearly heard the concerns of parents and teachers of students with special needs and ELL students. They recognize that these students need special accommodations when it comes to standardized testing. They make six recommendations in this area that boil down to acknowledging there is an issue, suggesting the NJDOE do something about it in collaboration with school districts and calling on the NJDOE to talk to the federal Department of Education who insists all these special populations take these tests, to see if more flexibility can be provided in testing these special populations.

These recommendations lack specificity, but the acknowledgment of the issue in the face of stupid federal rules is welcome. It is truly cruel and unusual punishment to insist that all students, no matter what their learning challenges take these tests.

2. Varied Assessments

The report acknowledges that a broad array of assessments is necessary for every school district including formative assessments, end of unit assessments, interim assessments and state assessments. The effective use of the first three is a best practice. Teachers use formative assessment daily through their observation of student learning to adjust teaching and provide small group and individual support when needed. End of unit assessments are designed by teachers and actually test what has been taught to see if it has been learned. Interim assessments may be used to provide a sense of student reading level (benchmark) or student performance against a level of expected performance as measured on a rubric.

All three of these types of assessments provide teachers and administrators with real actionable feedback to help them work with real actual kids. The results of these assessments are timely and they inform instruction. The fourth type of assessment, standardized tests, simply does not provide this feedback and should be used sparingly.

So, there is my quick take on the Study Commission report. Blogger, parent and teacher Marie Corfield has launched a more detailed report here. I suggest you check out what Marie has to say on each of the recommendations. Meanwhile, I know we all can't wait for the glossy, "YEAH, PARCC". public relations campaign that will be coming from the NJDOE. The best way for parents to respond to the publicity barrage will be to simply have their children opt out of the tests. Opting out brings the whole scheme crashing down on itself and impacts the quality of a child's education not at all.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Homework Problem

                                Homework! Oh homework!
                                I hate you! You stink!
                                I wish I could wash you away in the sink.
from Homework, Oh Homework, by Jack Prelutsky)

Sunday’s New York Times carried an article by Vicki Abeles, producer director of the documentary Race to Nowhere, entitled Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick? The article discusses the negative impact on students, both privileged and poor, of the drive for academic success. This opinion piece followed on the heels of an article earlier in the week that reported on the efforts of the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District in New Jersey to deal with the issue of student stress. The Superintendent of the West Windsor Schools, David Aderhold, reported to parents that the schools were in crisis due to the overwhelming feelings of stress students were experiencing. Among many other causes, both articles cited homework as one of the major stressors and both articles suggested that controlling the amount of homework could help in reducing that stress.

Homework is as much a part of the American school culture as the three-ring binder, the text book and the football team. Since seemingly the beginning of time, teachers have assigned homework and students have complained about it. Watch any Our Gang comedy from the 1930’s and you will see that children have always gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid homework. But whether the concern is over-stressed kids or homework resistant kids, homework keeps being assigned, keeps being completed or avoided or copied by kids and keeps being expected by parents. Should it be?

Teachers I have spoken to have argued that homework is necessary for reinforcement of information taught in school, or to prepare for a lesson that is to be given the next day, or to extend learning that has taken place in class or because there is not enough time to cover all the material during class. Some teachers have told me that it is important to assign homework to elementary students so they are prepared for the homework they will get in middle and high school. Other teachers have told me they assign homework because parents expect it.

I must say that I don’t find any of those reasons to be compelling ones for assigning homework, but what does the research say? Do students really benefit from homework? And if they do, what kind do they need?

Harris Cooper, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University and author of The Battle Over Homework, has done the most extensive and compelling research in homework. His findings can be summarized as follows:

·         When homework and in-class study were compared, in-class study proved superior.
·         Homework had no academic impact on the achievement of children in the elementary grades.
·         Homework had some positive impact on academic achievement (as measured by tests) of children in middle school as long as the homework was no more than 90 minutes a night.
·         Homework had the most impact on academic achievement (as measured by tests) in the high school.
·         Homework probably works best when the material is not too complex or unfamiliar.
·         It is better to distribute homework material across several assignments rather than have homework concentrate only on the material covered on that day.

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn is perhaps America’s chief critic of homework. He finds Harris’ findings on the academic benefits of homework less than compelling. In his 2006 book, The Homework Myth, Kohn looks at Cooper’s research and concludes, 

Taken as a whole, current research might be characterized as inconclusive… a careful examination of the data raises serious doubts about whether meaningful learning is enhanced by homework for most students.

Kohn spends an entire chapter on the idea of homework as reinforcement, the number one reason teachers say they assign homework. Reinforcement assignments are not effective for students who do not already understand the concept, so they may end up reinforcing incorrect understandings. Reinforcement assignments are also ineffective for students who have already mastered the material. In other words, for a large number of students in any class, a reinforcement assignment is either wasting time or reinforcing bad habits. Kohn says it would be better to have the reinforcement work take place in the classroom where the teacher can clear up misconceptions and provide new challenges for students who have mastered the material.

With the work of Cooper and Kohn in mind, I think most of what is assigned in today’s schools as homework should happen in the classroom. I think of the art class as an appropriate model. When students attend an art class, they receive some instruction in technique and then they try those techniques out, right there in class in front of the teacher. In that art class the teacher sees the evidence of the student’s understanding and application of the skill and provides immediate formative feedback. I believe this should be the model for all classrooms. The classroom should be a workshop where students learn, apply and receive timely feedback on their work. This model works for all disciplines and virtually eliminates the need for reinforcement homework.

And eliminating the need for homework is a valuable thing because homework has so many negative impacts on children. As the articles cited at the beginning of this post highlight, one negative aspect is stress, stress on children and stress on families. Another negative aspect of homework is the impact on student perceptions of school and learning. Kids see homework as an intrusion on there “free-time” and I do not think that judgment is unreasonable. Homework may also lead to cheating. When I did a study of cheating at the high school where I worked 10 years ago, I found that one major cause of cheating was students feeling over-burdened by homework that they did not find particularly useful or engaging.

Should we do away with homework entirely? Probably not. But as teachers we need to think closely about our reasons for assigning homework and what the likely benefits will be of any given assignment. We need to decide if the time spent on assigning, completing, grading and reviewing homework, is worth the educational gains made. We need to decide if those gains might better be achieved by having the kids do the work under our watchful eye. If we assign homework because there is too much curriculum to cover, we need to reflect on whether we are trying to cover too much. If we are assigning homework so that students are prepared for the next class, we need to examine if that is an effective practice or if it is better to provide the background information in class. 

If we do assign homework, we should be sure assignments are focused on integrating concepts across more than one class, that the homework is readily doable for the students to whom it is assigned and that students get helpful feedback on their work. It should also be brief and assigned perhaps once or twice a week and never on weekends and holidays. For me, the best homework assignments would be those where students get the opportunity to explore a topic of their own interest or read a book or magazine of their own choice.

Maybe the homework that would be best for children is not homework assigned from school, but real “home” work. Time at home to spend interacting with family and friends and time to explore personal passions.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Education Books of 2015

Here is my year-end list of books that every well-informed educator and public education advocate should read. The list is not all-inclusive; it includes only books that came to my attention and it certainly reflects my personal tastes and biases.  I think, however, you will find these books important, informative and written with heart, passion, style, intelligence and commitment.

Please support these authors and the often small publishing houses who get these books made.

In Praise of American Educators: And How they Can Become Even Better, by Dr. Richard Dufour, Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Former teacher and principal, Rick DuFour, offers both a spirited defense of public school teachers against the slings and arrows of corporate education reformers and a prescription for the continuing improvement of the profession. DuFour's concept of the professional learning community was very influential in my own administrative work over the last 10 years. His faith in teachers and in teacher's ability to improve their own practice through a culture of collaboration seems to me to be a major contribution to the field of teaching and learning.

In his current book, DuFour takes on every criticism of the American public school teacher and shows conclusively through thoroughgoing documentation and evidence, that teachers are not the problem and that indeed the current generation of American educators is the best we have ever seen. After analyzing all the "schools are failing" rhetoric in detail, DuFour concludes that "a fair and balanced analysis of the evidence can only lead to the conclusion that American schools and the educators within them are not failing, and are, in fact, achieving some of the best result's in our nation's history."

DuDour then takes on every proposed reform measure for improving schools (charter, vouchers, test-based accountability, value added measures, merit pay and school closures) and shows how they will not lead to improved learning and how all are doing damage to student learning and the teaching profession. Real improvement is possible, according to DuFour, if we change the scope and frequency of testing, pay the college costs for high performing high school students who enter the teaching profession, establish career ladders with increasing responsibilities and compensation for teachers, establish clear guidelines for what teachers should know and be able to do, provide universal early childhood education, support career and technical education, and ensure that teachers are provided with time for collaboration.

It is through this concept of teacher collaboration and the development of a collaborative culture in schools that DuFour believes real and ongoing improvement can be made. The rest of the book lays out how teachers and their leaders can establish a collaborative structure that leads to improved student learning. In DuFour's collaborative professional learning communities, student learning improves through teachers learning from teachers, through viable curriculum developed and delivered by teachers and through assessment that informs and improves instructional practice.

Rick DuFour's vision of the American school is one that rejects quick education reformer fixes and focuses on the professional educators in the schools collaborating to improve student learning. It is a vision that I believe all of this "greatest generation of educators" can embrace.

Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, by P.L. Thomas. New York, NY: Garn Press.

Many of you may know P. L. Thomas from his own fine blog, the becoming radical, where Thomas holds forth in his own unique and winning way on issues of public education, pedagogy, literature and social justice. His book, Beware the Roadbuilders, is must reading for anyone interested in these same topics. You can find my full review of the book here. The "roadbuilders" of the title are the education reformers; those plutocrats, politicians and pundits who have seized on urban education as the "civil rights issue of our time." 

But this book is much more than an anti-reform polemic. This is a book for people who love literature and love finding the lessons in literature that help us understand our own lives and the world we live in. In Roadbuilders, Thomas leads us on one reader's journey into critical understanding. It is a journey informed by personal experience and shaped through the reading of great literature. I encourage you to join Thomas on his journey.

The Prize: Whose in Charge of America's Schools, by Dale Russakoff. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

The Prize is the great cautionary tale of all cautionary tales for education reformers. Russakoff, a long-time Washington Post reporter, tells the story of Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg's 100 million dollar gift to the public schools of Newark, NJ. This gift was so extraordinary that it was announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sharing the stage with Zuckerberg.

In the end this 100 million failed to make any appreciable differences in the lives of the students of the Newark Public Schools. The reason it did not is a story laced with hubris, arrogance and lack of understanding of the issues. Essentially each of the players wanted to use the money for his own political agenda, Zuckerberg to experiment with teacher merit pay, Christie to damage the teacher unions, and Booker to open more charter schools and advance his own political career. The leaders of the project failed because they ignored the people who would be most impacted by the money: the teachers, students and community members of Newark. This was a failure of top down reform. Reform driven by carpetbaggers from outside the city, including Christie's hand-picked superintendent of schools, Cami Anderson.

Russakoff does not make the same mistake as the reformers. She goes out and talks to teachers, students and parents in the community and it is their stories that make this book rise above the level of expose' to the level of great reporting and great sociological insight. If Zuckerberg, Christie and Booker had had a little of this insight, this tragic waste of resources might have been avoided.

Preparing the Nation's Teachers to Teach: A Manifesto in Defense of "Teacher Educators Like Me", by Curt Dudley-Maring. New York, NY: Garn Press.

Curt Dudley-Maring is one angry teacher educator. In this book, he takes on the reform minded National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) for defaming the work of teacher educators everywhere through their sloppy and politically driven research on teacher education programs. Dudley-Maring does not let his justifiable anger interfere with a well-reasoned argument, however. In this brief book he systematically deconstructs NCTQ's criticisms of teacher education, while exposing the market driven ideology that underlies their efforts to discredit schools of education.

Dudley-Maring was a hero of mine long before he wrote this book. He is a long-time advocate of "meaning-based reading instruction" and I first came to know his work in this context. Dudley-Maring sees a clear connection between NCTQ's ratings of teacher education and the reformer take on reading instruction in simplistic behaviorist terms where phonics instruction takes center stage to the exclusion of all the other complex factors that make up skillful reading. For my money his section on "A meaning-based perspective on reading" is well worth the price of the book.

The reader comes away from this book with an understanding that teaching and learning, and especially teaching and learning to read, is a much more complicated and sophisticated intellectual enterprise than NCTQ evaluators, driven by a behaviorist ideology, could ever know or imagine. The book is a rousing defense of teachers and those who educate teachers.

The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers, by Jennifer Serravallo. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

This one is for my readers who teach reading to children in grades K-8. Jen Serravallo, teacher, parent, consultant, has written what is simply the most useful, most comprehensive, best informed handbook for teaching reading imaginable. I wrote a full review of the book that you can read here. If you work with children and literacy you simply must have this book on your shelf. I gave it to my elementary teacher daughter for Christmas.

This book is informed by the best current research in literacy education; it is comprehensive in addressing all aspects of literacy learning K-8, and it is practical, offering specific targeted lessons based on student needs. I can see the classroom teachers reaching for this book everyday while planning their literacy lessons or when looking for just the right instructional approach for a student who is struggling.

So there you have my list. Please feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section. Right now I am reading a book that just arrived in the mail yesterday, A Teacher's Tale, by fellow blogger and defender of the profession John Thompson. It is an early favorite for next year's "Best of" list.

I look forward to still more rewarding reading in 2016. Happy New Reading Year!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Least of Russ on Reading 2015

This is my second annual year-end compilation of blog posts that attracted very little attention the first time around, but that I think are worthy of a second chance at life. It has been a year of extremes for this blog, with some posts attracting thousands upon thousands of readers and others, like the ones collected here, not so much. So while others in the media present their "Best of..." and "Worst of ... lists, I offer "The Least of Russ on Reading 2015." I hope you find something interesting or informative here that you might have missed the first time around.

From Complex Text to Considerate Text

The Common Core calls for children to read more complex text, I call for writers to write more "considerate" text to aid readers in comprehending text book writing.

Do Children Really Shift from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn?

A common fallacy is that the early grades are for learning to read and after 3rd grade kids shift to reading to learn. I argue that kids are reading to learn from the very beginning of reading instruction and if we don't understand this, we will not provide the instruction they need.

You've Got to Be Taught

Racism is not a natural human condition, but one that is taught. In this post I discuss how if racism is taught in the home, tolerance can be taught in the schools.

Getting the Schools All Children Deserve

If we believe that children's lives matter, than we must recognize that all children deserve to attend clean, safe, well-resourced and fully staffed schools.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2015

This is the third holiday season for Russ on Reading and the third opportunity to share some poetry for the holidays. This year, as with every year, I am convinced that the world would be a better place if the people of the world read and shared more poetry. I am also reminded that all cultures and all religious traditions have their poetry and that much of that poetry speaks to what is universal in all of us.

A huge thank you to all of my readers. Thank you for reading and sharing my work. I am pleased to be able to share the work of these great poets with you. Have a peaceful and joyous holiday.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows;--
The happy days unclouded to their close;

The sudden joys that out of darkness start
As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart
Like swallows singing down each wind that blows!
White as the gleam of a receding sail,

White as a cloud that floats and fades in air,
White as the whitest lily on a stream,
These tender memories are;--a fairy tale
Of some enchanted land we know not where,
But lovely as a landscape in a dream.

The Boy at the Window
By Richard Wilbur

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear. 

Burning of the Old Year
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds,
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems,
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn't,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn't do
circle after the blazing dies.

     from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Meaningful Work in the Literacy Classroom

In my last post I discussed the concept of meaningful work and how it is essential to the recruitment,
development and retention of teachers. In this post I would like to address how meaningful work is essential to student learning. As teachers we have every right to demand the autonomy, complexity and rewards that are necessary to making our work meaningful. At the same time, we have the professional obligation to provide meaningful work for our students, so that we may help activate student motivation to learn and the students may optimize their learning.

As Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in his 2009 book, Outliers, meaningful work is one major component of achieving success in life. It is meaningful work that drives people to master a complex craft, whether it be in the arts, as with The Beatles and the hours upon hours of practice they got in Hamburg, Germany strip clubs before they hit it big; or in the sciences, as with Bill Gates, who spent thousands and thousands of hours writing computer programs before he achieved success with Microsoft; or in sports, where Michael Jordan couldn’t even make his high school basketball team and yet through hard practice went on to become the greatest player of all time. To learn something well takes time and commitment (and yes, talent. But many talented people have not achieved greatness).

How do we get this type of commitment to hard work from our students? One possible answer is by providing them with meaningful work. The work that The Beatles, Bill Gates and Michael Jordan did was personally meaningful to them, so they were willing to make the commitment and put in the effort. What can teachers learn from this?

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Gladwell defined meaningful work this way:

Meaningful work is one of the most important things we can impart to children. Meaningful work is work that is autonomous. Work that is complex, that occupies your mind. And work where there is a relationship between effort and reward — for everything you put in, you get something out…

So meaningful work involves autonomy, complexity and direct relationship between effort and reward. It may seem a daunting task to provide every individual in our class with meaningful work as Gladwell defines it. But let’s take a close look at this through the discipline that I know best – literacy.

By definition, literacy is meaningful work. Whether we are reading or listening, writing or speaking, we are in the business of making meaning or communicating meaning. Too often, however, the way we teach these skills obscures the meaningfulness of the work. What would a meaningful approach to literacy instruction look like? A look at Gladwell’s three elements of meaningful work might be helpful.


In order to provide students with autonomy in reading and writing, we need to insure that students get a considerable element of choice in their reading and writing. In reading this means time is given over in class to independent reading. Students need to be encouraged to explore their passions through reading and teachers need to be knowledgeable about a broad range of reading choices and student interests to guide children toward reading they may be passionate about. As students read independently, teachers are available to assist students over bumpy patches, confer with students about their understanding of what they are reading and suggest other books on similar topics.

As a 9th grader in Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1961, I, along with everyone else in my English class, was assigned to read Silas Marner, by George Eliot. I am sure Silas Marner is a great book, but as a fourteen year-old mainly interested in baseball and girls, I hated that book. I could not make sense of it and eventually gave up reading it and tried to fake my way through the class and the subsequent test. The back of the edition of Silas Marner I was given, however, contained a short novel by John Steinbeck, The Pearl. Sitting in class one day trying to avoid being called upon, I stumbled across The Pearl, and started reading. I loved it. I was transported from my classroom to coastal Mexico and I was transfixed by the graceful sentences wrought by Mr. Steinbeck. I read it during class, on the bus on the way home from school, and finished it that night in bed. I quickly became a Steinbeck aficionado and by the end of high school had read virtually everything he had written (Steinbeck wrote a lot of short novels that I found great for book reports). My choice to read Steinbeck unleashed a previously untapped passion to read. If we are to develop life-long readers, we are going to have to provide students with some choice.

In writing, autonomy means providing children with choice in their topics, real purposes for writing and genuine audiences to receive the writing. Students often aren’t very good at identifying the topics they are passionate about and that is where the teacher comes in, helping children identify a passion, a concern, an area of expertise and helping them find their voice to communicate about these things. I think of the book Black Ants and Buddhists, by teacher Mary Cowhey, that shows how an entire classroom of children was activated to read, write and think critically about issues of social justice through a discussion of a troop of ants that invaded the classroom one day. Kids feel passionately about many things, rather than assigning writing topics, we would do better to help students find those topics of passion and guide them to write about them.

What about the skills you ask? What about grammar? What about spelling? What about vocabulary? I would argue that when kids are reading deeply and writing thoughtfully based on a level of autonomy in the classroom, we can teach any of the skills within that context, either through directly instructing through mini-lessons or through individual conferences.


Both reading and writing are, of course, complex processes. The trick here is applying Gladwell’s complexity principle to teaching and learning. Students are capable of complex work and complex thought, but this complexity must be mediated by a teacher. Where we want students to be working is in their “zone of proximal development”, that is, at a level of thinking that is just above where they can function easily and comfortably, but not so far above their level that they cannot make meaning of the material. Writing provides an ideal medium for this type of instruction, since when children are writing on their own chosen topics and are writing for their own chosen reasons, the work is uniquely individualized and children are working in their zone. Teachers can then work with students to move that zone forward through conferences where suggestions for extending, refining and reorganizing thought can be conducted.

Reading creates some different kinds of challenges when it comes to complexity. If a text is too complex for a particular reader, meaning will be lost and the reader may lose interest. On the other hand, if the child is particularly interested in a topic, she may struggle through a “too difficult” text through shear will. As the teacher our job is to advise students on reading choices, let them try reading things we may think are too difficult sometimes, and support their growing understanding of the texts, again through conferences or mini-lessons.

We will also want to provide the students with exposure to complex texts through read-alouds. Since most children have a listening comprehension about two years above their reading level and since the teacher can provide mediation of the text while reading aloud, high quality challenging books should be chosen for classroom read-alouds. By asking students to grapple with more complex texts in the safety of the read-aloud environment, we can help insure both growth in reading comprehension and an interest in reading more difficult text.

Relationship between effort and reward

In the business world, the relationship between effort and reward is pretty clear: You work hard and well and you make more money. In school this relationship is more complex. A few education reformers have actually tried paying students for attending school and working hard with disappointing (for them) results. When we think in terms of effort and reward for school students we might think of grades, and hard work should, I suppose, be rewarded with good grades, although you will find many who say that grades should be based solely on achievement and not include effort.

To me, money or grades are false rewards. I would prefer to de-emphasize the grade as the reward and focus the rewards on what all real readers and real writers want – an audience for their thoughts and ideas. A writer wants to know what a reader thinks of the work. A reader wants to share thoughts on the reading with others and hear what others think. So as teachers we must read our students’ writing and listen to our students talk about their reading and provide genuine feedback that acknowledges what the student has done well and constructively suggests what the student needs to focus on next. We need to reward our students with respect for their efforts by being a knowledgeable audience for their efforts. I don’t think any monetary rewards or stickers can ever replace a few moments of rapt attention from the teacher. Students respond to teachers who are good listeners. Reward your students with the gift of your attention.

If this all sounds to you like a recommendation for a reader’s/writer’s workshop approach to literacy instruction, you would be correct. The workshop structure provides the opportunity for independent reading, personal choice writing, targeted mini-lessons and teacher conferring that will make the hard work of learning to read and write well meaningful work.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Teaching as Meaningful Work

In his terrific 2009 book on the complexity of success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies “meaningful work” as one necessary component of a fully successful life. Gladwell defines meaningful work as work that provides a person with autonomy, complexity and rewards that equal the effort put forth. Gladwell identifies teaching (and medicine and entrepreneurship) as meaningful work.

I went into teaching because, even as wide-eyed, idealistic, eighteen year-old entering college, I had a sense that teaching was meaningful work. In my years as a human resources director for a school district, I encountered literally dozens of adults who were in the midst of a career change from the business world into teaching because they were looking for more meaningful work. I believe the vast majority of us who are teachers chose teaching as a career because we wanted meaningful work.

And yet today as I talk to teachers and prospective teachers, I hear a great deal of frustration. Many are leaving the profession by either retiring early or seeking jobs out of the field. Prospective teachers I work with at Rider University are wondering aloud if they have made a good career choice. As Education Week has reported, enrollment in schools of education at colleges around the country is plummeting.

What’s going on? Clearly, nearly two decades of education reform policies, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and from the Common Core to the Common Core aligned standardized tests, have taken their toll. I believe there is a general sense that teaching is somehow less “meaningful” than it once was. A look at Gladwell’s components of meaningful work might help us understand why.


For teachers autonomy means the ability to make critical curricular and instructional decisions based on our content knowledge, our professional judgement and our unique knowledge of the students in front of us. Education reform has undermined this autonomy unnecessarily through a regime of imposed standards, standardized tests and unreliable accountability measures. Standards in and of themselves don’t undermine autonomy. Most teachers feel the need for some guidance in what to teach and when and appreciate reasonable learning targets. But when standards are developed and imposed without their input and then tied to standardized tests and when schools and teachers and students are labeled as failing based on the results of those tests, teachers rightly feel their autonomy is being undermined.

When I started teaching, I had plenty of autonomy. Too much, in fact. I pretty much closed the door behind me and taught what I wanted the way I wanted. I wrote the curriculum; I chose the textbooks and I designed the assessments. As long as the children were not disruptive, as long as I wasn’t sending kids to the office, as long as my blinds were straight at the end of the day, all was ok with the school administration.

This level of autonomy is not what teachers want. The job is too complex to be successfully navigated in isolation. What teachers want, and need, is a level of autonomy that respects their professional judgement and allows them to design instruction for the particular needs of their students. To the extent that education reform has undermined this, the profession is endangered and more and more teachers will leave and fewer and fewer will enter.


Teaching children has always been an intellectually complex activity. It takes time and effort and ongoing personal reflection and professional development to master the craft. I have been teaching for 47 years and I am still learning new strategies for reaching students. Gladwell says it takes, on average, about 10,000 hours of concerted practice to master really complex work. Research suggests it takes teachers at least 3-4 years under the best possible scenarios to master the craft. As with all intellectually complex activities, there are no naturals. Both talent and hard work are required.

Education reform seeks to deny this complexity and reduce teaching and learning to a simplistic construct based on tests and punishments. Teaching is defined as preparing children to perform on tests and to comply with rigid behavior demands (so they learn to be compliant employees). Children in KIPP and Success Academy schools are expected to keep their noses to the grindstone, their eyes on the teacher and their ideas to themselves, and teachers are expected to enforce these draconian policies.

As Henry Giroux has put it, the educational reformers are focused on the “commodification of knowledge.” Education is no longer a social right, but a vehicle to support the immediate needs of the economy. With such a view teachers are reduced to the level of technician, a delivery system for information and a conduit for data collection.

As award winning New York teacher Matthew Rozell asked on his blog, “Am I a teacher or a technician?” Safe to say that Mr. Rozell and thousands of other teachers did not go in to teaching to be a technician. Safe to say that a failure by politicians and reformers to recognize, embrace and cultivate the complexity of the human endeavor of teaching and learning will mean more teachers leaving the profession and fewer entering.

Direct connection between effort and reward

In the free market the reward for hard work is defined in monetary terms. Work hard and you’ll make lots of money. Education reformers seeking to define education in market terms, think that teachers should be rewarded similarly, so we hear about merit pay schemes to reward teachers for achieving higher student test scores. This is a gross misreading of teacher motivation. Sure every teacher would like to make a decent living wage, but beyond that teachers seek very different kinds of rewards. Rewards that for the most part cannot be commodified.

The teacher’s reward comes from seeing students grasp a new concept. From finding the key to helping a recalcitrant student become motivated to learn. From reading a student essay that is well-crafted and well-argued. From having a student rush up to you breathless to tell you about a good book she has been reading.  From having a student come back years later to say thanks for some kindness you showed that you cannot even remember.

In a test and punish world, these rewards become harder to find. If you have little voice in what and how you are teaching, you will not feel rewarded for student success. The relationship among teacher and student and content and attitude towards learning can be richly rewarding, but not when that relationship is reduced to a number on a test and to instruction based on those tests. Teaching is too nuanced to yield to a reductionist view of its value.

A successful teacher is a teacher who does hard and meaningful work every day. By making that work less autonomous, less complex and less personally rewarding, education reformers are driving good teachers away from the profession and guaranteeing that it will be harder to find committed young people to fill the teaching positions of the future.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Getting the Schools All Children Deserve

Monday's New York Times carried an opinion piece by Charles Blow on the Laquan McDonald murder in Chicago. McDonald, a 17 year-old African American, was shot down by a white police officer in a horrific incident captured on video by a police car's dash cam. The incident is, of course, another in the ongoing horror of police violence against young Black men. Blow's main point is that if we are to understand why these police killings keep happening, we have to accept that it is because our society tacitly approves or willingly tolerates them. The problem is systemic. If America wanted this to end, says Blow, it would end. He feels that the majority of Americans have turned their backs on this issue, refusing to take a strong moral stance.

The clear implication of what Blow is saying, for me, is that in the end in this country, Black lives really do not matter. I think Blow has an important point and I think it is a very short leap to apply this insight to public education.

In our inner cities, once beautiful public school buildings schools stand crumbling from age and disrepair as mute testimony to our systematic neglect . Children attend schools without nurses, librarians and guidance counselors. Teachers lay out their own money for basic instructional supplies, while many students are without textbooks and other tools of learning. Just walking to school can be a harrowing experience for young children navigating the mean streets of the inner city. Can we really say that this is not directly connected to the color of the faces of the vast majority of children who attend these schools?

Inner city children are forced to learn and their teachers are forced to teach in these conditions because our society, you and me, don't care enough to do something about it. So what if some inner city kid has to attend a crumbling school, my school district just built a state of the art high school and my taxes are high enough. So what if some inner city kids don't have the basic tools of learning, my school district is providing for all that my children need. So what if inner city schools don't have nurses or guidance counselors, I have made sure that my kids go to schools that have all these things.

If we truly cared about the school children of the inner city, wouldn't we do everything we could, spend the money necessary to insure they had access to the same quality education we all want for our own children?

But does money really matter that much in education? Is it the lack of funds that has led us to this point? Didn't New Jersey pour lots of money into so-called "Abbot Districts" without much improvement in outcomes? Well yes, money does matter and yes, increased spending did not yield much in the way of improved outcomes in many New Jersey districts. Rutgers University researcher, Bruce Baker has this to say about the impact of money on schooling:

     money matters, resources that cost money matter, and more equitable distribution of school funding can improve outcomes. Policymakers would be well-advised to rely on high-qualityresearch to guide the critical choices they make regarding school finance.

Clearly it is about money, but it is also about a consistent and reliable source of money over time, so that real changes can be made. In New Jersey a cycle of increased funding followed by funding cuts has undermined any progress that might have been made. It is also about spending the money wisely and where it may have the most impact and in the inner city that may mean spending money on health services and early childhood education and other services nt ordinarily associated with the schools.

What can I do about these things, you say? Plenty. Five years ago the President of the United States was opposed to gay marriage. Now gay marriage is the law of the land. Why? Because most people decided it was time. If most people decided that it was time for the police to stop the killing of Black children in the streets, these killings would end. A few hundred people closing down Chicago's "Magnificent Mile" won't do it, but hundreds of thousands of people armed with the truth, and the energy and the vote could stop it if they wanted to.

It is our elected representatives that have systematically denied urban schools the resources they need. A system based primarily on property taxes is sure to put urban schools at a disadvantage. If we wanted our representatives to actually spend the money to make our urban schools look like our suburban schools, they would do it. The truth is, we don't want it because it would cost money and would require effort. So as long as things are good for our own kids, we don't really care.

But what if all moms and dads came to realize that when even one child is forced to attend a school that is in poor repair and poorly staffed and poorly equipped, it darkens the future for all our children? What if everyone acted on that realization by voting for representatives who would take their responsibility to all children seriously. What if we were all willing to close down not just the Magnificent Mile, but every local shopping mall and clog the hallways of school boards and legislatures until all children had a clean, safe, well-staffed school to attend. What if we did that? Do you think that we could end the scourge of educational discrimination then?

Another New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, recently ran his last column for the paper. In it he cited Paula McEvoy, the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McAvoy says, "The place where you learn matters." If you go to a broken down school society is telling you it doesn't care about your education. McEvoy has a message for the education reformers. Rather than spending money supporting charter schools, "Why not spend your money on infrastructure instead. How about setting a goal of putting every kid in a state- of-the-art school by 2025."

Now there is a good idea. Philanthropists can help us build worthy buildings for all students and then let the professionals provide the instruction. I could march for that.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Do We Really Need Gifted Education?

A new book by Chester Finn and Brandon Wright of the education reform loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, argues that we need to rededicate ourselves to gifted education if our country is to remain economically competitive and a producer of scientific/technological leaders. How do we know that we are not going to remain competitive? Why "alarming" international standardized tests scores, of course. But also, Finn and Wright fear, because the focus on Common Core and the aligned tests may lead to an overly homogenized, lowest common denominator curriculum and instruction.

I have said in an earlier post that education reformers don't seem to see the irony in their arguments, so I will just let this one stand for now. To their credit, Finn and Wright also say that opportunities for advanced achievement are very narrow for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and that this is a national problem.

Is the answer to any of these problems gifted education? My answer would be no. Philosophically, I am of the mind that all children are gifted in some way, but school is not a very good place to discover the gifts of every child. As Howard Gardner has shown us, children may have many intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and musical.

Finn and Wright want to focus, however, on "academic giftedness" and I will take that as my starting point, too. Do we need special programs for the academically gifted? Again my answer would be no.

The problems with special programs for the gifted are many. First of all, because of the complexity of identifying "giftedness" most schools fall back on sorting children by standardized tests. This is a very narrow way to identify students of talent and often excludes children with nearly identical abilities. There can be no fair system of identifying gifted students.

Additionally, many gifted programs remove children from the regular classroom and are characterized primarily by giving the gifted students more work, not enriched opportunities. Removing children from the regular classroom inevitably means that the regular classroom loses some of its most able contributors. Finally, resources provided for gifted students are resources that should be available for every student. A look at the National Standards for Gifted Education put forward by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC),  shows a list of standards that any parent would want for her own child.

What we need for academically talented students is what we need for every student - good instruction that meets individual needs and that provides appropriate challenges.

How do we provide instruction that meets individual needs? In literacy this can be done through the workshop approach to reading and writing pioneered by Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Nancy Atwell among others and popularized by Lucy Calkins and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The workshop approach allows the teacher to provide whole group, small group and individual instruction, while also allowing students a significant amount of choice in their reading and writing material.

When all students have the opportunity to pursue their own interests in reading and writing and when the teacher has the opportunity to provide guidance through various instructional grouping structures, all students get the instruction and the challenge they need. To be sure, this type of instruction is not easy. Teachers need professional development opportunities, sufficient planning time and reasonable class sizes. Ultimately, however, policy makers would be better off spending scarce dollars on these resources, rather than creating separate programs for the gifted.

A focus on instruction by gifted teachers will go farther in achieving  learning goals than sorting and separating academically able students.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

False Idols: Woodrow Wilson and Hero Worship

Woodrow Wilson as President
at Princeton University
Spurred by events in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina, racially charged protests have broken out at college campuses across the United States, most notably at the University of Missouri, where the involvement of the entire football team surely contributed to the resignation of the school's president. This week the protests have come to dear old Princeton University.

The Princeton controversy revolves around perhaps the most favored of all of Princeton's favorite sons - Woodrow Wilson. Before Wilson became the 28th President of the United States, he was the president of Princeton University. He is credited with many good works at Princeton including raising educational standards, creating academic majors and introducing small-group classes. Princeton has recognized his contributions by naming the highly regarded Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs after him, naming a residential complex Wilson College and hanging a mural of him in the dining hall. To attend Princeton is to think Wilson, see Wilson and praise Wilson

Wilson's accomplishments as President of the US are well documented. In addition to leading the country during World War 1 and proposing the United Nations predecessor, The League of Nations, Wilson had an impressive record as a progressive Democrat who championed many of the causes of the working man including the progressive income tax and the Federal Trade Act that controlled unfair business practices. 

What is not so well documented, however, is that Wilson was also a virulent racist. It is his racism that is at issue on the Princeton campus, where students, under the umbrella of the Black Student League, have occupied the office of university president, Christopher Eisgruber, demanding, among other things, that the institution publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism, that Wilson's name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, and that the dining room mural of Wilson be removed. The students seem to be asking why they should be inundated with reminders of a person who considered them to be inferior beings.

It is important to note here that Wilson's racism was extreme even for 100 years ago. He made statements sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, actively blocked black students from attending Princeton, permitted the re-institution of segregation in federal agencies, fired black officials and replaced them with whites and generally considered blacks to be inferior. This quote sums up Wilson's attitude, "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place is in the corn field." 

Some people seem to regard this controversy as a tempest in a teapot; just another example of political correctness gone mad. Does it really matter that Wilson, a product of his times and his upbringing, was a racist? Are we just caving in to special interests if we change the names of buildings and schools? When does it stop. Do we rename John F. Kennedy Airport because naughty JFK slept around? I think it is more complicated than that. The image and name of Wilson is a symbol on the Princeton campus and symbols have power. If the Confederate flag were hanging in the Princeton dining hall, I am sure most could agree that it was offensive. For African American students especially, but for that matter any thoughtful student, I think the image of Wilson could be just as problematic.

I think one of the problems in schools is that we tend to whitewash our heroes, not allowing any breath of imperfection to sully a reputation lest these heroes seem somehow less heroic. I remember a book from a few years back entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me. The book chronicled the misinformation we often perpetuate in our schools in order to make our history less damning. These things can be as innocuous as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or as injurious as the myth of American exceptionalism perpetrated in many textbooks. The truth is we should not need our heroes to be perfect and we should not perpetuate myths of their perfection. The question is ultimately not whether a school or building should be named after Woodrow Wilson, but why his documented racism has been kept so far under wraps that this legacy was not a part of the conversation.

I think the protesting students have a point. Certainly, the institution needs to publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism as apart of a more complex and thoughtful examination of the man. Renaming schools and buildings may not be viable or even desirable, but I don't think anyone should have to eat in a dining hall under the picture of someone who worked to make sure they were never admitted to the university. 

In 1958 in my hometown of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the local school board decided to name the new high school under construction after the great scientist and "father of the atomic bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was an eminent scholar, and as a leader of the Manhatten Project, a World War II hero. Oppenheimer seemed like a great guy to name a school after. However, anti-communist fervor was still rampant in the country, and when it was discovered that Oppenheimer had lost his security clearance with the government as part of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, a hue and cry came up from the community and Oppenheimer's name was removed from the school. What name was chosen in its place? Woodrow Wilson High School. 

So a great scientist who was falsely suspected of being a commie was replaced by a documented racist and the people of Levittown were okay with that. Perhaps those folks could plead ignorance in 1958, but it is education's mission to eradicate ignorance. The protesters in Princeton have, if nothing else, awakened the country to the dark side of one of its heroes. Ultimately, that is a good thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Should Reading Be Taught in Kindergarten?

In a rather snarky post in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog last week, literacy expert and professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tim Shanahan, mocked a recent article in The Atlantic, by Tim Walker, entitled "The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.The Atlantic article reports on the play oriented kindergarten practices of Finland.

In response Shanahan says essentially, "We're not Finland!" Personally, I am glad to hear this in a blog from the conservative Fordham Institute, since our failure to match Finland's (and other places like Singapore, Japan and Lichtenstein) performance on international tests like PISA has been a chief driver behind the education reform movement.

The United States is different from Finland, of course. Finnish children are much less likely to be poor and are much more likely to be raised in a household with two college graduates. Finnish kindergartners also learn to read in a language that is far easier to decode than English.. But five-year-olds in Finland are not developmentally that much different from five-year-olds in the US. Five-year-olds around the world learn best through structured play. As Mr. Rogers said long ago, "Play is really the work of childhood."

Shanahan says he has read the research and that to argue that literacy should not be taught in kindergarten is a claim you can make "only if you don't know the research." Well, others have read the research too, and not everyone would agree that formal instruction in literacy in kindergarten is a good or necessary thing. Many researchers, including Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years, argue that "no research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten."

What is a poor teacher to make of this? How is a parent supposed to know what is appropriate for kindergarten? As usual, the best answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

An unfortunate by-product of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Common Core State Standards has been to make kindergarten instruction look more like first grade, and not a very joyful first grade at that. The Common Core standards' call for kindergartners to read "emergent texts with fluency" and "identify long and short vowels with common spellings" and "use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes" leads inevitably to more teacher directed instruction and developmentally inappropriate worksheet completion activities for kindergartners.

To his credit, Shanahan says he does not support worksheet driven instruction in kindergarten, but he must have some serious blinkers on if he believes that the Common Core call for more rigor has not already led to more worksheet driven, teacher-centered, developmentally inappropriate instruction in kindergarten across the country. One person's rigor is another person's worksheet. And research would support the idea that children don't need to be reading by the end of kindergarten, they just need to have the knowledge and understandings in place to help them be successful in learning to read.

On the other hand, it is part of the work of children in kindergarten and, therefore, part of the responsibility of kindergarten teachers to make sure that every child is ready to become a successful reader. Most of this work can be accomplished through structured play. Here is the literacy knowledge that rising first graders should take with them from kindergarten.

  • A rich oral language both spoken and receptive
  • A love of books
  • An awareness that books can entertain and inform
  • A working knowledge of the alphabet
  • Concepts about print like how to hold a book, how to turn pages and that print carries the meaning
  • The ability to hear and generate rhymes
  • The ability to hear and segment sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • The ability to match sounds to letters (phonics)
  • A store of about 25 sight words (the, it, and, I, me)
  • The ability to retell a story that has been read aloud
These literacy abilities can be acquired through the following instructional designs:
  • Structured play activities where students interact orally and in writing
  • Daily read alouds
  • Shared reading
  • Interactive or shared writing
  • Direct teacher instruction (kept brief and focused)
  • Word and language games and activities
  • Targeted small group instruction
  • One-on-one instruction as needed
  • Independent reading
  • Independent writing
Of course, no successful kindergarten program can be one-size-fits-all. The younger the children, the more critical it is that a program meet individual needs. When it comes to kindergarten literacy some children will enter already reading, some will have some letter knowledge and still others will not yet know their letters. Instruction must meet the needs of all these students. Readers should get instruction that strengthens their precocious reading ability and letter name learners must receive instruction that helps them learn their letters, but none of this means that play is not central to the kindergarten experience.  For a good guide book on developmentally appropriate kindergarten instruction, I recommend Kindergarten Literacy, by Anne McGill-Franzen.

In the end, kindergarten can be a joyful experience full of rich literacy learning opportunities. Should a child be expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten? My answer would be no. Should every child leave kindegarten positioned to become a successful reader through subsequent instruction in first grade and beyond? Absolutely.