Saturday, February 13, 2016

Want Great Literacy Instruction? Trust the Teacher

In the final chapter of the book, Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, James V. Hoffman and P. David Pearson take an historical perspective on where trust is placed in the teaching of reading. Summing up more than three-hundred years of literacy education history, the authors conclude that education policy has consistently put its trust in programs rather than in teachers. Hoffman and Pearson believe this has been a mistake of historic proportions. I agree.

Teachers have rarely been given the respect they deserve as the knowledgeable professionals they are; as the persons in the best possible position to make the instructional decisions on the fly that will assist the developing reader to become a literate individual. Throughout education history all sorts of programs have been touted as "teacher proof" systems sure to bring students to literacy if compliant teachers just implement them with fidelity. And so we have seen one program after another: the alphabet-spelling method, the "look-say" method, the Dick and Jane basal readers, phonics driven Direct Instruction (DISTAR), etc., etc., etc. Interestingly, no independent research has ever found one reading program to be superior to another. All have strengths and weaknesses and all seem to serve some children well and others not so well.

The solution to the problem seems obvious to Hoffman and Pearson and to me. We have largely wasted our time investing in programs when we should have been focusing on teachers and this focus on teachers is not about training them to deliver a scripted program faithfully, but is about engaging those teachers in a professional dialogue aimed at delivering the best possible literacy instruction to children. The real answer to the literacy issue in American education is to shift our trust in literacy instruction from programs to people, from teacher proof material to teacher developed instructional plans.

Hoffman and Pearson don't mention it, but there was one brief shining moment when some teachers in some schools across the country took control of literacy education. This was the whole language movement of the 1980's and 90's. I have dealt with what killed the whole language movement in another post here. For now let it suffice to say that whole language lost the war to the interests of corporate education reform. Whole language, which focused on good literature and teacher and student decision making, was an existential threat to the large textbook and reading materials publishers. Imagine if schools shifted from spending money on basals and workbooks to buying real books! To head off the economic threat and to appeal to that group of policy makers who believed phonics instruction to be the one true way, politically motivated, supposedly "scientific" research was touted as proof that phonics worked and whole language didn't.

Hoffman and Pearson see the Common Core State Standards as an opportunity to shift away from placing trust in programs and toward a trust in teachers. The standards state that they "leave room for teachers, curriculum developers and states to determine how these goals should be reached" and the standards authors seem to wish to empower teachers to make decisions on the appropriateness of reading material based on "professional judgement, experience, and knowledge of their student and subject."  But Hoffman and Pearson also see indications that the implementation of the standards shows that they are just another wolf of a scripted program in the sheep's clothing of teacher empowerment. Specifically, the Publisher's Criteria that accompany the Common Core and direct the development of materials to support the Common Core, contains such "highly specific instructional guidance" that it "can quickly erode teacher prerogative."

And so despite the hopeful note sounded by Hoffman and Pearson, it appears that the "chief architects" of the Common Core don't trust teachers either. In my years as a curriculum and instruction supervisor, I like to think that I empowered teachers to teach. I firmly believe that the best instructional decisions are made by an informed, reflective, responsive teacher using her knowledge and experience to guide children into literacy. Not all the teachers who worked with me shared that perspective. I vividly remember one teacher saying to me, "Just give me the book that tells me what to teach and I will do it." I told her there was no such book. I told her I knew what to do based on my teacher education, my professional reading, my experience and my knowledge of the children. I told her to read the professional literature I provided and then watch the children and they would tell her what needed to be taught.

I believed then and I still believe that it is the classroom teacher who is best positioned to make those critical instructional decisions. Programs do not teach children to read. Teachers, in collaboration with those children and the parents of those children, bring children to literacy. If we wish to make real improvements in literacy instruction in this country, we need to stop looking for the "teacher proof" program and start trusting our teachers to design the curriculum and deliver the instruction that will make literacy happen.