Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Best Education Books of 2014

Here is one person's year end list of the books that every informed educator and champion of public education should read very soon, if not now.

The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, by Anthony Cody, NY:Garn Press.

If, like me, you were a big fan of Cody's late lamented Living in Dialogue column in Education Week, you will find more of Cody's thoughtful, informed critiques of the corporate education reform movement in this book. Here Cody, one of the true heroes of public education, aims his arrows directly at reformer in chief Bill Gates and he hits bullseye after bullseye. To understand how one person and one person's money can spread a mistaken idea from Seattle to Chicago to New York to the White House to your neighborhood school pick up Cody's impassioned and thoroughly readable book.

A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, by Mercedes K. Schneider, Charlotte, NC: Information Age Press

If Cody focuses on the damage done to public education by Bill Gates, Schneider seemingly takes on every other corporate education reformer in her book. Schneider provides us with a sort of field guide to corporate education reformers. Name a reformer and Schneider will provide a detailed account of her/his misdeeds. Those of you familiar with Schneiders writing from her blog deutch29 (and if you aren't you should be) will be familiar with Schneider's penchant for finely detailed investigative reporting, skilled analysis of data and air of indignation.

50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, by David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass, NY: Teachers College Press

Berliner and Glass are two highly respected researchers who use their knowledge of research to systematically dismantle every canard of the corporate education movement. Name an issue: charter school superiority to public schools, international tests showing the failure of our public schools, merit pay will improve teacher performance, class size doesn't matter, retention will improve achievement, money doesn't matter, education will lift the poor out of poverty. Berliner and Glass take on each of these issues, present the reformer argument and then cite research to show how wrong they are.

50 Myths is the perfect book to have on hand when in the company of those who carp about charters, choice and "bad" schools. Clear and easy to read, this is a book you will refer to over and over.

Rethnking Value-Added Models in Education: Critical Perspectives on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability, by Audrey Amrein Beardsley. NY: Routledge

Here is a book that every teacher must read in the era of standardized test-based accountability. In school after school, in state after state, teachers are being judged (in small or large part) on value-added models (VAMs) based on student performance on standardized tests. Amrein-Beardsley is the foremost authority on  VAMs in the country. She created the blog Vamboozled! as a forum for information and criticism of VAM based accountability measures. In this book, Amrein-Beardsley takes a scholarly approach to the dismantling of the research and rhetoric behind VAMs.

Her conclusions: VAMs are unreliable, invalid, nontransparent, unfair, full of measurement errors, and being used inappropriately to make key decisions about teacher retention, termination and pay. Other than that they are just peachy.

Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers and the Attack on Public Education, by John Kuhn. NY: Teachers College Press.

John Kuhn is one part story teller, one part evangelist and one part passionate champion of public education. Through personal narrative, historical reference, sound research and righteous indignation he lays waste to the corporate education reform movement in his compelling new book. What I love about Kuhn's writing is that his well told stories and carefully cited sources give way at times to bursts of passionate advocacy that have the reader, at least this life-long educator, primed to storm the beaches of the Gates Foundation or the Halls of Teach for America if necessary, to do what is right by children, teachers, parents and public education. You can read my full review of the book here.

Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency, by Jan Miller Burkins & Kim Yaris. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

This one is for all my literacy instruction friends. Burkins and Yaris cut through all the Common Core standards gobbledy-gook to provide teachers with a clear eyed approach to bringing children to reading by developing both the skill and the will to read. The authors, both former teachers who have become influential voices in the literacy field through their blog, Burkins and Yaris - Think Tank for the 21st Century Literacy, worry that the current mania surrounding standards and accountability will draw teacher's attention away from a broader vision of students as readers and people. They offer up a book of practical lessons and knowing advice to help teachers stay true to their literate selves and true to their students literacy needs in the strange new world that is education in the 21st century. You can read my full review here.

So there you have it. The books that have helped me through another year of public education insanity. What books did I miss? What would you recommend? I would love to hear from you here on the blog or over at the Russ on Reading Facebook page.

Have a Happy New Year and keep reading!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Common Core Backlash: Is It Just About Testing?

Today, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled Rage Against the Common Core, by David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. Kirp ties the backlash against the Common Core to the Obama administrations push for testing and accountability. The op-ed is a fairly balanced piece with much to like in it. But Kirp makes the mistake that I see over and over again in these op-eds from non-educators - that the Common Core is a good thing and that only the testing is a bad thing.

I couldn't let that stand, so here is the response I wrote for the comments section of the Times. They limited me to 1500 characters, so this is an expanded version.

To the editor:

Professor Kirp offers a reasonably balanced assessment of the backlash against the Common Core, but in doing so he makes a fundamental error that I have read from many others. That error is the assumption that the Common Core State Standards are in themselves a "good thing." While it is true that the draconian testing scheme has driven the backlash against the standards, it is simply not true that the standards are an unqualified good.

It is also an error to imply that the Common Core is somehow separate from the tests. From the outset, the Common Core was to be tied to a testing regime. One thing that makes this clear is that the panel that developed the Comon Core was dominated by people with close ties to the standardized testing community. The Common Core was written with testing in mind, not student learning. This is a fundamental flaw; what can be easily measured is very different from what students need to learn.

There are also serious questions about the developmental appropriateness of the standards for young children grades kindergarten through third grade. This is also not surprising, since not one elementary edcuator was involved in developing the standards at the ground level. A joint statement by a consortium of health and education officials cited "grave concerns about the core standards for young children…. "

Professor Kirp goes on to state that many teachers favor the standards because "instead of memorization, the Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving." Here Kirp simply repeats a well-worn Common Core advocate talking point. I have been a teacher for 45 years; I have never experienced a time in my teaching where memorization was valued over critical thinking. Good teachers have known for a very long time that the goal of education was to create thoughtful, engaged citizens, not parrots. The Common Core did not invent critical thinking as a goal of learning. In fact, by being so inextricably tied to testing, the Common Core will likely limit the time children spend in critical thinking and increase the push for rote learning.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Least of Russ on Reading

It's that time of year when every Tom, Dick and Mary comes out with his/her personal "Best of.." and "Worst of ..." lists. I thought I would take a little different approach in this post. As a blogger sometimes I feel like the little boy who "shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth I know not where." Whenever I send out a new post, I really have no idea what the response will be or even if anyone will read it. It has been gratifying that several of my posts seem to attract a fairly substantial readership, but there are others that I am quite proud of that were greeted with a collective cyber space yawn.

I would like to give these posts another shot. So here for the end of the year celebration are "The Least of Russ on Reading", those posts that attracted little attention the first time around, but that I still think are relevant. I invite you to see what you think.

What Do We Want from Public Schools
A plea for schools to focus on the joy of learning for every child.

Creative Stability: A Better Plan for Public Schools
Corporate education reformers love to talk about a business model for schools that features "creative disruption." What kids and schools really need is stability.

Teaching Teachers to Teach: Context Matters
A model for professional development designed for real tachers in real classrooms.

Sacrificing Arts Education at the Altar of Test Prep
If the schools do not offer a rich arts curriculum, where will the audiences for the great plays, great paintings and great symphonies yet to be produced come from?

Does Class Size Matter?
One person's take on this persistent question.

VAMs: Stupid Economists Tricks  
Among the many lousy ideas economists have had in the last 10 years, value added measures of teacher effectiveness top my list.

I hope you all have a happy and healthy new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Holiday Gift of Poetry

A holiday gift of poetry for my readers, one very old and very familiar and one fairly new and less familiar. Thank you all for your loyalty to Russ on Reading and have a wonderful holiday season.

Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
    And wild and sweet 
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom 
    Had rolled along 
    The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day, 
    A voice, a chime, 
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
    And made forlorn 
    The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; 
“There is no peace on earth," I said; 
    “For hate is strong, 
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
    The Wrong shall fail, 
    The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
Taking Down the Tree by Jane Kenyon
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcase increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

Enjoy the holiday and keep reading poetry, for poetry nourishes the soul.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Power of Rereading

What if you knew of a single instructional strategy that research has shown improves decoding, fluency and reading comprehension? Would you use it? Of course, you say. And yet one of the most under used literacy strategies is such a well documented strategy: the strategy of rereading.

The research is clear on the benefits of rereading. What do we know about rereading as an instructional strategy?

  1. Rereading helps students develop a deeper understanding of what they have read (Roskos and Newman, The Reading Teacher, April 2014).
  2. Rereading helps students read with greater fluency, allowing them to give more attention to making sense of what they have read (Pikulski and Chard, The Reading Teacher, March 2005).
  3. Rereading helps students develop greater accuracy in reading. When students reread, words that they may have struggled to decode on a first reading become increasingly easier to parse (Samuels, The Reading Teacher, January, 1979).
Researchers further agree that repeated readings should focus on short chunks of text and that the focus of the instruction should be on both fluency and comprehension (Rasinski, The Reading Teacher, May 2012). A further benefit of rereading is that the fluency that children build by rereading one passage seems to transfer to new readings later on. In other words, rereading leads to better first readings of text. 

With so much research to back it up, rereading should be a daily aspect of every classroom teacher's instruction. The Common Core State Standards' call for repeated reading in a "close reading" design is welcome if it encourages the use of repeated readings in all classrooms, but close reading is only one place where repeated readings can and should be used. Here are several instructional domains where repeated reading can be used to good effect.

Shared Reading

Shared reading is a whole class activity where the teacher and students share the responsibility for reading and comprehending the text. A typical shared reading lesson might focus on a short picture book or poem that is displayed on chart paper or board so that all students can read the text.

Students are prepared for reading the text through the activation of background knowledge and predictions. The text is first read aloud to the students. The teacher would then discuss the meaning of the story/poem with the students and then do repeated readings which would include echo reading and several choral readings. 

In my classroom I used the strategy across a week of morning meeting lessons, where each day we would reread the story or poem to continue the development of fluency. Poetry lends itself particularly well to rereading, because the texts are generally short and the rhythm and rhyme of poetry support a fluent reading of the text.

For a more complete description of a shared reading/fluency model you might want to look at my book Snack Attack and other poems for developing fluency in beginning readers. Infinity Press, 2012

Guided Reading

Small group instruction is another place where teachers can take advantage of repeated reading opportunities. In guided reading, where all students are reading the whole text at the same time, some students may finish before others. Students should be instructed to reread the text if they finish before others have finished.

While teachers listen in to individual readers, students may be prompted to reread a passage to gain better fluency and understanding. indeed, whenever a student stops to "work through" a word, that student should be asked to go back and reread the entire sentence in which that word appeared.

The best follow up activity for a guided reading lesson is to have the students take the book back to their desks to reread, either individually or with a buddy reader. Guided reading lessons should often begin with a "warm up" of rereading the text from the previous guided reading lesson. Eventually guided reading texts should find themselves stored in a "browsing box" where children can revisit and reread them during independent reading time.

Readers Theater

Readers Theater is a type of performance art where actors do not memorize their lines, but instead read them from a prepared script. Readers theater is an ideal activity for encouraging students to do several readings of a text. Readers theater scripts are readily available from many sources both print and online, but the simplest approach, and the most powerful instructionally, is to have studnets adapt a favorite tale for performance.

In adapting a tale, students identify the dialogue in the story, take out the "he saids" and "she saids" and assign narrative eleements of the story to one, two or three narrotors. In preparing for performance, students rehaearse by reading their parts over and over in order to capture their character through vocal expression. This rehearsal provides the student with miultiple genuine reasons for reareading and the performance aspect allows students to focus on commnicating meaning with their voices.

Readers theater activities are ideal for developing another element of reading fluency, called prosody. Prosody is nothing more than reading with expression. When a student reads with expression, that student is demonstrating a deeper understanding of the message the text is trying to convey. We might say that the student is demonstrating an inferential understanding of the text.

For more on the use of Readers Theater as a classroom strategy, see Michael Opitz and Tim Rasinski, No More Round Robin Reading.

Close Reading

Close reading requires at least three readings of a text. Choosing the right texts for close reading is critical. The texts must be brief. The texts must also be of high quality; only high quality texts reward a close reading. So when we choose to do a close reading, we should be choosing to focus on some of the finest passages from some of our finest authors for children, young adults and adults. I am thinking of Steinbeck, Faulkner and Baldwin, but I am also thinking of Cynthia Rylant, E. B. White and Katherine Paterson.

In doing a close reading, the teacher seeks to guide the students to answering three questions about the text.
  1. What does the text say?
  2. How does the author craft the message to say this?
  3. What does the text mean and how is it relevant to me?
In order to accomplish this close reading, the children are asked to read the text to first identify what it says explicitly. They then read the text to observe, with the teacher's guidance, how the author uses the skills of the writer to communicate the message. Finally, the reader reads a third time to discover the larger meanings, the personal connections and the quality of the writing.

Close reading can and should be used sparingly, but as a method that gets students rereading it fits into an overall instructional design focused on improved fluency and comprehension. For more on close reading, and especially for a student focused approach to this strategy, I highly recommend the book Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.

Rereading is a powerful instructional strategy. The more encounters children have with a text the better they will read it and the better they will understand it. Students need to be rereading text every day.