Sunday, May 24, 2015

Putting the Student and Teacher at the Center of Reading Instruction

Take a moment and look at the chart below and ask yourself, “As a teacher and/or parent which of these two approaches to learning to read would I want for my students/children?”

Contrasting Approaches to Reading Instruction

Instructional Material
Self-selected multicultural literature
Prescribed reading material

Instructional Approach
Teaching for individual strengths & needs
One-size-fits all reading programs
Assessment of Performance
Authentic, teacher based assessment
High stakes standardized testing
Curriculum Design
Collaborative student-centered curriculum
Standards-based curriculum
Teacher Role in Instruction
Teacher as reflective practitioner
Mandated instruction
Purpose of Instruction
Achieving social justice and equity
Achieving global competitiveness

I think most of us would select #1. The first choice seems more student friendly, includes a wider variety of reading materials and empowers teachers to make instructional decisions based on the needs of the children in the seats in front of them.

Now let me label the two approaches to reading instruction.

Whole Language
Corporate Education “Reform”
Instructional Material
Self-selected multicultural literature
Prescribed reading material

Instructional Approach
Teaching for individual strengths & needs
One-size-fits all reading programs
Assessment of Performance
Authentic, teacher based assessment
High stakes standardized testing
Curriculum Design
Collaborative student-centered curriculum
Standards-based curriculum
Teacher Role in Instruction
Teacher as reflective practitioner
Mandated instruction
Purpose of Instruction
Achieving social justice and equity
Achieving global competitiveness

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute you fooled me. Isn’t whole language a discredited approach to teaching reading?” In many ways you would be right. Whole language approaches to teaching reading have been under attack almost from the moment they became prominent as a way of teaching in the 1980s. The reason whole language was discredited makes for compelling reading on its own.

Garn Press under the leadership of literacy researcher and family literacy advocate, Denny Taylor, has recently published a new and expanded version of the book that was central to the spread of whole language approaches to reading instruction, Ken Goodman’s What’s Whole in Whole Language? The new edition is called What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century?” It includes a new introduction and afterword from Goodman, a chapter by Taylor explaining the political and economic forces behind the discrediting of whole language, interviews with leading literacy experts reflecting on Goodman’s contribution, and a chapter by Bess Altwerger and Rick Meyer called “Teachers as Reflective Practioners”, from which the chart above was taken.

What happened to whole language? The short form of the answer is 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 a real threat to the large reading textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill and others. Imagine if schools spent their money on literature and stopped buying workbooks? To head off the economic threat and to appeal to right wing advocates who had long held that the one true path to reading was phonics, politically motivated “research” was funded and touted as “scientific” proof that phonics was good and whole language was bad. For the long form answer to what happened you can read Goodman’s book or you could readthis article by Northern Arizona University professor John Reyner.

I am a whole language advocate, in part because I could never figure out how to teach reading with “half language”, which is what phonics is at best. As a whole language advocate, I do believe that phonics should be taught. It is just that I believe that phonics is best taught in the pursuit of meaning and as the students need it in their pursuit of meaning. The purpose of all communication is meaning. And as I have said in other posts here and here, meaning plays a key role in decoding a text. Phonics plays a role, too, but it is subsidiary to meaning.

Ken Goodman says, whole language is a “way of bringing together a view of language, a view of learning, and a view of people, in particular two special groups of people: kids and teachers.” By putting kids and teachers at the center of instruction and by recognizing that becoming literate should be a joyful activity, whole language offers the best possible chance to bring children to literacy. Programs do not teach children to read, programs do not lead to joyous celebrations of literacy; teachers teach children to read, with help from parents and a community of readers in the classroom.

It is an error to think that whole language denies the teaching of phonics. Much of Marie Clay’s work on early literacy is indebted to Goodman’s work on miscue analysis and decoding. Clay’s work provides the foundation for early intervention programs like Reading Recovery and guided reading. Both these approaches also emphasize the informed teacher using good judgment and knowledge of the child to bring the child to literacy and both have a decoding emphasis.

It is, however, true that whole language puts phonics, and all other bits and pieces of language, second to the quest for meaning. It is the quest for meaning that drives the student to become a skilled decoder; it is not the other way around.

In a very large sense we can see the corporate education reform movement, with its standards, high-stakes tests and prescribed reading material as an effort to remove the teacher from the teaching/learning equation. Corporate education reform puts materials, instructional prescriptions, and tests at the center of learning. It is an anti-teacher and, ultimately, anti-child movement.

I think all of us want the kind of teaching that is indicated in the Whole Language column above. We want teachers making decisions about children they know well; we want children having choice and voice in what they read; we want a large part of literacy learning to be joyous. By putting the child and the well-informed, professional teacher at the center of teaching and learning, a whole language approach offers our best hope for a more literate, more equitable society.

Read this: Goodman, Ken (2014-11-05). What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century? Garn Press. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Reading Strategies Book, by Jennifer Serravallo: A Review

Have you ever thought, “Boy, I wish someone would write a book that brought together all the great reading instruction strategies I have encountered over the years?” Good News! The book is here, written by former teacher, and current literacy consultant, Jennifer Serravallo and entitled, The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. The title tells you the story. This is the most complete, best informed collection of reading instruction strategies I have ever seen.

Three words, I think, best sum up this book: informed, comprehensive and practical.

The book is informed by the best of research, theory and practice in the field. Serravallo spent many years working as a staff developer at Columbia’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project under Lucy Calkins, so it is not surprising that this book integrates many strategies around Calkins workshop approach, but many other major contributors to our understanding of literacy instruction are also well-represented. These include Marie Clay (early literacy), Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell (guided reading), Ken Goodman (miscue analysis), Regie Routman (Invitations), Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis (comprehension strategies), Ellin Keene (text connections), Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm (middle school readers), Richard Allington (reader engagement), and even including sound advice on the Common Core touted close reading from Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. In fact, think of a book on literacy you’ve read, or wished you had read, over the past 20 years and it is likely represented here.

The book is comprehensive in that it includes strategies for teaching readers from kindergarten through grade 8, not in a lock step manner, but in a way that helps the teacher choose what strategy is right for a given group of readers based on what the readers know and are able to do, rather than on what grade they are in. Further, every aspect of reading instruction is addressed from emergent reading, to print work, to fluency, to comprehension of fiction and non-fiction, to reader engagement, to writing about reading. It also provides multiple instructional strategies for whatever you wish to target in your instruction whether it be monitoring for comprehension, decoding, developing fluency, determining importance, inferring, or supporting student conversations.

Perhaps most importantly, the book is practical.  I must say that reading it warmed my pragmatic little heart. In her introduction, Serravallo says the book was patterned after Chef Mark Bittman’s, How to Cook Everything, a book that has an honored place on my shelves. Serravallo has organized the book like the best cook book you can imagine. It is no exaggeration to say that a teacher could pick up this book today and start cooking teaching with it tomorrow.

Each chapter is organized around thirteen goals that Serravallo has organized to allow the teacher to choose the goal that is right for the developing reader in her classroom. Within each goal based chapter are the skills students need to achieve the goals and then specific strategies teachers can use to help students.

And best of all, each and every one of those strategies is one page and each and every one of those pages is a piece of instructional nirvana for the harried teacher. On these strategy pages Serravallo shows that she is an experienced teacher and teacher developer who knows good instruction and knows how to help teachers apply good instruction. Besides an explanation of the strategy, each strategy page might contain a Teaching Tip, Lesson Language, Teaching Prompts, and a visual to help the teacher see what the instruction might look like in the classroom. The Lesson Language shows how Serravallo might explain or demonstrate a strategy. The Prompts will surely help the teacher guide student learning and probe student understanding. Many of the visuals might well become anchor charts in the classroom.

Each page also contains marginal notes that will help the teacher decide what level reader the strategy is designed for, as well as the genre/text type to use with the strategy and the skills that are being addressed. A Hat Tip box tells you from what source the strategy was adapted.

Whether a teacher is working in a workshop instructional model, a guided reading/literacy center model, a basal reader/anthology model or a Daily 5 model, this book will fit very nicely into the instructional framework. For teachers stuck with a prescribed scope and sequence for instruction, this book will help the teacher meet the needs of those students who don’t fit neatly into a rigid instructional design.

My advice: beg, borrow or steal this book now. If your budget only allows for one book to support your literacy instruction for the next school year, this is the one.

Serravallo, Jennifer. (2015) The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Derailing the Public Schools

As yet we don’t know what caused the horrific crash of the Amtrak train in Philadelphia this week. Human error? Mechanical malfunction? Delayed technology? The crash happened less than 20 miles from my home on a stretch of track that I travel regularly into Philly or Washington. As a frequent traveler, I can assure one and all of something certain: our train infrastructure has been allowed to fall into ignominious disrepair. A trip on the train these days is like traveling through the pages of a history book detailing the once glorious system of public works in this country, which has then been allowed to fall into a mess of barely functional tracks, dilapidated train stations, rusting bridges and routine lengthy delays. Why has this happened? Why in the age of European and Japanese bullet trains, does it take longer to take the train from Philadelphia to Washington today than it did 50 years ago?

Adam Gopnick, writing in The New Yorker, has the answer I believe. In a piece called The Plot Against Trains, he says:

What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.

That train that derailed travelled right past the crumbling hulk of the junior high school my mother attended. In fact in travelling through Philadelphia the train passed dozens of crumbling dilapidated schools that were once pointed to with pride by the citizens and civic leaders of my home town. At one time we were justly proud of the fine edifices we constructed for our children to go to school and at one time those buildings housed the very best that public education had to offer in this country.

What happened? Many things happened, of course. There was the systematic creation of the ghetto brought on by federal, state and local housing policies after World War II (please see the work of Richard Rothstein on this phenomenon), there was “white flight” to the suburbs, but mostly this was the rise of the political philosophy, as Gopnick has pointed out in relation to trains and airports, that the government can ultimately do no good. In the large cities of America, we have exactly the schools we deserve because we have refused to invest in them.

This pathological, deeply ingrained distrust of government is perhaps best demonstrated by the House voting to cut Amtrak funding the day after the tragic accident, but it is also symbolized by the decision to privatize education. The charter school movement, the voucher movement, the entire narrative of “failing schools” and “bad teachers” is all a part of this refusal to provide adequate monies to provide for what we used to call “public works.” If, as Gopnick said, the dominant ideology is that no ultimate good can be provided by the state, why should we spend state monies on schools? Let the privatizers run the schools; the job is big, expensive and messy anyway.

Philadelphia, where the train accident occurred, is an object lesson in how to destroy a public school system. The system had been starved of funds for decades before any politician noticed. Then suddenly after systematically denying funds to the school system, politicians determined that the solution to the problem ridden public school system they created was charter schools. These schools then proliferated in the city, with very, very mixed results. Some did well, if test scores are your measure of improvement, some did poorly, some closed in the middle of the school year leaving students stranded, and some charter leaders defrauded the public out of their money. But good, bad, indifferent or criminal, all charters drained money from an already cash strapped school district and led to the further deterioration of this once great public institution.

All of this was intentional. All of this could have been avoided. All of this is the result of our refusal to appropriately meet our public responsibility.

The truth is that there are things that government can do better than private industry. Public transportation is one. Protecting the environment is another. Public schooling is the most important. Our refusal to provide the money needed to support public programs can be seen by anyone who rides a train, listens to climate change deniers or walks into an urban public school.

We need to wake up. We need to recognize that public monies well spent make life better for us all. We need to realize that the decay of urban school systems is a problem for all of us and it will take money from all of us to begin to fix it. I wish instead of using their great wealth to pursue their own flawed vision of schooling that plutocrats like Bill Gates and the Waltons would just pay their taxes and let us use the money on our public schools. It is time to take the private out of our schools and put the public, the whole of us, back into our public schools, because whether we choose to believe it or not, we all have skin in this game.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Chris Christie’s Lessons for School Children

By definition a leader is “one who shows the way.” Citizens, including school children, look to their leaders for lessons in terms of character, doing the right thing, behavior in public and how to treat those less powerful. Since the moment that he entered office, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has provided lessons that no parent or teacher would wish on school children. Here is a sampling.

Lesson 1: Be a bully

In a recent Rutgers Eagleton poll, New Jersey residents used the terms bully, arrogant, selfish and aggressive to describe the Governor. Apparently, Chris Christie flunked kindergarten. These are hardly the words one would hope people used to describe a leader and role model for children. The Washington Post, noting that Christie has a video crew follow him around to capture moments in meetings when he bullies a New Jersey citizen so that his bullying reputation can be bolstered by You Tube videos, says simply, “The reason Chris Christie is so good at this is that Chris Christie is actually a bully… He's someone who uses his office to intimidate people and punish or humiliate perceived enemies.”

Bridgegate is, of course, the most famous bullying incident, but bullying tactics have been central to Christie’s leadership style from the beginning. These incidents include stripping a former governor of his police security at public events, taking funding away from a Rutgers professor who had somehow offended him, disinviting a state senator from an event in the man’s own district, stalling another state senator’s judicial appointment and of course, berating citizens at town hall meetings and even chasing one down the boardwalk yelling, “Keep walking, Keep walking.”

It is ironic that the man who signed the Anti-Bullying Act in New Jersey in the wake of the Tyler Clementi suicide, embodies the characteristics of a bully that that legislation was designed to address in and around schools. Here is the definition of bullying in that act:

"Harassment, intimidation or bullying" means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic…
·         [an act] a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student…
·         [an act that] has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students…
·         [any act that] creates a hostile educational environment

By this or any other definition, Chris Christie shows the school children of New Jersey it is good to be a bully.

Lesson 2. Talk back to your teachers

Teachers are a favorite target of Christie’s bullying. He has been videoed angrily berating teachers on several occasions. New Jersey teachers Marie Corfield and Melissa Tomlinson have both felt the steam of Chris the Bully. Both women, both teachers, both asking the Governor simple questions about school funding and his inflammatory rhetoric in a public place, both shouted down by an angry faced bully.

Teachers have made a convenient scapegoat for Christie’s unwillingness to tax the wealthy of the state to meet pension obligations or to fully fund schools. As New Jersey teacher, Mark Weber, points out in an article in The Progressive,

He accused teachers of “using the students like drug mules to carry information back to the classroom.” He claimed teachers were “standing in front of classrooms, and lying about and excoriating the governor.” He told a group of Trenton high school students that if their teachers cared about learning, they wouldn’t be at the annual teachers’ convention.

Christie’s message to children? No need to show your teachers any respect. If a teacher questions your efforts or corrects you, feel free to shout them down.

Lesson 3. Ignore your commitments

By his own account, Christie’s “biggest government victory” was pension reform. In 2011, Christie negotiated concessions from public employee unions that required the union members to accept reduced benefits and pay more into their pensions. Christie agreed that the state would end years of underfunding the pension when he signed the bill and pledged that the bill would “bring to an end years of broken promises.” Christie has ridden this agreement to national prominence as a Republican who can work with the “other side.”

Faced with a budget shortfall this year, however, Christie broke his promise. When the unions sued for him to follow his own law, Christie sent his lawyers to court to argue that this “signature achievement” was unconstitutional. Rather than raise taxes to meet his commitment, which would have damaged his presidential aspirations, Christie reneged on his promises, something the public employees, who continue to meet their obligations to the pension fund, were not allowed to do.

For a school child the lesson is clear. Stick to your agreements as long as they are convenient; once the agreement is not working for you, well – never mind.

Lesson 4. When in trouble blame your friends

Christie says he has been “exonerated” for Bridgegate, the scandal that broke over a nasty little retribution scheme aimed at the mayor of Fort Lee who had the audacity to decline to endorse Christie in his re-election campaign. When the story broke, Christie was quick to throw his friends under the school bus. These were all people he knew well and who he had appointed to important positions. Christie threw the full weight of the blame on these people, never acknowledging that he was the person responsible for setting the climate of bullying and intimidation that ruled in his office.

Christie has clearly modeled for school children that the best way to deal with getting caught doing something wrong is to look around and point the finger at any convenient target and never, ever accept any personal responsibility.

So there we have it, four clear lessons for school children from the leader of their state. I am sure Governor Christie, like all leaders, would like to think of himself as a role model. Well, Governor, I have seen some role models in my day, and I would say unless you are auditioning for the role of Tony Soprano, you are no role model.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style

Back in the 1960s Mississippi was a flashpoint for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. As a student living in the north in those years my consciousness on the issue was raised by the murder in Philadelphia, Mississippi of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, and by a song by popular folk singer Phil Ochs. Ochs song was an angry and bitter anthem decrying the shameful civil rights record of the state.

                            Here's to the State of Mississippi
                            For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines
                            If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find
                            Whoa the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes
                            The calender is lyin' when it reads the present time
                            Whoa, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
                            Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of

Enlightenment is still a long way off in Mississippi. Today, I read in the Clarion-Ledger that the “Great State of Mississippi” will, by law, retain 5,800 third graders (15.8% of all Mississippi third graders) because of their performance on a standardized reading test.

Apparently, the lawmakers in Mississippi have determined to strike a blow against the dreaded scourge of “social promotion” by punishing eight-year-olds for the sins of adults. What are the sins of adults that I point to here? Well, the first and most obvious is to put faith in a one shot test as a determinant of student reading ability. No test, no matter how well vetted, designed and field tested, can stand up to that burden.

But there were many other sins committed by adults before the students took the test. The most obvious one, of course, is that many of the students who have failed this test are poor. Poverty takes a terrible toll on a child’s ability to learn and poverty is the result of deliberate policies that have been put in place by federal. state and local governments over the last 100 years. As economist Paul Krugman stated it recently,

The point is that there is no excuse for fatalism as we contemplate the evils of poverty in America. Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages.

Beyond adult unwillingness to do anything substantive about poverty, we also have the failure to provide these children with the resources they need to be successful readers by the end of third grade. While the Mississippi law exempts children who have been classified with learning disabilities, it has clearly not provided non-classified children with the resources they need to be successful.

What would these resources look like? Let’s start with high quality pre-school programs. Let’s continue with high quality and readily available health care services. Good health and good pre-schools have been shown to predict better learning in schools. Failure to provide them is a failure of adults.

Once the children are in school, schools need resources to meet the needs of children who struggle to learn to read. In most schools this will be between 10 and 20% of children, in high poverty locations the numbers will be higher. These students need effective interventions, designed to meet the individual and unique needs of the child. These interventions are costly; they demand highly trained specialists, plenty of time and small class sizes.

Have the adults of Mississippi supported the cost of these interventions? Not hardly. According to a 2013 U.S Census Bureau Report, Mississippi’s per student spending on education is among the lowest in the country.

And what do we know about retention as a method of remediation?  While anecdotal reports of successful retention experiences exist, the overwhelming weight of the evidence shows that retention is a failed policy. In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass say:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is a greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children.

As I said in an earlier post, what the struggling readers in Mississippi and everywhere else need is attention, not retention. Repeating a grade won’t help most children, but providing a program that attends to the needs of struggling readers will.

Any enlightened policy, informed by research and an understanding of children and how they learn and the challenges that some children face in learning to read, would look at what interventions the child needs to become a reader. It takes time and it costs money, but it beats retention and it has the potential for success. There are many fine, skilled readers out there who did not read well by the end of third grade. Struggling to read in third grade is not a death sentence unless adults, like those in Mississippi, decide to make it so.

In a very real sense third graders who are being retained because of test scores in Mississippi are the victims of what Krugman called malign neglect. And so I would add a coda to Phil Ochs song of many years ago:

                        Here’s to the child you’ve torn out the heart of,
                        Mississippi find yourself a better program to be part of.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Accountability for Charter Schools in Philadelphia

Hey, Philadelphia Mayoral candidates. let's adopt the Annenberg accountability standards for charter school oversight.

It looks like charter school proliferation will continue in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. While newly elected Governor Tom Wolfe has fired School Reform Commission chair and charter champion, Bill Green, a hopeful sign, the two leading candidates for mayor range from an aggressively pro-charter, pro-voucher Anthony Williams to Jim Kenney, a former board member of Independence Charter School, who says he knows “how important charter schools are to the families they serve.”

Philadelphians interested in a strong system of public education do, however, have a clear choice. Anthony Williams is backed by the virulently pro-charter, pro-voucher Susquehanna International Group (SIG), a suburban Philadelphia investment firm, who has given Williams close to 1 million dollars to support television ads. This after supporting him to the tune of 1.5 million in his quixotic run for governor last year.

According to the Philly Voice Williams campaign manager, Dawn Chavous, has not only worked for SIG, but is a former executive director of Students First, a pro-charter, anti-union lobbying group who has also donated money to Williams in his various campaigns. Clearly, a vote for Williams is a vote for the further decimation of the Philadelphia public schools through the proliferation of charters and efforts to divert scarce public school funds to voucher programs.

Kenney, while a former charter board member and whose public pronouncements have shied away from a position in opposition to charters, has a more balanced view of the issue. He has called for charter schools to work cooperatively with the other public schools for the benefit of all children. He demands that charter schools operate in an open and transparent manner and be both fiscally and educationally accountable. He calls for an end to activities that discourage students with special needs from applying for admittance.

Kenney’s positions strongly echo some of the recommendations of the Annenberg Institute of School Reform out of Brown University. In a white paper that came out last fall, entitled, Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight, the Annenberg group calls for the following improvements to charter school oversight.

1. Traditional school districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children.

This recommendation echoes the original purpose of charter schools to be innovative laboratories that worked with regular public schools for the improvement of all.

2. School governance should be representative and transparent.

Too often charter school boards have been made up largely of people outside the actual school community and have operated in secret beyond the purview of the families sending their children to the school.

3. Charter schools should ensure equal access to interested students and prohibit practices that discourage enrollment or disproportionately push-out enrolled students with special needs.

Many charters have used methods, both subtle and overt, to insure they attract only the students they want to teach and who have the best chance of providing higher test scores.

4. Charter school discipline policy should be fair and transparent.

In previous posts I have discussed the militaristic behavior policies and harsh and demeaning punishments I have witnessed in charter schools. I characterize these policies as “colonialism.” These “no excuses” policies would never be acceptable in the suburban public schools.

5. All students deserve equitable and adequate school facilities. Districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure facility arrangements do not disadvantage students in either sector.

In the battle over instructional space, there should be no winners and losers. All children deserve a safe, clean, well-resourced place to learn.

6. Online charter schools should be better regulated for quality, transparency and the protection of student data.
                Pennsylvania’s battles with the online charter K12, Inc., the managers of  the Agora Charter Schools are well documented. Besides a variety of frauds perpetrated on the public coffers, these online charters have been shown to come up woefully short in meeting student learning goals

7. Monitoring and oversight of charter schools are critical to protect the public interest; they should be strong and fully state funded.

In 2010, the Philadelphia Comptroller’s Office released a report on the lax  oversight of Philadelphia’s charter schools and the widespread fraud and pilfering of public funds that resulted. The litany of abuses is long and extremely worrying. Charter schools often escape the type of scriutiny that regular public schools receive routinely.

Charter school boosters were quick to criticize the Annenberg recommendations. Michael Brickman of the pro-charter Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote in their newsletter, Flypaper, that while some of these suggestions made sense, that

The ideas…would stifle the innovation we are getting from charter schools by bludgeoning them with regulation. If enacted, the recommendations in the report would negate many of the recent advances in school design and utilization that have been enabled by charter flexibility.

In other words don’t make us play by the same rules because we can’t be innovative if you do. Apparently innovation means hours of test prep instruction, draconian discipline policies and fiscal mismanagement and fraud. We can do without these innovations.

Just days ago the Nashville, Tennessee school board adopted the Annenberg policy standards. I would like to see call from all who care about public education in Philadelphia for all mayoral candidates to declare that they will adopt the Annenberg Institute policy recommendations for charter schools as soon as the election is over. If we must live with charter schools in Philadelphia for the near future, that is the least we can expect from our public officials.

What do you say Mr. Williams and Mr. Kenney? Are you on board?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Is Kindergarten Ready for Your Child?

My young granddaughter has been the cause of some consternation around the Walsh household lately. It seems that Schuyler has reached the ripe old age of 13 months without a tooth in sight. This has driven my daughter Megan, Schuyler’s mother, onto the internet and into the doctor’s office seeking information on “tooth readiness.” After all if the kid can’t even grow teeth in a timely manner, what possible chance does she have to be “kindergarten ready” let alone “college and career ready” as the Common Core demands that she be by the time she graduates high school. Schuyler’s readiness checklist has a gaping hole where it says: “Has teeth.”

Right now the education nation seems to be obsessed with “readiness.” Kids apparently need to be ready for pre-school, which leads to being ready for kindergarten. Teachers sit around at this time of year and discuss whether their kindergarten children are ready for first grade. Of course we know that the Common Core State Standards were developed to ensure that students were getting “college and career ready” starting from the moment they entered the school door.

At the recent Network for Public Education conference in Chicago, college professor, author and researcher, Yong Zhao, said the country has this all backwards. The question is not whether my child is ready for kindergarten; the question is “Is kindergarten ready for my child?”

This is exactly right. It is the job of the adults to design a learning environment that meets every child’s need. It is not the responsibility of the child to adapt to what the educators have decided they should be doing. We know that young children vary greatly in their development. We cannot fit 5 year-olds into one-size-fits-all curriculum straightjackets, any more than we can expect my granddaughter to develop teeth on our timeline.

So, what kind of kindergarten is child ready?

A kindergarten that is ready for children is one that recognizes that play is the work of children. Play in kindergarten is a special kind of play; it is play that is skillfully designed by the teacher to create environments for learning. According to Bedrova and Leong, (2006), the kindergarten year “must emphasize the underlying skills that will make later academic success possible. This should be accomplished not by pushing down the curriculum goals and objectives of first grade, but by creating learning opportunities that will address the unique developmental accomplishments that ought to emerge in kindergarten” (p. 142). Notice “not by pushing down the curriculum goals of first grade.” One thing I hear over and over again is that the Common Core and before that NCLB makes kindergarten like first grade.

What do children learn through structured play? The list of learning that takes place in appropriately structured block play and dramatic play is very long. Children learn to problem solve, sort and classify, work cooperatively, measure, balance, gain number sense, self-regulate, consider another’s point of view, develop spatial awareness and delay gratification.  Perhaps most impressively and importantly, children engaged in active and structured play with other children develop their oral language, their vocabulary, their ability to listen, sequence and retell and their ability to represent objects and concepts symbolically. This oral language development becomes the child’s greatest ally in coming to be literate.

But kindergarten should not be all play. There is plenty of room for academic content in the kindergarten classroom. The question is not should we teach stuff, but how should we teach stuff? The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). They say that young children learn best through a variety of instructional designs including large and small group instruction and play. Direct teacher instruction has increased greatly over the past few years. While this design can be used in small doses, over-reliance on large group instruction is an artifact of No Child Left Behind and Common Core and is not the best way for young children to learn.

Some children will enter kindergarten reading, some will be on the cusp of reading, and some will still be learning their letters. All will benefit from play, but all will also benefit from large group instruction such as morning meeting activities and small group instruction that can target their particular skills. Children who come to kindergarten reading should be able to continue their growth as readers and children who are just beginning to learn letters and hear sounds should receive instruction that helps them acquire these literacy abilities.

We must be careful, however, to make sure that the greater academic focus of kindergarten does not crowd out the traditional role of kindergarten in developing children socially and emotionally. According to the NAEYC, teachers believe social and emotional learning is more important in the early years than academic learning.

The Common Core is mute on social and emotional development, except to recognize that the standards do not address these important aspects of learning. It is interesting that much research has shown that graduating from college is more dependent on a student’s social and emotional skills than academic skills. If social and emotional learning, taught through play and targeted instruction, is crowded out of kindergarten by the Common Core standards we are likely to be unhappy with the results. We neglect social and emotional learning in schools at our children’s peril and at the risk of their “college readiness.”

What makes kindergarten ready for the child? A kindergarten that is ready for your child is one where play is central to learning. It is a place where your child develops the oral language facility and vocabulary that will support literacy learning. It is a place where children are read to every day. It is a place where instruction not only targets academic goals, but specifically and systematically targets social and emotional learning. It is a place where all children are welcomed for what they know and can do and where they all can develop their abilities with appropriate support over time. You can see more of my thoughts on the topic in this post.

As the organization Defending the Early Years has pointed out in its recent report," No research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten." While some children will begin to read in kindergarten, the Common Core expectation that all children will be reading emergent reader texts by the end of kindergarten is precisely the kind of "standard" that forces teachers to abandon appropriate kindergarten learning environments for an academic emphasis. To the extent that education reform does not allow for a developmentally appropriate environment, the reform is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst. 

By the way, granddaughter Schuyler is now 15 months old  and at a recent family gathering showed off two teeth, one on the bottom and one on the top. As it is with learning benchmarks, sometimes kids just need a little time.


Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2006). Tools of the Mind. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.