Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Folly of Test and Punish Education Reform

In April the NAEP Test scores were released and even the most ardent advocates of test-based education reform had to be disappointed. Scores were, at best, flat, failing to recover from the 2015 drop in scores. Mike Petrilli of the reform minded Fordham Foundation said, "There is no way to sugarcoat it, they [the scores] were extremely disappointing." Reformers scrambled to find explanations. Petrilli blamed the 2008 economic recession for draining schools of money. Funny, reformers have always told us money didn't matter.

The education reformers still don't get it. After twenty-years of attempting to improve public education through policies of testing children and punishing the teaching profession, the reform movement is, in the words of Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, "a train wreck."

It should now be clear to these reformers that their mix of Common Core standards, test-based accountability, charter schools, vouchers, and vilifying teachers has failed to move the needle on educational improvement. Indeed the achievement gap has only widened. This was entirely predictable to anyone who has spent ten minutes trying to understand the issues related to schools and achievement. Public schools are reflections of the society as a whole. Trying to fix schools without an eye to all the factors that impact on the schools is a fool's errand.

American public education accurately reflects our society as a whole. In affluent suburban areas, children from comfortable homes attend well-appointed, well-staffed schools with a wide range of opportunities for extending their learning. These children largely are healthy, do well in school, on standardized tests, and in life.

In blighted urban areas children from homes where safety and food security are often not available, children with multiple health issues attend dilapidated, often under-staffed schools, with a much narrower band of opportunities, often made narrower by the obsession with test scores in a few subjects. These kids tend to not do well in school, on standardized tests, or in life (These are generalizations, of course. Many children heroically escape the cycle of poverty, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.).

Then there are buffer areas, between affluent suburb and poverty riddled city, where kids go to decent schools that are reasonably well-resourced, where families struggle to make ends meet, but mostly keep their heads above water. These kids do reasonably well in school, get decent standardized test scores, get some post high school education, and have a shot at a good life.

Education author and critic, Alfie Kohn, put it best. Standardized tests offer a "remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered." Or as I would like to yell at the education reformers, "It's the poverty, stupid!"

Since public schools are a reflection of the society, any attempt at improving public schools and with narrowing the achievement gap, must focus first of all on that society. We need to understand, as reformers seemed to in the 1960s and 1970s that it is inequity, injustice, and segregation that is damaging our public schools, just as it is damaging every other aspect of society.

Education reformers seem to take the approach that poverty is too hard to fix, so we should focus on the schools, but as the last twenty years have demonstrated, that is absolute folly. The truth is that there is not , nor has there been, an educational crisis in this country. What there is, though, is a human crisis, and what is happening in our schools reflects that human crisis.

If the billionaire reformers would show one third the passion for attacking inequity that they have shown for attacking schools and educators, we might be able to start to repair a broken society and education achievement would follow along.

None of this is meant to say that schools themselves cannot get better or should not be aspiring to do better everyday. Schools and teachers can always do better. I have been teaching for 50 years and have not taught the perfect lesson yet. We can and must always work to do better. It would be easier to implement improvements, however, if non-educators would stop trying to tell us what to do and leave the school improvement to professionals.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Following the Child: What Does that Look Like?

Last week my post, Follow the Child, Not the Program,  discussed the importance of taking our cues from the children we are teaching and not sticking slavishly to a program. This week I got an object lesson in just exactly what this means from my 14-month-old grandson, David. I had the opportunity to babysit David while his mom and dad were working and, it being one of the first really nice days of the spring in these parts, I decided to take him to the playground.  So off we went, car seat, diaper bag, snacks, and water bottles in tow on our little adventure.

Being a life-long teacher and not one to leave things to chance, of course, I had a lesson plan. I had been to this playground before with David's big sister, Schuyler, and I knew that it had a small sliding board that I thought would be just right for David. My plan called for me to introduce David to the sliding board, show him how to safely climb up on it, there were only three small steps, show him how to sit at the top and then guide his practice by helping him down and catching him safely at the bottom. Assessment would be based on the squeals of delight he would surely emit at this great pleasure his grandfather had introduced him to.

My plan broke down when David would have none of it. He did not like sitting at the top of the slide and shook his head, "No!" when I eagerly encouraged him to slide down. No amount of encouragement, cajoling, or insistence would sway him. David rose from his seat at the top of the slide, walked down the steps, indicated something he found interesting he saw off in the distance and toddled off away from me.

I was left to literally "follow the child" off into the field. What had attracted David was a clump of dandelions growing, bright and yellow, in the warm May sunshine, about twenty yards beyond the wood chip pit of the playground equipment. David sat down in the middle of this floral display, pointed to the flowers and said something that sounded like, "See this?" Well, I did see this and our sliding board lesson morphed into a science lesson on the color, shape, smell, construction, taste, and life cycle of the dandelion.

As I sat with David, we talked of yellow flowers and green stems, He tasted the flower, determining he did not care for the taste. I showed David a cottony dandelion gone to seed and how a puff of air made the seeds fly off in all directions. David thought this was terrific and I heard the squeals of delight as he blew on one puff ball and scattered the seeds willy-nilly.

In the end, David had a pleasurable learning experience with dandelions and his grandfather learned again that following the child leads to the most meaningful instruction.

But the classroom teacher can't just follow every child across the dandelion field. Lessons need to be planned and kids need literacy instruction. What does following the child look like in literacy instruction?

Following the child in reading instruction means assessing where the child is in the literacy learning process and then providing the instruction, guidance, prompting, questioning or resources needed by the learner.

So when I worked with struggling first-grade reader, Ryan, who informal assessments had shown me could identify no letters and only knew how to write his own name, and the words mom and dad, I did not start by introducing a letter of the day. I started with the letters r, m, and d in words he already knew how to write and which had special significance for him. Soon we added "t" for his brother Tommy, and then used the first letters of names of his classmates to teach other letters.

One place to follow the child is when we listen to children read. While reading children tell us what they know and don't know about words. As we follow their reading, we learn where to help and where to let them do the work. When readers get stuck we can use prompts to help them use the information available to decode a word. In Reading Recovery we called this "prompting at the point of difficulty" and it is a powerful way to help readers grow more proficient in their decoding. I discussed prompting in this post earlier this year.

One time I had a lesson planned for a guided reading group on a nonfiction book about the Statue of Liberty. Since the school where I was teaching was about 10 miles from Liberty Island, the home of the statue, I assumed the kids had a good deal of background information about the statue. I planned a quick introduction, but as I was presenting this brief introduction, it become apparent that the children did not know what I was talking about. I thought my lesson would founder if the students had so little prior knowledge, so I stopped the lesson and found a brief video online that filled in many of the knowledge gaps I thought the kids would need to read the text successfully.

Sometimes following the child means finding the right resource for them. When I was teaching seventh-grade, I had a reluctant reader named PJ. PJ was all freckles, red-hair, and smiles, until it came time to read, when the smile turned to a scowl and his freckled arms were crossed on his chest in defiance. I spoke to PJ about this. "I really don't like to read," he said.

From my assessments, I knew that PJ read on about a fifth-grade level. I asked, "What do you like?"

"My dog."

"Tell me about your dog."

PJ launched into an enthusiastic exposition of all the great things about his dog, about the fun they had together, about how he had to walk him when he got home form school and how he was responsible for cleaning up after him and feeding him and giving him fresh water every morning.

I walked PJ back to our classroom library. I pulled a copy of Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt, off the shelf, showed PJ the cover with a boy and his English bulldog, Sinbad. I told PJ a little about the story. Steve and Sinbad were best pals and Sinbad helped Steve solve a mystery, while they got into all sorts of mischief themselves. I said, "Why don't you try it? Let me know what you think?" A week or so later PJ came to me, held up the book and asked, "Do you have anymore like this, Mr. Walsh?" It so happens I did.

Following the child can take many forms. What a teacher needs to do is keep her eyes and ears open. Ask questions. Give kids opportunities to talk. Watch them work. Listen to them read. If we get too tied up in our lesson plans and programmed learning, we may be missing the teachable moments children present to us every day.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Follow the Child, Not the Program

I got into a bit of a twitter spat recently with a well-known literacy expert who reacted strongly to one of my posts. After a bit of back and forth, this person wanted to know about my credentials to discuss the topic asking, "Have you ever taught elementary school children to read?"

I responded that I had taught reading for many years as a reading specialist in grades K-4. Then came this question, "What program did you use?" A question I hear repeatedly and that I never know how to answer. I never used a program. To be sure, my work was influenced by a great many researchers and theorists: Marie Clay, Ken Goodman, P. David Pearson, S.J. Samuels, Patricia Cunningham, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Frank Smith, Lucy Calkins, Louise Rosenblatt. My work was also shaped by my professors: Susan Mandel Glazer, M. Jerry Weiss, Dorothy Strickland, John Clifford, Morton Botel, Susan Lytle, Brian Sutton-Smith, Marilyn Cochrane-Smith.

But I never followed a "program"; I followed the child. I worked primarily with vulnerable readers and writers. Kids for whom programs often had not worked very well. Applying a different program seemed futile. I got all the information I needed by talking with the child, observing the child in literacy and non-literacy situations, conducting interviews with the child, collecting samples of the child's writing, and listening to the child read aloud.

My knowledge of literacy research, theory, and instruction allowed me to make instructional decisions for children and then to try different approaches to help these vulnerable readers. Was the child able to use all the sources of information available to decode a word? Could the child track words on the page? Was the child gathering meaning while reading? Did the child carry a summary of the story forward when turning the page? This information allowed me to construct a picture of the reader and design an instructional approach.

School district administrators are often too quick to jump on (and off) the program bandwagon. If scores are low, it must be the program. Let's try another one. If an individual child is struggling, let's try a different program. Plenty of program publishers are out there ready to take school district money. All these programs have two things in common, 1) a slick presentation designed to convince you (and parents) this is the answer to all literacy learning problems, and 2) they don't work.*

Don't get me wrong, many programs have helped many children come to reading. Children are such skilled language learners, that almost any reasonably well-organized program that offers a balance between decoding instruction, comprehension instruction, actual time for reading of real texts, and teacher read aloud is successful for most.

In the 1950s, I, along with most of my classmates, learned to read using the "look-say" method found in the Our Friends and Neighbors Series (Oh! Look! See Spot run!). Later most students came to reading successfully through a more structured phonics (sound it out) approach such as that in the DISTAR program in the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s and 90s saw the growth of the constructivist approach, which emphasized making meaning and the reading of real literature with decoding instruction as needed. Again most kids learned to read. In the late 1990s and into the present, under the pressure of No Child Left Behind and Reading First, the emphasis returned to a focus on direct instruction focused on phonics. Again most children learned to read well enough.

Throughout all of these movements, however, one thing has persisted. Some children, about 15-20%, have struggled to learn to read well. No program has really been able to break through that number, despite the claims of Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading, Fundations, and other programs. Why? There are many reasons why children might struggle: learning disabilities, language differences, the impact of poverty, poor instruction, etc. Because the causes are complex, the answers to how to help these kids are also complex. Programs can't respond to this complexity (especially when they lack a balanced approach), but teachers can. If we want to bring a higher percentage of kids to literacy, we need to invest in our teachers, not in programs.

What would that investment look like? Most new teachers graduate from college with a limited understanding of literacy because they simply do not get enough instruction in how it works and how to teach it. This lack of knowledge leaves the novice vulnerable to every program that comes down the pike that promises results. So, one answer is more literacy instruction for prospective teachers.

Even more important, though, is more embedded professional development for teachers in their own school buildings and in the classroom as they are teaching. Recent moves toward having literacy coaches work with teachers in the classroom hold promise. Unfortunately, these coaching sessions have often focused on getting teachers to implement a program with fidelity, rather than with helping teachers meet student needs through better understanding of literacy instruction overall.

In the book, Research Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, Hoffman and Pearson argue that to improve literacy instruction schools need to invest in their teachers and not in programs. They suggest the following strategies are associated with improving teacher ability to meet the needs of students.
  • Concrete, teacher specific, and extended training
  • Classroom assistance from local staff
  • Teacher observation of other teachers using similar instructional strategies
  • Regular meetings of teachers focused on literacy instructional practice
  • Teacher participation in decision making related to literacy instruction
  • Local development of instructional materials
  • Principals' participation in training
Programs don't teach children literacy; teachers do. Wise administrators invest in their teachers, not in programs. Wise teachers follow the child, because the informed observation of a child's reading behaviors will always tell knowledgeable teachers what instruction is needed.

*I know stating that these programs don't work will upset many, but don't take my word for it. The US Department of Education has been unable to identify any "remedial" program that successfully improves reading ability except for Reading Recovery, which is not a program, but an instructional approach that is the foundation of balanced literacy. The Orton-Gillingham approach has been around since the 1930s and yet we still have students who struggle and no independent research that shows that Orton-Gillingham and its related programs (Wilson, Stevenson) works to improve reading. It may help some improve decoding ability, which is not actual reading improvement. Some folks will say that if teachers would only apply their program with fidelity, it would work. This is just another way of saying the program doesn't work. If the program can't be applied successfully, in practice it doesn't work. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But It Makes the Learner

Why, oh why, oh why, oh why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because, because, because, because
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
(from Why, Oh Why, by Woody Guthrie)

This Woody Guthrie children's classic satirizes the young child's endless curiosity and the adult's impatience with it. Turns out, though, that this curiosity in children may be their greatest ally in becoming a skilled life-long learner. A new study from the journal Pediatric Research demonstrates that curiosity may be the most important characteristic a learner brings to the table. More important than grit. More important than persistence. More important than self-control. The study itself is behind a very expensive paywall, but you can find a helpful summary in this article from Business Insider. 

Here are the three key takeaways from the article.
  1. A study of 6,200 kindergartners found that kids rated as most curious and willing to try new things by their parents performed better on math and reading assessments at school.
  2. The curious kids did well regardless of socioeconomic background, suggesting curiosity helps everyone learn.
  3. Even curious kids who weren't as persistent or attentive did well, suggesting curiosity may be a more important trait to foster in children than self-control.
Traditionally, schools, being institutions for mass learning, have not been very good incubators for curiosity. Curious kids can be impulsive. They ask lots of questions. They are not always good at raising their hand before blurting something out. Teachers, in the name of their own sanity, try to contain the impulsivity of these children with classroom norms like raising your hand, waiting your turn, sitting still, etc. "No excuses" charter schools have doubled down on the self-control aspects of schooling, with such strategies as SLANT (Sit-up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod your head, Track the teacher), enforced through a military style discipline based on shaming the rule breaker.

Efforts to standardize curriculum, require high stakes testing, install test-based accountability for teachers, and cut back on funding for the arts all also contribute to the devaluing of curiosity as a desirable trait for the learner. All these current trends lead to a narrowed curriculum, prescriptive learning targets, teachers who are afforded less opportunity to model their own curiosity, and a paucity of programs for creative and intellectually curious minds.

Knowing the importance of curiosity for learning, we need to ask what can schools do to foster curiosity. Knowing that curiosity is more important to the learner than even grit, how can we change what we are doing to make sure there is a culture in the school that is conducive to curiosity? Here are a few suggestions.
  1. Model curiosity - A curious teacher can foster curious students. Teachers need to model their own fascination with the world. Sharing an interesting discovery at the beginning of class, interrupting a lesson to explore a question raised by a student, conceiving of a new question while teaching and then taking the time to explore it with the students, are just a few of the ways teachers can model their own curiosity.
  2. Allow time - Curiosity demands time. Students need to be given time to reflect on ideas and to pursue information as new ideas and new questions arise.
  3. Hook them in - Great writers know that they can engage a reader in a story by leading with a provocative hook. The author Lois Duncan started her novel about students killing their English teacher called, Killing Mr. Griffin, with this sentence: "It was a wild, windy southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them." As teachers, we can use similarly provocative statements to kick start a lesson. "Many historians have speculated that FDR goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to marshal support for the US entering WWII." A recent example might come from Kanye West. "Kanye says that 400 years of slavery sounds like a choice. What could he mean? Could he be right? What events would prove him right or wrong?"
  4. Create conceptual conflict - Questions that startle student expectations by creating conceptual conflicts encourage curiosity. A teacher might ask "Did you know that the lightning flashes we see during a storm actually start from the ground and rise up into the clouds? How does that square with your experience?"
  5. Recognize that our goals may not be the student's goals - As a young teacher I read a book called, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Just Went Right On, by Albert Cullum. As the title suggests, we teachers often get so tied up in our lesson plans that we forget to honor the things that are happening in the classroom around us that impact the learning. Curiosity is fostered when we take the time to inventory our classroom and our students and cultivate a culture where "going off task" might be just the right thing at any given moment.
  6. Choice - Give students choices of topics they wish to explore, things they want to write about, books they want to read. Choice builds engagement and encourages exploration driven by curiosity.
  7. Foster a classroom atmosphere open to questioning - A classroom where kids feel comfortable asking questions, have time to formulate questions, have those questions valued and have class time devoted to trying to find answers to those questions fosters curiosity.
  8. Add art to the mix - Adding music, theater, dance, drawing to any learning experience can foster both creativity and curiosity. Why was the 1920s called the jazz age? What are some visual ways to express the theme of the story? What kind of challenges does Shakespeare present for the actor? What would that descriptive paragraph look like in a painting?
It is clear from looking at this list that fostering curiosity in students demands time, openness to suggestion, and willingness to go off the plotted course for a while. Curiosity dies in the classroom focused on compliant acceptance of rules. Curiosity dies at the hands of a standard curriculum directed at achievement on standardized assessments. Curiosity dies when there is no time for reflection. Curiosity dies when there is no time for the arts in the school. 

If curiosity is the single most important tool available to the learner, and research would indicate it is, it would seem to be critical for schools to find a way to nurture its development. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Why Teachers Must Respect Non-Standard English

The single greatest ally young children bring to learning to read is their oral language. Oral language provides the foundation for learning to decode, comprehend, and create written language.  I have written about developing oral language in the classroom here.

But what if the oral language you bring to school is not valued and respected by the teacher in the classroom? What if your language, the language you grew up with, the language you learned at your mother's knee, is considered inferior and is constantly corrected? Robbed of your oral language in the classroom, you might well withdraw into yourself, refusing to take learning risks or ask a question or answer a question for fear of being corrected.

This is the issue addressed in an important article in the April issue of The Atlantic, Julie Washington's Quest to Get Schools to Respect African American English. Washington brings new attention to some things we have known for a long time. While I hope you will read the article, I will try to summarize the key points here.
  1. African American English (AAE) is a dialect of English, rich with its own rules of grammar and pronunciation. 
  2. Children who use AAE are at a disadvantage in literacy learning.
  3. This disadvantage is exacerbated by the lack of respect AAE receives from many classroom teachers.
  4. Children who use AAE when they enter school are similar to second language learners and benefit from similar instructional strategies used for second language learners.
  5. Children who use AAE need to learn to "code switch." That is they must learn an academic language for school based learning, while maintaining the ability to use AAE in appropriate (family, friends, neighborhood) environments. 
The article does not say, but I will add, that the only reason that Standard English is considered standard is because of money and power, not because it is inherently superior to other dialects. Those in power make the rules. This, I think, is important to understand if we are going to teach AAE speakers with the kind of respect their language deserves. That AAE is a dialect of English, with its own grammar, structure and rules has been well established since the work of the linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania in his Language in the Inner City in 1972.

Of course, in order to move into the corridors of higher education, power, wealth, and influence AAE speakers must learn facility with Standard English, but this facility can be developed without destroying AAE. Indeed, we are more likely to be successful in helping all children achieve literacy, if we embrace the language they come to school with as the ally it is.

Right now, I am sure some of you are having flashbacks to the Ebonics era of the 1990's, when everything I have said above was recognized and some schools, particularly in Oakland, California, adopted programs that used AAE as a tool for instruction. Whatever you think of that movement, we now know that these folks were on to something. (In fact, we always knew it, but the implementation became the target of jokes on late night comedy shows, the sure death knell for any program.)

While we might want to stop short of Ebonics readers, there is nothing stopping us from treating AAE with respect in our classroom. What would that respect look like? First and foremost it would mean acceptance. Children do not need correction that shows a lack of respect for their oral language; they need to have their responses valued and standard structures modeled. 

The article tells the story of the author, Julie Washington, observing a retelling of P. D. Eastman's, Are You My Mother? by a 4-year-old in a pre-school class near Detroit. You will remember that the story has a structure like this.

                      "Are You My Mother?" asked the baby bird.
                      "How could I be your mother?" said the cow. "I am a cow."

The child recounted the story this way.  
                      Is you my mama?
                     I ain't none of your mama!

What is important here is not the non-standard dialect being used, but that the child clearly understood the story and was able to retell it. In fact, as Washington noted in the article, a close examination of the response shows that the child was able to understand a story read in standard dialect and then translate it into her own dialect and recreate the story orally in AAE. If anything this demands a higher level of linguistic functioning than a reader who already navigates the world in standard dialect. This is the cognitive load that all speakers of AAE carry in literacy learning, Washington suggests, and I would agree, this cognitive challenge is a contributing factor in the achievement gap. 

This story also demonstrates an important understanding for teachers. We do not need to speak in AAE to show respect for AAE; we just need to allow it and honor it as the child's language and help them negotiate the pitfalls that are sure to come. As an example, if a child who is an AAE speaker reads aloud the word "told" as "tol'", there is no need to correct the child, who has obviously both decoded and comprehended what word was needed. On the other hand, if "told" is a part of a spelling lesson, we can model the standard pronunciation, help the child sound out all the letters and see the "d" at the end as a way to help the child move toward standard usage. 

By the same token, if a child uses a construction like, "He be running in the hall.", we need to model the correct usage without pejorative judgment about correctness saying, "Oh, yes, he is always running in the hall." Note that the meaning of "He be running down the hall" as Labov has noted, is not a grammatically incorrect usage of the to be verb, but an entirely different grammatical construct meaning that "running in the hall" is something "he" always does.

Most children will learn to code switch, that is, toggle between AAE and Standard English naturally as a part of being in a classroom and hearing, reading, and writing in the standard dialect. Some will not. For those who do not, specific code switching instruction, along the lines of ESL instruction is necessary. These strategies include the introduction of new concepts and vocabulary by building on student background knowledge, guided oral interaction, explicit instruction in standard structures, contextualized instruction which takes something from students everyday lives and builds knowledge of standard dialect, and modeling that includes lots of use of visual aids, graphic organizers, and visuals.

We need to think of AAE as what it really is - an ally for us in bringing a child to literacy. Not something to be eradicated, but something of value to be used as a scaffold on which to build the ability to navigate Standard English.