Once Diane Ravitch posted my blog about the harm third-grade retention based on high-stakes tests of reading and reading levels do to literacy, I received some of the typical feedback I expect about reading instruction from those mired in the cult of phonics and a misguided obsession with direct instruction.
First, online and social media comments are often problematic because some (maybe many) people are simply seeking an opportunity to say what they want regardless of what is being addressed in the original blog post or Tweet. Setting up a straw man to hold forth on a pet peeve wasn’t created by social media, but it sure is fertile ground for that approach.
Next, let me be clear that when I shared my opening personal narrative of how I was raised in a supportive home that taught me my literacy skills I was in no way endorsing or suggesting that I am the beneficiary of a naturalistic approach to learning reading.
And let me go further: Speaking and listening are natural human behaviors, unless there are biological or other traumas or barriers; however, reading and writing are artificial, human created. And thus, everyone learns to read from direct instruction.
Just for effect, let’s do that again: everyone learns to read from direct instruction.
My mother did read alouds, sight words, and guided reading—just to name some strategies—and, yes, she was teaching me directly reading, even though she was a layperson.
For those of us raised in privilege, direct instruction can often appear to be naturalistic, and acquiring the most essential aspects of learning to read can also appear to be spontaneous. But none of that is true, and we all require direct instruction of reading (and writing) for many years of our lives as both literacy skills can never be finished.
The debate is not about if we offer all children direct instruction in reading, then, but how and why.
Isolated, intensive phonics direct instruction, we know, can be detrimental to reading growth for many children, yet some children find it very helpful.
The same can be said of isolated, intensive grammar direct instruction.
That is the beauty and calling of whole language—not to banish or idealize any approaches to literacy direct instruction, but to honor literacy acquisition over any set approach or program.
In other words, we must seek for each student the array of direct instruction in reading that best suits her/his needs and insure that she/he develops into not only a proficient reader, but an eager reader.
When direct instruction of reading is drudgery (such as completing a program or worksheet), as I and others have noted, it does far more harm than good.
Certainly, children coming from poverty, children living in homes with primary languages other than English, special needs students—these are populations that will challenge teachers more than children living in privilege. But not because some children (read “privileged”) acquire reading naturally and “other people’s children” need reading programs and isolated intensive direct instruction.
The human capacity for language is amazing, but it is not shielded from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The scarcity in the lives of many children inhibits the luxury of learning to read and write in homes that have survival needs or disturbances that genuinely trump their ability to gain formal language skills.
We must stop mistaking the advantages of privilege for “smart” and for “natural acquisition of language skills.” And we must stop predicting that all vulnerable populations of students need the very worst types of inauthentic direct instruction in the name of basic skills.
To be honest, there are no basic or foundational skills in whole performances such as reading and writing—although reducing reading and writing to technocratic parts facilitates efficient but often counter-effective instruction.
The reading wars are trivialized by creating the straw man argument that some of us are against direct instruction while others are for it—especially when the nasty implication that some are against direct instruction are doing so knowingly cheating some students of needed reading instruction.
I am for direct instruction of reading because there is no other option for teaching reading. However, I am fully committed to direct instruction only in the service of student needs and honoring the sanctity of reading as a full and wonderful human behavior.
I don’t teach reading programs. I don’t teach phonics.
I do teach students to read, and to love that reading in the service of their own lives and not to excel on a test.
NOTE: Since this post has spurred even more comments, many about “my child learned to read without direct instruction,” I must add that reading is not merely decoding. Yes, some children quite easily seem to be able to read aloud, and I suspect many parents believe they just learned it on their own. But simple decoding is not reading, and as I note above, reading is a complex process that we continue to learn and develop for years of formal schooling. The path to critical literacy is shaped by a wide range of strategies and we all receive direct instruction on that journey.
I think framing this hero teacher narrative, particularly for folks who are not from these communities, is problematic. The model of a hero going to save this savage other is a piece of a narrative that we can trace back to colonialism; it isn’t just relegated to teaching and learning. It’s a historical narrative and that’s why it still exists because, in many ways, it is part of the bones of America. It is part of the structure of this country. And unless we come to grips with the fact that even in our collective American history that’s problematic, we’re going to keep reinforcing it. Not only are we setting the kids up to fail and the educators up to fail, but most importantly, we are creating a societal model that positions young people as unable to be saved.
In some states, fewer than 90 percent of black boys are reading at grade level and dropout rates for males of color continue to be much higher than for other groups. We certainly need solutions, but we don’t need any more “gap closing” measures.
Gap closing implies a white male standard, which actually is the source of institutional racism that needs to be fixed. In this regard, the achievement gap is a process and product that we need to smash up in tiny little pieces.
No one should be surprised that while black males achieve in schools and colleges a gap remains or has even grown. Success won’t be declared when black men and boys catch up to white men; organizations need to catch up with justice.
The overwhelming whiteness of U.S. private schools, in six maps and charts, Emma Brown
“The fact is that, over the years, African American families and non-white families have come to understand that these private schools are not schools that are open to them, especially in light of their traditional role and history related to desegregation of public schools,” he said.
The report recalls how private-school enrollment grew a half-century ago as courts were ordering public schools to integrate. The pattern was particularly pronounced in the South, where massive resistance to integration led to rapid private-school enrollment growth. Even as private-school enrollment has fallen across much of the country in recent decades, it has continued to grow in the South.
South Carolina’s new superintendent of education has proposed that the state change (again, as last time it was about state-wide uniformity) to a 10-point grade scale to put our students in line with neighboring states.
This plan has mostly been met with a sky-is-falling response, for example: “The last thing South Carolina schools need to do is water down academic requirements for students.”
While I already realize from my continuing effort to explain that in the standards debate, notably the most recent Common Core debacle, almost no one will acknowledge that the quality of standards or even the presence or not of standards has proven to have no impact on measurable student outcomes (and thus, the standards debate is much ado about nothing), I must stress here that whatever our grade scale is or however we change it is also much ado about nothing.
The grade scale is pretty functional, just as our monetary systems are across countries. When we travel from the U.S. to Europe, the money scales change, but it does not impact in any way the inherent value of anything.
The relative costs of things, yes, are affected slightly, but the money system is an abstraction.
So is a grade scale. If an A is 90-100 or 93-100, it is still a relative and subjective thing to assign an artifact of learning or a student during a grading period that A.
Efforts to unify grade scales within or among states is folly—just as the whole Common Core debacle was.
These are pointless wastes of time and energy in pursuit of standardization without regard for that goal being of almost no value to anyone.
Changing the grade scale in one state to create something like fairness among students from different states is probably futile, but it is practical enough that it is fine to do.
To shout that changing a grade scale is either lower or raising expectations, however, is just plain silly.
This grade scale is much ado about nothing—and it just doesn’t matter.
Among educators on my social media feeds, many were all atwitter about “grit” guru Angela Duckworth penning Don’t Grade Schools on Grit in the New York Times Sunday Review.
However, I must warn: Don’t believe it.
Duckworth’s apparent backpedaling on how most people embracing “grit” in education are applying her research—notably a new move to test for “grit”—has two fundamental problems.
First, please note that Duckworth’s Op-Ed in the NYT conveniently coincides with yet another book of hers on, you guessed it, “grit.”
Excuse my skepticism, but this Op-Ed is also PR for her incredibly lucrative career as a “grit” guru.
Second, and far more importantly, Duckworth’s concession that “grit” is being misapplied (her version) falls well short of acknowledging that her “grit” research itself is both steeped in and perpetuating racism and classism.
In other words, Duckworth and her “grit” cult cannot shake off the essential flaws in “grit” narratives by blaming how people are misusing it; fact is “grit” research and practices cannot be implemented in any ways that are absent the foundational flaws.
As I have detailed often, “grit” narratives, research, and practices must be rejected for the following reasons:
- In an excellent examination of Duckworth’s recent Op-Ed, John Warner confronts why good intentions are not enough: “Duckworth says these consequences are ‘inadvertent,’ which is no doubt true. But just as a certain Dr. Frankenstein learned, that doesn’t mean these negative consequences, inadvertent as they may be, were unforeseeable.” Warner’s analogy is apt, but let me add two more: dynamite and IQ. While dynamite had initial good purposes, the carnage that resulted certainly stains those intentions. But IQ is even more illustrative here. Like “grit,” IQ has always had the veneer of “science” and “objective” to mask the inherent racism, classism, and sexism beneath the metrics (see Gould). Both IQ and “grit” are harmful because of the failure to investigate how both confuse privilege and bias for intelligence and effort—as well as the so-called strong correlations between IQ/”grit” and achievement.
- Another problem can be unpacked by noting that most educators who uncritically embrace “grit” reject the teacher quality narrative. This is key since both the “grit” narrative and the teacher quality narrative share the same flaw: Someone with authority has chosen to overemphasize a minor aspect of the very complex acts of learning, achievement, and teaching. Just as teacher quality is a mere 10-15% of measurable student outcomes, student effort is an isolatable but minor element of student success—or more importantly, human success after formal education. Again, if we use educational attainment and/or wealth as proxies for “effort” (which I think is valid), in the U.S., blacks with some college have the same work opportunities as white high school drop-outs, and affluent blacks are more likely to go to jail than poor whites (see evidence of these and more here); therefore, while “grit” as perseverance or effort may be important, it pails against the weight of race, class, and gender bias.
- That overemphasis, then, disproportionately focuses on the victims of bias, placing the weight of blaming the victim on top of the weight of racism, classism, and sexism. “Grit” fails in this regard by creating and reinforcing a deficit ideology that misrepresents privilege as effort and failure as a lack of effort. “Grit” narratives and practices normalize as fact that those who success do so primarily through hard work, and those who fail deserve that failure because they lack “grit,” are lazy. Yet, both claims are demonstrably false (success and failure more strongly correlated to conditions of scarcity and slack), and depend on the worst aspects of racist and classist bigotry.
Don’t believe it—because the Op-Ed is PR for yet more “grit” for everyone to buy, uncritically, and because “grit” advocates, including Duckworth, have yet to admit, confront, and reject the essential racist and classist underpinnings of “grit” research, narratives, and practices.
The Plans of Policymakers and Professors Oft Go Awry, Jose Vilson
We Have an Engagement Crisis, not a “Grit” Deficit, John Warner
The United States has now “progressed” in its fascination with wealth to the point that Trump (a serial failed billionaire, born with, but not earning, a giant silver spoon) is benefitting from the Teflon of his wealth, possibly all the way to the White House.
Despite everything we claim, folks in the U.S. think getting rich justifies just about everything, and is willing to turn a blind eye to virtually anything rich and famous people do—while destroying middle class and especially poor folk for the same behaviors.
An equally disturbing and illogical obsession is one with business—especially as a counter to the often damned “government.”
One of our most important public institutions has always and continues to be cheated because it is a public institution and by our fetish for business models at all cost.
It is a regular refrain by good people with good intentions that education just needs the savior that is the business model: business leaders (not educators) tossing out those hokum promises of competitiveness, leadership, and innovation.
Let me be clear, I am not being sarcastic about these arguments and proposals being from good people with good intentions. But that cannot justify the emptiness and inappropriateness of the terms or concepts behind them.
Despite our love affair in the U.S. with competition, a solid body of research shows that collaboration and cooperation are far more effective than competition. That fact is even more pronounced in education where within and among states, schools, and teachers, we must be working together—not against each other—in order to bring equity to the lives and schooling of children, and their families, and to everyone.
Competition creates some winners, and many losers.
“Leadership” and “innovation,” however, are simply the very worst of the business world, the empty-suit mantras best captured in the comic strip Dilbert.
In business and education, a key failure of both includes bureaucracy and the professionalization of the workforce—seminars, certification, retraining to create leaders and innovators.
It is all hokum—profound wasting of time, energy, and funding; benefitting only the marketers of “leadership” and “innovation.”
“Leadership” is the last refuge of someone who has nothing real to offer. “Innovation” is a market promise only slightly less misleading than the stock market or the lottery (and really, there is no difference between those).
“Leadership” is “Let me tell you what to do (because I am better than you, which is obvious by my success and your failure, which is your own fault).” Service, however, is “How can I use my privilege in the service of your needs?”
There is a paternalism and missionary zeal among business leaders and models that claim be a fix for any or every thing. Just look at how this has manifested itself in education already with the rise and apparent impending fall of Teach For America, a leadership organization masquerading as an education organization.
No, education does not need business leaders or a business model. In fact, business needs to step away from its own ridiculous model.
Yes, education needs to be reimagined, but by educators in the service of all students, families, and ultimately the democracy our schools serve.
My privilege is easily identified in my being white and male, but it is the story of my life that better reveals my enormous privilege established by my mother when I was a child.
I entered formal schooling with such a relatively high level of literacy and numeracy that from those first days I was labeled “smart”—a misnomer for that privilege.
From Green Eggs and Ham to Hop on Pop, from canasta to spades, from Chinese checkers to Scrabble—games with my mother and often my father were my schooling until I entered first grade. And none of that ever seemed to be a chore, and none of that involved worksheets, reading levels, or tests.
Formal schooling was always easy for me because of those roots, but formal schooling was also often tedious and so much that had to be tolerated to do the things I truly enjoyed—such as collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of comic books throughout my middle and late teens. I was also voraciously reading science fiction and never once highlighting the literary techniques or identifying the themes or tone.
During my spring semester, I spend a great deal of time observing pre-service English/ELA teachers, and recently I had an exchange on Twitter about the dangers of grade retention, notably connected to third-grade high-stakes testing.
And from those, I have been musing more than usual about how formal school—how English/ELA teachers specifically—destroy literacy, even when we have the best of intentions.
From the first years of K-3 until the last years of high school, students have their experiences of literacy murdered by a blind faith in and complete abdication to labeling text by grade levels and narrow approaches to literary analysis grounded in New Criticism and what I call the “literary technique hunt.”
Misreading the Importance of Third-Grade Reading
As I have addressed often, reading legislation across the U.S. is trapped in a simplistic crisis mode connected to research identifying the strong correlation between so-called third-grade reading proficiency and later academic success.
Let’s unpack that by addressing the embedded claims that rarely see the light of day.
The first claim is that labeling a text as a grade level is as valid as assigning a number appears. While it is quite easy to identify a text by grade level (most simply calculate measurables such as syllables per word and words per sentence), those calculations entirely gloss over the relationship between counting word/ sentence elements and how a human draws meaning from text—key issues such as prior knowledge and literal versus figurative language.
A key question, then, is asking in whose interest is this cult of measuring reading levels—and the answer is definitely not the student.
This technocratic approach to literacy can facilitate a certain level of efficiency and veneer of objectivity for the work of a teacher; it is certainly less messy.
But the real reason the cult of measuring reading levels exists is the needs of textbook companies who both create and perpetuate the need for measuring students’ reading levels and matching that to the products they sell.
Reading levels are a market metric that are harmful to both students and teaching/learning. And they aren’t even very good metrics in terms of how well the levels match any semblance of reading or learning to read.
The fact is that all humans are at some level of literacy and can benefit from structured purposeful instruction to develop that level of literacy. In that respect, everyone is remedial and no one is proficient.
Those facts, however, do not match well the teaching and learning industry that is the textbook scam that drains our formal schools of funding better used elsewhere—almost anywhere else.
Remaining shackled to measuring and labeling text and students murders literacy among our students; it is inexcusable, and is a root cause of the punitive reading policies grounded in high-stakes testing and grade retention.
The Literary Technique Hunt
By middle and high school—although we continue to focus on whether or not students are reading at grade level—we gradually shift our approach to text away from labeling students/ texts and toward training students in the subtle allure of literary analysis: mining text for technique.
Like reading levels, New Criticism’s focus on text in isolation and authoritative meaning culled from calculating how techniques produce a fixed meaning benefits from the veneer of objectivity, lending itself to selected-response testing.
And thus, the great technique hunt, again, benefits not students, but teachers and the inseparable textbook and testing industries.
The literary technique hunt, however, slices the throat of everything that matters about text—best represented by Flannery O’Connor:
I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.
In other words, “A poem should not mean/But be,” as Archibald MacLeish explains.
Texts of all genres and forms are about human expression, about the aesthetic possibilities of creativity.
No writer, like no visual artist, writes in order to have the words or artwork replaced by the reductive act of a technocratic calculating of meaning through the algebra of New Criticism.
To continue the hokum that is “reading level” and to continue mining text for techniques—these are murderous practices that leave literacy moribund and students uninspired and verbally bankrupt.
The very best and most effective literacy instruction requires no textbooks, no programs, and no punitive reading policies.
Literacy is an ever-evolving human facility; it grows from reading, being read to, and writing—all by choice, with passion, and in the presence of others more dexterous than you are.
Access to authentic text, a community or readers and writers, and a literacy mentor—these are where our time and funds should be spent instead of the cult of efficiency being sold by textbook and testing companies.
More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.
Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.
Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.
Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.
See the full review here.
Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”
Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.
When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.
As part of an ongoing series of reports by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know makes broad claims about teacher education based on a limited analysis of textbooks and syllabi. The report argues that teacher education materials, specifically educational psychology and methods textbooks, are a waste of funds and do not adequately focus on what the report identifies as six essential strategies. These inadequacies, the report contends, result in ill-prepared teacher candidates lacking in “research-proven instructional strategies” (p. vi). The report offers recommendations for textbook publishers, teacher education programs, and state departments of education. However, it is not grounded in a comprehensive examination of the literature on teaching methods, and it fails to validate the evaluative criteria it employs in selecting programs, textbooks, and syllabi. The single source it relies on to justify its “six essential strategies” provides limited support for NCTQ’s claims. This primary source concludes, with only one exception, that the evidence supporting each of the six strategies is only moderate or weak. Limiting the analysis to one source that provides only tepid support renders the report of little value for improving teacher preparation, selecting textbooks, or guiding educational policy.
Many people have commented on the rise of Trump as the leader in the Republican quest for president—noting it is like a bad reality show or some life-imitates-art version of Idiocracy.
However, the truth of what Trump represents is much, much uglier than any of those speculations because Trump represents almost perfectly exactly who the U.S. is, and essentially always has been.
The U.S. has always bloviated on sweeping and grand ideologies about Freedom, Liberty, and so much horse manure, but the very beginnings of that were while white males owned human slaves and white females were human only in relationship to some white man.
The U.S. has always been about someone’s freedom at the expense of other people’s human dignity; and that fact remains today in 2016.
And when people say the the U.S. is a conservative nation, mostly right of center (especially in relationship to Europe and Canada), the reality of that is “conservative” is a code for a blind and nearly rabid commitment to consumerism—a consumerism grounded in Social Darwinism that breeds a lust for financial wealth regardless of the consequences to others.
Sure, Trump is profoundly unqualified to be a national leader and is spewing vile and inexcusable hatred, but the space between Trump and mainstream Republicans and Democrats is minuscule once you set aside the rhetoric.
From Trump to Cruz, a slight step back and to the side; from Cruz to Hillary, yet another slight step back and to the side. Republicans bark a hard commitment and Democrats skirt a soft commitment to the ravages of consumerism, but the consequences are the same.
Except for Sanders in the 2016 election cycle, team politics between Republicans and Democrats is splitting hairs and turning a blind eye to your candidate while eviscerating the other side’s candidate for the same behavior.
Mainstream politics in the U.S. creates the delusion of choice and keeps the public frantic so that no one notices there really is no difference because everything is about the winners maintaining their edge.
Never-ending war, mass incarceration, staggering income and wealth inequity, underfunded public institutions, refusals to acknowledge lingering racism—these are the qualities among every candidate on both sides of the so-called aisle.
The Nixon/Reagan contributions to mass incarceration of black and brown populations are nearly indistinguishable from the Clinton era gutting of the social safety net devastating the same people.
And all the while, the only thing that matters is the economy. The sacred economy doomed George W. Bush’s presidency and ushered in Obama—not any ethical matters of war or failures to secure human dignity or the lip service we give Democracy.
There could be few indignities worse than electing Trump as president of the U.S., but to be perfectly honest, Trump is in the course of the history of the country, the most perfect representative of who we are and have always been: A cartoon character spewing bromides to hide our dark and soulless greed.
And then, nearly as bad, if we elect someone from the remaining mainstream candidates, that indignity will be only slightly less than choosing Trump because what she or he represents is so close to being the same that it really doesn’t matter.