Tag Archives: Lou LaBrant

If This Is Teacher Appreciation, I’m Glad It Is Only a Week

Talk back, speak up, be heard.

Bill Ayers, To Teach.

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

The first full week in May 2014 is a swift punch in the gut of teachers across the U.S. since the week is both Teacher Appreciation Week and National Charter School Week.

Not since Waiting for “Superman” have teacher bashing and “miracle school” mania had such a distorted coexistence.

Here in my home state of South Carolina, we are witnessing a steady stream of Op-Eds written by teachers calling for VAM and an end to seniority in the dismissal of teachers. Yes, written by teachers. We also have a steady dose of Op-Eds about the plight upon our schools that threatens the very existence of humanity: “bad” teachers. [1]

So as I watch teaching and teachers being bashed, I am glad Teacher Appreciation Week lasts only a week; teachers and our profession have had enough in this time of devaluing teachers in the era of value-added.

The ugly truth is that all across the U.S. people genuinely do not appreciate teachers, and more broadly, people do not appreciate workers.

This makes no sense, of course, because almost all of us in this country are workers, but what are you going to do?

Way back in 2003, I wrote a piece for English Journal, “A Call to Action.”

The piece focuses on two teachers: my high school English teacher, Lynn Harrill, and the focus of my doctoral dissertation, Lou LaBrant. In the piece I conclude:

Each act I do as a person, as a teacher, as a writer is with Lynn Harrill and Lou LaBrant in mind. Everything I have learned about being an English teacher reminds me that each child, each student, is the reason we teach English. I write this not to complain, not to lament, but to call all of us to action. And I make this call in the names of Lynn Harrill and Lou LaBrant—the educator’s educators, who know and knew that this job we do is the most personal of endeavors because language is the essence of us as humans, and it is the only road to human dignity and individual voice.

So I say, teachers, we are mostly not appreciated; in fact, we are scorned. But we share a paradox as members of the scorned workers of the U.S. and as some of the most important people in the lives of our students (who often do appreciate us as individual people even as they express a lack of appreciation for “teachers” or “teaching”).

And here in 2014 as the education reform movement continues down the wrong path at warp speed, I remain convinced that we as teachers must take action. We must be the brakes that stop the momentum and then offer everyone the opportunity to step off and seek a better way.

Keep in mind that many of our students did not appreciate us at first because confronting what we don’t know and what we misunderstand is hard and uncomfortable. But over time, those initially resistant students came to a place where they could make that discomfort their own—and then they were able to appreciate us.

It is well past time for us to take our patience, our poise, our expertise, and our voices out of the classroom and into the public that, for now, doesn’t appreciate us because they simply do not know what this work is.

Teachers, it is time to teach beyond the walls of our schools.

[1] I am purposefully not hyperlinking to these, although I have in previous blogs. If you doubt my claims here, give google a shot, but I am simply exhausted by the nonsense and am teetering on the edge of not wanting to give these commentaries even one more mention.

Denying Racism Has an Evidence Problem

Several years before I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, Jeanne Gerlach and Virginia Monseau published Missing Chapters: Ten Pioneering Women in NCTE and English Education for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE, 1991).

Their important volume included a chapter on LaBrant by England and West, but the project also produced a recorded interview of LaBrant when she was 100, a gold mine for my biographical work.

Jeanne and I became good friends because of our love of English teaching, history, and the people who have created that history. But one of our frequent conversations was about a claim by LaBrant in the interview: LaBrant was adamant that during her life that spanned the 1880s into the 1990s she had never once experienced sexism.

LaBrant, Jeanne and I agreed, was so determined and assertive as a person that this claim was both a perfect example of who LaBrant was and completely unbelievable.

So when I read Charles Blow’s Op-Ed on Clarence Thomas denying racism—in the 1960s and today—I thought of LaBrant.

Thomas’s assertion about racism reminds me of LaBrant’s about sexism, but it also strikes a cord about the pervasive responses I receive to much of my public writing about race, class, and poverty.

Two comments recur: (1) Why does it always have to be about race?, and (2) I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I think the problem is class, not race.

The first comment tends to prompt me to want to say, Why is it never about race? But I suspect people who offer that first response are unlikely to listen to anything.

Thus, it is the second response where I believe raising a few questions has the potential for helping people who deny racism today see that they have a serious evidence problem.

Let me start by returning to Blow’s central thesis when responding to Thomas:

One thing that I will submit, however, is that the emphasis must shift from discussions of interpersonal racism — which I would argue are waning as they become more socially unacceptable — to systemic and institutional biases, which remain stubbornly infused throughout the culture.

Interpersonal incidents of racism are easy to identify and condemn, particularly as their prevalence dwindles. We do hear too much about these at the expense of discussions about the systemic and institutional biases that are harder to see — it’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem — and that rarely have individual authors. This bias is obscured by anecdote but quite visible in the data sets.

The evidence, I acknowledge, supports Blow’s assertion that “interpersonal racism” is “waning” but that “systemic and institutional” racism remains powerful and must be confronted.

My caveat to waning interpersonal racism is that overt racism certainly suffers much greater public scorn than in the fairly recent past, but as the Richard Sherman “thug” incident (and the Michael Dunn shooting of Jordan Davis prompted by “thug music”) shows, racism on the interpersonal level still persists beneath more socially accepted codes.

Systemic and institutional racism, however, poses a greater evidence problem for racism deniers.

For those who insist that racism no longer exists, even at the systemic or institutional level, I have a series of questions that must be answered:

  1. Please read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Why are African Americans arrested and incarcerated for drug use at rates much higher than whites, even though African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates? Why do police target African American neighborhoods for drug sweeps, and not college dorms?
  2. Please examine the prison incarceration data by race. White males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but per 100,000 people in each racial group, 2207 African Americans to 380 whites (nearly an inverse proportion of 6 to 1) constitute that prison population (2010 data). Since there are also more whites in poverty than African Americans (about 2 to 1, 2011-2012 data), what accounts for the inequity of these numbers by race? If incarceration is a function of class and not race, the prison population should be about 2 whites to 1 African American.
  3. Please examine data on discipline rates, access to courses and teachers, and retention rates in U.S. schools; for example, “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.” Why such inequity by race in schools, inequities that foreshadow the incarceration inequities?

Are issues related to race different in 2014 when compared to the 1960s? Yes, in many ways, some of the more overt aspects of blatant racism have been confronted—although the consequences of that development have also masked racism—and racism no longer finds refuge in statutes.

To answer the questions above is to confront the evidence and then to offer answers that I suspect racism deniers simply do not want to admit—despite the inevitable conclusion that racism remains a powerful marker for inequitable consequences throughout society and within institutions.

Blow ends his Op-Ed with: “Simplistic discussions about race — both those that are history-blind and those that give insufficient weight to personal choices — do nothing to advance understanding. They obscure it.”

To that I add, denying racism does not end it, but that denial obscures it as well.

Saying something doesn’t exist will not make that true; it is a sort of word magic that reinforces the unacknowledged status quo.

The evidence shows systemic and institutional racism persists and is powerful. To end racism, we must first name it.


The Good, Racist People, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Leonard Pitts Jr.: How ‘thug’ has become a ‘safe’ racial slur

The Bias Against Black Bodies, Charles Blow

See Also

Race Inequality in America by Graph, from Crime Sentencing to Income

On Leaders and Teacher Responsibility

Political leaders and candidates are rightfully concerned about asserting their credibility as leaders; however, when political leaders and candidates emphasize their leadership skills in the education reform debate, the implication appears to be that leadership replaces the value of expertise and experience in education. Let me offer two examples.

Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, SC, addressed the upcoming race for state superintendent as that intersects with plans to change teacher evaluation in SC:

“You don’t hire a surgeon to run a hospital,” he said. “What I believe we need are leaders in education not beholden to a system that’s not shown the results we need to see.”

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, SC, candidate for governor, responded to concerns about his focus on raising teacher pay as central to his education platform:

Informed of this criticism, Sheheen countered: “I think teaching environment is critical, but the biggest message we need to send for our support of public education is that we value our teachers. Sometimes academics and researchers omit the important emotional content that goes into a successful system. That’s what leaders are for.”

A key aspect of Sheheen’s response is that the criticism came from me (cited in the article)—and by taking this swipe at me, and apparently the lack of credibility found among academics and researchers, Sheheen belittles the importance of my 18 years in the public school classroom.

While I concede that leadership is important and that we can identify and foster leadership skills, I reject the implication of these comments because they suggest that leadership skills replace the need for expertise and experience. I contend that leadership grows from expertise and experience (Patrick’s background includes the military and politics; Sheheen’s background includes law and politics as well as his parents working in education).

Political leadership, historically and currently, then, has contributed directly to the marginalization of teacher professionalism, voice, and autonomy.

In fact, the conditions surrounding becoming and being a teacher in 2014 are reflected in Lou LaBrant’s “The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English” from 1961*.

LaBrant begins by identifying the conditions of teaching then that are replicated today in attacks on teachers unions and the increased accountability measures such as Common Core, new high-stakes testing, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and merit pay:

Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)

Reducing teaching to its mechanical parts, according to LaBrant, strips teachers of their professional “freedom,” autonomy:

Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner. (For the moment we will forget the man and what happens to his personal life.) Having the bolts tightly turned may be all the car-in-the-making needs. But the teacher is something quite different from the man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results….

What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which he deals and the very materials with which he works, that teacher is a robot himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless he knows he will have freedom to use his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)

Predating Adam Bessie’s refuting the “bad teacher” myth, LaBrant connects the “dictatorial” educational system with the implication that since some teachers are often “bad,” all teachers need control:

Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when he has to face his own decisions, and when he supports that decision. The best way to induce teachers to think and act is to put them into situations where some thinking is essential. This less competent teacher will put more effort into the work he has himself undertaken than he will into something handed out to him. Moreover, he can, if he proves helpless, be given direction. The right to select does not force everyone to use all of his freedom, but it encourages him to use his mind. The nature of human beings precludes for either teacher or class a totally static course. The exercise of freedom is itself one means by which we become good teachers. (p. 383)

A powerful point presented by LaBrant, one too often unspoken today by teacher advocates, is the need for teachers to “earn” that freedom as they also call for their autonomy; it is in effect an argument for teacher professionalism grounded in the evidence of the field:

One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But his right to choose comes only when he has read and considered methods other than his own. He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)

Finally, LaBrant challenges the pursuit of “uniformity,” today’s standardization, and ends with her strong support for teacher autonomy:

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire. Many are talking as though teachers with sufficient training would become good teachers. There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not some-thing one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)

In the five-plus decades since LaBrant wrote this piece, little has changed, including the lack of expertise and experience in education among political leaders.

To continue championing leadership that replaces that expertise and experience is to continue to strip teachers of the very professionalism that those leaders often give lip service to with token calls for higher pay and misleading claims that teachers are the most important element in the education of students.

Leadership grows from expertise and experience; our true leaders in education walk the halls of our schools, teach every day, and yet, remain essentially ignored by those who wish to prove that their leadership skills trump all.

* For more work by LaBrant see Lou LaBrant: An Annotated Bibliography.

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Well into my 30s and during my doctoral program, I was finally afforded the opportunity to read carefully the work of John Dewey. This late scholarship on my part is an indictment of teacher certification, but it is also a window into the historical and current misinformation about the state of reading and the teaching of reading in U.S. schools.

Dewey, the Father of Progressive Education, I discovered, believed that we do not need to teach reading; Dewey noted that reading just happened, basing this claim on his own inability to recall having been taught to read.

The first time I came across this—considering I was then and remain primarily a teacher of English—I was puzzled that Dewey could be so wrong about reading and so compelling* about education in general.

With time, however, I realized that my initial rejection of Dewey’s belief about reading sprang from my perspective as a teacher: Teachers are predisposed to seeing themselves as change agents, as causational in the learning of others.

As an avid reader and writer, if I am honest, my perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s. It is likely that Dewey and I experienced similar conditions of privilege that allowed something like a natural learning of reading, and literacy in general.

And it is here that we must confront a foundational question: Why have we declared a perpetual reading crisis in the U.S. throughout the last century?**

Lou LaBrant: A Progressive Voice

Lou LaBrant began teaching in 1906—in a one-room school, nonetheless. LaBrant’s career spanned most of the 20th century, ending in 1971.

Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, LaBrant built a substantial publishing record that focused on a few powerful commitments: (1) Endorsing progressive education, (2) calling for free reading, and (3) highlighting the importance of libraries and the role of librarians as teachers (LaBrant, 1940).

Progressive education and Dewey became and often remain targets of traditional claims that U.S. public education is a failure. But, as Alfie Kohn has detailed:

Despite the fact that all schools can be located on a continuum stretching between the poles of totally progressive and totally traditional — or, actually, on a series of continuums reflecting the various components of those models — it’s usually possible to visit a school and come away with a pretty clear sense of whether it can be classified as predominantly progressive. It’s also possible to reach a conclusion about how many schools — or even individual classrooms — in America merit that label: damned few. The higher the grade level, the rarer such teaching tends to be, and it’s not even all that prevalent at the lower grades. (Also, while it’s probably true that most progressive schools are independent, most independent schools are not progressive.)

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

LaBrant’s career and her scholarship, then, represent both an accurate case for progressive approaches to teaching reading and a record of how U.S public schools have failed the promise those practices offered.

More so than Dewey, LaBrant’s scholarship and practice represent a practical progressive pedagogy that rises above “natural” and includes “critical”:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

Dewey’s claim of “natural” learning has led critics to demonizing the latter, while LaBrant’s practices are grounded in the former. In reality, again as Kohn shows, neither the misapplication of a laissez-faire progressivism nor holistic, child-centered progressivism has ever characterized the learning experiences of most U.S. students.

And thus, LaBrant’s arguments throughout the first half of the twentieth century remain relevant.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In fact, many years before this observation, LaBrant (1936) confronted the failure of implementing progressive philosophy in the real-world classroom:

An Experience Curriculum in English [A Report of a Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. W. Wilbur Hatfield, Chairman. D. Appleton- Century Company, 1935], published only a the year ago, is already influencing the course of study in many schools. There is always danger in popular revision that the change may be confined to stated objectives and superficial devices, and that basic understandings may not be involved at all. A teacher eager to join the ranks of progressives recently asked the question: “How can I put the teaching of The Lady of the Lake on an experience basis in my ninth grade class?” The question is but little less absurd than the procedures of many curriculum revisers who re-arrange old materials, add a little in- formality to class discussions and present the result as a mark of progress. We must consequently beware lest many so-called “experience curriculums” be set up without recognition of opportunity for normal, strong and complex experiences, within which language development in reading, writing, talking and listening is an integral factor. (p. 295)

Despite LaBrant’s optimism above about the impact of NCTE’s report, the history of reading programs in the U.S. remains a disappointing trail of costume parties. In fact, the history of reading instruction as little more than a masquerade was tackled by LaBrant (1936) just five years before:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. At almost any meeting of teachers of English one may find, somewhere near the main entrance, a room full of exhibition work. This will include models of the castle from Ivanhoe, miniatures of the lake with Ellen’s isle, weaving ma-chines like those at Raveloe, and soap reproductions of Camelot. Recently a teacher attempted to protest against such an exhibition. The reply was that such materials always drew attention from teachers, more attention than lectures probably, and that pupils also found them interesting. …

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. Good work in handcraft would best be accomplished by a teacher trained in that field. The sand table, the soap for carving, the tiny mirrors for lakes, and the rest of the paraphernalia belong, certainly, outside the literature class. (pp. 245, 246)

The misapplication of the project method as arts and crafts (instead of reading) is a close cousin to what passes for reading instruction today: Test-prep for reading tests (instead of reading).

Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

If LaBrant were alive today, I suspect she would express the same wrath for Common Core and the high-stakes testing that are the source of the materials bonanza now sweeping across the U.S.: This is once again allowing reading programs to masquerade as reading instruction—except these costume parties are incredibly costly in terms of time and public funding and detrimental to the exact students who need genuine progressive learning environments the most.

Why, then, are we failing reading once again?

There is no market incentive for doing what is right in terms of reading.

New standards and new tests feed our consumer culture, but genuine reading reform would not.

In short, the sort of reading practices we have known to be effective since LaBrant’s career (and echoed by leading literacy experts decade after decade) simply don’t sell:

  • Alleviate poverty and inequity so that all children live in homes that foster early reading development.
  • Choice reading, not prescriptive reading programs, is essential to reading development.
  • Access to books, such as libraries as well as books in the home, is also central to reading growth.

Thus, if genuine social and school reform focused on the above, instead of new standards, new tests, and new materials, consider the consequences:

If all children entered schools as literate as most affluent children, the reading program industry would be destroyed.

Just as the market economy of the U.S. depends on poverty to thrive (and thus market forces will never overcome poverty), the reading program industry depends on struggling readers and thus will never seek ways to foster reading among all children.

The choice before us is to continue the masquerade that is Common Core—one that lines the pockets of curriculum consultants, textbook and testing companies, and government bureaucrats—or to make a truly progressive commitment to both the lives and schools of all children, lives and schools that allow learning that seems natural.


LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L.L. (1936). The library and “An experience curriculum in English.” The Elementary English Review, 13(8), pp. 295-297, 305.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Thomas, P. (2001). Lou LaBrant—A woman’s life, a teacher’s life. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

* For the record, I am not a progressive, and I remain about equally disappointed in traditionalists and progressives in terms of educational practices. When I must acknowledge a label, I am most comfortable with “critical.”

** Without a historical perspective of education, the public may be unaware that at any moment throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the public and professional claim about reading always includes: (a) children today aren’t reading as much as they used to, (b) our literacy rate is in crisis, and (c) we must make sure that all children can read [insert grade level here; in 2013, 3rd grade is the emergency year].

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

I have a brief comedy routine I use with my students, typically early in each course I teach—in part to introduce them to me, and in part to make a point about literacy.* The joke goes like this:

“When I graduated high school,” I say, ” I had 7,000 comic books,” slight pause, “and no girl friend.”

The students typically laugh, and then I deadpan, “That’s not funny. That’s sad.”

When they suddenly stop laughing, I smile widely, and we all laugh together.**

I began collecting comic books—primarily to draw from them—in the summer before my ninth grade, the summer I learned I had scoliosis and would have to wear a huge back brace throughout my high school years (23 hours a day at first and throughout school hours into my junior year of high school). That situation provided me with yet another joke for my students; when I tell that part of my life story, I say that I called my back brace “the chick magnet.” More laughter.

By my sophomore year of high school, I was collecting, drawing from, and reading dozens of comics each month. I also had begun reading science fiction (SF) voraciously. I can still recall Lucifer’s HammerRendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End vividly—not the contents of the books so much as the reading was hard and that I felt accomplished by making my way through each one.

Lynn Harrill was my driver’s education teacher the summer before my tenth grade, and then my English teacher in both my sophomore and junior years. Lynn would prove to be the most important man and mentor in my life after my father, but during tenth grade, he told me that I needed to stop reading SF and start reading “real literature.”

And I did (well, I starting reading real literature, but didn’t stop reading SF). In the next several years, I had read everything by D.H. Lawrence (to whom Lynn introduced me), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and many other literary authors.

I owe a great deal to Lynn, despite his being wrong about his proclamation marginalizing SF (and indirectly my comics) and honoring literary fiction. But another moment in my sophomore year of English deserves mentioning.

A required book in my tenth grade was A Tale of Two Cities. The summative assessment on the novel was a multiple-choice test—on which I scored a 96, the highest grade in the class. Most of the students in the class—which was the highest track—made much lower, and they all were mad at me from ruining any chance at the grades being curved.

But that isn’t the important aspect of this story—what is?

I never read the novel.

I scored a 96 by reading the Cliff’s Notes and taking careful notes in class.

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

An essay in the Educational Research Bulletin addressing reading requirements in high school opens with the following:

Within the last few years heated discussion has centered around the question of free reading for high-school students in English classes. Critics have insisted that interest as a basis for book selection merely tends to establish poor taste; they have stressed the importance of organization in reading as in any program; they have assumed that free reading, with its emphasis upon pupil-direction, lacks content. Indeed, the arguments in slightly more abstract form are those frequently advanced against any program in whose construction pupils participate, and have been offered as criticism of the whole progressive-school movement. (p. 29)

While this could easily be a description of the debates surrounding Common Core, this is by Lou LaBrant, written in 1937.

LaBrant presents a careful study of the positive consequences of free reading in the context of the traditional view that students must be assigned reading and that students must also read primarily (if not only) from the Great Books. She concludes from the study:

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)

In the seventy-plus years since LaBrant’s piece, as literacy scholars such as Stephen Krashen have argued and detailed in their research, student literacy has been shown to spring from choice reading and access to books (in the home and libraries)—not from prescribed reading lists, not from revised standards, and certainly not from testing reading.

Advocates for Common Core insist that CC is not prescriptive and that CC is not the tests to come from these new standards.

Those advocates are simply ignoring the real world and the history of standards-bases education in the U.S.; they are, in fact, confusing the use of “to be” verbs with “should.” It may very well be that CC should not be prescriptive and should not be reduced to the tests. But should does not dictate what most surely is and will be.

Last week, for example, a former student of mine who is now a high school English teacher texted me distraught. Her English department is aggressively pursuing a new policy to end the use of young adult (YA) literature in the high school courses at her school. Why?

The department leaders have argued that CC requires literature that is “rigorous.”

Despite having abundant evidence on her side (including research and that students do read voraciously YA literature), she has been told to stop her resistance.

Another former student of mine who teachers high school English also faced harsh evaluations during her first year of teaching because she designed and implemented a wonderful unit around The Hunger Games. Despite the huge popularity of the unit among her students (and among student not in her class who were drawn into the books because of word of mouth), the leaders of her department also reprimanded her for depending on lesser literature—arguing that her students needed higher quality reading (required Great Books, again).

In the real world, CC and the tests that are to follow have and will once again reinforce the exact practices that have harmed literacy among students for a century; teachers will be emboldened to assign Great Books (and marginalize further everything else) and teachers will be compelled to teach to the test.

In the real world, as Gerald Bracey has explained, what is tested is what is taught—especially when standards and testing are part of high-stakes accountability. CC may in fact raise (eventually) some reading test scores, but I guarantee it will only harm the teaching of literacy and the literacy of students.

I have slipped past the age of 50. I have read thousands of books and written several myself.

My greatest literacy joys remain authors I was never assigned, but discovered for myself—Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman.

My literary life can be traced back to my mother and the wealth of children’s books that populated my childhood home and then my deeply self-conscious nerd self as a teen sitting in my comic book room surrounded by comic books and stacks of Arthur C. Clarke novels.

I graduated high school with mostly As in math and science, intending to be physics major, because school had profoundly misled me about the joy and wonder of words.

In college, on my own, I learned otherwise.

There is no justification for CC and the tests that have and will follow if we genuinely seek to offer children the rich and valuable literacy that every child deserves. Denying students choice is ignoring what we know about literacy development as well as the essence of basic human agency.

Common Core in the real world is once again destroying literacy through standardization.

* This blog was inspired by Christopher Lehman @iChrisLehman.

** My newer joke springs from The Big Bang Theory; at some point I tell students I watch and enjoy the show, and then pause before saying quite seriously I don’t understand, however, why people think it’s funny. Then I smile widely.