As a university supervisor of secondary level student teachers in English at San Jose State, I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past three decades observing students at the middle and high school levels reading and responding to what they read. Often, as I observe these classrooms, I see teachers behaving as if the Lutheran revolution was the only game in town. You know the general story. Luther upended the whole notion of the purpose of reading, and who should learn to read. Prior to the Lutheran revolution, readers of texts, at least in the west, were primarily monks and priests, while those who could not read acted as listeners to the Biblical narratives told by this priestly class. These readings were frequently supplemented by visual renderings of these same Biblical narratives, often depicted as frescoes on the church’s walls. Luther changed all that, proclaiming that everyone must become readers if they were to understand their true relationship to God. More significantly for today’s students, he intimated that if one could not understand what one read, one was meant to be damned. Damned eternally. Oh my. Growing up in the late 50’s, I was a child of the sputnik-inspired revolution in American education. Surprisingly, the sudden and quite unanticipated launching of this small orbital satellite by the Russians in the fall of 1957 had the effect of driving us back to the basics of the Lutheran revolution. Following this launch by our Russian rivals, American students’ reading comprehension began to be tested systematically and frequently. Depending on one’s ability to answer comprehension questions following the short passages that one read, one was placed in either higher or lower level classes the following year: “saved” or “damned.” The The logical culmination of this process, at least for me, came in my senior year of college. I was taking a class in the modern British novel by a professor I greatly admired. All of us “saved” students were sitting in the first two rows of the small lecture hall, laughing at the professor’s jokes and nudging each other as we pointed to passages we’d underlined in our texts and comments we’d written in the margins. I
I chanced to turn around one day to look at the back row of students. There on the far side of the hall, hunched down in his chair, was one of my classmates, a good friend and a fellow member of my residential hall. He was looking uncharacteristically timid, peering over the top of his book, clearly hoping the professor would not notice him. I knew this particular classmate was extremely bright. In fact, he later went on to Oxford University and then to Harvard Law School. What sort of educational system would lead to the conviction on the part of such a student that he was not among the “saved”? But that was the consequence, I later came to realize, of identifying those with special aptitude early in an educational system, then nurturing these individuals at the expense of those not meant to be “saved.” The cluster of the saved, of course, grew smaller and smaller as one rose up through the educational ranks. Eventually, so I discovered, it became a matter of fewer and fewer people talking more and more loudly to one another.
In my third year of graduate school in English at Yale University, as I was experiencing this selective process taking place, wondering when it would be my turn to be pushed off the plank, I was asked to lead an undergraduate seminar made up of English majors who had a significantly different view of the purpose of the study of English. These students were not planning to apply to graduate school, but were instead intending to pursue a post-BA credential program at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Since I’d taught 10th and 12th grade English at an independent day school for three years prior to beginning my graduate studies, I was asked to become the seminar leader for this group.
And as it turned out, the questions they were asking fascinated me: How should the field of English be understood when it became required of all students in each of their public school years? More importantly, how should this field be understood when students were in classrooms by law rather than by choice? And here’s where Walt Disney came in. What if we decided to look at how students went about the process of comprehending complex texts when they were good at it? What purpose was served, after all, by subjecting students to reading programs whose primary effect was to increase the disparity, year-by-year, between good and poor readers: “saved” and “damned”? Since I was leading this seminar as an adjunct to a course in Children’s Literature, it seemed sensible to define reading as a matter of making sense of both visual and verbal texts. Isn’t that what good elementary teachers practiced all the time: looking at stories in which the illustrations were as worthy of attention as the words? In pursuing this line of inquiry, we learned that prior to the Disney studio’s creation in 1937 of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first 90-minute animated film, it was widely assumed that “talking animated cartoons” could only sustain a young viewer’s attention for about ten minutes. Sound familiar?
Disney and his animators challenged this conventional thinking, asking themselves what might make children want to sustain their attention for longer periods of time. Telling a good story was obviously a key ingredient (hence the choice of Snow White), but so was the appeal to our universal delight in sound, song, movement, and a bit of irreverence (hence the Seven Dwarfs).
By drawing on these attributes of what makes kids variously talented and smart, might the supposed shortness of young viewers’ attention spans be significantly lengthened? As we all know today, Disney and his animators proved the skeptics wrong. Kids could pay attention to what they were viewing for a good deal longer than 10 minutes. It was all a matter of knowing in advance what might interest and engage their attention, then incorporating these elements consciously and consistently into this uniquely modern version of visual and verbal story telling.
Were it not for the 1957 launching of Sputnik I by the Soviets, perhaps this understanding of kids as diversely talented readers and viewers might have prevailed in American education. Sadly, however, this vision faded quite abruptly after the “wake up call” provided by the Russian’s unexpected launching of their orbital satellite. And as a consequence, our school curricula became systematically more academic, more rigorous, more relentless in its widening of the gap between skilled and unskilled readers.
The most recent iteration of this expanding gulf between “saved” and “damned” readers is of course the adoption of the various state versions Common Core Standards. While it is not my purpose here to argue the merits and drawbacks of the Common Core Standards, or the “new generation” assessments that purport to test students’ mastery of these standards , it is my purpose to indicate the degree to which teaching to these new standards is likely to increase the disparity between less able and more able readers.
Fortunately, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project website has provided us with a glimpse into the spring 2015 CCSS assessments, from the perspective of the New York State students who took pilot versions the two prior years. It is worth quoting the letter that Director Lucy Calkins wrote as a preface to these observations: “Dear Colleagues, This site contains over 600 responses to the all-new, CCSS-aligned ELA exam that Pearson gave this year in New York State. Given that Pearson is poised to compete with PARCC and Smarter Balanced as a provider of the new generation of national tests, I think you can look at these responses to Pearson’s first iteration of that test as a harbinger of what is to come. What is to come, that is, unless someone calls out ‘Wait! The Emperor has no clothes!’
“The test was unlike anything anyone here had ever seen. I don’t want to try to describe it to you, because frankly I wasn’t allowed to see it. What I know about the test is largely harvested from these comments, and from people’s descriptions of the test. And that, I think, is the problem. How can test-makers create a whole new generation of tests that we are not allowed to see, or to respond to in their first draft versions? How can legislators decide that teachers will be hired and fired based on students’ scores on this test, when they haven’t watched their sons and daughters, grandchildren and neighbors, take the test?”
And to cite one representative response from a California teacher on this site:
“I recently attended the California Reading Association’s Annual Convention in San Diego, and got to meet and talk with a Berkeley professor who was part of the team reviewing the ‘curriculum and testing’ that will be presented in our state for Common Core implementation. He was very dismayed at the shallow interpretation of the Common Core and indeed at the creation of a curriculum at all. This opportunity to make millions is apparently being grabbed nationwide. So discouraging!!” Dee Roe – Teacher
What we are facing, that is, under the shadow of the seeming juggernaut of the national “Accountability Movement” is the prospect that both the curriculum we teach our students and the way they are assessed will be virtually taken out of our hands. Several comments on this Teachers College website speak about the misuse of the “Revised Publishers’ Criteria” written by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel as a basis for creating these tests. But this is exactly what we should expect when the same for-profit companies that are creating curriculum aligned with the CCSS are now major players in the creation of the tests themselves. The only change one might make to the observation above by teacher Dee Roe is that this close linkage between testing organizations and curriculum providers creates an opportunity for for-profit suppliers to make billions, not millions. What is often overlooked in this heated climate, however, is that the drive for accountability was itself based on a misleading interpretation of international test scores that supposedly placed American students near the bottom among post-industrialized nations in reading, science and math.
Here is a useful interpretation of those scores, taken from an article in the January 2011 issue of Dissent magazine by Joanne Barkan: “Students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. As the poverty rate rose higher, however, students ranked lower and lower. One-fifth of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75%. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty.”
While this link between poverty and school achievement has been the subject of an interminable and not particularly fruitful national debate, one can hardly do better than review the compelling links between the two that Diane Ravitch outlines in the tenth chapter of Reign of Error (“How Poverty Affects Academic Achievement”), as well as in her response to Deborah Meier entitled “Another look at PISA.”
And in a somewhat more nuanced study in January of 2013, entitled “What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?“, economists Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein come to a similar conclusion: “The share of disadvantaged students in the U.S. sample was the largest of any of the [post-industrial] countries we studied. Because test scores in every country are characterized by a social class gradient—students higher in the social class scale have better average achievement than students in the next lower class—U.S. student scores are lower on average simply because of our relatively disadvantaged social class composition. . . If we make two reasonable adjustments to the reported U.S. average, our international ranking improves. The first adjustment re-weights the social class composition of U.S. test takers to the average composition of top-scoring countries. The other re-weights the distribution of lunch-eligible students by the actual intensity of such students in schools. These adjustments raise the U.S. international ranking on the 2009 PISA test from 14th to 6th in reading, and from 25th to 13th in mathematics. While there is still room for improvement, these are quite respectable showings.”
To put it succinctly, the achievement gap between American students and their foreign counterparts is largely a red herring. While we’ve been nodding, wealth inequality between the uber-rich and everyone else has grown to proportions that presently exceed those of the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How likely is it that the imposition of a “rigorous” and “demanding” national curriculum and assessment program will significantly decrease the distance in school achievement between students from our poorest and wealthiest families? How much more likely is it that the results of these new assessments will once again mirror the wealth disparities we have grown all-too-accustomed to accepting? In pondering these questions, I’m reminded of Tracy Kidder’s moving portrait of Chris Zajac’s 5th grade classroom in Among Schoolchildren (1990). In one of the most memorable moments in Kidder’s narrative, he asks Zajac how much influence she has over the lives and prospects of her lower class students in South Holyoke Massachusetts. “I’m like a small rock in a swiftly flowing steam,” Zajac responds. “I can deflect the course of a number of my students’ lives. I can’t re-channel the stream.”
I’d like to suggest, however, that we might set the bar somewhat higher. In a workshop I’ve given over the past few years, prodded by Kelley Gallagher’s documentation in Readicide (2009) of the alarming rise in the number of “aliterate” students (i.e. those who can read but choose not to) at the middle and high school levels, I introduce a variety of pre-reading strategies for the teaching of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Using a multi-modal approach that I believe holds the potential of re-engaging some of our most disengaged readers.
I begin with vignettes from the novel based on the characters of Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson. We start with the most traditional of exercises — having participants read these short passages describing the characters of Dill, Mayella, and Tom, then writing about what they understand about their assigned character, based on these passages.
Rather than digging “deeper” into these complex texts, however, I return participants to the world of Disney by viewing the trial segment of the 1963 film version of Harper Lee’s novel. Prior to viewing the film, I use a scaffolding strategy I call a cumulative graphic organizer, designed to help participants understand the roles played by these three different characters in relation to the larger world of Maycomb County. Then I lead participants through a relaxation/guided imagery exercise in which they are “re-introduced” to their assigned character, followed by having them create visual symbol posters of that character. I follow this with a gallery walk of these visual symbol posters, then have them gather in mixed character groups of three, role-playing their assigned character. Finally, I return students to the excerpts that were initially read in “Lutheran” fashion at the beginning of the workshop, but this time listening to these excerpts from Sally Darling’s excellent audio version of this novel, while viewing them in enlarged print on a screen at the front of the room. In conclusion, I ask participants to write about what they learned about their characters, and about themselves as learners, through experiencing this sequence of activities. My point is to demonstrate that we can all deliberately and systematically draw on the various ways we know our kids are smart. That is, we can draw on their various talents as readers, listeners, responders to and shapers of their world. In doing so, we can not only speak out but “teach out” against practices and policies that we know are damaging our students, preventing them from experiencing themselves as the diversely talented group of individuals that, in our heart of hearts, we know them to be.
And in light of the current tidal wave of curriculum materials purporting to raise students’ scores on assessments based on the Common Core Standards, I propose the adoption of the following resolution:
WHEREAS virtually every large scale study over the past several decades of income level in relation to student achievement in reading has shown a consistent and compelling correlation between the two, and WHEREAS the percentage of children in poverty in our nation’s schools has been growing steadily and persistently, and WHEREAS present levels of wealth inequality in our nation can be related directly to conscious public policy, BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED
That “demanding” and “rigorous” state standards, individual schools that “beat the odds,” publicly funded charter schools whose students purportedly “outperform” their public school peers, and all such examples of the “imperative need” to reform the American system of public education, be understood for what they are:
Seductive distractions from the overriding issue we must face as a nation if the claim to “fix” our public schools is to be anything more than crass political posturing: the shameful and immoral growth in wealth inequality between our poorest and richest citizens. Note: An earlier version of this essay, without the images, appeared in the September 2013 issue of California English
Tags: "fixing" public education, 1%, achievement gap, aliterate students, Child Poverty, Common Core, complex texts, countering corporate "reform" in education, Diane Ravitch, wealth inequality; reading acheivement