Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reviving the "Reading Wars" for Political Gain, Dr. Barresi?

Now I'm just mad...really mad. Dr. B has wandered into my turf, reading education, and she's saying some really stupid extremely uninformed and unhelpful things. I am a reading specialist, with a masters in secondary reading. I've taught 39 years, in library, English, elementary, special education (where 75% of my students were not misidentified). I've taught every grade K-12 in some capacity. That introduction hopefully will give credibility.

We all make sense of our world through our stories. That's just who we are. So it's not surprising that Dr. Barresi, who had two sons who struggled with reading, would make sense of reading education through their experiences. I get that. And on behalf of my profession, I sincerely apologize for the fact they didn't get the kind of education they needed in our schools. Her sons needed a phonetic approach, even into middle school, it sounds like...that's an unusual story, but a valid one.

But, our own story blinds us to the fact that others have stories that are just as real and just as valid, and that is what Dr. Barresi has done...she's blinded herself to others' stories.

I share my stories here: I was taught to read at the height of the 'see and say' movement--lots of memorization and repetition. Who can forget: "Look, Jane. Look. Look. Look. See Spot. See Spot run"? This approach was accidentally the exact right approach for me. I'm a visual learner who liked memorizing. I thrived.

My son? He learned, mostly through phonics. And another happy occurance. He's a strong phonetic learner. Sounding out words made great sense to him...much more than to me sometimes, sitting next to him. And guess what? He grew up to be a musician.

My daughter? Another non-phonetic learner. Her school believed in an eclectic approach to beginning reading...phonics, memorization, and, yes...gasp...whole language. What a gift this reading program was for children. It allowed every reader to find his strengths. It allowed every child to find her success. The teachers honored every child's story. But she still had that mom-volunteer who read with her every week who asked, without fail, "Well, can you sound out yet?" Laurie was trained to say, "No, not yet. But that's ok. I can read."

I share stories just to show you we all have 'em. And 30+ years teaching literacy to students has taught me to value and respect every one. NOT just my own.

Eight years at the elementary level, teaching remedial readers taught me that every third grader can read...maybe not at level, yet. But they all read. Dr. Barresi and other critics blithely label kids who don't read at level as 'nonreaders'. I won't call this a lie...but a blazing untruth. Dr. Barresi recently told a group of Republican voters that a third grader who scored 'Limited Knowledge' on one standardized test was two grades below level...gasp...Ummm. Not so much. A child scoring 'Limited Knowledge' could have missed 'Proficient' by one question. ONE. 

Okeducationtruths pointed out in a recent blog, 'Limited Knowledge' is the difference between one and eight correct questions on a test, one day in April. If eight questions on one test mean two grade levels, there's something inherently wrong...with the test. Not the third grader.

As a remedial reading teacher, I learned to honor each student's unique story and strengths. In my eight years as elementary remedial reading teacher, I only saw one upper-elementary nonreader. But, man, could that little guy give me letter sounds. "Cuh-Ahhh-Tuh...Duh-Oooh-Guh." Trouble was, no one helped him see that was only step one. Phonics alone actually handicapped his ability to make sense out of print. We set him up with books on tape, and lots of seeing the words (visual) and hearing the words (phonics) and repetition (that see-and-say). And we had a reader! He read his first book to anyone and everyone. He read with expression and confidence. We honored his story and we helped him find his reading voice.

In my 25+ years in secondary, I used that same eclectic approach...books, lots of them. An authentic audience for reading and for thoughts about reading. Time dedicated for practice. Writing with reading. I did not go back and reteach phonics. That would be counterproductive. Most struggling secondary readers are non-phonetic learners like me, like my daughter. To force-feed more phonics would have been the wrong professional decision. But some might well need that extra dose, now when their brains are ready to process. 

I did meet one secondary non-reader. He had been 'homeschooled' by a very tired grandmother who was not up the challenge of an energetic boy who, frankly, did not want to learn. This guy came to us at 14, essentially illiterate. The first ever in my career. We started a program of phonics in isolation (Cuh-Ahh-Tuh) and lots of easy books with word patterns and predictable stories. We were dealing with attitude problems and behavior problems, self-esteem, probably some serious special education issues, and reading problems. As with my first example, this young man disappeared from our school before we could properly diagnose his difficulties and address them systematically, just as we were learning his story.

There's an old saying, 'If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.' It fits here. Untrained folks see every learner as a mirror for their own experiences. They think everyone learns the same way they did. They know what worked for them, and they make that leap that it's good for us all. 

A student, a learner, who doesn't follow their trajectory is a nail who must be hammered into submission. and that will have high costs to the child in the future. We tried that. It didn't work.

What wise educators have learned is our kids are not ideological nails -- they're learners. And if we don't have a full tool box of lots of research-based approaches and ideas to use as needed, we will not reach every child.

Learning to read is as individual as learning to talk...Seldom will a first grade teacher (now kindergarten) have two students who learn the identical way. She's got to be versatile, knowledgeable, well-trained. She must be observant and reflective. She must listen to parents and their concerns and their stories. From that comes the teaching and the learning.

In her remarks, she says, “I’m now finding out … University of Oklahoma believes in Whole Language. So they’re teaching Whole Language.” The use of the evil "Whole Language" boogey man was recalls the ideological 'wars' between two competing approaches. Whole language was seen as the progressive (read liberal) approach to teaching reading, while phonics was the traditional (read conservative) approach. Dr. Barresi was talking to a group of Republican voters, and she was deliberately evoking distrust of academics, of learning that looks different from their own stories, and of those 'liberal teachers.' While it seemed to come out of left field, it was purposeful and divisive. She wants to discredit not only the universities that produce our teachers, but our teachers as well.

And a hat-tip to OU for giving its students another tool to use in teaching beginning reading, along with all the other tools, including phonics, phonemic awareness, word families, context...we could go on and on. Of course we want young teachers who have been well trained to approach all kinds of learners.

So, Dr B. whole language is not the spawn of the's a tool in the toolbox of a well-educated teacher. For some students, this focus on the whole, on making sense, is perfect. We use real books, magazines, newspapers. We use students' own writing. We celebrate initial steps into literacy. No experienced, professional teacher of emergent readers uses only this approach. It's not sustainable for everyone. But phonics as the entire approach is not the answer either. Many of the stuents in our classes are like me and my daughter...we try to sound out, and it becomes a mush. Much better for us to try to figure out what word makes sense in the sentence...and move on.

I circle back to the idea of stories...we each have one. We're all the heroes and heroines of our own stories. They make sense of the world for us. They are precious.

A teacher in a class of 18 (20? 25?) students knows he's dealing with that many stories. That many back stories -- as well as parents' and grandparents' stories. That many ways to make learning happen. This is the truth non-educators don't grasp. We, as their teachers, tried to honor their stories as we taught. At the same time, we were also responsible for the stories of every other student in their classroom. To assume there was only one story, to impose ONE theory or reading and teaching will invariably leave someone behind...leave someone out. Maybe that's what happened to Dr. Barresi's sons. I was lucky as a mom, and my children got the tools they needed. I used that observation in my own classroom all those years, and tried to teach every student to his and her strengths.

Dr. Barresi, please listen to the dedicated educators in your state. We have thousands of student stories to share. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Vexatious! To the Max!

I have been watching in dismay as Oklahoma's A-F school grading system has exploded in our faces. Scores were released to districts, changed, changed again, and again, and again. Schools sat helplessly as their grades jumped up and down, right in front of their faces. When educators began questioning the grades, a real donnybrook broke out.

Policy makers spoke with arrogant disdain, blaming and threatening schools and educators: it's schools' fault; we'll cut your funding if you don't stop pointing out problems.Both our Superintendent of Public Instruction and Governor have responded with venom and a bad word. Grades like A-F are 'easy' to understand, the 'reformer's tell us. Everyone know what an "A" is. Well, maybe not. When the formula is so complex that the OSDE spent a week changing, rearranging, lowering, grades, must not be so simple. But that's their mantra. Easy-to-understand. Just hard to manipulate to get the grade they want, I guess.

I have read everything I can (yes, I am a reading teacher!). I read the OU/OSU report pointing out the inherent weaknesses of this, our second attempt to grade schools on test scores.This report, by research scientists from our two major universities, peer reviewed, has been dismissed by our leaders, because they 'don't believe' the foundations and the findings. Methinks they don't understand how education research works. Not a surprise, since neither our Governor nor our Superintendent is an educator.

 I've read the blogs of my very smart teacher friends, here and here and here and here and here and here as they dissect the mind-boggling intricacies of the rules and the monumental failings of our policy makers. I'm so grateful for their insights, and so confused, even after reading them.

Not being smart enough to write a proper critique of the system, I have come back to my own territory of asking why?

Why are policy makers going to this ridiculous extreme to 'hold schools accountable?'

And why are we misusing standardized tests to do something they are not designed to do?

The stars aligned this morning as I read the front page of our local newspaper. We have a 'Word of the Day,' and today's was 'vexatious' -- "troublesome, action instituted without sufficient grounds and serving only to cause annoyance." There is is. There's the answer to my first question...kinda sorta.

This rule, I absolutely believe, is designed to deflate grades for schools, to frighten parents who are traditionally happy with their neighborhood schools. If grades are artificially low, parents may panic and charters, online schools, parent triggers, and vouchers may be more attractive. Our current Superintendent of Public Instruction is on record as supporting charters and vouchers. Her proposed budget includes a 300% increase for Charter School Incentives, and only 4% increase of the school formula, money available to all the public schools in the state. Last year, cut scores on the Biology End-of-Instruction exam were lowered drastically, above the recommendations of the educator committee whose job -- they thought -- was to set the cut score. They made their recommendation, left, and were horrified to see their recommendations were ignored. It seems as if data is being manipulated, and money is being invested in line with our leader's priorities.

We fought last year's Parent Trigger bill, but we know it will reappear. DDS Barresi, our Superintendent, is enthusiastic about vouchers...but if the A-F can show dismal results of even strong suburban schools, perhaps support for her projects will increase.

So, in my mind, there's the 'why A-F?' To give the false impression that public schools are failing. How sad the push is coming from the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Shouldn't she be the elected leader protecting and advocating for our schools?

On to my second question, and the one that vexes me the most.

Why do we use/misuse/abuse standardized tests to torture out 'grades' that show whatever the manipulators of the numbers want them to show? Why do policy makers continue to ignore evidence that test scores are not, never have been, never will be, designed to evaluate teachers, or grade schools, or flunk our students.

Every adult has taken tests. We all did, we know what it feels like to sit and fill in bubbles at school. I think this fact works against those of us who are fighting the current testing climate. The tests we remember were not high stakes. The high stakes tests we have taken were choices -- ACT or SAT to get into college, GRE to continue into graduate school, professional exams to enter medical school or law school, tests to show proficiency in a chosen field of endeavor. We were not subjected to the battery of tests our kids are, with the consequences attached.

I've read numerous books about school reform, and two of my go-to books are The Myths of Standardized Tests and Reign of Error. I returned to these for evidence.

Standardized tests are a snapshot in time. They are not an accurate picture of learning, of teaching, or of achievement. They do not predict much more than a student's performance on her next test. But they're cheap to administer and score and report and they give the appearance of scientific measures. The authors of Myths quote Larry Barber: "More than once, I explained to clearly and simply as I could, that standardized test scores were just too haphazard a measure to tell...whose school was short they were a waste of good money that could have been better spent in interesting and innovative efforts to improve instruction...but no one wanted to hear that." Policy makers love tests...the tests they never took, the tests they'll never be held accountable for. The tests they gleefully pay for, instead of investing in our classrooms.

Test scores seem to have the veneer of 'objective' measures. So, policy makers love to use them, and say they're measures of learning and teaching. That's the foundation of A-F -- hold schools 'accountable' for learning by testing our kids. And testing. And testing. Tests do not measure learning. They do not predict learning. They predict the score on the next test.

Ravitch tells us, "The over reliance on and misuse of testing and data have created a sense of crisis, lending credibility to claims that American public education is failing and in decline...more testing does not make children smarter. More testing does not reduce achievement gaps."

It seems like even committed educators have stopped arguing that we are abusing the intent of the tests, as we also abuse our kids. I want that to be our call to action. No more high stakes tests. Period. Go back to the practices of our childhood: tests as one piece of information in a student's permanent file. One number that represents performance on one day, and will predict performance on the test next year. That is the proper place for standardized tests, not ruling education policy, flunking third graders, denying high school graduates their diploma, evaluating teachers, grading schools.

Until schools can be fairly evaluated based on their demographics, their instructional program, co-curricular programs, parent involvement, equity and access, and the well-being of our students, we must resist, both the use of high stakes testing, and the results of high stakes testing. We must trust parents to know what happens in our schools. We must strive for real school improvement, real professional learning, real student learning. Won't find any of that on a test.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Sometimes books find us at the right time, and become part of our ongoing conversations in many ways. This is one of those books. I've talked to NBCTs about Gorski's discussion of equity, and I've shared quotes in conversations about the recent cuts to the SNAP program. This is an important book for all educators to read and think about. It's important for citizens to become informed, not with the narratives of 'my sister's friend was on welfare...My mother knew a woman on welfare who had an iPhone' They do NOT help us educate our students. They do NOT help us assist parents in overcoming the opportunity gaps that keep their children from succeeding.

If we really care about all students' education, we must read and discuss this book. We must shift our own thinking, and look carefully at how we structure our schools and our parent outreach. No longer is is all right to say, 'Well, we had Open House -- those parents just don't care about their children.' We must be honest about our own contributions to the barriers many parents suffer.

"...low income people face innumerable inequities in and out of schools. These inequities regarding access to everything from adequately funded schools to playgrounds to prenatal care have nothing to do with poor people's cultures and everything to do with what Jonathan Kozol called the 'savage inequalities' of schools and society. We, as a society, give low-income youths less access to educational opportunity, healthcare, nutrition, and other goods, and then blame the outcomes of these inequities on their 'culture of poverty.'"

Not an easy read...not a feel-good read. This challenges the reader to look closely and deeply at some assumptions and stereotypes we may bring to our work with kids from low-income families. 

Gorski takes us step-by-step from a shattering of the myth of the 'culture of poverty.' He is careful in his title to not talk about kids OF poverty, but kids IN poverty. Not an accident of word choice...a deliberate choice of a careful practioner.

We as educators must confront our own biases, well-meaning as they may be. We need to develop an new kind of literacy...equity literacy. We must push back against those soft-bigotry statements: Poor parents don't care about education; they're lazy,drug-addicted abusers who can't communicate and obviously care little about their children.

It's important to turn this around. Achievement gaps can be explained by examining OPPORTUNITY gaps...those resources most of us take for granted that poor families don't, prenatal care, dental and working conditions that are safe...recreation opportunities, with money and time and transportation and social services access...affordable childcare...enrichment opportunities...a society that validates our efforts. Poor families, because they may be working two or three low-paying jobs, with little free time and no disposable cash, do NOT have these opportunities to support their families.

We think of their inabilities as deficits, but we must stop...they are barriers to opportunity. Poor families have just as much resiliency as others when we help dismantle the barriers.

So, how do these gaps affect families' ability to thrive? Preschool, schools with adequate funding and resources such as libraries, shadow education (those ACT prep classes and tutoring and camp activities WE offer our own kids), support services, high expectations, WELL-PAID, CERTIFIED, EXPERIENCED TEACHERS (not 5-week wonders from TFA), higher-order, challenging curricula, the opportunity to include parents fully in their children's education. What are the barriers? TIME and TRANSPORTATIOM, a LIVING WAGE, to name a few.

Gorski lists the ineffective practices in schools: cutting arts and music programs, direct, scripted, instruction, tracking of students, and charter schools.

He tells us what works: Arts programs, high expectations, higher-order, student-centered pedagogies, movement and PE, relevancy in the schools, teaching everyone about biases, analyzing materials for bias, and my favorite: LITERACY ENJOYMENT!! Woohoo!

"The most powerful strategy is to create cultures that promote reading enjoyment...literacy instruction should not focus solely on reading or writing mechanics. More to the point, tho, it means that we ought to find ways to foster in students excitement about reading and writing even when they respond reluctantly at first… 1. Institute literature circles 2. Provide reading material options that align with stated interest of students 3. Use a variety of media…that engage students actively and interactively 4. Incorporate drama into literacy instructions."

I love the chapter entitled 'THE MOTHER OF ALL STRATEGIES" and I concur...building relationships IS the mother of all. Relationships with our students and relationships with their parents. It's not enough to set up conference times and then smugly say, 'well, we offered time for these parents to come to school. They must not be interested.' That's the same as the teacher who says, 'Well, I taught it, the students didn't get it.' I hate both of these messages...they point back to that deficit mindset. We need to ask ourselves how hard we tried...did we take into consideration work schedules, transportation, childcare? Did we really do everything we could to invite parents who may have negative feelings about schools? Did we truly show our value for them and their children? Were we creative in our problem solving, or did we simply shrug and blame the parents?

I've had a couple of conversations with professionals about 'those parents' who don't care...and I'm learning to offer alternative ways of thinking about the facts in a gentle push back. Which leads to the last chapter: SPHERES OF INFLUENCE...what IS my sphere? What can I do?

He suggests we do our job with sensitivity and respect...that is our sphere, but he says, "...when we do anything, anything at all, to push back against the defunding of schools or the underfunding of education mandates and to resist the imposition of corporate-style accountability and high-stakes testing, we are also advocating, whether we know it or not, for low-income students. Of course, we also are self-advocating, which is an added bonus."

He offers advocacy goals: preschool, community agency access, smaller classes, ongoing PD for teachers, access to healthcare, PE, arts and music. Surely every one of us could choose ONE of these issues to become advocates for.

Important book...I read it twice, once highlighting, the second, collecting all those quotes for reference later. Would make great reading for our legislators who continue to chip away at the few support systems poor families have.