Friday, December 05, 2008

Greg House runs a differential on public education: a thought-experiment

"I said, Relax your sphincter and tell me how you'd fix that fragment! If you can't, the sentence dies. I don't hold out much academic hope for you, either."

Image found here.

Last night, I subbed for a colleague after watching four straight episodes from the first season of House M.D. I even wore jeans and tennis shoes and didn't shave my two-days' beard, though I realized how I looked only afterward. No cane, though, you'll be relieved to learn. Let's just say that I'm not sure that, at one level, watching House positively contributed to my classroom demeanor. In class, I found myself fighting off the tendency to be sarcastic and cutting with these nice people I'd never seen before and most likely would not see again. But it occurs to me this morning that, absent complete instructions provided by the regular prof, a sub is indeed something like a diagnostician--assuming, of course, the sub wants that time with the class to matter . . . and, given that the class started at 7:30 p.m., I wanted to be more than the educational equivalent of "a monkey with a bottle of Motrin"--House's memorable description of the competence required of doctors working in his hospital's walk-in clinic. So, by golly, we weren't just going to fix these sentences from student papers that the prof had turned into a worksheet; we were going to review the mechanics--the rules--that explained the fixes. Mechanics do indeed matter: they are the governing rules for language that allow us to comprehend anything at all. And besides, it's my understanding that in Kansas public schools reviews of mechanics pretty much end after middle school. Reviewing them, therefore, is usually a useful thing at the college level--they are the "diet and exercise" of effective writing. So, in the end, I got to say some things to the class similar to what House gets to say in most every episode: "You're not looking!" "You're missing something." "'It just sounds right' is not a rule!"

It was a good class, I thought. A couple of students even thanked me for teaching them something. "Cool," as House might have said.

Actually, I wish House would run a differential on public education. What would his diagnosis (or diagnoses) be? I suspect, given his antagonistic stance relative to his hospital's administration, that he'd a) be the first to agree with any proposal that streamlines the bureaucracy and moves to get rid of deadwood and incompetence, so long as b) the schools' first priorities, providing quality instruction and ensuring that students learn what they need to be learning, are enhanced or at least not interfered with. But if the proposals addressing (a), however well intentioned, end up satisfying some accrediting or funding body but impairing (b), better not to do (a), then. No Child Left Behind, to my mind, is the poster child for a well-intentioned but ultimately educationally-dysfunctional and, perhaps, harmful reform.

Along these lines, yesterday I ran across two different but intriguing posts on the general subject of "What ails public education?" My bloggy friend Randall of Musings from the Hinterland responds to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which a former CEO of IBM argues that the problem is a lack of standardization among school districts, which leads to inefficiencies in the education system. Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias links to a report from the Center for American Progress that notes a correlation between teacher tenure policies and the poor quality of instruction in high-poverty districts. As I read these pieces, I found myself saying, "Yeah, but." All of us can sign on to the ideas of greater bureaucratic efficiency and improving teacher quality. But what do we have if we have excellent teachers who are given watered-down material to teach--they're teaching it well, but it ends up not being terribly nourishing intellectually for the student? Have we "fixed" public education by setting and agreeing on standards of achievement if the material mastered is thin gruel and, for that matter, if those standards are set not for reasons of pedagogy but to determine a school's funding?

In other words: I'd argue for any educational reform whose ultimate goal is not to save some administrator's ass but to improve what happens in the classroom. We've fixed nothing--or, rather, we've not fixed what really matters--if all we've done is improved the efficiency with which we deliver ultimately inadequate information to students. Cigarette smoke is still toxic, whether second-hand or inhaled directly.

When talking about argument, I sometimes use the following factoid as a set-up for a thought-experiment: The California Department of Corrections estimates its future space requirements for state prisons in part by looking at the number of 4th graders who cannot read at a 4th-grade level. (When I tell my students this, they are often stunned into silence.) Then I ask them, What are some things we can conclude from this fact, especially as regards the importance of being competent readers? And, more to the point, what can or should schools do that they aren't doing now to better ensure reading competency?

Some further thoughts on this, along with a proposal, below the fold.

As one advances in school, reading becomes the one skill central to the acquisition of knowledge needed for mastery of subject matter and skills; yet, formal instruction in reading tends to end in the 4th grade. The assumption has traditionally been that from that point on students will continue to grow and improve as readers as they read their textbooks. Would that that assumption were in fact true. The fact that California's Department of Corrections makes projections about its future space needs by looking at the reading levels of 4th-graders, it seems to me, is an implicit recognition of another truth: if kids aren't reading at their grade level by 4th grade, they are unlikely to improve enough on their own to keep up with those of their peers who are: the needed instruction and encouragement just won't be there. The results: Many of those kids will end up dropping out of school; those who don't will somehow get by in high school but then either show up at colleges like mine and be expected to read and comprehend college-level texts with 6th-grade reading levels, or they'll struggle to read things like, oh, lease agreements or terms and conditions statements on credit applications, etc.; and some will end up getting into trouble of various sorts that may necessitate prison time.

Here's what I tell my students: if they can read well, they can teach themselves anything--what they want to know is written down, somewhere. There's no more practical skill needed for success in formal education and/or in the Real World than reading.

If we want to improve overall student performance, we should make reading proficiency an educational priority from K-12. Maybe extend formal reading instruction up till 8th grade. Or, test kids' reading levels at various points in their K-12 careers, and if, after 4th grade, they're found not to be reading within, say, four grade levels of where they actually are in school, get them some extra instruction. Don't allow kids to receive their high school diplomas until/unless they can demonstrate they're reading at or above an 8th-grade level, regardless of their credits earned. And whatever we do, we shouldn't tie a school's or a district's funding to the percentage of kids reading above or below their grade level, except for reasons of paying for salaries and materials for needed reading instructors, testing, etc. That way, the emphasis is on individual students' performance, and (I'd think) the goal becomes getting them to become proficient at the highest possible level. It also would reduce outside pressure on administrators of the sort they're presently under because of NCLB: if a certain percentage of kids don't graduate because they can't satisfy the proficiency requirement, it's those kids who are punished by not receiving their diplomas until they can. The schools--not to mention future students--aren't hurt, but they'll still have the resources to get them up to snuff. But here's the thing: if schools are pushing and testing for reading proficiency throughout students' careers, in theory the number of students not reading at level will be smaller and smaller in the higher grade levels.

"Yet more testing!?" you're saying. My thinking, though, is that in view of reading's centrality to formal learning, a prioritizing of measuring reading proficiency would lead to an eventual reduction in the number of standardized tests kids take these days. Reading proficiency tests, after all, are measuring comprehension, and the material being comprehended has to be about something, doesn't it? In other words, if kids are shown to be reading at their grade level, they are by definition comprehending--demonstrating mastery of--the subject at hand. Even better: "teaching to the test" is exactly what you'd want teachers to be doing in the case of testing for reading proficiency. The goal is to get kids reading at a level somewhere near their grade level. So ideally, this wouldn't have to be the sort of test you review or prepare for; daily emphasis on reading proficiency in every subject would be enough. Moreover, any class in any subject could serve as a potential opportunity for testing and reinforcing reading proficiency. Higher emphasis on reading proficiency should also help with developing higher-order kinds of thinking, as well.

Much as I would love to legislate that parents read to their kids from the moment of conception till they can read on their own, I recognize that, alas, we live in a free society. But it may also be that schools' emphasis on reading proficiency will encourage more parents, regardless of socioeconomic status, to promote reading at home, too. Hey--a boy can hope, eh?

I'm sure I'm overlooking something here from a pedagogical standpoint. My background isn't in reading instruction. What I do know, though, is that I see students who have decent grades from high school and want to do well in college but struggle and can't understand why. More often than not, it's because they are underprepared as readers and, moreover, we've recently begun requiring especially-deficient readers to take reading classes. But even if these students weren't going on to college, they'd still be underprepared for life beyond school because of their poor reading proficiency. Either way, they've been ill-served by an educational system whose members and critics seem more focused on what are ultimately administrative rather than pedagogical or content issues. An insisting on grade-appropriate reading proficiency would focus attention where it should be--on the individual's educational attainment and preparation for whatever lies ahead for them beyond graduation . . . and maybe we wouldn't have to plan to build quite so many prison cells.


R. Sherman said...

Thanks for the link.

Your comments about reading are spot-on, of course. The failure of our educational system to develop good readers has led, as you know, to the creation of new "reading specialists," whose job it is to teach only reading.

This development has, in turn, caused your humble, if ever-more-crotchety correspondent to ask, "WTF? What happened to reading "across the curriculum?" How do these people get out of H.S. without being able to read at grade level?

It stuns me beyond belief.


(Disclosure: The EMBLOS teaches a remedial reading course at her community college. It is required for those who cannot pass an entrance exam in reading and must be taken as a prerequisite to all other college level courses. It carries no college credit. She has students from "good" school districts who received high school diplomas with 3.0-4.0 H.S. GPA's. Recently, the publication of these sorts of statistics have led to angry confrontations in various schools regarding the failure to teach reading. Finally, some parents are getting it, especially when they're forking over money for an additional one or two semesters of college work for which their kids receive no credit.)

John B. said...

Thanks. A couple of years ago at my school, enough faculty raised the issue of weak readers that the administration studies the problem and now tests for reading proficiency in addition to writing and math proficiency. We have some students, high school grads, who are reading at a 5th- and 6th-grade level. Their texts in required Gen. Ed. classes are written at a 10th grade level or above. Our argument was that, by admitting these students but not getting them the help in reading that they needed, we weren't educating them--just taking their money.

The Kansas Board of Regents has begun a series of conversations with the heads of state school boards in order to better square what public schools are teaching students with colleges' assumptions about what entering students should know. The president of the Board of Regents will be visiting us this spring, and I plan to ask him about the possibility of insisting on a certain level of reading proficiency as a graduation prerequisite--or, at the very least, a higher prioritizing of reading proficiency past the 4th grade. As I noted in my post, doing this would benefit all students regardless of their post-high school plans. We'll see what happens. I like this fellow; he seems genuinely intent on improving public education in the state. I'm no expert in any of this, but I can't for the life of me see how emphasizing reading would make student achievement worse.

Mrs. Meridian said...

Please don't mention the phrase "bloggy friend" EVER again? HI, Randall!

". . . formal instruction in reading tends to end in the 4th grade." No, it doesn't. Well, it might in "mainstream" education, but every school--even high schools--have reading programs.

And may I please submit for your consideration . . . how about the antiquity of reading? Yeah, it's very important, but think for a few minutes about how MOST people read stuff now--the internets. Maybe a news paper or a magazine, but they sure as hell don't go to a library and check out a big ol' stack of paper to manually TURN the pages on. I would be VERY interested in seeing Amazon sponsor a classroom with Kindles and see what it does for their reading levels. Kids want cool stuff--always have, always will. PLUS, it's super easy to use a lot of reading strategies with.

In today's world, kids have a hard time focusing on just one thing. Hell, I can't even focus on just one thing for very long either. All of that over-stimulation has to go somewhere. I've noticed that when I gave my students post-it notes to mark down questions they had when reading, they were much more engaged. It's the interactivity that kids are missing when reading, which is why they'd rather play video games.

So yeah, we could mandate, mandate, mandate, but I don't think you're going to really change much with that sort of a directive. But I'm going to shut up before I get all fired up about one of my most passionate subjects. :)