Teaching Students, Not Standards or Programs

If you believe shoddy commentary at The New York Times (and you shouldn’t), we have more to fear from balanced literacy than the zombie apocalypse.

The central problem with the sudden surge in assaults on balanced literacy is that–like almost all of the “sky is falling” rants against progressivism, whole language, etc.–this round of “beware balance literacy” is not about teaching reading (or students) at all, but tired and ill-informed ideological misinformation.

However, these partisan political shots masked as education reform are illustrative, nonetheless. And like the mostly garbled public debates about Common Core (also usually misinformed and about politics but not students, teaching, or education), we must look beyond the terminology.

First, public and media uses of any terms such as “balanced literacy” or “whole language” are problematic because what a term means within a field is often quite distinct from how those terms are used in practice–especially once a guiding philosophy or theory (such as whole language, balanced literacy, or literature circles) becomes a program.

So with the current media assaults on balance literacy, we are likely faced with a real difficult paradox: the media rants are insincere and misguided, but it is also likely that far too often programs called “balance literacy” have been deeply flawed (but because the programs failed balance literacy and not because balance literacy is a flawed guiding principle for teaching).

Next, then, we must recognize that our media and public debates about balanced literacy and Common Core are missing just what is wrong with the historical and current contexts for how to teach students: Our job as teachers is to teach students, not standards, not programs.

All the time, energy, and funding spent training teachers in this or that program, this or that new set of standards is time, energy, and funds misspent because the reality of teaching day-to-day is that regardless of the set of standards or the required program, we teachers are charged with starting where each student is and then to take each student where she/he is capable of going.

To demand that we meet or hold us accountable for meeting some general standard of where all children should be or to hold us accountable for meeting the dictates of a program–that is educational malpractice.

And that is why the specific attacks on balanced literacy are potentially powerful lessons in all that is wrong with education reform. If balanced literacy were the grounding principle of literacy education, teachers would have the professional autonomy to identify student needs and then provide whatever instructional practices serve those student needs–instead of being bound to meet standards, raise test scores, or implement programs in uniform and bureaucratic ways.

But teacher autonomy (while serving the needs of students) does not serve the needs of political leaders or the monetizing zeal of corporate America. Bluntly stated, teacher autonomy does not elect politicians or line the pockets of Pearson or the legions of corporatists feeding on the public dime.

U.S. public education has never had a standards problem; it has never lacked an ample array of ready-made programs. Teachers have never had the sort of professional space that supports what students need and deserve, however.

U.S. public education has always been bogged down in the pursuit of both the “right” standards and the “right” programs–both inexcusable distractions.

It is counter-intuitive, but Henry David Thoreau’s dictum–“Simplify, simplify, simplify!”–may be our best new guiding principle for education reform.

The in-school key to fulfilling the promise of universal public education is teacher autonomy in an environment of community and support–not bureaucratic accountability in an environment of blame, punishment, and coercion.

Balanced literacy as a mandated program may not be as horrifying as the zombie apocalypse, but it is more evidence that we are failing balanced literacy, and thus students, not that balanced literacy is failing students.

We teachers must teach students, not standards or programs. But we teachers need the space required to do the job we have chosen and the job that is central to a free people.

One comment

  1. Margaret Benson

    I had missed Mr. Nazaryan’s opinion piece, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. Your own remarks absolutely nail the problem. Good teachers don’t follow a set curriculum; they create their curriculum (everything you do in the classroom) through their interactions with their students. They figure out what each student can do, and then figure out how to help each student move ahead. They use their own strengths and inclinations as well as their students strengths, interests, and needs. Clearly teachers need autonomy, as well as good support systems, if they are to do this.

    Working with children/students in that manner is a key principle of progressive education, where it is understood that one size does not fit all. It is a pity that Mr. Nazayan does not realize that when he did what he thought worked best for his students he was operating on that principle, and that in deploring a top-down requirement for a particular curricular approach, he is in fact supporting progressive education.

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