Florida Education Reform: “It’s a Trap”

In his stand-up comedy days, Steve Martin had a routine about a TV evangelist. This character had, he believed, stumbled across the perfect TV evangelist sale: He announced that he had spoken to God and God had assured him he was the only person God was speaking to—so viewers should not listen to any other TV evangelist who claimed to know the word of God.

Yes, this was a stinging satire of religion, but at its core, Martin is unmasking the scam grounded in claims too good to be true—the “miracle” claim.

Writing in support of South Carolina’s Read to Succeed legislation, Oran P. Smith makes this claim:

Read to Succeed was indeed a success in Florida. Since the year before the retention policy came into effect, the percentage of Florida students scoring low enough to qualify for retention has fallen by 40 percent. More Florida children are learning how to read during the developmentally critical period. The students at the bottom proved the biggest winners from Florida’s no-nonsense reforms.

Setting aside that the Florida policy is actually Just Read, Florida! (Read to Succeed is SC’s version), reading policies based on standards, high-stakes testing, and grade retention (very much a Florida model) are a subset of the Florida “miracle” scam driven by Jeb Bush—a set of policies grounded in rhetoric and ideology but regularly refuted by careful analysis.

Between leaving office as governor of Florida and running for president, in fact, Jeb Bush shuttled around the U.S. selling his education reform—not unlike Martin’s TV evangelist: “These reforms include assigning letter grades to schools, high-stakes testing, promotion and graduation requirements, bonus pay, a wide variety of alternative teacher credentialing policies, and various types of school choice mechanisms.”

Many Republican governors simply adopted the rhetoric and pushed these policies while entirely disregarding substantial evidence refuting the practices. As I have noted, SC has been on the Florida “miracle” bandwagon for some time.

Like all “miracle” claims, however, the Florida “miracle” must be confronted simply: “It’s a trap!”

The allure, now, reaches beyond the states and into the federal Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who is a one-trick pony for school choice.

Yet, as Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reports Florida’s education system — the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model — is in chaos.

Public schools now have been besieged by this scam for decades—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the Florida “miracle.”

Political careers and horrible education policy have been driven by the power of showmanship and snake-oil sales pitches.

For well over a decade, education “miracles” have nearly all been fully debunked. The need to continually refute claims that are too good to be true is part of the strategy in fact since the media are a willing customer to these lies and then the careful analysis needed to show the claims to be false is simply lost in the shuffle of the next “miracle” story.

So just as I have pointed out about charter advocacy, those pushing the Florida model for education reform and reading policy are trafficking in mostly rhetoric in the absence of evidence.

Smith’s jumbled plea to give Read to Succeed a chance is yet another trap; these claims fail his argument, and ultimately, students and teachers in SC:

  • Florida education reform and reading policy simply have not succeeded. And what is more troubling, key elements such as standards and high-stake testing, grade retention, school  choice, and charter schools have all been strongly discredited as effective reforms by dozens of studies over more than a decade. The big scam in promoting Florida reading policy is that grade retention based on high-stakes testing does bump test scores short term (which benefits politicians and their rhetoric), but that bump fades and the negative consequences of grade retention remain (see Jasper, 2016).
  • SC has no reading “crisis,” or education “crisis” for that matter. Crisis rhetoric is one of the most corrosive aspects of the education reform debate. First, low literacy test scores in SC are strongly correlated with high poverty rates; our state’s high poverty is not a crisis, but an on-going reality with deep historical roots nurtured by political cowardice and lingering racism. SC’s literacy struggles are cousins to our political failure to address race and social class inequity in our state. Shouting “reading crisis” is yet another distraction from the political will needed to address poverty. Simply put, education is not the great equalizer, and thus, education reform will not eradicate larger social problems.
  • Smith touts teacher buy-in for Read to Succeed—a dubious claim about legislation and policy that are imposed on teacher certification programs, schools, and teachers who have no option accept to comply. But the bigger issue about buy-in is worth a moment, again about Florida. In the early days of Florida reform, a school receiving multiple years of failing report card grades triggered parental school choice; however, only about 3% of parents took that choice, and then within a couple years, about half of those parents chose to return to the failing schools. So here is my challenge: Talk to current SC teachers when they are free to share their opinions and find some actual parents of school-aged children and teachers from Florida. The messages you receive about buy-in, I suspect, will cast a dark cloud on the claims by Smith.
  • The final, and maybe ugliest, trigger is framing reading policy as an either/or prospect—grade retention or “social promotion” (an outdated but powerful term that certainly spurs the All-American hatred of giving people anything—especially if we believe those “people” to be black or poor). Either/or thinking is always misleading since the research on grade retention also addresses what best serves students other than retention or simple promotion, and since grade retention based on test scores can and often retains students who have achieved passing grades for the academic year. Grade retention as the antithesis to “social promotion” has some really ugly roots in ignoring how grade retention has and will disproportionately impact negatively poor and black student.

While we may agree that Read to Succeed is “in its infancy,” as Smith concludes, we must also confront that it is a clone of policies and programs that have already failed; Read to Succeed is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig, while shouting platitudes you hope can be heard by those choosing to avoid falling into the same trap once again.

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as a people.

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

“Let us look at this English tongue with which, as English teachers, we profess to deal,” proposes Lou LaBrant in her “The Place of English in General Education,” published in English Journal in 1940.

As LaBrant’s biographer, I immediately pause at “profess” and recognize that a scolding is about to commence—one that is blunt, smart, and unlikely to achieve her goals because of her scathing tone and style as well as the recalcitrance of far too many who teach literacy at all levels of formal education.

During my interviews with people who had known LaBrant, one spoke directly to her essence: “She never suffered fools gladly,” he said.

And about language and their uses, we have always been and remain surrounded by foolishness about language—in William Butler Yeats’s trap: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Among her many points addressing how educators teach literature/reading and writing, LaBrant makes a foundational demand:

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

Formal schooling, LaBrant confronts, creates an unhealthy attitude about language in young people—and thus, corrupting what young people believe, how they think, and ultimately how they navigate the world. These failures of formal schooling have roots, she notes, in misguided practice:

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

And thus, LaBrant concludes: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

For about a decade now, my university has been offering faculty seminars focusing on teaching writing/composition to first-year students. The university switched from a traditional English 101/102 model (though we never used those labels) to a pair of first-year seminars with one being writing-intensive.

That shift included a commitment to inviting and allowing faculty across the disciplines to teach writing/composition—despite virtually none of them (included some in the English Department) having formal training in teaching composition or being writers.

More recently, we have created a year-long seminar, Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF), and appointed a Director of Writing who leads these seminars and all aspects of the writing program, which now includes the writing-intensive first-year seminar (the second one has been dropped) and an upper-level writing/research requirement.

This past week, the opening session of the upcoming cohort of FWF began their journey, and during one presentation, I sat listening to a colleague explore with the participants how to decide if and how to engage with students whose writing includes so-called problems with grammar, mechanics, and usage (a set of distinctions that most professors lump as “grammar”).

This colleague teaches history of the English language and upper-level grammar courses; she was very patiently and kindly—unlike LaBrant—making a case for descriptive grammar and stepping back from focusing in an unhealthy way on correctness in order to begin with student expression, while also carefully unpacking what students do and don’t know about conventional uses of language (instead of rules).

I could listen to this colleague all day; she is a measured and gifted scholar of language who embodies how linguists talk about and think about language (it is more about marveling at and wondering about than preserving some arcane and misguided rule).

Then the inevitable happened.

A participant asked about a rule, concerned that we professors have an obligation to maintain the rules of the language but also worried that she may be addressing a rule that no longer applies.

My colleague was steadfast. Instead of making a declaration on the said rule, she walked the point back to our overarching obligation to address the ideas of students as expressed in their writing.

Despite her kindness, patience, and authoritative reply,  I fear that she had no more success than LaBrant did with her abrupt mannerisms.

Far too many teachers charged with teaching literacy as their main obligation and teachers who necessarily engage with literacy anchored to what they would call teaching about disciplinary knowledge/content remain trapped in thinking that correctness trumps all else in teaching writing/composition and speaking in formal settings.

In the session about responding to student writing, then, we were derailed into chatter about splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

My colleague’s message, I regret, was lost in the feeding frenzy, the language itself left bleeding and battered in the wake of the grammar police circling and attacking like sharks.

And here is what was lost.

First, our obligations with teaching literacy must begin with two primary goals: fostering an accurate and healthy attitude about language (descriptive grammar grounded in the history of language development) concurrent with initially addressing the ideas expressed by students (accuracy, originality, complexity) through coherent, clear, and concise language use (diction, style, organization).

Next, nested in that first dual obligation, we must raise student awareness that conventional uses of language, although always shifting, carry status marking in many circumstances. Language use, then, impacts directly and indirectly a person’s credibility as well as the effectiveness of the ideas being expressed.

Here, let me emphasize that this obligation allows any of us to teach directly to students that people continue to function under the rule mentality, but along with that, we should make them aware of several important caveats:

  • Prescriptive grammar often fails in the context of historical patterns of language, and many so-called rules are illogical in that historical context: not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions both sprung from imposing Latin grammar onto English in order to raise its status as a language; rejecting double negatives the result of garbling mathematical and linguistic concepts; and constructions such as “Aren’t I?” highlighting the often foolish pursuit of rules over naturally occurring usage (the latter being how “they” has become a singular pronoun).
  • Teaching students about a rules approach to language must include pulling back the curtain, sharing with students that many so-called rules are in fact the topic of heated debate among experts on language (again, the “they” debate).
  • Language use cannot be divorced from discussions of power; the standard dialect versus non-standard dialect dichotomy is about who has power and how those in power manipulate language correctness to marginalize and silence some groups (LaBrant addresses this in her 1940 essay quoted above). Despite many who call for no politics in teaching, to teach standard English in a rules-based way is a blunt political act itself. Instead taking a false objective stance about rules, invite students to read, for example, James Baldwin on black English, or Silas House’s “In My Country.”

Finally, and I am making a sequential case here, once a student has presented an artifact of a quality that deserves it (after purposeful drafting and conferencing), we must wade into editing, where we do have an obligation to address conventional grammar, mechanics, and usage. But even as we confront conventional language use, we must know the status of the language ourselves, and we must also continue to focus on issues that are status marking for the student’s attention in editing.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are likely to garble meaning while split infinitives, not so much.

Subject/verb agreement (common when students are ambitious, writing longer sentences with subordinations that separate the subject and verb) can scar credibility while pronoun/antecedent agreement or a comma failure, not so much.

Ultimately, no teacher can do everything in any one course. We are all forced, then, to make priorities.

In terms of literacy and language, we must first do no harm—foster and honor “a wholesome use of language” that cannot be separated from the autonomy and agency of our students as purposeful, ethical, and informed people.


LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.

“We Teach English” Revisited

At times quaint and oddly misguided but unflinchingly confrontational and assertive—the signature tone of her work—Lou LaBrant’s We Teach English (1951) was a rare book-length text over her 65 years as an educator.

While this text for teachers of ELA/English never garnered the status of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (LaBrant and Rosenblatt were colleagues at NYU), both works represent a long history of trying to coral the field of ELA/English teaching.

A recent conversation and debate on NCTE’s Connected Community about teaching whole-class, assigned novels has reminded me of the enduring tensions of what it means to teach ELA/English—tensions that span K-12 grade levels as well as being grounded in responsibilities to student needs and interests, the field or discipline of English, and literacy broadly.

Historically and then magnified during the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, ELA/English has shared with math demands and expectations that are not as pronounced in other disciplines; despite the limitations and problems with the terms, I characterize those demands as addressing disciplinary knowledge (or content) and literacy skills.

Our disciplinary knowledge obligations rest with the compulsion to cover established content, such as identifying the parts of speech, analyzing the main characters in The Scarlet Letter, or explaining the key ideas expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as American Transcendentalism.

Literacy skills comprise reading, writing, speaking, and listening—how we as humans navigate the world through literacy. Some see these skills as a different way to think about content, skills such as comprehension, predicting, narration, and persuasion.

At best, these obligations can and possibly should work in tandem. When we teach a poem, Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” for example, we are introducing students to key content about American literature and the Harlem Renaissance while also teaching them about the elements poetry, reading skills (such as analysis), and reading like a writer so they can transfer those rhetorical and literary strategies into their own writing.

Let me pause here to stress that at all levels from K-12, this is a damn high bar for any teacher. It takes a great deal of time and expertise to learn to manage all that effectively.

At worst, these obligations become professional and disciplinary battles—ones waged among practitioners often at the expense of students we should be serving.

We must teach phonics, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to read?

We must teach grammar, but what about the children acquiring the desire and ability to write?

Everyone must read The Great Gatsby, but what if that requirement creates nonreaders?

When we form ideological camps about disciplinary knowledge or literacy, we often fail both our field of ELA/English and students.

We teach English means something extremely complex and difficult, something that in fact may be too much to expect of any teacher.

But this is what we do, this is who we are.

If we return to the debate and discussion about teaching whole-class novels, we are revisiting an enduring debate that captures exactly what teaching English means.

To resolve that debate, I believe, we must remain focused on our students, and not on whether or not we address either area of demands in our field.

It is not a simple way to resolve the questions, but it is rather simple: When we attend to either disciplinary knowledge (and we should) or literacy skills (and we must), what are the consequences of those lessons in the evidence of learning by our students?

If we require our students to read Charles Dickens, and many do not read because they dislike the work, and many begin or continue the journey to being a nonreader, then we have failed dramatically any obligations as teachers of ELA/English.

If a whole-class unit on Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games becomes a vibrant adventure in the novel and literacy, and most if not all read the novel, if several become hooked on literature, then we have accomplished everything that can be expected of teaching ELA/English.

In terms of both student reading and writing, there are decades of evidence that show how student choice in what they read and write is most effective in both fostering disciplinary knowledge (because they actually read and write) and literacy skills as well as literacy engagement (because they become eager to read and write).

But we as teachers of ELA/English are confronted with the essential problem beneath the call for student choice: students must have acquired some disciplinary and skills knowledge and proficiencies in order to make those choices.

If we can keep a critical eye on the outcomes of the instructional decisions we make—if we can resist dogged commitments to ideologies—then we can make informed choices about what best serves our students in terms of both what disciplinary knowledge they acquire and whether or not they develop as proficient and eager readers and writers.

Staying big picture is important—always asking what we are trying to accomplish with students and then paying close attention to what our students show us we are teaching.

In 2004, Donald Graves looked over his career seeking ways to teach students writing; he offered some enduring ideas about “what remains the same”:

The following fundamentals have remained unchanged in the teaching of writing:

  1. Children need to choose most of their own topics. But we need to show them all the places writing comes from, that it is often triggered by simple everyday events.
  1. Children need regular response to their writing from both the teacher and other readers.
  1. Children need to write a minimum of three days out of five. Four or five days are ideal.
  1. Children need to publish, whether by sharing, collecting, or posting their work.
  1. Children need to hear their teacher talk through what she is doing as she writes on the overhead or the chalkboard. In this way, the children witness their teacher’s thinking
  2. Children need to maintain collections of their work to establish a writing history. Collections show that history when they are used as a medium for evaluation. (Language Arts, Vol. 82 No. 2, November 2004)

In the same way as the debate over whole-class novel instruction, if we view Graves’s fundamentals as strict rules and teach to these rules—instead of to how we are fostering students as writers—we become lost, and we likely fail.

So, yes, students choosing what they read, especially something as daunting as a novel, is a fundamental, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit the possibility of whole-class novels.

To answer any instructional questions, then, as a teacher of ELA/English is in our students, not our obligations to disciplinary knowledge or literacy skills—and especially not in covering the mandated standards or preparing students for high-stakes tests.

The questions are worthy of discussion and debate among teachers of ELA/English, but ultimately we must each answer them with each unique group of students we teach.

When faced with the debates and questions about teaching ELA/English, LaBrant could be harsh and demanding—often seeming to teeter on the edge of, if not crossing over into, prescription. However, what LaBrant was demanding about in terms of “we teach English” is not that we follow her rules, or any rules, but that we remain committed to our students and their journeys in both literature and literacy.

During war, in 1942, LaBrant became frustrated with national concerns about literacy:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem.

Sound familiar?

LaBrant argued against what became a recurring political and public hand wringing about a reading crisis:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more.

Here and for over six decades, LaBrant was a champion of the we who teach English but in the name of those students we teach, especially the most vulnerable students.

To that end, when we teach English, we teach students.

And there is where our commitments must lie.

The Facts about Reading Just Don’t Matter: On the Absence of Ethical Leadership

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds is even more sobering in Trumplandia, but “reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational” being confirmed—again—is incredibly frustrating for educators.

The facts of many years of research show that people cling to their beliefs regardless of the evidence; contrary evidence, in fact, tends to cause people to dig in even deeper to their misguided beliefs.

Democracy is a tenuous thing, then, when the willfully misinformed vote for those who learn to speak to and perpetuate that misinformation.

Trump has cashed in on false claims that work because of the public’s beliefs and the power of fear:

Opinion surveys regularly find that Americans believe crime is up, even when the data show it is down. In 21 Gallup surveys conducted since 1989, a majority of Americans said there was more crime in the U.S. compared with the year before, despite the generally downward trend in both violent and property crime rates during much of that period. In a Pew Research Center survey in late 2016, 57% of registered voters said crime had gotten worse since 2008, even though BJS and FBI data show that violent and property crime rates declined by double-digit percentages during that span.

Public policy in the U.S. too often is driven by popular beliefs not grounded in evidence. And an ugly irony to this dynamic includes public education policy—mostly a jumble of pet programs by people without any expertise in education who offer platitudes that resonate with a public ill-informed about what works in teaching and learning.

The misinformed echo chamber about education among political leaders, media, and the public has maintained for over thirty years now an accountability era of education policy committed to practices that have not worked, and often have caused more harm than good.

One of the many casualties of this belief culture is literacy, notably reading.

Education policy continues to march through a never-ending series of new reading programs, new reading standards, and new high-stakes reading tests (that have children perform in ways on the tests, brief passages with multiple choice questions, that are unlike real-world reading).

In 2017, then, it is stunning that a news article on reading research (from a publisher!) confirms—again—the facts we have known about reading for more than a century, but refuse acknowledge and practice.

The problem is what we know about reading and fostering literacy in children and young adults just isn’t that sexy (or profitable for politicians and publisher/testing companies): access to books in the home and libraries (community and school) and choice in what is read are strongly correlated with reading ability and eagerness.

Not phonics programs, reading programs, standards, or high-stakes testing.

Access to books and choice. Period.

From federal immigration and policing policy to how we teach our children to read, we are experiencing a fatal absence of ethical leadership.

Ethical leaders would inform the public about the decrease in violent crime, and ethical leadership would admit that our reading problems have relatively simple solutions.

Continuing to lead the uninformed by perpetuating misinformation is both a doomed practice but also a tremendous waste of our resources.

In education, the tens of millions wasted on reading programs, retooling and retraining for ever-new standards, and the bloat testing industry can and should be redirected to proven investments in books for children and robust libraries.

If we committed to buying every school-aged child 20 books a year to own (10 the choice of the child and 10 the choice of the teachers/schools), we would see an increase in reading ability and eagerness. Of course, direct instruction and fostering literacy are still needed, but these are greatly enhanced by the mere increase in book access and student choice in that reading.

And as well, we must make the same sort of ethical choices about social and education policy—addressing equity over accountability.

The facts about reading are not that sexy, but access to books and choice in what children read are what must be addressed in fostering childhood and young adult literacy.

These commitments require a move away from the inexpert ruling class and toward a culture that acknowledges, appreciates, and applies the evidence—evidence that should ground a call for ethical leadership and responsive policy.

More on Tethered Choice in the High-Stakes Classroom

A recent post, Navigating Choice Reading with High-Stakes Accountability in Mind, has resonated on several levels, although primarily among Advanced Placement teachers. I want here to continue to examine how ELA teachers in all types of courses can effectively implement choice despite high-stakes testing demands as well as other constraints of bureaucracy and programs.

My context for below is that tethered choice seeks to offer students as much choice in what they read (and write) as possible while also directly acknowledging and working within test or program constraints over which teachers and students have no real control.

A key part of this process is providing students opportunities to interrogate those constraints so that their choice is informed choice—as well as tethered.

In AP Literature, then, students should spend some time studying College Board materials and past exams to establish the types of works and which writers form the boundaries of their choices.

The central argument of this process is that over a century of research and classroom evidence shows that students are more eager and better readers when they choose their texts; therefore, tethered choice reading will likely increase student achievement in high-stakes settings such as tests.

Next, I will offer some thoughts on several questions prompted by the initial blog post.

The first question was posted on the original blog:

What would that AP Literature College Board approved syllabus look like were one seeking to pursue something like tethered choice?

Since I taught AP Literature before the College Board instituted the audit and approved syllabi, I have reached out to others, and here offer only what I can suggest as credible arguments that I do believe there is no conflict between the audit/ syllabus approval and implementing tethered choice.

Through the NCTE Connected Community, John Zoccola noted that the College Board requirements for reading selections fit well with tethered choice:

The course includes an intensive study of representative works such as those by authors cited in the AP English Course Description. (Note: The College Board does not mandate any particular authors or reading list.) The choice of works for the AP course is made by the school in relation to the school’s overall English curriculum sequence, so that by the time the student completes AP English Literature and Composition she or he will have studied during high school literature from both British and American writers, as well as works written in several genres from the sixteenth century to contemporary times. The works selected for the course should require careful, deliberative reading that yields multiple meanings.

Janet Neyer, also on the Connected Community, shared:

I see in your post that you linked to the Three Teachers Talk blog which is the site to which I would have directed your blog reader. The TTT bloggers have written and presented numerous times about the power of choice reading in AP English. The syllabus requirement from the College Board does not stipulate how literature is to be covered. In fact, one of the sample syllabi contains a choice unit. (AP Course Audit – AP English Literature And Composition). As long as a syllabus demonstrates that the course standards will be met, it should pass the audit.  In my own AP Literature classes,  I have moved toward significantly more choice, though not 100%. (I still find students in AP enjoy the ability to study a work together with a teacher asking the right questions to help them see what they miss on their own.) I think this year, my ratio is 60/40 whole class works to choice works. 

The AP Lit community is very active on Twitter under the hashtag #aplitchat – meeting every Sunday evening for a chat. A question posed to that group I am sure would yield answers from teachers who have submitted syllabi with choice as a cornerstone of their classes. (Mine was submitted long ago and I haven’t updated it.) And the companion website AP LIT HELP might be of interest as well. I believe there have been several posts from AP teachers about choice in our classes.

I feel confident that tethered and informed choice by students is not only effective but also completely manageable within the constraints of the AP audit.

To some of Janet’s comments above, let me note that tethered choice can and should be expanded beyond individual tethered choice by also placing students in small expert groups within which that group can choose a shared work for their group.

As well, tether choice can be a whole-class activity in which the class members choose a shared work for that entire class.

Both small group and whole class shared novels create a community for studying a work that can and should be augmented by students gathering resources to support their understanding of the work, such as published critical analysis. I often provided students and groups a seminal or key work of scholarship on any work they chose to study.

At all three levels—individual, small group, whole-class—increasing the autonomy and purposefulness of the students through some degree of choice is the strategy that should yield greater engagement and thus higher achievement by students.

Some other questions through Twitter pushed for more details about practice.

About classroom instruction:

Tethered choice and workshop (reading and writing) in high-stakes courses should include mini-lessons by the teacher that address the essential elements of instruction (that which constitutes the high-stakes, usually on tests).

For example, while students are all reading different (individually or within small groups) works, teachers can open classes with read-alouds and mini-lessons on text analysis (for AP Literature) that parallel the context of the AP tests.

Teachers should structure these mini-lessons around the requirements of the course and select prose passages or poems that introduce students to or reinforce about the types of texts and writers that teachers know students need to understand better.

One powerful instructional strategy I used began with a mini-lesson and modeling around a variety of analytical lenses for examining texts. First, we addressed the importance of New Criticism in formal schooling and most testing; however, I also introduced students to feminism, Marxism, New Historicism, Reader Response, and others.

As a whole-class activity, we would apply several different analytical lenses to a children’s book, usually Click, Clack, Moo, before asking students to choose elements of their selected work to apply 3-4 different analytical moves in order to share with a small group or the whole class.

Direct and guided instruction that is more teacher-centered remains in tethered choice and workshop classrooms, mostly to help students foster the expertise they need to be autonomous, to be empowered with their choices.

I have examined some of activities related to reading like a writer here and here that would help build the sorts of skills students need in tethered choice classrooms.

For whole class or small group discussions, I found tethered choice was a powerful way to help shift the entire focus of authority for the discussion away from the teacher and toward the students.

These discussions must focus on analysis and concepts, typically driven by questions such as “How does your work portray gender (or race)? What passages reinforce that, and how does writer’s craft in that passage accomplish those portrayals?”

The big picture moves I instilled in students analyzing texts such as poems, novels, short stories, and drama were to ask: What is the writer doing? How is the writer accomplishing that (writer’s craft, literary technique)? And why does that matter to the reader?

About grading, I must offer the caveat that I have been a non-grader for most of my teaching career, including when I taught AP Literature. Yet, I believe grading and giving instructional feedback are parallel, and thus, see tethered choice enhancing our assessment/feedback strategies.

The key, I believe, is that tethered choice encourages that teachers respond to larger literacy and text analysis goals, and not narrow fact acquisition of particular texts.

In other words, we should not be grading or offering feedback on what students know about a particular text but what students are able to do with any texts, particularly so-called high-quality texts (ones in which writer’s craft is more apparent).

Finally, about summer reading:

Requiring summer reading has a long and ugly history similar to assigning whole-class major texts; however, if we step back to confront why we ask students to read over summer, we come back to exactly why choice reading is effective—increasing eagerness to read produces more reading, which results in better reading skills when teachers provide coaching and mentoring.

I believe, then, that summer reading has the best chance of being effective if it is enhanced by tethered and informed, purposeful choice by students.

Instead of assigning a work for all students as an assignment for AP, gather students at the end of the academic year in order to provide them with opportunities to examine what goals they have for summer reading (AP prep, etc.) but also how to review and explore works and authors they will more likely enjoy.

Here, using amazon (the preview option online) or Goodreads is an effective strategy for helping students learn how to review and consider a work before committing fully to it.

As choice reading is added to academic year and summer reading, as well, students can be invited to suggest and review major texts for upcoming students; this dynamic creates greater and greater autonomy and authority for students as a community of readers and learners.

In fact, class or school-wide Goodreads accounts or blog sites can be used to create an ongoing repository of works students recommend to other students for both academic and pleasure reading.

These recommendations can also be effective artifacts of student learning and more authentic ways to assess reading.

Ultimately, tethered choice is one example of how teachers can make research-based practice fit into restrictive high-stakes structures—if we trust our professional judgment and the potential of our students as autonomous and eager young people when given the chance.

Navigating Choice Reading with High-Stakes Accountability in Mind

As long as we have had formal education in the U.S., we have had a fair amount of public crisis discourse about how students can’t read, and we persist in committing to classroom practices that often contradict our stated goals of creating eager and proficient readers among our students.

One of my arguments about how we fail reading in our schools is that virtually all K-3 students are eager to read, but very few high school students maintain that same joy; what those students have in common are 10+ years in school, where reading goes to die.

English educator and researcher Lou LaBrant began in the 1920s and 1930s producing what we would call today action research showing the essential power of choice in reading to foster both eager and proficient readers.

In the subsequent years, research on reading has confirmed over and over that access to books in the home and choice in reading are the most powerful ways to achieve the kind of literacy we often lament is missing in our young people.

During the most recent accountability era, when high-stakes testing has become king, students are increasingly schooled in scoring well on test-reading, and as a result, they are taught to hate reading. We may well have today a much greater problem in the U.S. with people who hate to read, who don’t read, than who can’t read.

And that fact is the fault of formal schooling.

The source of this dilemma is high-stakes accountability grounded in testing. As a high school English teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in South Carolina, an early adopter of standards and testing, and I also taught in the Advanced Placement program.

After attending my local Writing Project and finishing my dissertation on LaBrant to complete and EdD, I became resolved to seek ways to honor choice reading and my obligations to prepare students for testing. I documented that adventure with my AP students in English JournalWhen Choice Failed—Or Did It?

When I saw a recent post, AP English and Choice Reading, I was prompted to revisit some of the key elements of how all teachers can remain committed to powerful and research-based literacy practices such as choice while also meeting our obligations during high-stakes accountability.

My short version is what I always say about good writing instruction: If we practice rich and authentic reading practices, students will be even better equipped when faced with narrow and reductive test-reading than if they had only test-prep reading instruction.

The fundamental shift that must occur in order for any teacher to make choice reading work in real world demands of the classroom is to let go of seeing any text as the goal of instruction and to recognize our literacy goals are broader than any details about that text.

In other words, we must not seek to make our students experts on The Scarlet Letter, nothing more than fostering trivia knowledge, but seek to use any novel in the pursuit of all literacy moves (including critical literacy) and to foster genre, medium, and form awareness.

If we believe people should read novels, we must seek ways to invite students to read any novel in order to grow more proficient in that practice, to grow more eager and joyous as well.

As I detailed in EJ in 2003, instead of doing assigned whole-class novels and plays in AP Literature, I allowed students to explore the provided list of writers from the College Board/AP as well as the identified works over the years on the AP Literature test.

From that narrowed and purposeful range of works, we developed broad categories within which students chose works to facilitate whole-class discussions even as students were reading different works.

For example, we had units grounded in black writers and female writers, but we also included Shakespeare and modern U.S. drama categories in order to prepare well for the AP test.

I call this tethered choice because students become active and informed participants in both choosing what they read and keeping that choice tethered to instructional goals and accountability demands.

Choice reading is powerful and accountability is a reality for both students and teachers; however, these two facts do not have to become a regrettable choice for teachers.

If we teachers can embrace the eagerness and joy all children bring to school and then become facilitators for helping those students remain avid readers who recognize the formal obligations of schooling, our reading classrooms can honor both choice reading and achieve the sorts of measurable outcomes demanded by accountability.