Category: Testing

The State: ACT scores expose state’s unwillingness to act

ACT scores expose state’s unwillingness to act

[original submission posted below before edits]

Education reform in South Carolina suffers from a tragic lack of imagination: New standards and new tests, but the outcomes remain disappointing.

Now, recently released ACT scores serve as the newest reason to panic. As reported in The State: “The latest scores from the ACT college entrance exam suggest that many of this year’s high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level course work.”

SC’s data are troubling: 14% of test-takers not ready for college and the race gap even more alarming (2% of black students met standard on the four sections of the ACT).

SC also appears to compare poorly to the other 20 states requiring all students to take the ACT—notably Tennessee has a similar poverty rate as SC but a higher average ACT score.

However, I urge caution about interpreting ACT scores from one year of data since SC has recently adopted Common Core standards and tests, dropped Common Core, adopted yet new standards, and then chosen the ACT for annual testing.

Thus, my concerns about shouting that the sky is falling based on the new ACT scores include the following:

  • Scores are depressed due to standards shuffling across the state over the past 3-4 years.
  • ACT tests, like all standardized tests, remain more strongly correlated with race, social class, and gender than the quality of the schools or teachers.
  • One year of data when a new test is adopted is inadequate for drawing hard conclusions.

ACT results are nothing new since SC has a long history of having low, if not the lowest, test scores in the U.S. (notably our residency in the basement of the discredited practice of journalists ranking states by SAT scores), but the most important lesson from this data is that SC has yet to address the equity gap in the lives and education of vulnerable children.

To persist with labels such as the “achievement gap” is to keep our eyes on the outcomes while ignoring the root causes of those outcomes.

SC has spent three decades changing standards, tests, and accountability, but refuses to address directly the race and class inequities facing our state and those same inequities reflected in our schools (both traditional and charter).

Ultimately, I am not trivializing SC’s ACT scores—especially as that relates to black, brown, and poor students—but I must stress we did not need more data from a different test to tell us what we have known and ignored for decades: social and educational inequity cheats those black, brown, and poor students, and our obsession with changing standards and tests fails to address the root equity problems reflected in low test scores.

The real failure in education reform lies in the inability of education reformers to do something different beyond accountability, school choice, and charter schools—none of which addresses problems directly and all of which increases those problems.

Hand wringing over results of the recent ACT is not a new revelation. Therefore, admitting that weighing a pig doesn’t make a pig fatter is crucial in our debates about low test scores. Instead we need to feed the pig, a metaphor for addressing root causes.

While problematic, recent research suggests that even when schools can raise test scores, those higher scores do not translate into benefits once students enter the real world. In other words, if education is to have real life-long positive consequences, we must confront a wide range of complex root causes and school practices in order to insure equity of opportunity—which unlike raising test scores is more likely to produce life-long benefits.

Instead of changing tests and increasing test-prep, which disproportionately impact negatively our vulnerable student populations, we need to erase food, health, and work insecurity, and we need to addresses equity of opportunity (access to experienced and certified teachers as well as access to challenging courses and then affordable college)—and not more accountability driven by ever-new standards and tests.

No one needed the recent ACT scores to confront that our schools, like our society, is negligent with black, brown, and poor students. Now, the real question is, who is willing to do something different and directly about the inequity those test scores represent?

The Irony and the Dishonesty: Revisiting 1999

First, let’s do the irony: Think outside box inside S.C. classrooms by SC’s executive director of StudentsFirstSC (a political journeyman, and never an educator) is the least outside the box commentary you can read.

The least.

Propaganda and baseless claims from a deceptive organization—this is what we face in SC:

  • “The key is developing real-world solutions to help students learn, regardless of the hurdles they face outside of the classroom.” No. This is a harmful and failed approach. We need to address inequity in children’s lives and in their schools. Asking children to pretend their real lives don’t exit while they happen to be in school is cruel.
  • “Quality teachers should have the freedom to fully use their passion to fuel innovation within their classrooms.” Hint at this sham Op-Ed: “innovation.” A hollow “business” term that means nothing.
  • “A great example of innovation is happening right here in Charleston. As recently highlighted in The Post and Courier last week, Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood is a local, public-private partnership. In a short time, this school has achieved remarkable results—setting challenging goals for students and working to help them achieve more.” There remains no proof of these claims except by MSE advocates and those who benefit from such claims.
  • “South Carolina’s embrace of educators from Teach for America is a step in the right direction for our state.” TFA is de-professionalizing teaching, has failed as a sham organization, and has seen its popularity significantly decline because of the harm the program does to its recruits and the students they teach.
  • “Bradford Swann is executive director of StudentsFirstSC, a non-profit, membership- based organization working to ensure all students have access to great teachers and a quality education, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.” This is a pollitical propaganda organization that has no credibility—begun by the thoroughly discredited Michelle Rhee and run by political want-to-be’s.

StudentsFirst churns out the same Op-Eds all over the U.S.—piling on lie after lie in the seemingly never-ending parade of dishonesty in education reform.

Quite disturbing, however, is that this sort of dishonesty has been refuted for decades. For example, I published a piece in 1999, predicting and addressing this exact phenomenon.

A New Honesty in Education—Positivist Measures in a Post-Modern World addressed virtually every element of the recurring Op-Eds by StudentsFirst minions and other edureform robots.

Let me catalog a few here, and, again, this is from 1999 (all directly quoted from the article, with some emphasis added):

  • The debates swirling around education never stray too far from the fore-front of key concerns for Americans. In South Carolina, for example, education grew to be a central issue of the 1998 governor’s race—the arguments centering on the lottery and video poker versus vouchers and high standards for teachers and students. Concurrent with the political season, The Atlantic ran a feature article on education—Nicholas Lemann’s “‘Ready Read!'” applauding Robert E. Slavin’s Success for All reading program. Both the South Carolina governor’s race and the Lemann article epitomize a central aspect of the current educational debate—dishonesty. That dishonesty runs through almost all the educational discourse within political arenas; such dishonesty grows from the clash inherent in the power of positivist measurements—primarily through standardized testing—within a culture that is concurrently influenced by post-modern perspectives.
  • Since the rise of Taylorism at the turn of the century, education has been driven by a belief in empirical data, the belief that we can objectively generate data from standardized tests to assess both individual students and entire educational systems (Kliebard, 1995, pp. 81-82).
  • We must be honest about textbooks and curriculum programs, we must be honest about standardized testing, we must be honest about the nature of educating, and we must be honest with our students in the classroom.
  • Gerald W. Bracey (1997) and Herbert M. Kliebard (1995), among others, have noted that throughout the 20th century, the American educational debate has been rife with dishonesty when it benefited both politicians and educators.
  • They touted higher standards for teachers (including a new testing format that would reward existing teachers with a bonus if they would take the test and would raise the score needed to gain initial certification); higher standards and a stricter, more scope-and-sequenced curriculum; and choice in education driven by vouchers.
  • Lemann clearly embraces a belief in empirical data, a belief that schools should produce workers, and a belief that teachers should get out of the way of a content-rich prescribed curriculum.
  • Soon politicians will realize (some already have) that if a test is designed first, and if that test dictates a prescribed curriculum that can be scripted, and if teachers can be forced to train students along that and only that curricular course, tests scores will increase, the public will be pleased (though horribly fooled), and the politicians’ careers will have been boosted.
  • Educators must acknowledge that we are increasingly overwhelming students, primarily because too many factions contribute to the educational mix—parents through school boards, politicians through legislation, publishers through textbooks, and educators as practitioners. Prescribed curriculum guides, statewide standards, and textbooks often create a monster too large for either teachers or students to handle.
  • A second area for educators to attack vigorously and honestly is the standardized test.
  • We must assert honestly that education is still not good enough; it never will be.
  • Students leaving third or fourth grade as independent and willing readers will benefit more from their educational experience than our current focus on third graders taking a wide range of standardized tests that do not force the students to produce anything, except merely to bubble.
  • Clinging to that which is easily transferred to the student, that which is most manageable to assess, is the most morally and educationally bankrupt behavior existing in education.

Sound familiar? These warning from almost two decades ago?

The StudentsFirst playbook is predictable, but it is also tired and thoroughly disproven.

I begged for a new honesty in education as I taught in public schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

When will political leaders, the media, and the public choose to listen to educators and not con artists out for their own political gain? [1]


[1] Yes, I know, a very hollow questions in the 2016 presidential election.

Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.

 

The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

Today in Bad Edujournalism: Putting Lipstick on the Test-Prep Pig

I often have to make sure I didn’t accidentally click on an article from The Onion, but, once again, this is actually in Education WeekStandardized-Test Prep Isn’t the Big, Bad Wolf.

And the real clincher is the author: “Travis Coleman has been teaching standardized-test prep for more than 10 years and is the LSAT curriculum manager at Magoosh Online Test Prep in Berkeley, Calif.”

So, let me understand this. A test-prep careerist is given a platform in the top education publication in the U.S. to defend test-prep?

The commentary sets out to refute Sal Khan’s attack on the test-prep industry, establishing a dichotomy between test-prep that addresses “content” and test-prep that addresses “test-taking skills.”

First, let’s not gloss over Khan, whose homophone name captures perfectly what the Khan Academy is, a con.

Just as one example, Karim Kai Ani offers a substantive critique of the poor quality of the Khan Academy math videos, concluding:

Unfortunately, the media hype surrounding Khan Academy has created a level of expectation far beyond what it – indeed, what any person or website – could ever reasonably deliver. Reporters have confused journalism with sycophantism, and the entire narrative has become a head-scratching example of the suspension of common sense.

The real problem with Khan Academy is not the low-quality videos or the absence of any pedagogical intentionality. It’s just one resource among many, after all. Rather, the danger is that we believe the promise of silver bullets – of simple solutions to complex problems – and in so doing become deaf to what really needs to be done.

But the Khan Academy in cahoots with the David Coleman SAT is an even greater con.

Now, to return to Travis Coleman’s defense of test-taking skills test-prep.

There is a serious core problem with high-stakes standardized testing that should be addressed: When a lack of test-taking skills lowers standardized test scores or when gaining test-taking skills raises test scores, we should respond not by endorsing test-prep, but by recognizing and then rejecting high-stakes testing as inherently flawed.

High-stakes standardized testing already is powerfully skewed by social class, race, and gender. Access to test-taking skills test prep—which is commercialized—is a subset of the social class bias of high-stakes standardized tests.

The only way anyone can justify test-prep of any kind is to remain trapped in the corrosive high-stakes standardized test paradigm. If we step back from that, then, Travis Coleman’s defense falls apart entirely—as does the devil’s deal between Khan and David Coleman.

So let’s end with a thought experiment (one augmented by Herb Childress’s excellent Seventeen Reasons Why Football Is Better Than High School).

We decide playing musical instruments now should be along side math and literacy in our core curriculum, requiring standards and, of course, high-stakes standardized tests.

A test is designed, multiple-choice like the SAT and most of the standards-based testing across the U.S.

We provide all the children test-prep, and scores skyrocket.

Of course, no time was spent playing instruments, and no child can play any—except for the few who do so on their own time.

Or, to focus on Childress’s argument, every Friday night, high school football teams line up across from each other on the gridiron, each team neatly in rows of desks, and take multiple-choice tests to determine the best high school football teams!

Both of these scenarios are ludicrous—until you consider that band and football are extracurricular activities, which by their nature are deemed less important than the core curriculum.

Why, then, do we demand more of children and young people in band and football (in both, they must do the real thing, as Childress points out, as “a public performance”) than we do of students learning math and literacy?

I would argue, it is a con—pure and simply—fostered by the education industry that depends on teaching and testing materials (commercialized), and thus,the test-prep pig feeding the real big bad wolf, high-stakes testing—that has blown the school house down.

That students need all sorts of test-prep to do well on high-stakes standardized testing is yet more proof we must abandon high-stakes standardized testing.

Putting lipstick in the test-prep pig cannot camouflage that fact.

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.

Anna Scott, Notting Hill

Everything that is wrong with edujournalism and the teaching of writing in the accountability era can be found in Education Week: the anemic examination of the five-paragraph essay (or when edujournalists discover a field in the same way Columbus discovered America) and Lucy Calkin’s interview about the state of teaching writing (or when edugurus package and promote educommerce).

Both of these pieces frame how the teaching of writing now faces greater demands from (you guessed it) the Common Core. But neither piece admits that the Common Core is at best on life support or that this puts the cart before the horse.

You see, the teaching of writing should be driven by the field of composition—the decades of expertise that can be found in the scholarship of writers and teachers of writing as well as foundational and powerful organizations such as the National Writing Project and the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Common Core is no more than bureaucratic nonsense; these standards serve the needs of educommerce, but do not reflect the field of literacy, do not meet the needs of teachers or students.

And thus, these standards, the high-stakes tests inevitably linked to all standards, and the coverage of writing in EdWeek, as Anna Scott opined, it’s all nonsense.

A little history here: Zip back to 2005 when Thomas Newkirk detailed in English Journal that the “new” SAT writing section had already resulted in “students [being] coached to invent evidence if they were stuck.”

In other words, writing was reduced to conforming to the 25-minute, one-draft prompted assessment in one high-stakes test.

Newkirk confirmed what George Hillocks found about the accountability movement’s negative impact on writing:

[W]hen students have been subjected to this instruction for eight to ten years, they come to see the five paragraph theme and the shoddy thinking that goes with it as the solution to any writing problem. Directors of freshman English at three Illinois state universities have complained about the extent of the problem. The English department at Illinois State University publishes a manual advising their incoming freshmen that while the five para- graph essay may have been appropriate in high school, it is not appropriate in college and should be studiously avoided. It shuts down thinking.

This is a crucial time in American democracy. We are faced with problems that demand critical thinking of all citizens. We need to help students examine specious arguments and know them for what they are. Our tests encourage the opposite. They encourage blurry thinking and obfuscation. As a society, we cannot afford to spend valuable classroom time on vacuous thinking and writing. (p. 70)

So let’s consider the state of writing instruction in K-12 public schools—and let’s try looking at the overwhelming evidence as detailed by Applebee and Langer’s 2013 Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

In my review of this research, I detail both what we know about the state of teaching writing and what the roadblocks are to effective writing pedagogy:

In Chapter Two (Writing Instruction in Schools Today), Applebee and Langer (2013) lay the foundation for what becomes the refrain of the book:

“Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face” (pp. 15-17)….

And those concerned about or in charge of education reform policy should use this study and analysis as a cautionary tale about the unintended and negative consequences of the current thirty-year accountability era that has failed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its call for scientifically based education policy (Thomas, 2013). Since the central message about the gap between best practice and the day-to-day reality of writing in U.S. middle and high schools is consistent in Applebee and Langer’s work, I want to highlight several key points and then conclude with a couple caveats that help inform teachers and policy makers:

  • Across disciplines, students are being asked to write briefly and rarely, with most writing falling within narrow templates that are unlike discipline-based or real-world writing.
  • Teachers tend to know about and embrace the value of writing to learn content, but rarely implement writing to achieve rich and complex examinations of prior or new learning.
  • Student technology savvy is high (notably related to social media), while teacher technology savvy remains low. Technology’s role in teaching and learning is detailed as, again, narrowed by high-stakes testing demands and “primarily…used to reinforce a presentational mode of teaching” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 116). These findings call into question advocacy for greater investments in technology absent concern for how it is implemented as well as raising yet another caution about ignoring research showing that technology (especially word processing) has the potential to impact writing positively if implemented well.
  • While English language learners (ELLs) tend to be one category of students targeted by education reform and efforts to close achievement gaps, high-stakes testing and accountability stand between those students and the potential effectiveness of extended process writing in writing workshop experiences.
  • Like ELL students, students in poverty suffer the same fate of disproportionately experiencing narrow learning experiences that focus on test-prep and not best practice in writing instruction:

“By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149).

  • One important counter-narrative to the education reform focus on identifying top teachers is that Applebee and Langer (2013) note that when teachers have autonomy and implement best practice, high-poverty students outperform comparable high-poverty students in classrooms “with more traditional approaches to curriculum and instruction,” driven by test-prep (p. 148).

The problem with teaching writing is not that teachers lack knowledge of good writing pedagogy (although that certainly is a concern), but that accountability and high-stakes testing (read: Common Core and whatever the next wave is) have supplanted teacher autonomy and the expertise in the field of teaching writing.

The five-paragraph essay was never good writing pedagogy, and abdicating the field of composition to Common Core, any set of standards, any high-stakes testing, and the concurrent educommerce all that nonsense feeds is the problem with teaching writing.

Period.

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Through the lens of having been a teacher/professor, published writer, and recreational/competitive cyclist for over thirty years, several high school experiences are now illustrative of larger facts about the tension between teaching discrete skills versus fostering holistic performances.

In high school, I made As in math and science courses, but typically received Bs in English—and the source of that lower grade was poor scores on vocabulary tests. I balked at studying, found the process laborious and a waste of my time (better spent reading, collecting, and drawing from my comic book collection or reading the science fiction novels discouraged by my English teachers).

Throughout high school, I also worked frantically to be a good athlete, focusing on basketball. I wore ankle weights 24/7, including jumping rope hundreds of times each night with the weights on.

Despite my efforts and desire, I made the teams, but sat on the bench throughout high school.

Two aspects of that seem important: A track/football coach used to deride my ankle weight efforts by saying, “The only good those will do you is if you are in an ankle weight race”; and I could often be the best or near the best on any of my basketball teams when we had free throw shooting contests in practice.

Today, I feel safe claiming I have an unusually large vocabulary, and my career is deeply driven by by advanced literacy. In fact, I just completed teaching a graduate course in literacy.

All of this is gnawing at me because I have been watching a discussion on the NCTE Connected Community about vocabulary instruction. This thread reminds me of the recurring posts about grammar instruction.

During my graduate class, vocabulary and spelling were nearly a daily topic—along with concerns about “teaching grammar.”

Next week, I co-lead a Faculty Writing Fellows seminar for college professors who are exploring teaching writing at the university level (most of whom are outside of traditional disciplines for teaching writing). We will spend a great deal of time addressing and discussing the same concern: how to teach grammar.

As someone who loves to read and write, who lives to read and write—and as a teacher and writer—it makes my soul ache to confront how English teachers and English classes are often the sources of why children and adults loathe reading and writing.

But I also know intimately about that dynamic because in many ways that was me; I left high school planning to major in physics, only discovering I am a writer and teacher once I was in college.

And to this day I can see that damned vocabulary book we used in high school.

So when I became a high school English teacher, and faced throughout my early years what teachers continue to face today, I was determined that if I had to do vocabulary (required by the department and implicit in assigning students tax-payer-funded vocabulary books), I was going to find some way to do it as authentically as possible.

From those early years before I abandoned vocabulary instruction entirely and even accomplished as department chair having grammar and vocabulary texts not issued to students but provided as classroom sets to teachers who requested them, I recall a really important moment: A student wrote a sentence with the word “pensive” from the week’s vocabulary list—The girl’s boyfriend was very pensive when he bought her flowers.

The student was going through the motions of completing my inauthentic assignment (writing original sentences from the vocabulary list each week instead of doing the textbook exercises) that I thought was better and had simply looked at the one-word definition offered, “thoughtful.”

In fact, despite trying to make isolated vocabulary instruction authentic, I spent a great deal of time explaining to students that people didn’t use this word or that word the way the student had—although for them, the sentence seemed perfectly credible.

So what does all this mean?

Formal literacy instruction from K-5 through middle school into high school and even college is mostly failing our mission because we have fallen victim to an efficiency and analytical model of what literacy is and how to acquire so-called advanced literacy.

Two of the best examples of this skills plague are the obsession with prescriptive/isolated grammar instruction and the Queen Mother of literacy scams, the “word gap.”

The “word gap” persists despite the inherent flaws in the one research study driving it because most people have been lulled into believing the literacy-skills-equal-literacy hoax. [Think the Great Hooked on Phonics Scam that lures parents into believing that reading aloud is reading.]

Reducing literacy to and teaching discrete skills has been embraced in formal education because of the cult of efficiency that won out in the early decades of the education wars. That cult of efficiency was successful because classroom management has always overshadowed pedagogy in public schooling and also because the testing and textbook industries discovered there was gold in them there hills of schools.

Textbooks, worksheets, and multiple choice tests are certainly a soma of structure for the teacher and student alike—but they ain’t literacy.

Literacy is holistic, and the skills plague kills literacy.

Here, now, I want to make two important points about the skills plague.

First, we have made a serious mistake in flipping how people acquire so-called literacy skills such as vocabulary and grammatical dexterity.

As Stephen Krashen argued on the NCTE Connected Community thread, while it is true that highly literate people have large vocabularies and often great grammatical dexterity, they have come to those skills by reading and writing a great deal, in authentic ways.

But the efficiency cult has taken the fact that highly literate people have large vocabularies, for example, and flipped that to mean that we simply need to fill up students with words (usually arcane) or train them in root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create presto! literate humans.

Let me stress here that turning the holistic-to-discrete-skills pattern around is not only hogwash but also detrimental hogwash to our goals of literacy.

And so my second point is this: Students continue to spend inordinate amounts of time on harmful skills activities that would be better spent doing the holistic acts of reading and writing—holistic acts that would in fact accomplish the skills growth we claim we are seeking.

We know, as well, that student are not writing (for example) nearly enough—neither in amount of essays or length of essays—because teachers and students are overwhelmed with accountability mandates grounded in the efficiency model.

Let me end with my graduate course.

For 24 graduate students, all teachers, who had only reading and written assignments in the course (no tests, worksheets, or textbooks), I responded to over 320 drafts of three written assignments in a four-week period.

I highlighted this for the class to note that authentic literacy instruction committed to holistic approaches to literacy is not efficient, but it is incredibly time consuming and difficult.

I am 55 and I can see the vocabulary books in high schools that I still loathe—but I don’t recall a single word from that experience.

I am 55 and I still recall the day I sat listening to R.E.M.’s “You Are the Everything,” which made me fall in love with the word “eviscerate.”

I can also picture in my mind the words I highlighted as I read—words I didn’t know or also fell in love with as a writer—even recently when I was nudged to reconsider “decimate” in World War Z.

I remain angry and sad that the work we do as English teachers continues to create classrooms in which students have their love for reading and writing eviscerated instead of celebrated.


See Also

Try It Tuesday: Cite the Research that Drives Your Practice

It’s finally time to stop correcting people’s grammar, linguist says

Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Oliver Kamm