Sunday, December 09, 2007

Beyond Stupidity; The DOE's Plan to Make Teens Hate Reading

Yep, you guessed it. The Department of Education has issued yet another in a litany of asinine schemes to improve education in Connecticut. This time it's about reading and writing. It's calledand it's as scary as it looks. I'll examine this steaming pile of academic research piece by piece over a period of weeks. The stuff reads like a recipe of smelling salts for the dead.

The document starts with an introduction by Alfred Tatum, Ph.D. Here's a sniff;
Students enrolled in Grades 4-12 throughout the United States deserve the same attention and commitment given to younger readers and writers. Unfortunately, the literacy development of these older students has been grossly neglected. This neglect has resulted in dismal reading achievement for a very high percentage of students who have moved beyond the third grade as reflected in the data provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
If this guy is suggesting that kids enrolled in grades 4-12 are going to get the same quality of reading education we give to kids K-3 in Conneticut then parents better be prepared for communicating in grunts and groans instead of reading and writing.

He finishes the introduction with a platitude that high school authors get demerits for as too condescending.
It is refreshing to note that fewer older readers will suffer from low levels of literacy development because of the sincere effort being advanced by the Department.

The report starts with a set of presumably incontrovertible facts about reading and writing. this is the dogma we are expected to salute.

Conclusion one states "The ultimate literacy goal for each student in Connecticut schools is to become an independent, skilled, lifelong reader and writer." Platitudes such as these are custom-made to be universally accepted without argument and who am I to argue that world peace will not someday break out in spontaneous joy.

Conclusion two is where it gets sticky. Conclusion two states "Research has identified what good readers do when they read". The key word here is research. What passes for research in education is often disconnected from the scientific concept of research that a seventh grader might do in poking a cat to see what the cat will do. No, this kind of research can only be done and be published by an elite task force of inscrutable academics who already know what they're looking for. The conclusion is followed by the folly.
Duke and Pearson (2002) summarized these research-based good reader characteristics as follows with my own inimitable annotations following each bullet point.

Good readers:
• Read text at their grade level accurately and easily and can attend to meaning rather than struggling with decoding individual words

No sooner than we get on the Yellow Brick Road toward improving reading skills than we step in a pile of it.
Good reading has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with grade levels. Grade levels are arbitrary and co-incidental artifacts of school frameworks imposed on student populations. You don't have to do research to know that.
This research is not about good readers who are people who at some point of maturity in their lives realize their thirst for knowledge through the printed word - rather this "research" is about identifying readers who are compliant with somebody's idea of school metrics for reading achievement and who conform to school norms for reading progress - no thirst for knowledge need be present.
• Are active readers who try to make sense of what they are reading
• Have clear goals in mind for their reading, constantly evaluate whether the text, and their reading of it, is meeting their goals
Again, we step in a pile of it. But this is no ordinary bullshit we scape off our souls. No, this is highfalutin' bullshit - that rarefied form that only makes its way into academic journals hidden behind University firewalls. You see, to expose the public to such stuff might anger taxpayers who might look askance at such byproduct.

Good readers set no goals. This is government double-speak. readers make no attempt to memorize material per se. Reading enriches the mind and soul by just being an intellectual activity that has no goal except maybe the joy of the act of reading.

This is no petty thing in a society where enthusiastic young readers stop reading for pleasure because the constant scrutiny of their reading habits and pleasures are superseded by educational specialists who bleach out any desire to ever read again.

• Typically look over the text before they read, noting such things as the structure of the text and text sections that might be most relevant to their reading goals
This sounds like a wholly manufactured artifact of such "research". It is so contrived as to be absurd at face value. People young and old read things they find interesting to them and that fits a certain comfort zone. If the reading is for research then certainly one reads only that portion of content that is pertinent. There is no majority of good readers who pick up a book, decide what chapters to read and are done with that.
• Frequently make predictions about what is to come;
Can this be expressed as "understand nouns usually precede verbs"? That is unless the researchers studied psychics anonymous.
• Read selectively – deciding what to read carefully, what to read quickly, what not to read, and what to reread
• Construct, revise and question the meanings they make as they read
• Try to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts in the text and then deal with inconsistencies or gaps as needed
• Draw from, compare and integrate their prior knowledge with material in the text
No real objections there.
• Think about the authors of the text, their style, beliefs, intentions and historical context
This sounds like a dubious assertion. Certainly, if the reading is an assignment to pay attention to trivia then this would play out that way but getting lost in a book which is a traditional measure of reading pleasure implicitly denies any such nonsense.
• Monitor their understanding of the text, making adjustments in their reading as necessary
Again, a dubious assertion that can only be true in circumstances where the reader is being put upon by a third-party like an obtrusive teacher or researcher.
• Evaluate the quality and value of the text, reacting to it in a range of ways, both intellectually and emotionally
• Read different kinds of text differently
• Find comprehension a consuming and complex activity, but one that is also satisfying and productive
Or unproductive such as the case may be.

Here comes the scary stuff.
Connecticut’s K-3 Blueprint for Reading Achievement (2000, 12-13) parallels these characteristics in its description of the reading process: “Skilled reading involves a complex interplay of abilities and habits. Proficient readers actively construct meaning; for example, their comprehension extends far beyond an understanding of the literal information in a text to include drawing inferences, making evaluations, and using prior knowledge to interpret what they are reading. Proficient readers also identify printed words with ease; they recognize the pronunciation and meaning of most words automatically, without effort, and can use their knowledge of spelling-sound correspondences, when necessary, to figure out unfamiliar words. At the same time, proficient reading draws heavily on broad oral-language competencies, such as knowledge of word meanings (vocabulary), understanding of idiomatic expressions (e.g., “it’s raining cats and dogs”), background knowledge, and comprehension of grammar and syntax. And proficient readers read strategically; for example, if they do not understand something they have read, they use strategies to repair their comprehension, such as rereading or using context clues to construct meaning. In skilled reading, these components — active construction of meaning, accurate and effortless reading of individual words, broad language knowledge, and comprehension strategies — all work in concert to enable good reading comprehension.”
Skilled reading at all grade levels draws upon many different abilities, but the abilities most critical to further growth and achievement in literacy tend to shift somewhat across grades. By the end of third grade, students are generally expected to have developed a solid foundation of basic reading skills needed for meeting subsequent grade expectations. From fourth grade on, students must be prepared for a rapidly expanding volume of reading and writing, as well as increasingly advanced comprehension and expression demands. Furthermore, in a changing, technological world, literacy tasks are becoming more challenging and complex, requiring more high-level evaluative thinking and placing greater demands on students than ever before.
The State Department of Education is failing both students and schools by mixing up two different concepts. Reading and being a compliant victim of reading education practice are two different things.

If the Department of Education mandated the teaching of bicycle riding in the same prescription form they prescribe reading then the hospital wards would be overflowing in head injuries.

Readers are an endangered species in Connecticut. You can thank the Department of Education.


Tom Hoffman said...

I have no idea of what kind of practices they have in mind to act on these observations, but I don't think these points are as crazy as you do. Perhaps you should flip the question around. It might make it seem a bit less banal.

What do you think a poor 7th or 9th or 11th grade reader fails to do when reading that a successful reader does?

The Caretaker said...


As you know I try to stir the pot a bit. But I also know some very poor readers and they remain poor readers because the system is oppressive toward students who aren't the norm grade level (or above reader).

Now for some there are issues that only a reading specialist can identify. For others, they just need an educational program that recognizes that they are developing outside the norm (these kids are put in multiple jeopardy in every class because of where they are).

The remedy CT use is pain compliance (up the ante, up the pressure, squeeze the kid until they bleed). This is the rhetoric and practice in Bush America.

To use an easy example, let's say these researchers studied great athletes. Do you believe every bad athlete would become a great athlete by being compared to Michael Jordan every day? What worked for MJ's metabolism, heart, and soul isn't the same as my two boys, is it?

And what about multiple intelligence theory. Maybe reading improves by stimulating a love of learning otherwise instead of yet more intensive pressure.

I stand by my assertion that the study is misguided and that it corrupts a more sensible approach to learning.

And these are the kinds of lively discussions that aren't taking place except in backwaters like this.

I'll follow up with more soon and I expect to hear back. Giving each other a hard time is the best thing that happens for learning.

_ Frank