Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Problem with Public Schools

I’d guess that just by reading the title of this article you are already sharpening your intellectual knives. If you are predisposed against the public schools--either for their expense or their social role--you were probably thinking, “Problem with the public schools? There’s only one?” On the other hand, if you tend to support or like the schools (or at least yours), you probably thought, “What’s the use of another laundry list of failures in the schools?” If you work in the schools, you thought both, and probably added, “How many Gates Foundation (see the "Future of Education" material at the bottom of the page) studies does it take to blame teachers for every ill in society?”

Forgive me the conceit, for conceit it is. “The murky muddled situation in the public schools” seems unlikely to stir as much enthusiasm or grab the attention. But that is precisely the situation the schools find themselves in. I believe that it would help our civic discussion of the schools if everyone engaged in that conversation slowed down and took a more thorough look at the schools and the situation they find themselves in. Let me explain by example; let’s take reading.

Why can’t Johnny read? In 1955, Rudolf Flesch told us it was because Johnny was being taught wrongly. Memorizing sight words doesn’t help Johnny figure out (decode) new words when he encounters them, Flesch pointed out, so we needed to go back to phonics. Easy enough, so it seems. But the supposed persistence of reading deficiencies today means that either Flesch was wrong (he wasn’t--phonics-like decoding is necessary for new words, which eventually do become sight words...after reading them often enough), or nobody listened to Flesch (many did, and got caught up in highly emotional pedagogical debates), or something else is going on.
So, what do we know about Johnny and his reading? Let’s suppose Johnny is about to enter middle school, sixth grade, and he is already several years behind grade level in reading. Let’s work backwards these last several years, starting with that first day in sixth grade.
The first task is to determine the precise nature of Johnny’s reading ‘problems.’ If he has phonemic awareness difficulties (doesn’t know his letter sounds), he can’t decode words as he reads them, and he will quit reading within a few minutes of starting, for he will quickly struggle with what are basic words for strong readers. If, on the other hand, his reading mechanics are solid, and he reads with reasonable fluency, but has a comprehension weakness, Johnny might happily read but not understand any of what he’s reading. These are, of course, two different kinds of problems, requiring different intervention responses.
Johnny really needs to spend some time getting extra repetitions (just like exercise, strengthening your reading requires practice and repetition). At school, he needs a class where readers at comparable levels can work on the same skill deficiencies. Without an intervention, and left in a general language arts class, Johnny will read less successfully than the students who are reading grade level material, and will likely withdraw, intellectually, from the class (though he may desire to remain socially engaged, which ends up in general class room disruption as he tries to socialize about things far outside the material of the class). He will probably remain frustrated with reading, and he will not get that extra practice he so desperately needs.
Interventions are available for Johnny. Intensive programs of practice have been shown to get two years (or more) reading growth in one school year. 40 years of successful intervention seems compelling, but in the case of the so-called direct instruction programs (which are highly scripted), many individual teachers reject the program in deference to their own pedagogical values, their distaste for boring curriculum, or their gut feeling that the program ‘just isn’t right.’
Even so, many districts use such programs to great effect. So, why would Johnny fall so far behind so fast? Well, for a variety of reasons. Johnny may have indeed had a reading intervention in an earlier grade, but perhaps he moved and the new district didn’t have an intervention program, or anything in the same style and format. The demands for local control over schools, which has left us with nearly 15,000 independent school-governing bodies, means that incoherence from district to district is not only possible, but unavoidable. Partly for this reason (as well as others), frequent moving can have a deleterious effect on academic performance.
Reading intervention programs, for instance, are intensive and highly structured, so moving to a new district, even if done seamlessly, can disrupt the intervention gains, as Johnny gets evaluated, placed, socialized, etc. in the new district. It will be even harder for Johnny if his new district uses a different remediation program or system, as his earlier gains wouldn’t be as smoothly built upon as if he’d stayed in place. And if Johnny moves to a different state, the organizational confusion mounts even higher.
Johnny doesn’t have to move, though, for his situation to worsen. If Johnny’s school district suffered budget cutbacks significant enough, the school leadership had to make choices about which programs to keep and which to cut. The choice is not an easy one, as sometimes it can look like choosing to help one group of students instead of another, but in the end his district might have cut back on the particular reading intervention he needed.
Or maybe Johnny really did have a string of bad teachers. Men and women who neglected him, or whole groups of youngsters, and let the reading basics just slip by. This explanation seems among the more popular at the moment. One Gates Foundation study after rousing movie after Michelle Rhee-type incentive contract puts the onus for Johnny’s difficulties on teachers.
Fine enough, teachers should be accountable for their performance. But let’s be clear. In the current social conversation, teachers and schools are uniquely responsible for Johnny’s failure to read. Parents and students are treated as neutral (or even active but frustrated by the school’s ineptness) in this story, passive recipients of reading services from the schools. But to be successful at learning to read, Johnny and his parents need to be active, not passive. Let’s look at Johnny’s situation again to see how.

We know--from common sense as well as studies--that parents who read are more likely to raise children who read, and parents who don’t, won’t. We have no social mechanisms, though, available to hold parents to the expectation that they prepare their children for reading, or for school more generally. So, if Johnny’s parents do not make reading important by reading to him, and maybe--just maybe--teaching him the ABC song, and a few letter names before he shows up at Kindergarten, he’s already behind. Indeed, Kindergarten teachers can quickly predict which students will struggle deep into their school careers. A self-fulfilling prophecy, but not the one about teachers marking out strugglers and holding them down. Rather, the prophecy was written before the first day of school, and is fulfilled because parents who don’t read before Johnny went to school aren’t particularly likely to become more engaged in Johnny’s reading once he’s in school. But once delivered to the schoolhouse door, teachers and the schools will be held responsible for the outcome, and, subsequently, for making Johnny read.
So the schools try to devise reading intervention programs to address Johnny’s needs. But even an effective intervention program needs to be reinforced throughout other areas of the student’s life, say, at home. David Brooks reports on a recent study that confirmed what we should all know intuitively, namely, that a summer reading program (of just 12 books, as it turns out) could significantly stem the ‘summer drop-off’ so prevalent in struggling students. We also know, of course, that struggling students are precisely the ones least likely to read 12 books over the summer. They are struggling because they don’t read well. They don’t enjoy reading since they’re not strong at it, so they don’t read, and they suffer the summer drop-off, falling back again, and on it goes. This downward spiral can be reversed, of course, but it would take intentional and intensive work at school, at home, and during the summer. Intentional effort by teachers, parents, but most of all Johnny.

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