Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What’s Killing School Reform?
Guess what. It has something to do with reading.

The only writer I came across who thought about kids and reading like I did was Mary Leonhardt. I read her books. You can still get them: Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don’t. 99 Ways To Get Kids To Love Reading. How To Teach A Love Of Reading Without Getting Fired. There are others. Look for them all.

She has a new book, an e-book: The 7 Toxic Myths That Are Killing School Reform. I asked her to share some of it with us. Here’s some:

I've had a ringside seat at K-12 education for most of the last sixty years. From 1950 until 1962 as a student, and from 1971 until 2008 as a high school English teacher. In between I spent much of the time in university classrooms. I didn't learn much, in these university settings, about teaching.

I learned a lot in my own classrooms. I learned why verbal S.A.T. scores have actually gone down a little over the last forty years, and why the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores have stayed basically the same over the last twenty.

It’s not that no one is interested in school reform. Since 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, school reform has been at the top of the agenda of every educator and every politician. There have been a lot of proposals, a lot of good ideas—smaller schools, local control, school choice, collaborative teaching, less leveling, higher standards, business alliances, more training for teachers, a greater use of technology—to mention a few. And yet, in spite of the massive amounts of money and creativity and energy devoted to school reform, our country is sinking under the weight of our semi-literate young people.

And so the burning question of the hour is why isn’t all of the school reform effort making a difference? Specifically, why are reading scores staying so stubbornly low? Because if reading scores are low, education isn’t working. Kids who can barely read are not educable. The heart of the educational crisis is that kids can’t read. The educational crisis is a reading crisis.

Why are reading scores so low? The answer is surprisingly simple: Because so few kids develop into avid readers. That’s why reading scores stay so stubbornly low. Kids who hate reading, who hate books—kids who never willingly linger over a page of print—are almost uneducable in any real sense.

Avid readers are fundamentally different. They read better, write better, concentrate better, have wider frames of reference, and do better in all of their subjects, across the board. They are curious and always engaged in learning. They are a joy to teach.

The question is why schools are not producing more avid readers. It’s taken me thirty-five years in high school classrooms, and a number of years traveling around talking to education and parent groups, to figure it out. But I’ve done it, and here’s why

There are, both in school culture, and in the larger culture of our society, tenaciously embedded myths that work against kids developing a love of reading. These myths come up again and again in my discussions with teachers, with parents, and with journalists. I see them again and again in the media. They’re omnipresent, far-reaching, and sacred. The myths seem to be literally immune from criticism or analysis. And they form the real background of the educational picture, ensuring that no matter what reforms we put in place, no matter how much money we spend, our children are still going to leave school semi-literate, thinking that reading is a deadly chore to be avoided at all costs.

And here’s the heartbreaker: it’s easy to turn kids into avid readers, but schools simply aren’t doing it. Why? Because these educational myths are so pervasive, so ingrained, and so powerful that the simple notion that kids need to be avid readers doesn’t stand a chance against them.

What are they? Here’s the short version.

1. Reading for fun is a waster of time. I have had elementary school principals tell me in all seriousness that they would like to have some free reading time for their children but, what with state standards and everything else, there’s just no time. It’s like being in a desert and believing there is no time to unscrew the top of your thermos of water.

2. Kids should only read good books. Mediocre or poor readers simply don’t read well enough to enjoy the kinds of books adults think they should read. When they are told they have to read a Newberry award book for school—and they can’t read a Captain Underpants book—they decide reading is an unpleasant chore.

3. Great readers are born, not made. The belief is that poor readers are just dumb. There’s not much we can do about it. Let’s put them in a low group, and give them little paragraphs to read. The reality is that poor readers can develop into excellent readers once they develop a love and habit of reading. And then—what do you know—they’re smart! Poof!

4. Teaching difficult books is how to teach reading skills. This is the myth that is used to justify assigning class books in middle school and high school, requiring everyone to read books like Great Expectations or Ethan Frome. The idea is that not only will students gain cultural literacy, they will become better readers. The reality is that, first of all, they learn to hate the classics—so much for cultural literacy—and secondly, so few students actually do the reading that their reading skills don’t even improve. Even worse, with an assigned book hanging over their heads, kids won’t read anything else, even thought they are not reading the assigned book.

5. There are plenty of books lying around for kids to read. People who believe this (which is most of the educational establishment) don’t understand that turning children into avid readers requires giving them a huge choice in books. When children start reading, they will only like books in a narrow range—such as the books in a series, or in a certain genre, like magic. Funding for libraries is often one of the first cuts made in an education budget.

6. Technology is the answer to the education crisis. Of course children need to learn how to use computers, but it is the avid readers who most easily learn these computer skills. If avid reading comes first, children can use computers for a variety of things. Kids who hate reading mostly use computers for games.

7. Grades and assessment tests will motivate kids to read. Because the educational establishment doesn’t see the relationship between avid reading behavior, and good test scores, these assessment tests are just turning kids off to reading even faster than before. Test preparation is taking up valuable school time that could be given over to reading. Not only is the test preparation usually boring and tedious, it’s useless for developing reading skills. As Stephen Krashen points out in his book, The Power of Reading, teaching skills is just testing skills. Children develop skills through wide reading.

I go into much more detail in my new book The 7 Toxic Reading Myths That Are Killing School Reform. It’s available as an e-book for only $2.99.

Reps Matter Everywhere

A young Notre Dame QB will get better with more reps

Last night I camped out in front of my TV to watch my old school play Michigan State. The kid I was most interested in watching was the quarterback Everett Golson. It was only his third game as a starter. He’s full of promise. He’s quick in ways you want a QB to be. He can pass, he can run. He has poise. He was a good enough high school basketball player to get a scholarship offer from North Carolina. He’s a polished piano player, too.

The ABC announcers were effusive in their praise of him. And they said he’ll only get better the more reps he gets. I thought, of course, it’s that way with everything. It’s what the school kids in the city need to get to learn to read well. Just like Golson will practice every day during the season, and in the off-season, too, to get better, kids need that same kind of practice to work on their reading skills. If the athletic departments know what’s needed for success, why don’t the academic departments?

Don’t Think Twice

Get the new Rolling Stone

Along with the Four Tops and the Beach Boys albums and the other must-have records of those days in the early ‘60s, when I was tucked away in a Catholic boarding school, I had the first two albums of Bob Dylan. His voice was an acquired taste back then. I was not on the cutting edge of music. There were guys at school with more sophisticated albums than I had. But I was a folkie, and having those Dylan records was important to me. I would stare at the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan with its snowy Greenwich Village street and dream of a possible free-thinking life down the road.

I bought the new Rolling Stone the other day to read the interview with Dylan. I’ve read it twice. I think he’s the greatest artist America’s ever had. So, of course, I’d recommend you get the magazine.

       Zadie Smith in The New Yorker review of her new novel, NW.