Washington Post, May 7th: “Math, reading performance is stagnant among U.S. 12th-graders, assessment finds.” All this effort on standards and test scores and still no change. Hmmmm.
But there are those who predicted that teaching directly to standards would only make a bad system worse. Maybe we should listen. A teacher in New York, for instance, sent me this report three years ago:
“Kindergarten is now the learn-to-read year in New York public schools. Teachers tell parents at parents’ night that according to ‘school standards’ their child should be reading by the end of kindergarten. A teacher told the parent of a smart, well-adjusted 5-year-old in October that her daughter was ‘behind’ in reading. Coupled with NYC’s late cut-off of Dec. 31 this is doubly distressing. Many are only four when they start kindergarten.
“The schools use Lucy Calkin’s A-M letter-based progression of reading ability. While the program is generally good, the leveled reading ability is damaging. Kindergartners learn in the fall that they are a level A or level B and are told their goal is to advance to the next letter. They compare letters with each other.
“We know what this does to children who fail to move up a letter as their friends become C’s and D’s. One precious five-year-old asked me what my pre-k daughter’s reading level was. I laughed and asked her if I had a reading level too? I told her, ‘I read books that I like.’
“In one second grade classroom on the Upper East Side students in mid-year ranged from levels G to M. During independent reading they could select books only from their leveled bins. They read in order to take tests on the computer that check and reassign their levels. The principal and teachers stress reading goals by telling the students what letter-level they should be by the end of the year. They do this repeatedly.
“Children are also pushed to read beyond their level of comprehension. The pleasure of reading is greatly diminished by eliminating choice and making kids read books that are constantly a little too hard for them or that they may not understand. This sends children the wrong message about reading. Reading should be about understanding and enjoyment.
“This leveling is seductive. Every kindergarten parent would love to think their child will be an early reader. When they are not, they are unnecessarily anxious. I’ve talked to some about how making reading a competition is counter-productive. I’ve pointed out that it is more important that their child like what they read and are able to understand it. Doesn’t make a dent.
“I decided to keep my 5-year-old (September birthday) home with me this year because of this obsession with ‘standards.’ My daughter loves to be read to, and I want her to continue to love reading as she learns to read. I don’t want her feelings to change or her confidence to fall when she’s asked to begin to learn to read. By having her at home, we can continue to read together for all the right reasons, and I will help her learn when she is ready.”
From coast to coast American children are being sorted rather than educated, and this teacher gives us a window into the mechanics of it. Emphasizing “standards” sounds like common sense, but it doesn’t work; it backfires. Kids don’t perform better with benchmarks. Labels have the opposite effect on both the “gifted” and the slow (Carol Dweck, 2006, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success).
Why do kids drop out when they get to high school? The reason is staring us in the face. By fourth grade they know what their chances are, and that their only hope is to get out of a system that will likely keep putting them down.
Seventy-five percent of brains are wired to learn to read naturally anytime from age 3 to age 9 (6.5 on average). The Orton-Gillingham method works with 99 percent of those that aren’t. Leveling is an artificial, arbitrary and unnecessary construct that interferes by creating self-fulfilling prophecies.
Most teachers I know are good educators trapped in a management system that is not great for any child, saps many children of their potential, and deprives our nation of vast qualities of valuable human resources. Most of us go along with it as we unwittingly drop our children off at the processing plant.
Soul, not standards, is the missing piece in our educational system. Educators lead; management sorts.