Warning: this series of posts is likely to offend. Look away if you don’t want that. If you do read on, give the following claims thought before you dismiss them out of hand. Chocolate is usually good for hurt feelings.
This is the first of what is intended to be a four-part series exploring a pretty fantastic “knowing-doing gap” in public education right now. We know what is right and have always known it; we just act like we don’t know. To my shame, while I have striven to live and work by the principles I mean to advance here, I have only very recently begun to advocate for a radical change on this issue. So I include myself in the “responsible party” category.
Next, a disclaimer. I am not a literacy “specialist” or “expert”. I have not been trained by my state or a university in the technical knowledge and skills associated with this area of practice. I am not a librarian, unless you count the work I do to curate my personal and professional libraries. But I am a non-stop reader. I have read the literature. For years I have read the writing of the professionals from all around the world who have written on this topic. There are more qualified, more polished and more experienced voices making this case. But their voices are being ignored, willfully misunderstood or given patronizing lip service by far too many in education. Perhaps by adding my voice to theirs, I can help make the case for just one more educator who can in turn impact just one student. That will be good enough for me.
We have a problem with literacy in public education. We can’t get kids to “read at high levels”. Scores on all manner of standardized tests consistently indicate that high percentages of students fall short of “proficient” attainment, no matter what that mark is. Much higher percentages of minority students and students who are poor fall short of these marks. For skeptics of standardized testing (like me), there is still no denying the fact that loads of students in high schools across the country cannot read at all or read so poorly as to make the distinction irrelevant. We’ve known the problem for a long time. We’ve been trying to fix the problem for a long time and we haven’t.
It would be disrespectful of me to suggest that there is a silver bullet for this problem that we have simply refused to see. Our problem is not astigmatism though, it’s myopia. We have been hyper-focused on just one half of what it takes to become a great reader.
In this age of accountability, we have focused more and more of our energy on reading instruction. Individuals more experienced that I am can trace this (inappropriate) narrowing of focus in more detail, but the facts of recent trends in education are clear: we believe that the solution to the issue of poor reading is more and better reading instruction.
Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on an interview panel for a position that requires extensive knowledge and expertise in curriculum and teaching. One question asked applicants to identify the two most important parts of an effective literacy program. To my great dismay (but not to my surprise), only two applicants event mentioned books. Every other applicant focused his/her answer on some aspect of reading instruction. The significance of their answers was not at all lost on me and mirrors our decision-making at all levels of education: a focus on literacy means teaching students how to read. This is the science of reading. It breaks the act of reading and learning to read into its component parts and determines the “research-based” way to execute each part. It tracks student progress against specific metrics meticulously. It requires teachers to follow the reading program “to fidelity”. It believes in the power of the basal reader.
And this part of literacy is not wrong. There is a science to reading. We can understand how it works and we can apply that understanding to our work to teach young minds how to read.
The problem is that this part of literacy actively seeks to deny the value of the other side of the coin. The cult of the science of reading is deeply skeptical of the art of reading. It demands that students’ “independent” reading be tightly controlled – for their own good, of course. It insists that students document their reading – through a standardized test whenever possible. It calls time spent in class on independent reading “wasted” if it is not organized and documented. But mostly, it starves the art of reading but demanding all the resources. It needs all the personnel, all the funding and all the time. It is happy to give stickers and cupcakes and even free books to the kids who find a way to read a bunch anyway. It even makes a show of promoting a “culture of reading” with special events like reading days – which, by the way, also provide amazing photo opportunities for adults. But on every other day, it is very specific about how many minutes must be spent on reading instruction.
Because science is easier to quantify and measure than art (whether the results are good or bad), we accede to the demands of the science of literacy. The numbers look bad so we use other numbers to fight the first set of numbers. We hire more people. We buy more programs. We budget more minutes. We take more reading tests.
And nothing really changes because that’s not how reading works. It takes both sides of the equation to grow proficient readers.