An Open Letter to Arkansas Lawmakers

March 12, 2015

Members of the Arkansas House of Representatives Education Committee, members of the Arkansas Senate Legislative Committee, and Governor Asa Hutchinson:

During the current legislative session, there have been many proposed laws that have alarmed those of us who work in education around the state. I am writing to you not only because I am a teacher in Arkansas (I teach English Language Arts at the middle school in Greenland, AR) but also because as a resident of Arkansas I care about the future of our state.

The trend in this legislative session seems to be toward over-regulating, devaluing, and privatizing locally controlled public schools yet at the same time giving private charter schools a free pass to do whatever they like and receive whatever funds they want. I am referring specifically to House Bill 1733, Senate Bill 847, Senate Bill 789, House Bill 1552, House Bill 1593, and others. As a product myself of Arkansas’ public school system, I can tell you that what public schools need is more support, funding, and local control, not less.

I could share countless stories that illustrate how more support is needed at locally controlled public schools like mine. For example, we are currently struggling to find funding so we can continue early morning tutoring for students through end of the school year. Our history textbooks are already outdated, and despite changes to the statewide social studies curriculum next year, it seems doubtful we will be able to afford new ones. I could go on, but I don’t want it to seem like I am bellyaching and complaining about our problems. In fact, a lot of great teaching and learning is happening at my school – but this is in spite of increased regulation, testing, and “accountability”, not because of it.

Some lawmakers seem to see charter schools as the holy grail of school reform – they believe that charter schools will solve every problem in education and that the free market of school choice will magically make everything else work out. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. Not only is the research to support charter schools incomplete and unsubstantial, but even those charter schools that do show success are more the exception than the rule. The truth is that charter schools, just like public schools, all have different administrators, different teachers, and different ideas of what a school should look like. This isn’t to say that everything should be standardized (because everything cannot and should not be standardized), but it means that just like public schools, there will be charter schools that succeed and charter schools that fail.  The problem is that public schools have the support, oversight, and involvement of the local community and the state to help ensure they succeed in educating students. Charter schools, on the other hand, are often given the freedom to fail or succeed without much oversight at all. Allowing charter schools the freedom to experiment seems like a great concept, until you realize that they are experimenting with our students’ futures, and their experimentation has little oversight and few checks and balances.

Often, charter schools are cast as a way to help low income students who may be “stuck” in low performing public schools. In fact, more charter schools and increased school choice usually only serves to help those students who need the least help. Let me use as an example the proposal for school vouchers that would allow students to transfer from a public to private school and take their funding with them. This all sounds great – students would be able to choose which school they would like to attend, and theoretically this would make private schools more accessible to low income students. In fact, exactly the opposite would happen. Here’s something you may not have thought of – many students from low income families have parents who work all hours of the day and night and would not be able to provide or pay for transportation to and from a private school – this is why public schools are required to provide transportation to allow everyone equal access to attend school.

But let’s assume for a moment that a low income family could find a way for their children to be transported to a private school to use their vouchers. How would that family pay for all of the other related expenses that are typically expected at many private schools, such as food (normally provided through free and reduced lunches and breakfasts at public schools), uniforms, a computer, home internet access, etc.? The fact is that most private schools, through no fault of their own, are simply not set up to provide the same services and support to low income students that public schools do. Therefore, with a voucher system, many middle and high income families would be able to provide transportation, money, and support for their children to attend private schools, and almost all low income students would remain at their local public school. Those public schools would lose funding and become even more strapped for resources than they already are. The test scores of those public schools would go down, because research has shown that a school’s test scores strongly correlates to that school’s average family income. Those schools would be taken over by the state and possibly turned into charter schools (as per other legislation currently being considered) and local schools that have been the foundation and centerpiece of communities across the state (especially small, rural communities) would fall apart.

This may seem like an exaggerated doomsday prediction of what could happen, but I do not believe it is far-fetched. Public education is one of the foundations of our democracy in the United States. Thomas Jefferson warned us to “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” In order for our country to survive, we must continue to offer free, equitable education to all students. When that equal opportunity to education for all is watered down by privatization, devaluation of public schools, and degradation of public school teachers and administrators, then the system begins to fall apart. No, our public schools are not perfect, but, on the whole, they are not failing either. I would like to point out that those who are sounding the loudest cry of “failing schools” and “accountability” are also those who have the most to gain by school privatization and school choice.

Please, for the good of our schools and our democracy, I urge you to oppose any legislation that attempts to devalue or degrade our locally controlled public education system. Thank you for your time spent reading this letter and I hope and pray that you will make the best choices for our state’s future.

Sincerely,

Tyler McBride
7th and 8th Grade ELA Teacher
Greenland Middle School
Greenland, Arkansas

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Why I Love Professional Development

Let me begin this post by discussing what is not professional development. If you follow any blogs on teaching, you may have already seen this video – in a way, it has gone viral among progressive educators fighting against this kind of mindless “teaching.” (Training might be a more appropriate term for what is happening here.) Without further ado, here is the video:

Evidently, this is what passes as professional development for some teachers in Chicago. Let me repeat, unless you had any doubts: this is not professional development.

I recently had the pleasure of going through a similarly mind-numbing training session. It wasn’t much different from plenty of training sessions that I have attended as a teacher. Powerpoint slides reminiscent of something sterile and hospital-like, a droning voice explaining inane testing procedures in detail, and teachers in various states between disengaged and near-comatose. However, the only thing different from the usual was that instead of being talked at by some poor person hired to visit our district, we were watching a training video from PARCC related to the field testing of their new assessments. What is surprising is that we (the teachers) hardly noticed the difference between the droning computer speakers and a droning live speaker.

My experience in the PARCC session, the Chicago teachers’ experience in the video, and similar training sessions pass for “professional development” in many schools and districts around the nation. Professional development is conceived as a passive experience – teachers sit and listen, “experts” dispense knowledge. How, then, are we expected to stop lecturing to our students and start involving them in hands-on learning? My teacher friends and I have shared quiet laughs in the past as experts who have been out of the classroom for decades beat us over the head with PowerPoint slides explaining how our students should be more involved in their learning.

So, what is professional development? Let’s break apart the term – first, professional. This implies that teachers are treated as other professionals would be treated. Professionals are given the opportunity to pursue their own topics of interest. Professionals collaborate with other professionals. Professionals are trusted to want to learn. Second – development. Development implies growing, evolving, learning. Not being talked at.

In case you haven’t been fortunate enough to be involved in real professional development, let me explain just a couple of my experiences and why I love it.

In the fall, I had the opportunity to attend an edCamp session at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. I chose to attend on my own after hearing about edCamp online. My wife traveled with me to Conway early one Saturday before the sun came up, and by the time we got to UCA, I was tired. However, my energy was soon revived as I engaged in conversations about technology, maintaining momentum, and new the teacher evaluation system in our state. However, none of these discussions or sessions were predetermined for us – we made them up that day, and we were free to come and go from conversations as we pleased and to adjust our own discussions and learning as we wanted. I learned more by talked to my colleagues around the state that day than I had in weeks of other teacher training sessions. Simply put, it was a liberating experience. That was professional development.

Recently, I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. I read it in just a few sittings – I soaked it in. I had been thinking deeply about sustained, free-choice reading in my classroom for the past two school years. I had been trying to implement some kind of workshop format in my ELA classes for a while. Donalyn’s book gave me the inspiration to get started. I couldn’t read fast enough to start incorporating classroom routines I loved and experimenting with new lesson plans. And, after I finished, I couldn’t get enough – I immediately ordered her newest book, Reading in the Wild(It’s just as amazing, in case you were wondering.) As I read professional books like these, I am learning how to be a better teacher, sometimes without even realizing it. That is professional development.

This kind of self-directed, inquiry professional development is what I love. I love getting to learn about topics that interest me, try out what I’ve learned in my classroom, and reflect on my own experiences in my teaching journal (yes, I really have one of those). This is really professional development, and this life-long learning and pursuit of knowledge is exactly what I want to instill in my students every single day.

Why I Try to Ignore Lexile Reading Levels

As you may have guessed from my post about standardized testing, I am wary of tests or instruments that try to quantify what is difficult to quantify. For example, how can education officials get a complete picture of a student’s learning and growth by giving a test that lasts a small fraction of the time they actually spent learning? Add to that the fact that the vast majority of the question are forced-choice questions (AKA, multiple choice) that give no opportunity for the student to think outside the box or explain their reasoning. However, I’ll refrain from ranting about standardized testing here – instead, I’ll rant about another instrument that attempts to quantify the unquantifiable – quantitative measures of text complexity, specifically Lexile scores.

If you know anything about the Common Core State Standards, you know that it is aimed at increasing “rigor” of instruction and the “complexity” of the texts students are able to read. The underlying premise, is that there is something wrong with our students (“they aren’t working hard enough”) and there is something wrong with our education system (“school isn’t challenging enough”). The writers’ remedy, of course, is to make everything more difficult so that students will be ready for more difficult tasks and texts when they enter college and the world of work. Of course, this is a simplified explanation, but you get the idea. This is the rationale behind Common Core’s demands for increased “text complexity.” Text complexity, as defined by the Common Core in ELA Appendix A, is made of three components – qualitative measures, quantitative measures, and considerations of the reader and task. Qualitative measures basically mean those features of a text that can only be seen by an attentive human reader. Quantitative measures refer to quantifiable features of a text, such as sentence length, sentence complexity, and word complexity, that can be measured using numerical scores (Lexile being the most common one I’ve seen used). And, of course, considerations of the reader and task refer to how well a text fits with a particular reader’s ability and disposition, and how difficult the tasks associated with it are.

The Common Core claims that each of the three features of complexity must be “used together” (Appendix A, page 4) to select texts for students to read which will be adequately complex. If this were actually the case in practice, I would not have much to argue against, except that, in my opinion, quantitative measures should be used sparingly (if at all). However, what the CCSS writers say and what they do are two entirely different matters. In the same Appendix in which they advocate for considering all three factors, they cite several studies showing a decline in the complexity of texts used in schools over a significant time period. Interestingly, all of these studies use only quantitative measures (sentence length, vocabulary difficulty, and Lexile score) to argue that text complexity is decreasing. Why are the Common Core writers arguing for multiple ways of measuring text complexity when their entire argument that we need to increase complexity is based on quantitative measures only?

Similarly, Achieve the Core, an organization founded by writers of the Common Core and aimed at helping teachers decipher it, gives quantitative measures priority in selecting classroom texts. Below is a direct quote from their directions for selecting texts.

“To choose texts that are on grade level for the CCSS, use three steps:

  1. Use quantitative measures to assign a text to a grade band.
  2. Use qualitative measures to locate a text within a specific grade band.
  3. Use professional judgment to decide how suited a text is for a specific instructional purpose with a particular set of students.” (Source)

In other words, as a teacher, I must make sure the books I choose for my students is in their “grade band” (i.e., grades 6-8, 9-10, etc.) based on a Lexile score or some other numerical measure. Let’s look at a quick example to see how this would relate to my classroom. Let’s say that I’m considering several books to teach my 8th grade English class, including Of Mice and Men and Freedom Walkers. The former choice is a canonical text traditionally taught in High School, and I might be concerned about my 8th graders being able to process some of the mature themes and language. But let’s ignore that for now, for argument’s sake. Freedom Walkers, on the other hand, is a fairly straight-forward, factual nonfiction book that gives a detailed look at one piece of the Civil Rights Movement (the Montgomery Bus Boycott), but isn’t as rich in sensory description, dialogue, and interest as some more “literary” texts that I might prefer. So, if I am following the directions of the writers of the Common Core, I should look at each text’s quantitative Lexile score first to see if it is in my grade-level band. Below is an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (page 38 in my edition).

“Although there was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, inside it was dusk. Through the open door came the thuds and occasional clangs of a horseshoe game, and now and then the sound of voices raised in approval or derision.

Slim and George came into the darkening bunk house together. Slim reached up over the card table and turned on the tin-shaded electric light. Instantly the table was brilliant with light, and the cone of the shade threw its brightness straight downward, leaving the corners of the bunk house still in dusk. Slim sat down on a box and George took his place opposite.”

And now, below, let’s look at an excerpt from Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman (page 23 in my edition).

“Rosa Parks had taken a special interest in Claudette Colvin’s case. She knew Claudette. And she herself had suffered a similar experience twelve years earlier. In 1943, she had been thrown off a Montgomery bus for refusing to reenter through the back door after paying her fare. The bus driver had kept her money, ordered her to step outside, then driven away, leaving her standing on the sidewalk.”

Based on these excerpts, which I believe are fairly representative of the texts as a whole, which do you think is more challenging or complex? I would argue that Steinbeck’s writing is much more complex. Steinbeck writes in a way that creates an intricate sensory picture that takes some time for your brain to process – I found myself re-reading this section a couple of times to completely get a picture in my head of the light, shadow, and sounds in these two paragraphs. Freedman, on the other hand, writes his sentences in an extremely straight-forward and factual manner, which for most of my students is much easier to understand. However, you may notice that Steinbeck’s words are shorter than Freedman’s, overall. Thus, the Lexile scores of the first novel are significantly lower. The Lexile level of Of Mice and Men is 630L, placing in the 2-3 grade complexity band. Freedom Walkers‘ Lexile level, on the other hand, 1110L, placing it in the 6-8 grade band.

Therefore, if I am following the recommendations of Achieve the Core (as so many teachers and administrators are doing), I cannot use Of Mice and Men in my classroom, because it does not even fit in the grade band of my students. Presumably, then, the Common Core prohibits Of Mice and Men from being taught at all, because no one would argue that 3rd graders possess enough emotional maturity to process the novel. Therefore, I would probably choose something like Freedom Walkers, which is a great informational text about an important topic, but honestly seems a little boring for many students.

Put simply, Lexile scores don’t tell you much about a text. What a Lexile score is supposed to tell me about a text (namely, it’s readability or complexity) I could easily determine for myself by reading the book. In my opinion, the whole idea of using quantitative measures like Lexile is to create standardization, because teachers are no longer trusted as professionals to make decisions about what books their students should read. Lexile scores have also been used as a replacement for the Accelerated Reader program – in other words, that students must only read books independently that are within their Lexile band, and not anything outside of it. For me, anything that restricts teacher discretion and student choice in choosing texts without providing any benefit is fairly useless. That is why I choose to ignore Lexile scores.

Why I Don’t Stress Out About Test Scores

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sterlic/

Photo Credit: Scott Akerman

Just a few days ago, the PISA test scores for 2012 were released. If you didn’t know what that test is, don’t worry – I didn’t either until just a few days ago. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment, and it’s an international test of student achievement that is given every three years. You know: one of those tests where Finland always outranks everybody and the U.S. receives mediocre scores, at best. This year was no different – Finland scored 4th in science, 7th in reading, and 15th in math. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the U.S. is below the worldwide average in all categories. (See the rankings here.) Many school reform advocates are quick to say that these low test scores show the need for broad changes in our public school system – and they are right. However, the kind of change they are thinking of is not the kind we need.

In a fascinating article on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the president of the National Education Association and the president of Finland’s Trade Union of Education explain some of the reasons that Finland’s education system is so great. Now, I have heard some bemoan Finland’s low poverty rates and largely homogenous society as reasons for their high test scores. This post mentions these factors, but it also mentions unique aspects of the education system in Finland that undoubtedly play a role, including that Finland’s teachers have master’s degrees, get as much societal respect as physicians do in the U.S., are paid very well, and can’t get their jobs through “non-traditional” or alternative licensing as their U.S. counterparts can.

However, in my opinion, the most interesting factor of Finnish education is the lack of reliance on standardized testing. The article states: “High-performing academic countries, like Finland, do not believe that multiple-choice, computer-scored standardized tests can properly measure higher-order thinking skills. Instead, they rely heavily on essay-type responses as a critical part of timed exams, while also factoring in graded pieces of work that could not possibly be produced in a timed evaluation. Finnish students do not take a standardized test until the end of high school.”

In my opinion, this is exactly the approach that should be taken toward standardized testing in the United States. Ask any educator, and he or she will tell you that standardized test scores cannot accurately convey every nuance of a child’s education. For example, a child’s love of learning, academic engagement, voracious independent reading, and respect and empathy for others are all factors that deeply affect a child’s learning and achievement but cannot be tested using multiple choice or even open response test items. Multiple choice questions, which generally make up the vast majority of standardized test questions because they are cheaper to score, inherently measure low levels of knowledge and understanding. Essentially, they can only be used to test a child’s basic understanding or memory of a concept.

Even the “next generation of testing” that is supposedly coming with the Common Core State Standards has severe limitations in trying to assess higher order thinking skills. For example, PARCC (one consortium founded to create “next generation” tests for the CCSS) recently released sample items from its new tests. Let’s examine one of the 8th grade literacy items, since that happens to be what I teach. The question, which can be found on page 6 of this document, asks students to “create” a summary of an excerpt from Brian’s Winter by dragging four statements from a list into another column. Never mind that the students are not actually “creating” or “writing” their own summary, as the Common Core standard that this item supposedly assesses states, but the list of possible statements in this question includes ones that are true statements about the excerpt, but that are not correct answers because they “do not belong in a summary.” Last time I checked, there were not hard and fast rules about what belonged in a summary and what did not – who died and left PARCC in charge of creating these rules? This test item purports to measure an 8th grader’s skill in writing a summary; instead, it measures an 8th grader’s skill in figuring out what the almighty test writers think a summary should include. Sure, this is one test item on one test (and a sample released item, at that), and it is not necessarily representative of all standardized tests. However, it does illustrate that standardized items generally test low-level thinking and are sometimes subject to the test creators’ own biases about what is “correct” and what is not.

I have written all of this to say that I do not place a lot of faith in standardized test scores. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about them or I ignore them – that would be impossible in our country’s current education culture of accountability and teacher evaluation based on test scores. However, I also don’t spend a whole lot of time teaching to the test. I refuse to drill my students on open response writing and basic grammar concepts. Last year, I spent about two weeks of test preparation before the Arkansas Benchmark exams, and this year I plan to spend even less time, if any at all. In my opinion, what I do every single day should prepare my students to be excellent readers, writers, and thinkers – and if they are readers, writers, and thinkers, they can expect to do reasonably well on any test that tests those skills.

At Arkansas edCamp in October of this year, a teacher educator introduced me to an amazing book – Hurray for Diffendoofer DayThe book, which was started by Dr. Seuss before his death and finished by others, is about a small school that teaches their students to be creative, to love learning, and to learn whatever they want. When the evil of standardized testing is sprung on this school, without any preparation, the students take the test and pass with flying colors. If you haven’t read this book, read it; I plan to read it to my students right before they take the Arkansas Benchmark exam this spring.

I could insert a long rant here about how students are over-tested and tests are over-analyzed, but I’ve already ranted too much. In the end, I can’t change the culture of testing in America by myself, but I can change how I react to it in my classroom and in my school. I know it’s just a sappy children’s book, but the message of Diffendoofer Day still rings true to me. I believe that if I teach my students what is worth learning, and if I teach it well, they will do just fine on the standardized test. And, if they don’t, then it probably wasn’t a good test in the first place.

Why I give my students time to read

Photo Credit: nSeika

Photo Credit: nSeika

Since last year, I have set aside the first ten minutes of every class I teach as silent reading time. During these ten minutes, students may choose any book they like to read. If a student forgets a book one day or if a student simply wants a new book to read, he or she may choose a book from the nearly 1,000 options on my classroom shelves.  Then everyone reads for ten minutes, after which we start the lesson. To my students and I, these ten minutes have become sacred: I discourage library trips and bathroom visits, and silence does mean silence – no mouthed conversations or noisy interruptions.

I started this practice halfway through last school year after I read Penny Kittle’s newest book, Book Love (Kittle, 2012), over Christmas break. The book details how Penny sets aside time in her class for students to read and process books. She shares practical tips for conferencing and assessment, as well as success stories from her students who have become life-long readers. I have tried implementing some of her tips in my class, including her  individualized goals for reading based on the number of pages read and her conferences with students about their reading.

I immediately started to see improvements in both my students’ attitudes about reading and their reading skills after simply asking them to read for ten minutes per day. Multiple teenagers who had never read a chapter book on their own (Teenagers! Who have never read a book on their own! How much are we failing as teachers if this is happening?) told me that they had read their first book, and asked where they could find more like it. Many others who enjoyed reading told me they loved having time to read in class, because they couldn’t find time at home with sports, church, homework, and everything else. I also began to see a gradual improvement in my students’ writing and mechanics- nothing life shattering, but there was improvement.

Usually, when I mention how I have fallen in love with sustained silent reading to other teachers, I get a few standard reactions. Some teachers roll their eyes and seem to say, “Oh, but you’re a middle school teacher. I haven’t time for such frivolous pursuits in my AP Language classes.”  Other teachers say something like, “I really respect you for caring about reading so much, but in my classes, with x, y, and z to cover this year and all these standards to meet, I don’t really have time to set aside for that.” Unfortunately until now, I haven’t had much ammo in my arsenal to support this practice besides anecdotal proof that it cultivates a love of reading among my students and a gut-level feeling that it is the right thing to do.

However, I recently read an amazing article in English Journal that summarizes the research around silent reading, and the research is astounding. The article, by Stephen Krashen, is titled “Access to Books and Time to Read Versus the Common Core State Standards and Tests” (Krashen, 2013). In the article, Krashen explains that “Students in language […] classes that include time set aside for self-selected reading consistently outperform those in similar classes that do not include self-selected reading time on tests of reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.” Also, he points out that in an international study of reading and literacy, while socioeconomic status was the strongest predictor of literacy achievement, independent reading time and school library size both related positively to literacy achievement. In contrast, time spent in direct instruction actually had a negative (although not quite statistically significant) impact on literacy – likely implying that direct instruction is needed up to a point, but it cannot possibly account for everything students learn in reading and literacy. Krashen explains (and cites a mountain of research) that shows that the time students spend reading accounts for most of their vocabulary mastery, grammar prowess, and even phonics acquisition, and not direct instruction. Mastery of literacy and academic language, he says, happens when students are allowed to read what they want, and when they read a lot. I’ve done a poor job of summarizing his entire article here, but it is an amazing read and not a long one. Go read it and it just might change your outlook on sustained silent reading.

Now, Krashen uses all of this research to make a valid point about the questionable legitimacy of the Common Core State Standards and the instruction that necessarily goes along with them. However, even if you love the standards, there must come a moment when you realize the obvious – students learn to read and to read more complex texts by reading. They do not learn to read by talking about reading, although discussions about texts can help them process their reading. They do not learn to read by being read to, although read alouds can spark a love of books and capture their interest. They do not learn to read by a teacher standing in front of them and telling them what the words mean. They do not learn to read by being assigned reading. Students learn how to read by reading. And, in order to succeed in building a habit of life-long reading, they have to love to read. How else are students going to learn to love reading unless they are given time to read and the permission to read whatever they want? Sure, there is a place for assigned whole-class texts, teacher encouragement and modeling, and direct instruction. But, this does not discount the fact that students need to read, and they likely aren’t going to do it on their own if they imagine reading as slogging through boring books the teacher picks.

Please, make time for your students to read. Sure, it’s not going to work wonders all the time with every student. But by letting my students read for just ten minutes of my class every day, I’ve let go of some of my control in the classroom and given it back to my students. It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.

Works Cited:
Kittle, P. (2012). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Heinemann.
Krashen, S. (2013). Access to books and time to read versus the common core state standards and tests. English Journal103(2), 21-29.