Remember the reading and math wars? Whole language vs. phonics. New math vs. old math. In the context of today’s education wars, it seems quaint to think about people arguing over curriculum and instruction.
What seems even quainter is that these battles were based on the premise that all children can learn to read at grade level.
As a young teacher, I didn’t fully believe this. I could mouth the words but I doubted it in my heart.
It was Karla who proved it to me. Karla wasn’t a famous university professor or high-profile superintendent. She was an immigrant from Guatemala working as a paraprofessional in our elementary school.
I assigned her to Leo, a second grader with Down’s syndrome. Leo was a sweet boy with a stubborn streak. His first aide had grown so frustrated with his behavior that she’d quit. Karla focused on his strengths and patiently worked to build his trust. Her main problem wasn’t the child. It was his teacher. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get him to include Leo in his lessons. I’d walk into the classroom and find Leo coloring in a corner as the other children learned to read.
I tried to work with the teacher but nothing changed. As his isolation grew, Leo’s behavior began to deteriorate. In response, I developed complex behavioral modification plans and asked Karla to implement them. Then, just as suddenly as they’d started, the tantrums stopped. I chalked it up to my wonderful plans and Karla’s skills and shifted my attention to other students on my caseload.
A few weeks later Karla walked into my office. We started talking about the change in Leo’s behavior and I asked her what she’d done. “I taught him to read,” she said and passed me a book with the straightforward title Teaching Reading to Children with Down’s Syndrome.
Stunned, I read the book from cover to cover. I went to Leo’s class and watched him sitting with the other students, churning through one book after another. After finishing each one, he looked up at me and beamed. I was thrilled. But I was also profoundly embarrassed. I had assumed that Leo, an English learner with Down’s syndrome, couldn’t learn to read English. Instead of treating the cause of his academic isolation, I had treated the symptoms – his behavior. Karla taught me a lesson about the gap between my expectations and a child’s potential that I would never forget.
A few years later in my doctoral program, I would study reading and brain development and write a paper summarizing the extensive research on teaching reading to students with Down’s syndrome. From the neuropsychologist Dr. David Rose and other great minds such as Dr. Katherine Snow (who chaired the National Research Council’s work on struggling readers) I learned three important lessons that have guided my perspective as an educator, researcher and advocate ever since.
First, the prospects of children who don’t learn to read at grade level are terrifyingly bleak. As the curriculum increases in complexity, struggling readers fall further behind, placing them at risk of special education identification, tracking into lower-level coursework, failing to graduate and worse. Second, both teaching and learning to read are complex processes that extend beyond the early elementary years. The mechanics of reading, the development of comprehension and the acquisition of academic language are vital to student learning in all subjects. Third, instructional approaches should be individualized to student needs and adapted based on the student response. This is the underlying premise of Response to Intervention approaches to teaching reading and math to struggling students (particularly English Learners) in danger of being inappropriately labeled as having a disability.
When I returned to California, policymakers, researchers, reformers and education leaders were still emphasizing the importance of reading and math instruction. They were compelled by the data revealing that too many students, particularly Latino and African American students, were below grade level in core academics. Millions were failing to succeed in high school and missing out on a college education. And many of those who reached higher education were forced to take remedial courses in English and math.
For a while, this focus produced real gains for students. But over the past few years, our focus has shifted to a host of other education problems, initiatives and battles.
The timing of this shift is unfortunate.
Hope of Common Core
In 2010, California adopted the Common Core English and math standards. In 2014-15, millions of students are expected to take new computer-adaptive assessments based on these standards. The new standards and tests are game-changers. The old California standards were a mile wide, an inch deep and difficult to teach. The shorter scope and greater depth of the Common Core standards allows teachers to both pace and differentiate instruction to meet the broad range of student levels in a typical classroom. Instead of teaching all students the exact same way with a one-size-fits-all curriculum, Common Core allows teaches to adapt instruction to learners at all levels. This process is particularly conducive to the use of increasingly intelligent educational technology that can support teachers by assessing student performance and providing targeted instruction. In a similar vein, the adaptive tests should provide a far better sense of student knowledge and skills.
But the promise of the Common Core will not be fulfilled without a commitment to broad implementation from the very stakeholders who once collaborated to implement the California standards and attack the reading crisis. State and local leaders must start working on the massive statewide effort necessary to expand awareness of the Common Core (including the Next Generation Science Standards), train and prepare teachers, provide high-quality instructional materials and build the technology infrastructure for online assessment. This effort will require state-level planning and significant public investments. California cannot make this effort without a profound change in the current education policy dialogue among reformers, traditional interests and foundations.
This dialogue is distracting and counterproductive. We spend far too much time arguing over the symptoms of our education system’s failure rather than working together to fix its causes.
With the new Common Core tests a year away, is this the best time for reformers to focus so much attention in Sacramento on teacher evaluation legislation incorporating student growth? Or should we be working to focus policymakers on the investments necessary to prepare all teachers to successfully teach the new standards in order to accelerate student growth? Similarly, does it make sense for traditional interests to attack standardized testing and reading and math instruction (under the guise of narrowing the curriculum) at a time when our schools and teachers are being asked to implement a new set of math and English standards and standardized tests? And is this the best time for foundations to focus on discrete initiatives and policies disconnected from and often to the exclusion of discussions of Common Core implementation?
In fact, is this the best time to exclusively focus the limited attention of state and local leaders on college and career readiness issues in the four high school grades? Or should we start to rebuild their interest in the investments necessary to improve teaching and learning in the nine grades (counting preschool) when college and career readiness is heavily determined? And is this the time to push policymakers to adopt new and better assessments of “deeper learning” or “career readiness”? Or should we be pressing on them to prepare our schools and communities for the new Common Core assessments intended to promote both?
Karla taught me an important lesson. It was about expectations and potential. But it was also about “missing the forest for the trees.” In education policy, the trees are the noise generated by our current wars and initiatives. The forest is the hard work necessary to fulfill our children’s potential by transforming teaching and learning. Right now, that work is figuring out how to bring peace to our bitter battles and shift our collective focus to implementing the Common Core.
Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.
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