Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

Read to children from birth, doctors advise

This coming Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will announce a new policy: Doctors will now advise parents to read to their children from birth.

The reason? Exposure to vocabulary has a great effect on brain development, according to research. Children who are exposed to a large vocabulary tend to fare better academically than children who are not–and the latter come predominantly from lower-income families.

Thus, by urging parents to read to the babies from day one, the AAP hopes to help reduce academic disparities.

Now, reading to children from day one onward is a good idea–not only because it could boost their academic performance, but also because it’s the way to some interesting conversations and ideas. From a Boston.com article:

Reading aloud is also a way to pass the time for parents who find endless baby talk tiresome. “It’s an easy way of talking that doesn’t involve talking about the plants outside,” said Erin Autry Montgomery, a mother of a 6-month-old boy in Austin, Texas.

But is it really necessary to begin at birth? Daniel Willingham advises waiting a bit:

First, “from birth” is too early. It’s too early because parents of newborns really do have other, more pressing things to think about such as sleeping, and figuring out how family routines change with the new family member. It’s also too early because a newborn probably is not getting that much out of being read to. Newborn can’t really see much of a book — their vision is 20/500, and they don’t see blues very well until around age 3 months. And babies are much more social at a few months of age. My fear is that parents of newborns will either ignore the advice given their other concerns, or try to follow it, find it unrewarding, and drop it. The American Academy of Pediatrics might do better to direct members to recommend read-alouds beginning when children are to get the set of immunizations delivered at 4 months of age.

The problem I see is this. What are the consequences–for the poor and wealthy alike–of reading to your children primarily in order to boost their academics? Will this be good reading?

Some who didn’t previously read to their kids might follow the advice with gusto. Some might treat it as a chore. “OK, it’s time to read an informational text together. You’ve got to do your vocabulary building.” The kids will hate it.

Willingham sees a way through this: give parents some basic advice on how to read; that will both increase the chances that the parents will follow the advice in the first place, and also make it more enjoyable. He offers a few suggestions from his forthcoming book:

  • Read aloud at the same time each day, to help make it a habit.
  • Read a little slower than you think you need to. Even simple stories are challenging for children.
  • Don’t demand perfect behavior from your child.
  • Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Your child is not judging your acting ability.

I would add another: get used to listening to audio recordings of poems and stories. The better your ear for these things, the better you yourself will read aloud.

Willingham also suggests providing books. After suggesting that Scholastic help out, he heard back from Scholastic that it was going to donate 500,000 books. Will they be good books? That remains to be seen.

On its own, the pediatricians’ advice might not do much. But in combination with a few other efforts, it might spur some reading.

 

[Thanks to Joanne for pointing out Dan Willingham's piece.]

Reading Rainbow is not a charity

“LeVar Burton has found a pot of gold at the end of Reading Rainbow, reports the New York Daily News.” The former host’s Reading Rainbow app raised $1 million in 24 hours on Kickstarter.

Burton, also known as Star Trek’s engineer, bought the name of the PBS children’s series, which aired from 1983 to 2009. He’s started a company to bring “Reading Rainbow’s” digital library of books and videos to classrooms and homes.‘We can genuinely change the world, one children’s book at a time,’ LeVar Burton said about his goal to raise money to bring ‘Reading Rainbow’ online.

Burton’s RRKidz, which produces a Reading Rainbow tablet app, is a for-profit company, not a charity, writes Caitlin Dewey in a Washington Post blog. It will be available to teachers for a monthly subscription — not free.

The app features book read-alongs and “video field trips.” Like the show, it fosters interest in reading but doesn’t teach reading skills, writes Dewey.

However, the app may not reach many low-income children. The Kickstarter funds will be used to put the app on desktop computers, while low-income families are much more likely to use phones to access the Internet.

Teachers already can access many episodes of the show for free via YouTube.

A better way to get books to needy kids is to give to nonprofits such as Children’s Literacy Initiative or First Book, Dewey suggests.

Empty pails don’t catch fire

Reading discriminates, writes Robert Pondiscio in City Journal. “A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary.” If schools teach ignore the gaps in knowledge and language, disadvantaged kids will fall even farther behind.

Most reading curricula try to develop comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge, he writes. In theory, students can apply these all-purpose “reading strategies” to anything.

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames.

Children who don’t know enough to understand what they read will not “catch” a love of reading, Pondiscio concludes.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial,” writes Mark Bauerlein. Yet reading instruction still favors “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over “acquisition of general knowledge.”

Schooling Ain’t Learning

Schooling is expanding rapidly in the Third World, writes Lant Pritchett in The Rebirth of Education. But the subtitle – Schooling Ain’t Learning — tells the real story, writes Bryan Caplan on EconLog. “Literacy and numeracy remain wretched.

The average Haitian and Bangladeshi today have more schooling than the average Frenchman or Italian in 1960:

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On international tests, however, the average student in the developing world scores far below the average student in the developed world.

There is a large education premium in the Third World, notes Caplan. Since weaker students usually drop out, those who make it through are more attractive to employers.

23% didn’t read a book in 2013

Nearly a quarter of American adults didn’t read a single book — including e-books — in 2013, Pew Research reports. That’s no worse than the year before. The typical American read five books.

The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978, according to Gallup, observes Jordan Weissmann in The Decline of the American Book Lover.

Without question, the American bookworm is a rarer species than two or three decades ago, when we didn’t enjoy today’s abundance of highly distracting gadgets. In 1978, Gallup found that 42 percent of adults had read 11 books or more in the past year (13 percent said they’d read more than 50!).  Today, Pew finds that just 28 percent hit the 11 mark.

Weissmann finds some hope: “The percentage of young folks reading for pleasure stopped declining. Last year, the NEA found that 52 percent of 18-24 year-olds had read a book outside of work or school, the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002.”

Sources: Pew 2014Pew 2012, and Gallup

See jocks run — but not read

Some college athletes play like adults, but read like 5th-graders, reports Sara Ganim for CNN. Tutors help them, as long as they can play.  Then they drop out or graduate with a degree they still can’t read.

At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 60 percent of football and basketball players admitted in 2004 to 2012 read at the fourth- to eighth-grade level, reports Mary Willingham, a former tutor for the athletic department.  Eight to 10 percent read below a third-grade level, according to her research.

Some were enrolled in “laughably lax” African-American Studies classes. Professor Julius Nyang’oro now faces fraud charges: He was paid $12,000 to teach a class that never met. 

It’s not just UNC, Ganim writes. About 10 percent of University of Oklahoma athletes in revenue-generating sports read below a fourth-grade level, according to Oklahoma Professor Gerald Gurney.

At most schools, seven to 18 percent of football and basketball players read at an elementary level, a CNN investigation concluded.

Intensive tutoring can close the gap by junior year, said Robert Stacey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington.

Former and current academic advisers, tutors and professors say it’s nearly impossible to jump from an elementary to a college reading level while juggling a hectic schedule as an NCAA athlete. They say the NCAA graduation rates are flawed because they don’t reflect when a student is being helped too much by academic support.

“They’re pushing them through,” said Billy Hawkins, an associate professor and athlete mentor at the University of Georgia. “They’re graduating them. UGA is graduating No. 2 in the SEC, so they’re able to graduate athletes, but have they learned anything? . . . To get a degree is one thing, to be functional with that degree is totally different.”

Some universities refused to cooperate with CNN, but others provided more details on football and basketball players’ SAT or ACT scores and other data.

Many black male athletes end up with no degree and few job prospects, writes Isiah Thomas, a former pro basketball player now working on a master’s in education at Berkeley. “Only 65 percent of African American basketball student-athletes graduated in 2013,” writes Thomas and co-author Na’ilah Suad Nasir, an associate professor of African American Studies and Education.  Berkeley’s graduation rate for black male basketball players in 2013 was 33 percent.

Boy trouble

School shooters usually are sons of divorced — or absent — parents, writes W. Bradford Wilcox. Boys raised by a single mother are almost twice as likely to end up delinquent compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their father,” he writes.

“Fathers . . . are important for maintaining authority and discipline,” writes sociologist David Popenoe. “And they are important in helping their sons to develop both self-control and feelings of empathy toward others, character traits that are found to be lacking in violent youth.”

Family breakdown is tougher on boys than girls, writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal. When parents divorce, girls tend to “internalize” their unhappiness, become depressed, while boys act out, becoming more impulsive, aggressive, and “antisocial.” Girls get better after a few years. Boys don’t.

Boys are slower to mature, writes Hymowitz. They need more “civilizing.”

Lone parents tend to have a tougher time providing the predictability and order that help boys become capable students and workers. Poverty undoubtedly worsens the problem: in general, low-income children have poorer “executive function,” such as self-control and cognitive flexibility, than do middle-income children, according to a 2011 study by a group of Berkeley neuropsychologists. But poor children in single-parent families still came out worse in the study than kids with poor married parents. This is probably because unmarried parents tend to break up more frequently, go on to new relationships, sometimes serially, and bring stepparents and half- and step-siblings into their children’s lives.

Low-income single mothers often live in neighborhoods where “gangs have replaced fathers, the threat of violence looms, and schools are filled with apathetic or hostile males.” Economic mobility tracks marriage, concludes a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project:  “Areas with high proportions of single-parent families have less mobility—including for kids whose parents are married. . . .  areas with a high proportion of married-couple families improve the lot of all children, including those from single-parent homes.”

Schools can provide structure, time for boys to play rough-and-tumble games and better literacy programs, writes Hymowitz. But it’s not clear what will work for boys growing up without fathers — in places where “fathers — and men more generally — appear superfluous.”

Study: Most 3rd graders are below average

By the age of eight, only a third of students have grade-level literacy, math and science skills, according to The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success. The Casey Foundation report used federal data to track 13,000 children from kindergarten through middle school.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten defines scoring at or above the national average on all three subjects as meeting cognitive development benchmarks, reports Education Week.

The data analysis showed that by 3rd grade, 56 percent were on track with physical development, 70 percent with social and emotional growth, and 74 percent in their level of school engagement.

. . .  19 percent of 3rd graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—in 2001, that was $35,920 for a family of four—were hitting their cognitive development milestones. In comparison, 50 percent of children in families above that income level hit that mark.

The analysis also showed that 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children were on track in cognitive development.

This strikes me as the Lake Wobegon effect in reverse. Instead of all the kids being above average, two thirds are below average. If only half the middle-class and affluent kids are on track cognitively, “on track” must be too high.

The report advocates “quality birth-through-8 education programs targeted at children from low-income families” and linking preschool providers to elementary schools, notes Education Week.

The (not so bright) hopes of the future

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In problem-solving, literacy and numeracy, 16- to 24-year-old Americans rank at or near the bottom on the OECD’s new international survey of adult literacy skills, reports the New Yorker. These young adults are “the folks who will be manning the global economy” for the next 30 or 40 years. Our 16- to 24-year-olds edge young Italians in literacy. That’s the bright spot.