Talking to Annie

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My friend Annie is a thoughtful, intelligent mother of two children, a boy and a girl in their teens. Since I’ve known her, she has always lived in what is called the North Shore, a sprawling set of Illinois suburbs where the test scores are consistently excellent. Specifically, she is currently in Deerfield, where according to Trulia.com, the average home listing price was $503,810 for the week of 2011 ending Aug 17. Previously, she was in Highland Park, where housing prices are running higher for the same week. Parent ratings for local schools are five stars out of five stars for both areas.
In the district where I work, the average housing price for the same period is $72,155. Housing values have been much harder hit by the housing market bust, too: Good schools protect housing values. Housing values fell by over 1/3 last year where I work. Parent school ratings range from 2 ½ to 3 ½ stars.
When discussing the low ACT scores in my workplace, Annie came back immediately and said that the district needed to make the curriculum much harder. My thought was that Annie’s response was a perfect example of why the district where I work is in so much trouble. We are very busy raising the standards, a very middle-class response to our problem, as if the children will magically be teleported upward by the standards themselves.
I explained to Annie about my unreadable books, and about the need for fourth grade level reading material for third and fourth grade level readers. But I can’t have those books. I’m not allowed to order those books since I am teaching seventh and eighth grade students. When I ask for readable books, I risk (and have received) administrative disapproval. But if my students are not at grade level when they enter my classroom, and most are not even close, I end up obliged to hand them unreadable books instead. We then dauntlessly try to wade through the many unfamiliar words.
Here’s the most aggravating part of my problem: My students are not reading those books because they can’t read those books. They are deciphering those books. Many students in lower-scoring schools across America may never actually get enough momentum to read their science book, for example. There are too many unfamiliar words in that book – not just the new concepts such as plate tectonics, but a host of other concepts that describe plate tectonics. With the right teacher, they will succeed in deciphering the material, but they necessarily are going slowly. They also are getting little real practice reading. The book is too many years above their documented reading level.
Raising the standards can only work as a strategy if we address the actual needs of our students. We might be able to catch some of these students up, to close their personal learning gaps, if we taught them the material they had somehow missed. Unfortunately, a more rigorous curriculum often pushes school administrators to force teachers to use material that is years ahead of where their students are at – and those administrators either don’t understand the need to go back or are simply too afraid to go back to the point where these students became lost. Teachers are also afraid to go back, even if they are allowed to go back. As schools go to models where all teachers are supposed to be teaching the same material at the same time, and are then supposed to give the same tests, teachers usually can’t go back because there’s no extra time. They risk their students receiving lower scores on the group assessment – which will count against those teachers, since they are being judged by that assessment. Any extra, missed material that has been taught to their lagging students does not count since it’s not reflected in the assessment. But even if there’s more flexibility, a dense, rigorous curriculum may demand so much time and effort that past deficiencies simply can’t be addressed for lack of time.
This is one reason why that kid who can’t add fractions in sixth grade may get to seventh grade still unable to add fractions. And it’s ridiculous. But as we establish steadily more rigid and rigorous sets of expectations and demands, often in response to government requirements, we necessarily exclude groups of students who don’t fit the mold of what we are supposed to teach. It’s hard to take a stand against higher expectations for lower performing students. Those standards seem like a natural response to the problem of our academically-challenged students.
But higher standards need to be put into place in a rational, intelligent manner with an understanding that differentiated instruction cannot replace readable books. We have an abundance of research showing the importance of reading as a predictor of long-term, academic success. Students who read regularly usually succeed in school and in life. Students who can’t read don’t succeed. It’s really that simple.
When a rigorous curriculum or elevated state standards make reading harder or impossible, we are ensuring that many students will not succeed. We are also making many of them dislike reading itself. Deciphering text is hard work. When best attempts at doing so result in ponderous efforts that yield confusion, mediocre grades or worse, what positive reinforcement for reading has occurred? None, most of the time.
Here’s the thing: If Jasmine is operating at a fourth grade level, the next material she sees should be fifth grade material. Too often, our push for more rigorous curricula now prevents this from happening. Everyone is handed the seventh grade material because that’s what the curriculum dictates. Then, a few weeks later, some teacher writes up poor Jasmine and sends her to the Dean, because instead of reading her textbook — much of which might as well be written in Martian or Ancient Greek as far as she is concerned –Jasmine is texting her boyfriend instead.  
The problem ought to be obvious. The test or curriculum should not be determining the material presented to Jasmine. Jasmine should be determining the material presented to Jasmine. Specifically, if Jasmine is reading at a fourth grade level, she ought to be encountering fifth grade reading material.
When we hand our students unreadable books, we should not be surprised if they are playing videogames on the smartphones they have stashed under their desks. We should not be surprised if they are texting friends to get answers for tests or quizzes, either. Ethics have been sliding down the slippery slope in this country for awhile. Multiple surveys say most high school students cheat and I’d say it’s a natural response to being given an unreadable book followed by a test filled with problem-based learning scenarios and critical-thinking questions that are based on incomprehensible readings in 5 pound books that mostly live in lockers.