From Mary Nanninga and Education News Colorado

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I never do this, but I'm going to lift a comment wholesale out of a discussion on the sudden rise and fall of newly-succeeding schools.  This is Mary Nanninga writing in the comment thread of an Education News Colorado post on February 5, 2012:

Joanne, no, what I have is subjective information. I knew a couple of teachers from Bessemer, and they transferred out, due to the excessive test prep environment. As someone who has worked in a low scoring school for ten years, I know to be very suspicious if scores dramatically rise, then fall. Either it’s test-prep-to death-then-quit, or maybe, I hate to say it, someone could have been less than honest? We’ve had cheating scandals in a lot of places, so I don’t know….

Hi Mark. I’m sure that as a teacher you’ve read all the reasons why poverty matters, and I actually wrote quite a bit about it in the VAM thread, so I won’t bore you with it here, nor will I make myself type it all again. But I do have a perspective as a reading teacher for low-performing kids in poverty:

There are two things to remember about learning to read–the first thing is that we are actually programmed to do this between the ages of 4 and 9. We’re hardwired to acquire literacy at that time. The second thing to remember is that kids in poverty have all the disadvantages you already know about, but they have some you may not realize.

So, we’re hardwired to learn to read and write between 4 and 9 (or 4 and 11, depends upon who you read). But anyway, if we’re adequately prepared and given really just enough instruction (which isn’t worksheets and it isn’t programs–it’s reading self-selected, level-appropriate material AND being read to daily), most kids will learn to read pretty well and pretty naturally. You can do phonics, and that’s great, but the main thing is that kids need access to a wide range of literature, and they need time to explore and discover it. This is true for middle class as well as poor children, as poor children aren’t stupid, just disadvantaged.

A very few children will present with reading disorders, but most poor readers are poor readers because they don’t practice.

But for kids in poverty, these things like being read to don’t always line up, for myriad reasons. Middle class kids get read to a lot by the adults in their lives; kids in poverty don’t. We know that being read to is very important. It’s estimated that at the start of kindergarten, in order to be a successful beginning reader, a child needs to have been read to a MINIMUM of 3000 hours. They typical child in poverty has been read to only 15 hours. The result is that these children have very limited vocabularies, and the result of THAT is that we are actually limited in the thoughts we can even think if we don’t have words. (The reason you don’t have memories that begin before the age of 2 1/2 or 3, the reason you can’t remember being an infant, is because it takes language to form memories). It’s hard to learn new concepts and think about new things if you’re largely without words. And it’s especially hard to understand what you’re reading, even if you decode decently (which is why phonics-heavy programs don’t help kids in poverty much). I once heard a reading specialist speak and she was talking about reading Three Billy Goats Gruff to an impoverished kindergarten class. At the end of the story, she realized that over half the children had no idea what a bridge was, even though they crossed two every morning to get to school!

Whether it’s due to poverty alone, or poverty issues compounded by ELL issues, lack of vocabulary just kills young readers. Children in poverty arrive at school with extremely limited vocabularies, which also hurts them in every other subject. Teachers know that kids need to be able to “hook” new information to established background schema and vocabulary, but children in poverty have neither, so they learn less.

Also remember that kids in poverty move a lot, and miss a lot of school and when they’re not at school they’re not reading and they’re not learning.

So anyway, if you don’t read well, you don’t test well in any subject, even the one or two you might be good at, because the problem with tests is that they’re all READING tests. All of them–math, science, social studies, even the driver’s test. If you can’t read the test questions accurately and well enough, you’re not going to do too well on the test. Is it angle or angel? Is it then or than? Where or were? Though or thought or through?

So these kids miss a lot of school and move a lot and no one reads to them and they don’t practice on their own (and you can take THAT to the bank) and all of a sudden, they hit puberty and the plasticity of the brain changes, and now learning to read is a lot harder. It’s not impossible, not by any means, but it’s not an easy thing anymore. You and I barely remember learning to read. One day, we just could, or at least that’s my sense of it. That didn’t happen for a lot of these kids and now it’s a chore that often doesn’t get done because now they’ve fallen behind in school and the reading, especially in high school, is just too hard. I teach, by choice, all below level readers in a middle school, and I have eighth graders all over the place who are reading at a third grade level because of some of these issues, and by eighth grade, they are OVER IT. The reading thing is just too hard, and no fun at all. So they avoid it even more steadfastly.

That’s why third grade reading scores are so important. If you’re a low reader in third and fourth grade, research says you likely will never be a good reader, and low reading levels in these grades is correlated with a higher than average risk of dropping out of school.

So Mark, that’s what happens when you ask me a question. You get more than you probably wanted, but that’s the long buildup to my short answer:

No, the tests do not show learning in high poverty schools, because the learning that is taking place isn’t measured so much by tests and high poverty schools have a much higher number of below level readers, due to the conditions of poverty with which everyone is familiar, and some reading information that many are not. And high income schools have much better readers, for the same reasons, therefore they learn more in school and are easier to teach, they can read the test with relative ease, and their scores reflect this.

There are lots of bits and pieces I disagree with here.

Ms. Nanninga's careless "kids in poverty move a lot, and miss a lot of school and when they’re not at school they’re not reading and they’re not learning" suggests a pretty blinkered notion of "learning" and a startling disregard of family.  It seems to me unlikely that the "typical child in poverty has been read to only 15 hours" before kindergarten; but maybe things really are that different in the States.

Too, her school-centric focus might explain some of her challenges with Grade 8 students.  By that age - when, she says, "they hit puberty and the plasticity of the brain changes, and now learning to read is a lot harder" - kids are also becoming adults, with an adult's dislike of external control.  Maybe their brains don't lose plasticity: maybe they just get big enough and old enough to stop wanting to put up with teacher bullshit.  Elsewhere she writes (maybe of younger children):

You also need to make kids accountable in Reader's Workshop for what they've accomplished every day. They need to write down how many pages they read today, their response to the reading (NOT a summary) and one interesting word they discovered in their reading today. You must either grade these, or let the kids think you'll be grading them.

Yeah, that's a winner: let the little twerps "think you'll be grading them" or they'll never do anything worthwhile.  So much for co-construction, self-directed learning and the joy of reading.  If the "reading thing is just too hard, and no fun at all" for eighth graders, maybe it's time to look at the content and context a little more critically.

But never mind all that.  She makes many insightful and important points (in my perception), and it's quite possible that she's right and I'm wrong about these other things.  I'd encourage you to go read the full conversation under Holly Yettick's Today’s miracles usually fade, Education News Colorado Jan 2012.

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