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Passing Our Students By

Ohanian Comment: Herb Kohl pretty much agrees with John Merrow. In the preface of Reading, How To, he writes:

There is no reading problem. There are problem teachers and problem schools. Most people who fail to learn to read in our society are victims of a fiercely competitive system of training that requires failure. If talking and walking were taught in most schools we might end up with as many mutes and cripples as we now have non-readers. However, learning to read is no more difficult than learning to walk or talk. The skill can be acquired in a natural and informal manner and in a variety of settings ranging from school to home to the streets.

Later, in Chapter 2, he writes:

If a youngster fails to acquire the skill or comply with the rules of learning, he or she is considered retarded or criminal, that is, in more polite school language, a learning or behavior problem.

I wish Mr. Kohl could have been a fly on the wall to all the "natural and informal manner" strategies I employed with Pete. I considered him neither retarded nor criminal. I regard our note exchange [published in Education Week] as a triumph of sorts but certainly it was not enough. Now, I wonder just what Herb Kohl--or John Merrow--would have done. I also wonder what they're doing now to fight the destructive elements of NCLB. I hope they signed The Petition to end NCLB.

If you read my afterword comments to the note exchange with Pete, you'll see that I am very critical of my school. I wanted them to help me, to provide some expert "diagnosis" for Pete. I guess I was looking for the same magic bullet that both Kohl and Merrow seem to think exists as they pronounce that everybody can read.

The reason Pete was in my 7th grade class at all was that I went in search of everyone listed on my rolls, and so, Pete, who had been truant since first grade, was in my classroom by court order: If his mother didn't get him to school, she'd go to jail.

So who's fault is it that he can't read?

But Bobby, another student in that class didn't read much better than Pete and he had a record of nearly perfect attendance. I admit that because of his severe behavior problems I halfway wished Bobby would give us an occasional break by staying home. I checked out his record: He had a series of excellent teachers, with extensive tutoring. While Bobby was in my class he even enrolled in the University special reading program. Scientific. They kicked him out after a few weeks--because they wouldn't put up with his tantrums.

His mother's conclusion was: "His father doesn't read well either."

Or take Michael: Excellent attendance, a real charmer, and he read on a 4th grade level. If dsylexia exists, he had it in spades. He had a history of good teaching and special tutoring. He also had a history of a strong family who supported his strengths and helped him with homework. Never able to read anywhere near "grade level," that magic construct of testing companies, Michael managed to pass the high school competency exam that existed in New York State at that time. He went into culinary arts training and became a very successful chef in an upscale restaurant.

Holding Pete and Bobby and Michael back in school until they passed standardized tests would have been ludicrous. Passing them on is a complicated matter. With the help of his devoted mother, Michael managed to survive and even flourish in the mainstream. I certainly don't approve of the standardized, college-prep mainstream curriculum, but Michael's gregarious nature decreed that he needed to be with his peers.

Pete and Bobby definitely needed more options. Bobby could have excelled in a program that tapped into his technical/mechanical savvy. I think such a program could have led him to the specific vocabulary needed for a trade. And I would have skipped the smart board to teach grammar, punctuation, and spelling that Merrow seems to think is a marvel.

What all children need and deserve is the opportunity to explore other strengths instead of being hounded with the fact that they had such tremendous difficulty with reading.

It is bizarre to suggest, as Merrow does, that any students need more tests like the LEAP. Neither they nor their teachers need further evidence that they have reading problems.

What we need is real conversations about each and every student as individuals. Some really may not need grammar, punctuation, and spelling. And at some point people may decided they don't need reading either. I admit I have a hard time giving up on reading, but surely there comes a point where people should decide to tap into what a student can do instead of beating him up over what he can't do.

by John Merrow

Because I’ve been trying to finish my book, Below C Level, write proposals for funding and report from New Orleans for the NewsHour, I missed blogging last week.
It’s the latter story that I am compelled to write about now.

Valerie Visconti, Jane Renaud and I filmed in two alternative schools in Paul Vallas' Recovery School District in New Orleans, including one school for what educators call "overage students," which is their benign term for kids who have fallen three, four, or five grade levels behind. Being "overage" means you are 16 or 17 years old and testing at a sixth- or seventh-grade level. Your peers are in high school, but you are going to middle school!

How does that happen? How does a kid who hasn't learned enough to be promoted get moved up anyway?

Here's what I have been able to figure out. Louisiana administers a state test called LEAP in the fourth and eighth grades, which students must pass to move into fifth grade and ninth grade, respectively. The teenagers at Booker T. Washington Alternative School passed the fourth-grade LEAP — that much we know.

But what happened next? Somehow they were promoted THREE times by their teachers and their schools. It might have happened a FOURTH time if the state hadn't checked up again in eighth grade. Only then was someone held accountable.

And guess who was held accountable? The students, not the adults who had let the kids fall through the cracks. The students were told that they were deficient and could not move on to high school. Are some of these young people angry? Wouldn’t you be?

To her credit, principal Rosemary Martin -- in her first year there — is candid. "We understand that somewhere along the road someone dropped the ball," she told me.

She said that she tells students it's not their fault and urges them to focus on the future. "I tell them," she said, "'We know that some things happen. But we want to take you to where you need to be. Allow us an opportunity to take you where you should be at, at this point.' And most of them will say, 'Okay.'"

I pushed her. "Are you willing to acknowledge that these kids got screwed?"

She didn't hesitate. "Yes, we have to acknowledge that. That's the first step, acknowledgment."

I am not a fan of cheap bubble tests, but, when you hear stories like this one, how could anyone argue against LEAP or tests like it? If some adults in our schools are going to find excuses for promoting students whose skill levels are inadequate, then we need more LEAP-like tests, not fewer.

I am familiar with the arguments in favor of social promotion, that kids need to be with their age group, that their self esteem suffers when they are with kids who are four, five and six years younger, and that the younger kids can be victimized by the older youth. Some teachers are under so much pressure with overcrowded classes and such that they end up having to triage. Or perhaps they decide to promote a kid when they realize the alternative is to have him in their class again next year. Whatever the reasons, I think that "retention versus social promotion" is a false dilemma. Neither option is a good one.

The only viable option is to track progress carefully and intervene right away when kids start falling behind. We need regular testing, we need to trust teachers and their evaluations, and we need to provide the resources those teachers need. It shouldn’t take a state-mandated test to "prove" that some kids need help.

And finally, the adults who let this happen must be accountable for their failure. They should not be allowed to collect a paycheck for their mediocre work. (That, by the way, is the argument of my new book.)

When you see the NewsHour piece, I think you will be inclined to approve of what Vallas and his team are trying to do for these "overage" youth. Booker T. Washington middle school seems to have become de facto "ungraded" in that no one reminds the students that they are still in, say, sixth grade rather than eighth. Rather, the kids know that they must pass the LEAP test and, when they do, they move on to high school.

The school has what amounts to an anger management class, which it needs. In the piece you will meet one terrific young teacher who uses a so-called "smart board" to make basic grammar, spelling and punctuation a fun game.

But I walked away wondering why school systems create alternatives only after years of failing at the same old stuff. Talk about being 'overage' learners!

— John Merrow, comment by Susan Ohanian
Taking Note





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