Reading classes put squeeze on electives: Testing emphasis cuts other subjects
By Jennifer Booth Reed
On the surface, no one can quibble with the idea of getting students to become better readers.
But probe deeper, and the new reading requirements become a little more problematic.
Adding reading — a subject that was taught exclusively in elementary school — to middle and high schools has meant less time for elective courses.
Teachers of electives have begun adjusting to the change, but some fear that as more stringent requirements kick in next year, their subjects will be phased out and countless students won’t have exposure to subjects such as art, music and business education.
They’re worried about their jobs, too. Some are learning to teach reading so they have a job in the coming years; others are wondering whether it’s time to get out of public schools.
This year, all middle- and high-school students who scored poorly on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test took at least one reading class. Middle-schoolers at the lowest level took two. Next year, 90-minute reading blocks, the equivalent of two class periods, will be introduced for the lowest-performing high-schoolers.
“There is nothing, nothing more important than our kids being able to read,” said curriculum director Larry Tihen. “Nationwide, school dropouts are a huge issue. For students with severe reading problems, there are no one-year, quick-fix answers.”
Fix the reading problem, and you help fix the dropout problem, Tihen and others believe. Or will it do the opposite?
“Are we just burning these kids out?” wondered Ileane Flores, a business and journalism teacher at Fort Myers High School.
She knows plenty of students who come to school only for a few favorite subjects — and they’re rarely the compulsory academics. She wonders if she might have given up on school herself had she been forced to take her poorest subject, math, multiple times a day.
“We do need testing. We do need data to see if we’re reaching our goals. But we don’t need to punish our teachers and kids,” Flores said.
Flores worries in particular about disadvantaged students who may not have access to technology at home or after-school lessons, or students who aren’t on a college track and need to develop marketable skills by the time they leave high school.
“They need to read. They need to read to get a job, to write a resume, to fill out an application,” she said. “The reading is important, but how will they ever explore those marketable skills? It just feels like a losing battle right now.”
Amanda Stewart, 18, graduated from Cape High this month. She’s an enthusiastic singer and actress and was upset to see some offerings scaled back. Cape High did not produce a musical this year, she said.
Stewart said she did not need reading classes herself, but she can attest to the importance of electives in school. She said she developed her singing talent in school and was recently accepted into the The Young Americans, a California-based touring group comprised of high-school and college students.
“I think they’re really important,” she said of the electives.
In a way, much of this is out of the district’s hands. State policymakers are pushing for the additional reading classes.
Yet, the state is sending out somewhat contradictory messages, too. A state high-school reform task force in February suggested creating more career academies and specialized courses designed to keep students interested in school and to launch them on career paths.
Then, in May, lawmakers approved Gov. Bush’s A++ Plan, which asks high-school students to pick an area of concentration, something akin to a scaled-down college major.
The issue of waning electives — and even de-emphasized science and social studies — isn’t unique to Florida.
The Center on Education Policy recently released its fourth-annual report on the federal No Child Left Behind law, which scrutinizes the progress students make in math and reading.
According to the study, one-third of the districts surveyed reported reducing time for social studies “somewhat or to a great extent” to make time for reading and math, while 29 percent said they had reduced time for science and 22 percent for art and music.
Patricia Sullivan, CEP’s executive director, said in an interview prior to the study’s release that schools need to address reading problems.
“Kids with reading problems are just being passed along,” Sullivan said. “If we’re going to improve high schools, we have to make sure these kids can read.
“Yes, kids will lose the option to take something that might interest them, but if they can’t read, they can’t leave high school. They are not going to get a job.”
Electives not fun, games
Lee County is in somewhat better shape than other Florida districts.
District officials here pay for a seven-period schedule for middle and high schools — the state budget allows for only six. That means students taking one additional reading class still have time for one elective.
Even so, some elective teachers worry that trading their classes for reading undermines their efforts to make electives serious, relevant courses.
Lisa McCartney teaches art at Lexington Middle School. She’s been trying to get students to view art as an academic subject — not fun and games.
“They can be professionals and have a job in art. That’s why I bring professionals into my classroom. They’re under the impression that art is just a fun class. That is one of the biggest hurdles I need to jump, that this is a serious class. I consider art to be an academic.”
Countless studies suggest the arts can help promote reading and math gains.
Earlier this year the Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University near Miami released a three-year study showing that high-poverty schools using the museum’s arts curriculum made stronger academic gains than a control school with similar demographics.
“Art can help them have an experimental attitude — creative thinking and problem solving,” said Kellen Mills, a Dunbar Middle School art teacher, who cited a list of educational theories that emphasize the importance of visual learning.
“The arts are the glue — the experience that ties everything together. The children are drawing from within themselves to create something.”
McCartney, Mills and others clamor for a different approach to the reading problem — let them help to infuse reading in their own subjects. Many of them do it anyway.
“All the data I’ve ever seen is reading in the content area (i.e. through social studies or the arts) is what motivates kids to read. We seem to be ignoring an entire body of research,” said James Perry, the executive director of the Florida Music Educators Association.
“Reading is like motherhood and apple pie — everyone wants their kids to read, but the devil is in the detail. You want to do this in a way that truly motivates kids to learn.”
Some schools are already pushing reading instruction into other courses, and district officials say they’ll be encouraging all middle- and high-school teachers to do so next year. In fact, when the district buys new textbooks, administrators are choosing ones that stress reading strategies in subjects such as science and social studies.
Mariner High has embraced the concept of reading across subject areas.
Steve Frank, the art department chairman, developed a series of lessons that taught students to first learn to critique art and then to express their ideas on a piece of art in writing.
A sample question: Students had to examine MC Escher’s “Lizards” and then write about why the artist might create a piece like that. Their responses must draw from their background knowledge of art and draw inferences about the artist’s intent — skills they’re developing in reading classes.
Frank said the lesson was designed to challenge students on every academic level — not just those who need the extra reading instruction.
However, Tihen said reinforcing reading skills in classes other than English and reading helps, but he believes it’s not enough to fix the district’s reading problems. Until scores improve, the reading classes will stand.
Yet he and Connie Jones, the chief academic officer, said they are exploring ways of keeping electives intact.
“We’re in the early stages at looking at those options,” Tihen said. “We certainly support and want students to have time for their electives.”
Jennifer Booth Reed
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