Archives for category: Literacy

Billy Townsend writes in the Tampa Bay Times about how Florida politicians game the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores to boast about unearned “success.” The gaming consists of bragging about fourth grade scores (which are high) while ignoring eighth grade scores (which are unimpressive).

The big Florida trick is third grade retention—holding back the children in third grade who have low reading scores. This artificially boosts fourth grade scores. But then comes the eighth grade scores, and Florida falls behind. They can’t hide the low-scoring students forever.

He writes:

A close look at ‘the Nation’s Report Card’ shows how Florida fails its students as they move up through the grades.

A few years ago, just before COVID hit, a Stanford University study of state-level standardized tests showed that Florida’s “learning rate” was the worst in the country — by a wide margin.

Florida has the worst learning rate, according to a Stanford study.
Florida has the worst learning rate, according to a Stanford study. [ Provided ]

Florida students learned 12 percent less each year from third to eighth grade than the national average from 2009 to 2018. The next worst state was Alabama, according to The Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. Florida’s political and education leaders completely ignored that finding.

Contrast that deafening silence with the hype and misinterpretation that comes with the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “the Nation’s Report Card.” When those results came out last fall, Gov. Ron DeSantis crowed on Twitter that, “We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again prove that we made the right decision. In Florida, adjusted for demographics, fourth grade students are #1 in both reading and math.”

Tellingly, DeSantis ignored the eighth grade results, which came out far worse than fourth grade — just as they have in every NAEP cycle since 2003.

The “Nation’s Report Card” is a snapshot of group proficiency taken by different cohorts of kids every two years in reading and math in fourth grade and eighth grade. It produces state-by-state results and proficiency rankings. It does not track individual kids year over year. But it does tell you how Florida’s fourth and eighth graders compare with students in other states. I crunched the data, and here’s the bottom line: Florida’s students perform worse as they move up through the grades. There is consistent, massive systemic regression with age. And the gap is widening.

This is a state failure, not a local one attributable to individual districts. Yet, in every NAEP cycle, Florida politicians and education leaders brag about fourth-grade NAEP results in press releases.

But ignoring the eighth grade results or the “learning rate” study does not change these facts:

· Florida kids regress dramatically as they age in the system. Since 2003, Florida’s eighth grade rank as a state has never come close to its fourth grade rank on any NAEP test in any subject.

· The size of Florida’s regression is dramatic and growing, especially in math.Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).

· No other state comes close to Florida’s level of consistent fourth to eighth grade performance collapse. In the last three NAEP cycles — 2017, 2019 and COVID-delayed 2022 — Florida ranked sixth, fourth and third among states in fourth grade math. In those same years, Florida ranked 33th, 34th and tied for 31st in eighth grade.

· For comparison, Massachusetts typically ranks at or near #1 among states on both the fourth grade and eighth grade NAEP for math and reading. Its eighth grade rank has never been more than one spot lower than fourth.

· Florida has never matched the U.S. average scaled score on eighth grade math NAEP.

· In COVID-marred 2022, Florida’s eighth grade scale scores in reading and math both lost 8 points relative to the national average, compared to fourth grade. That’s larger or equal to the overall collapse of NAEP scores nationwide attributed to COVID.

To restate, what happens every NAEP cycle between fourth and eighth grade in Florida matches and mostly exceeds the negative impact of COVID. Overall, recent NAEP cycles show Florida collapsing from elite test scores in fourth grade reading and math to abysmal in eighth grade math and average in eighth grade reading, even after its much-hyped approach to COVID in 2022.

And, worse, there is no reason at all to believe Florida’s test performance regression with age stops at eighth grade. The only two years the NAEP tested 12th graders — 2009 and 2013 — the Florida collapse worsened significantly with further age, but against a smaller pool of states.

Willful ignorance, useless testing

So what to make of this?

You can rest assured that your top education officials know all about Florida’s eighth grade NAEP and learning rate failures, which is why they never discuss them. I suspect these test data realities helped drive Florida to drop its big state growth test — the Florida Standards Assessment — and move toward a “progress monitoring” regime this year that may or may not create functionally different data reporting models.

The discourse around Florida’s NAEP performance — and the catastrophic learning rate that we ignore on our state tests — makes me deeply skeptical of standardized tests and their use in our education systems and society. I see them as punitive political and social sorting tools, rather than “assessments” designed to help individual children reach their potential.

Forget whether test results are valid or biased. We can’t even accurately describe what the test results say — on their face — about the success of our state school system. So what use are they?

Florida’s politicians, education leaders, policy community and journalists should look at these results and ask this basic question: The data tells us your child will regress dramatically every year he or she stays in the Florida system. What’s going on?

If we can’t do that, then why do we force standardized tests on kids at all?

What we should be studying

I’ve been attempting to draw attention to this dramatic Florida regression dynamic for years. So I was pleased to the see the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board and Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis notice and publicly address the massive drop in test performance between fourth and eighth grade in Florida on the 2022 NAEP. But I was puzzled by suggestions that it was something new, caused by COVID. It isn’t; and it wasn’t.

Indeed, if we took standardized tests seriously as diagnostic and development tools, we would have long ago started asking: What causes this? What changes need to be made beyond rebuilding and supporting a developmentally focused teacher corps? What are the system quirks of Florida that cause this dynamic?

Here are some good questions to ask and study:

· Why doesn’t “learn to read, read to learn” work in Florida?

One of our treasured education cliches is “learn to read” so you can “read to learn.” It’s essentially the policy justification for imposing mass retention on third graders, as Florida does. And yet, although Florida routinely ranks high fourth grade NAEP reading, our readers immediately lose massive ground relative to other states. The data shows that Florida’s often punitive emphasis on “learn to read” by third or fourth grade creates no benefit in “reading to learn” in later grades — in math or reading. Why not?

· What is the role of mass third grade retention in Florida’s fourth grade peak and subsequent collapse?

Florida pioneered mass third grade retention based on reading standardized test scores in 2003. This prevents the lowest scoring third grade readers from taking the NAEP with their age cohort in fourth grade. And when that low scoring third grader finally takes the fourth grade NAEP, retention has made it as if he or she is a fifth grader taking the fourth grade NAEP.

Florida law theoretically subjects more than 40 percent of Florida’s roughly 200,000 public school third graders to retention because of low scores. A smaller — but still significant — number is actually retained. Florida does not appear to publish that actual total number of third graders retained.

· What is the cost to the individual children and overall system performance?

Essentially all data shows that ripping kids away from their age cohort because of testing leads to significant human harm and increased drop out rates over time.

Is that affecting Florida’s learning rate for older kids and the eighth grade NAEP collapse? A 2017 study of a cohort of southwest Florida students showed that seven years after retention, 94% of the retained group remained below reading proficiency. It also showed that third and sixth graders find retention as stressful as losing a parent.

· How many voucher third grade testing refugees are there? What effect do they have on the fourth grade NAEP?

Third grade retention is not Florida’s only way to get low scoring fourth graders off the books for the NAEP. It’s been well-established that Florida over-testing and third grade retention is a primary sales tool for vouchers.TheOrlando Sentinel’sPulitzer-worthy “Schools without Rules”report in 2017 about voucher schools reported: “Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as ‘testing refugees’.”

How many testing refugees are there? And how does Florida’s massive voucher program — America’s largest and least studied — affect performance on the NAEP by allowing low scoring kids to duck it?

· What effect do voucher school dropouts have on scoring when they return in massive numbers to public schools?

At the same time, 61 percent of voucher kids abandon the voucher within two years (75 percent within three years),according to the Urban Institute, in the closest thing to a study ever done on Florida vouchers.

Enormous numbers of “low-scoring” kids duck third and fourth grade tests and then come back into the public system to be counted in the eighth grade NAEP and other yearly tests. That’s likely a recipe for score collapse. But there is no hard data to analyze. Florida is long overdue for such a study, and voucher advocates know it will be a data bloodbath.

Perhaps that’s because independent studies of smaller state voucher programs — with much greater oversight — shows attending a voucher school will “meet or exceed what the pandemic did to test scores,” according to Michigan State researcher and former voucher advocate-turned-critic Josh Cowen.

· Does chasing test scores kill test scores over time?

Test-driven instruction isn’t engaging. Kids come to understand how useless these tests are to their lives; and they behave accordingly. Teachers come to hate the test-obsessed model and leave the profession. How has that affected test scores?

A longstanding waste of human potential

For me, the eighth grade NAEP and “learning rate” failures are evidence that we’ve wasted a generation of human potential and severely damaged Florida’s teaching profession. Will anyone “follow the data” where it leads? Will anyone ask: Should our kids peak at age 9 and decline inexorably from there?

I believe Florida has long had one of America’s worst test-performing state school systems because of its governance model and intellectual corruption and pursuit of useless measures and fake accountability.

I

Billy Townsend was an award-winning investigative reporter for The Lakeland Ledger and Tampa Tribune. He oversaw education reporting as an editor for The Ledger. He has been an independent writer and journalist since 2008, focused on Florida history, education and civic systems. He was an elected Polk County School Board member from 2016-2020. Today he writes the Florida-focused email newsletter “Public Enemy Number 1.” He can be reached at townsendsubstackpe1@gmail.com.

The New York City Department of Education wants students to do their own writing, not to submit essays written by a computer program.

Michael Elen-Rooney wrote in Chalkbeat:

New York City students and teachers can no longer access ChatGPT — the new artificial intelligence-powered chatbot that generates stunningly cogent and lifelike writing — on education department devices or internet networks, agency officials confirmed Tuesday.

The education department blocked access to the program, citing “negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content,” a spokesperson said. The move from the nation’s largest school system could have ripple effects as districts and schools across the country grapple with how to respond to the arrival of the dynamic new technology.

The chatbot’s ability to churn out pitch perfect essay responses to prompts spanning a wide range of subjects has sparked fears among some schools and educators that their writing assignments could soon become obsolete — and that the program could encourage cheating and plagiarism.

“Due to concerns about negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content, access to ChatGPT is restricted on New York City Public Schools’ networks and devices,” said education department spokesperson Jenna Lyle. “While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success….”

The education department’s ban will only cut off access to the chatbot in some settings. Students can still get on the site on non-education department devices or internet networks.

Hmmm. So students could download essays from ChatGPT at home and copy it.

For almost two centuries, the debate about teaching reading has raged. Not every day, but in spurts. It started in Horace Mann’s day in the early 19th century, and periodically flared up again, as in the 1950s, when Rudolf Flesch wrote a national bestseller called Why Johnny Can’t Read, excoriating “look-say” books like the Dick & Jane series and calling for a revival of phonics.

In 1967, the literacy expert Jeanne Chall wrote the definitive book, called Learning How to Read: The Great Debate, which was supposed to end the debate. It didn’t. She recommended early phonics, followed by emphasis on engaging children’s literature. Chall warned against extremes, which would lead to extreme reactions. In the 1980s, the “whole language” movement swept the reading field, led by anti-phonics crusaders. A reaction set in, as Chall warned it would. No Child Left Behind mandated phonics instruction in 2002, based on the findings of the National Reading Panel.

I covered most of this contested ground in my 2000 book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. My book came out before NCLB was passed, so it did not cover the post-1999 developments. Chall warned against going to extremes between the pro-phonics and anti-phonics ideologies. She said we had to avoid extremes, yet here we are again, with phonics now bearing the mantle of “the science of reading.”

I favor phonics, as Chall did, and agree with her that it should be taught early and as needed. Some children absolutely need it, some don’t. Nonetheless, I maintain that there is no “science of reading,” as there is no science of teaching any other subject. There is no “science” of teaching history or mathematics or writing. There are better and worse ways of teaching, but none is given the mantle of “science.” Calling something “science” is a way of saying “my approach is right and yours is wrong.”

Tom Ultican writes in this post about the cheerleaders and critics of “the science of reading.” He is especially critical of journalist Emily Hanford, who has been the loudest advocate of “the science of reading.”

He begins:

The Orwellian labeled science of reading (SoR) is not based on sound science. It more accurately should be called “How to Use Anecdotes to Sell Reading Products.” In 1997, congress passed legislation calling for a reading study. From Jump Street, the establishment of the National Reading Panel (NRP) was a doomed effort. The panel was given limited time for the study (18 months) which was a massive undertaking conducted by twenty-one unpaid volunteers. The NRP fundamentally did a meta-analysis in five reading domains while ignoring 10 other important reading domains. In other words, they did not review everything and there was no new research. They simply searched for reading studies and averaged the results to give us “the science of reading.”

It has been said that “analysis is to meta-analysis as physics is to meta-physics.

Ultican reviews the recent history, starting with the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) at the beginning of this century. He describes it as the work of dedicated professionals that has been distorted. What he doesn’t know is that the panel was selected by Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He believed passionately in phonics, as did a majority of the NRP. After the election of 2000, Lyon was President George W. Bush’s top reading advisor. The NRP final report strongly recommended phonics, decoding, phonemic awareness, etc. Given the membership of the panel, this was not surprising.

One member of the NRP wrote a stinging dissent: elementary school principal Joanne Yatvin of Oregon, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Yatvin complained that the NRP was not balanced and that it did not contain a single elementary teacher of reading.

In 2003, Yatvin wrote in Education Week (cited above):

Out of the 15 people appointed, nine were reading researchers, two were university administrators with no background in reading research or practice, one was a teacher- educator, one a certified public accountant (and parent), one was a middle school teacher, and one an elementary principal (me). When one researcher resigned after the first panel meeting, the NICHD declined my request that he be replaced by an elementary-level teacher and left that position unfilled. As a result, the panel included no teacher of early reading instruction.

Moreover, the science faction of the panel could hardly be considered balanced. All were experimental scientists; all were adherents of the discrete-skills model of reading; and some of them had professional ties to the NICHD. With so many distinguished reading researchers available in the United States, it is difficult to understand why the NICHD could not find one or two involved in descriptive research or with a different philosophy of reading.

A balanced group that included classroom teachers of early reading would have produced a nuanced report. The NRP report became the basis for the $6 billion-dollar “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind. An evaluation of the program by the federal government found that more time was devoted to reading instruction because of the NRP recommendations, but there was no statistically significant improvement in students’ reading comprehension.

The death knell for Reading First, however, was not the evaluation of its results but charges that some of those responsible for the program had conflicts of interest and were steering lucrative contracts to corporations in which they had a financial stake. The Department of Education’s Inspector General substantiated these charges. Kenneth Goodman, a major figure in the whole-language movement, released an overview of the scandals in the Reading First program.

Be sure to read the critiques of “the science of reading” quoted by Ultican, especially those by Nancy Bailey and Paul Thomas. Today, even the New York Times and Education Week write uncritically about “the science of reading,” as if it were established fact, which it is not.

It seems we are doomed to repeat the history we don’t know.

After I posted about a computer program that can apparently write student essays better than most students, teacher Mamie Krupczak Allegretti posted the following response:

Writing is more than just setting words down on paper in a “good” essay. If we just want a well worded essay from a student by any means possible, then, sure, let the students use a computer to do it for them. But writing teaches one to sort out thoughts, expand ideas, analyze facts and ideas. Isn’t this what we want students to learn? Writing is also a vehicle for the spirit to come through a human being. It is an art. Many of the great writers have said they they do not consciously write, but their spirit or psyche uses them and writing as a vehicle to make itself known. So. If we want to lose a part of our humanity, we will allow computers to take over every function of a human being. And then where will we find our meaning as human beings?

David Herman is a high school teacher. He wrote an essay in The Atlantic that asks whether the English essay is obsolete, replaced by a computer that does it better. The machine may write a well-worded essay, but we should not forget the warning from MIT Professor Les Perelman, who has studied writing machines extensively. The computers don’t have any knowledge. They don’t know any history. They ignore factual errors. Here is one of his critiques of the SAT essay, titled “Mass-Market Writing Assessments as Bullshit.” Or there is this nonsensical essay that he wrote for a machine. Is ChatGPT superior to the SAT machine reader? I will ask Dr. Perelman.

Teenagers have always found ways around doing the hard work of actual learning. CliffsNotes date back to the 1950s, “No Fear Shakespeare” puts the playwright into modern English, YouTube offers literary analysis and historical explication from numerous amateurs and professionals, and so on. For as long as those shortcuts have existed, however, one big part of education has remained inescapable: writing. Barring outright plagiarism, students have always arrived at that moment when they’re on their own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay waiting to be written.

Now that might be about to change. The arrival of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt you can imagine, may signal the end of writing assignments altogether—and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill.

If you’re looking for historical analogues, this would be like the printing press, the steam drill, and the light bulb having a baby, and that baby having access to the entire corpus of human knowledge and understanding. My life—and the lives of thousands of other teachers and professors, tutors and administrators—is about to drastically change.

I teach a variety of humanities classes (literature, philosophy, religion, history) at a small independent high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. My classes tend to have about 15 students, their ages ranging from 16 to 18. This semester I am lucky enough to be teaching writers like James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldúa, Herman Melville, Mohsin Hamid, Virginia Held. I recognize that it’s a privilege to have relatively small classes that can explore material like this at all. But at the end of the day, kids are always kids. I’m sure you will be absolutely shocked to hear that not all teenagers are, in fact, so interested in having their mind lit on fire by Anzaldúa’s radical ideas about transcending binaries, or Ishmael’s metaphysics in Moby-Dick.

To those students, I have always said: You may not be interested in poetry or civics, but no matter what you end up doing with your life, a basic competence in writing is an absolutely essential skill—whether it’s for college admissions, writing a cover letter when applying for a job, or just writing an email to your boss.

I’ve also long held, for those who are interested in writing, that you need to learn the basic rules of good writing before you can start breaking them—that, like Picasso, you have to learn how to reliably fulfill an audience’s expectations before you get to start putting eyeballs in people’s ears and things.I don’t know if either of those things is true anymore. It’s no longer obvious to me that my teenagers actually will need to develop this basic skill, or if the logic still holds that the fundamentals are necessary for experimentation.

Let me be candid (with apologies to all of my current and former students): What GPT can produce right now is better than the large majority of writing seen by your average teacher or professor. Over the past few days, I’ve given it a number of different prompts. And even if the bot’s results don’t exactly give you goosebumps, they do a more-than-adequate job of fulfilling a task.

Herman goes on, adding examples of essays that the writing machine produced.

What do you think?

As educators know, the Common Core standards emphasize the reading of informational text and downgrade the reading of fiction and poetry. The CC standards actually set percentages for how much time should be devoted to informational text vs. literature. In the elementary grades, the CC advises, instruction should be divided 50%-50% between literary sources and informational text. In grade 8, the CCSS recommended division is 45%/55%, diminishing literature. In grade 12, it should be 30%-70%, a huge reduction in reading literature. These percentages are based on the federal NAEP test guidelines for test developers; they were not intended to be guidance for teachers. In fact, as Tom Loveless showed, the Common Core affected teaching and curriculum by downgrading literature. In 2021, Loveless published a book about the failure of the CC.

In the past few weeks, I have seen some strong refutations of this downgrading of literature. Literature sharpens the mind and memory, teaching readers to be attentive to experiences, feelings, insights.

In July, the New York Times published an article about how to prevent cognitive decline. It was a summary of a book by a noted neurologist. It offered several key findings based on brain research. One was: read more novels.

Hope Reese wrote:

As we age, our memory declines. This is an ingrained assumption for many of us; however, according to neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, decline is not inevitable.

The author of more than 20 books on the mind, Dr. Restak has decades’ worth of experience in guiding patients with memory problems. “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind,” Dr. Restak’s latest book, includes tools such as mental exercises, sleep habits and diet that can help boost memory…

One early indicator of memory issues, according to Dr. Restak, is giving up on fiction. “People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction,” he said.

Over his decades of treating patients, Dr. Restak has noticed that fiction requires active engagement with the text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. “You have to remember what the character did on Page 3 by the time you get to Page 11,” he said.

A few days ago, an article by Washington Post technology columnist Molly Roberts opined that the failure to read novels was a serious error by Sam Bankman-Fried, whose crypto-currency businesses collapsed in November, evaporating billions of dollars in real currency.

The problem with SBF, she wrote, was that he doesn’t read books. He only reads quick, informational summaries.

She wrote:

Amid all the bombshell revelations about fallen crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried, a seemingly trivial bit of information might tell us everything we need to know: He doesn’t read books.

If you’re anticipating a caveat or qualifier, you’re as out of luck as the FTX investors whose money SBF allegedly lost. “I’m addicted to reading,” a journalist said to the erstwhile multibillionaire in a recently resurfaced interview. “Oh, yeah?” SBF replied. “I would never read a book.”

Now, there are plenty of people who don’t read. This does not indicate that they are likely to end up accused of having robbed thousands of others of their fortunes in a speculative adventure that is part financial experiment, part Ponzi scheme. Some prefer to listen; some prefer to do something else altogether. The thing is, the reason counts.

Behold, then, SBF’s reason: “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. … If you wrote a book, you f—ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”

Now, this is paragraph five of this column, so we’re running short on worthwhile words. But this means-to-an-end worldview might be the key to understanding SBF’s character, and his career. The point for SBF, it seems, isn’t the book itself but what he takes away from it — the instrumental knowledge that, presumably, he can gather more efficiently from a SparkNotes version of any opus than from the work itself.

Part of the problem might be an unspoken focus on nonfiction versus fiction, and maybe highly technical nonfiction in particular. After all, it’s easier to argue that you can learn everything you really need to know about the history of securities regulation from a cleverly constructed issue brief than it is to insist that if someone tells you Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr. Darcy, you’ve absorbed the sum total of “Pride and Prejudice.”

But no matter the type of book he’s talking about, what SBF is missing is the experience. You’re supposed to read not in spite of the digressions and diversions that stand between you and the denouement, but because of them; the little things aren’t extraneous but essential. And what you come out of a book with isn’t always supposed to be instrumental at all, at least not in any practical sense. You read to read; you don’t read to have read.

Editor’s note: the words in the Times article in bold print were emphasized by me. In the Washington Post article, the bold words appear in the original.

David C. Berliner is one of the most honored researchers in the field of education.

He sent the following reflections on censorship. His thoughts reflect my views about censorship and abortion. If you are opposed to certain books, don’t read them. If you oppose abortion, don’t have one. Don’t impose your views on others.

Dr. Berliner wrote:


I was asked some time ago to write about censorship for the Horace Mann League. My explorations of the topic led me first to a personal statement:

“It is the right of people to not listen to, and not read, anything they find offensive. But this right is limited: it does not give them the right to limit what others choose to hear or read. It gives concerned citizens absolutely no right to forbid anyone else to listen to or read what they choose.

The only exception to this statement is with one’s own children. Parents do have both a right, and an obligation, to react to what their children are listening to and reading.

But that right and obligation is limited to their own children—not mine! I will make such decisions for myself. And I happen to trust school teachers, and librarians, to act for me, to act in “locus parentis.”

And I hope that every librarian and teacher is thoughtful enough to remember that merely avoiding certain discussions is itself a form of censorship!”

David C. Berliner

Some of the thoughts of others that I thought worth thinking about follow:

“The real heroes [in our society] are the librarians and teachers who at no small risk to themselves refuse to lie down and play dead for censors.”
― Bruce Coville

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
― Salman Rushdie

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
― Joseph Brodsky

“Free societies…are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom’s existence.”
― Salman Rushdie

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
― United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there.”
― Clare Luce Booth

“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book…”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
― Mark Twain

[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”
― Judy Blume

“Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory… In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

“If you can’t say “Fuck” you can’t say, “Fuck the government.”
― Lenny Bruce

“Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson

“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession

“[Public] libraries should be open to all—except the censor.
[Response to questionnaire in Saturday Review, October 29 1960]”
― John F. Kennedy

I

“Only the nonreader fears books. ”
― Richard Peck

“Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot.”
― Eugene Gladstone O’Neill

“If there’s one American belief I hold above all others, it’s that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is “right” and what is “best” should be given no rest; that they should have to defend their behavior most stringently. … As a nation, we’ve been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn’t approve of them.”
[Bangor Daily News, Guest Column of March 20, 1992]”
― Stephen King

“When the Washington Post telephoned me at home on Valentine’s Day 1989 to ask my opinion about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah, I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship—though I like to think that my reaction would have been the same if I hadn’t known Salman at all. To re-state the premise of the argument again: the theocratic head of a foreign despotism offers money in his own name in order to suborn the murder of a civilian citizen of another country, for the offense of writing a work of fiction. No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment (on the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amendment to the Constitution, could be imagined. President George H.W. Bush, when asked to comment, could only say grudgingly that, as far as he could see, no American interests were involved…”
― Christopher Hitchens,

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”
― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947

“Every burned book or house enlightens the world; every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series

“Fear of corrupting the mind of the younger generation is the loftiest form of cowardice.”
― Holbrook Jackson

“Censors never go after books unless kids already like them. I don’t even think they know to go after books until they know that children are interested in reading this book, therefore there must be something in it that’s wrong.”
― Judy Blume

“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion. In the long run it will create a generation incapable of appreciating the difference between independence of thought and subservience.”
― Henry Steele Commager

“Our freedoms are vanishing. If you do not get active to take a stand now against all that is wrong while we still can, then maybe one of your children may elect to do so in the future, when it will be far more riskier — and much, much harder.”
― Suzy Kassem

“I also hold very strong personal convictions about censorship. I don’t believe in forbidden knowledge.”
― Andrea Cremer

The ever wise Jan Resseger points out that the Ohio House overwhelmingly voted 82-10 to end the policy of holding back third graders who don’t score proficient on the state reading test. Now, she hopes that the State Senate will complete the elimination of this disastrous experiment. The idea that children will become better readers if they are failed is nonsense. Years of experience and research shows that failure leads to negative consequences, causing a loss of confidence, a sense of failure and higher dropout rates in later years.

She writes:

Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, enacted by the legislature in 2012 and implemented beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, requires that students who do not score “proficient” on the state’s third grade reading test must be retained for another year in third grade. Brown reports that,”Ohio has retained around 3,628 students per year.”

Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been dogged promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but last May, the Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver traced Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.’”

But it turns out that promoters of the Third-Grade Guarantee ignored other research showing that when students are held back—in any grade—they are more likely later to drop out of school before they graduate from high school. In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported: “Half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

Why does holding children back make them more likely to drop out later? In their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass explain the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems…Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” Berliner and Glass continue: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 9-97)

In a recent report examining the impact of Third-Grade Guarantee legislation across the states, Furman University’s Paul Thomas explainsthat short term gains in reading scores after students are held back are likely to fade out in subsequent years as students move into the upper elementary and middle school years. But, Thomas quotes the National Council of Teachers of English on how the lingering emotional scars from “flunking a grade” linger: “Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • “retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • “basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • “retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.”

Here is what Thomas recommends instead: “States must absolutely respond to valid concerns about reading achievement by parents and other advocates; however, the historical and current policies and reforms have continued to fail students and not to achieve goals of higher and earlier reading proficiency by students, especially the most vulnerable students who struggle to read.” Specifically, Thomas urges policymakers to eliminate: “high-stakes policies (retention) around a single grade (3rd) and create a more nuanced monitoring process around a range of grades (3rd-5th) based on a diverse body of evidence (testing, teacher assessments, parental input)…. Remove punitive policies that label students and create policies that empower teachers and parents to provide instruction and support based on individual student needs.”

PEN America is an organization that represents authors and defends freedom of expression, here and elsewhere in the world. I am proud to be a member. I support their belief in the freedom to write and the freedom to read.

PEN has closely followed the recent upsurge in book banning and has kept a list of books that have been attacked and removed from school libraries and public libraries. The American Library Association also maintains a list of banned books and highlights the books most frequently banned. The ALA lists the 10 most challenged books and the 100 most challenged books.

The overwhelming number of banned books deal with race and gender. The censors apparently think that no one will learn about race or gender if no books are available.

They forget about the Internet and television, which they can’t censor.

The only book, to my knowledge, that has been specifically banned by state legislation, is The 1619 Project. That’s a shame because it is enormously informative about the history of racism.

Bob Shepherd, the brilliant polymath and man of many interests and talents, has had a long and distinguished career in educational publishing. He has developed assessments, written textbooks, and ended his career as a classroom teacher in Florida. I defer to his superior knowledge on almost every subject.

Pour yourself another cup of coffee and sit back for a long read about literacy and how it is acquired.

He wrote about the flaws in the teaching of reading in an essay that begins with these words:

An Essay Touching upon a Few of the Many Reasons Why the Current Standards-and-Testing Approach Doesn’t Work in ELA

NB: For all children, but especially for the one for whom learning to read is going to be difficult, early learning must be a safe and joyful experience. Many of our students, in this land in which nearly a third live in dire poverty, come to school not ready, physically or emotionally or linguistically, for the experience. They have spent their short lives hungry or abused. They lack proper eyeglasses. They have had caretakers who didn’t take care because they were constantly teetering on one precipice or another, often as a result of our profoundly inequitable economic system. Many have almost never had an actual conversation with an adult. They are barely articulate in the spoken language and thus not ready to comprehend written language, which is merely a means for encoding a spoken one. They haven’t been read to. They haven’t put on skits for Mom and Dad and the Grandparents. They don’t have a bookcase in their room, if they have a room, brimming with Goodnight, Moon; A Snowy Day; Red Fish, Blue Fish; Thomas the Tank Engine; The Illustrated Mother Goose; and D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. They haven’t learned to associate physical books with joy and closeness to people who love them. In the ambient linguistic environment in which they reached school age, they have heard millions fewer total numbers of words and tens of thousands fewer unique lexemes than have kids from more privileged homes, and they have been exposed to much less sophisticated syntax. Some, when they have been spoken to at all by adults, have been spoken to mostly in imperatives. Such children desperately need compensatory environments in which spoken interactions and reading are rich, rewarding, joyful experiences. If a child is going to learn to read with comprehension, he or she must be ready to do so, physically, emotionally, and linguistically (having become reasonably articulate in a spoken language). Learning to read will be difficult for many kids, easy for others. And often the difficulty will have nothing to do with brain wiring and everything to do with the experiences that the child has had in his or her short life. In this, as well as in brain wiring, kids differ, as invariant “standards” do not. They need one-on-one conversations with adults who care about them. They need exposure to libraries and classroom libraries filled with enticing books. Kids need to be read to. They need story time. They need jump-rope rhymes and nursery rhymes and songs and jingles. They need social interaction using spoken language. They need books that are their possessions, objects of their own. They need to memorize and enact. And so on. They need fun with language generally and with reading in particular. They need the experiences that many never got. And so, the mechanics of learning to read should be only a small part of the whole of a reading “program.” However, this essay will deal only with the mechanics part. That, itself, is a lot bigger topic than is it is generally recognized to be.

Permit me to start with an analogy. As a hobby, I make and repair guitars. This is exacting work, requiring precise measurement. If the top (or soundboard) of a guitar is half a millimeter too thin, the wood can easily crack along the grain. If the top is half a millimeter too thick, the guitar will not properly resonate.  For a classical guitar soundboard made of Engelmann spruce (the usual material), the ideal thickness is between 1.5 and 2 mm, depending on the width of the woodgrain. However, experienced luthiers typically dome their soundboards, adding thickness (about half a millimeter) around the edges, at the joins, and in the area just around the soundhole (to accommodate an inset, decorative rosette and to compensate for the weakness introduced by cutting the hole).

To measure an object this precisely, one needs good measuring equipment. To measure around the soundhole, one might use a device like this, a Starrett micrometer that sells for about $450:

It probably goes without saying that one doesn’t use an expensive, precision tool like this for a purpose for which it was not designed. You could use it to hammer in frets, but you wouldn’t want to, obviously. It wouldn’t do the job properly, and you might end up destroying both the work and the tool.

But that’s just what many Reading teachers and English teachers are now doing when they teach “strategies for reading comprehension.” They are applying astonishingly sophisticated tools—the minds of their students—in ways that they were not designed to work, and in the process, they are doing significant damage. Leaving aside for another essay the issues of physical and emotional preparedness, to understand why the default method for teaching reading comprehension now being implemented in our elementary and middle-school classrooms fails to work for many students, one has to understand how the internal mechanism for language is designed to operate.