Minding the Gap...s: Kylene Beers and NCLB

An anecdote (I never said I wasn't longwinded):

Back (a whole month and 3 days ago. . . seems absolutely like centuries) when I was student teaching, I was responsible for, in addition to my 9th grade English 1's (tracked), a "[name of test would reveal location] Skills Lab" class. The Skills Lab was a semester course in which students prepared vigorously for the standardized high school proficiency state test. I had 3 young men in this course--2 Latino students and one African American student. These young men were placed in the course because their teachers, either from the current academic year or the one previous, believed that they lacked test-taking skills necessary to pass. Being the me that I am, I focused heavily on assisting students with developing their reading strategy repertoire, and spent perhaps one out of every 4 days focusing on a "test-taking skill," as per my cooperating teacher's (or the school's? or both? never really clear to me). . . agenda. I should mention that the students were 10th graders, and thus would not be taking the standardized test until the following academic year. I should also mention that their confidence levels were drastically low--probably a result of being tracked into courses where expectations were low, and perhaps support was even lower. I knew that these students needed more dire intervention in terms of their reading and writing skills, and that it was unfair to expect them to craft "adequate" responses to a variety of standardized test when they were not comfortable with their reader and writer selves. So we spent time developing all of the regular good reader strategies--questioning the text, predicting, visualizing, etc.--and I also managed (don't ask me how) to sneak in some independent reading.

During independent reading, I noticed immediately that Paulo moved his lips and whispered the words aloud as he read them on the page. Paulo's book choice was not a particularly challenging one--it was Walter Dean Myers' Monster--so I wasn't convinced that the issue was related to confusing prose or syntax. And he seemed to recall the basic plot with little difficulty as we conversed about it, so I wasn't concerned that rudimentary comprehension was being hindered. Still, I knew that Paulo's difficulty was making the act reading much slower for him--I remember thinking that it must feel painfully slow. Being the novice that I am, I went straight to the source--When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do (Beers)--and discovered that Paulo's specific issue--fluency--could be improved by practice with high-frequency words. Very simple: the less time you have to spend decoding the words on the page--especially words that are going to show up over and over again--the more time your brain has to make meaning of the text, and thus your understanding of intricate events and characters will be deepened. So, armed with my new knowledge and quite proud (too proud, to be sure) of myself for seeking out an appropriate intervention for Paulo, I address the issue with my "reading specialist" of a cooperating teacher (who doesn't even know where to find the state core curriculum content standards. . . ok now I'm being a little bit catty. But seriously, I've had nightmares about this woman staring at me disapprovingly from the back of the room and me screaming, "Londa, NO, I WON'T do it your way! I don't care that Nicole has her hood on! She's paying attention to Shakespeare for Christ's sake!").

"Londa," I began, "I think Paulo is having an issue with fluency. When he reads independently, he often moves his lips and whispers the words he's reading aloud. I would like to work with him on high-frequency words--you know, just some index cards for a few minutes every day." Here I was, bright-eyed and confident and ready for Londa (name changed) to be ecstatic that I went to the trouble of finding out what was happening with Paulo, and that I had a plan to help him. I should mention now that Paulo speaks Spanish at home, thereby (I'm not an ESL teacher, I'm only speculating) only complicating the processing of taking language from the page to the brain if there is translation happening in the brain before meaning is made.

"Well," Londa responded, miles less than enthusiastic and almost laughing in my face, "I don't see how that's going to improve his test-taking abilities. I would just stick to the items in the practice test book."

Of course not. How might a student's ability to read and comprehend text by any stretch of the imagination improve his ability to take a test? Why would we possibly concern ourselves with whether Paulo has recieved adequate support in actual reading and writing? This is test prep, not a reading or writing strategies class. How silly of me. . .

And now, though I fear this is less related than I had originally assumed (hey, I've only a small amount of anectodal experience from which to draw), an excerpt from Kylene Beers' essay, "The Measure of Our Success," published within the 2007 collection of essays, Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise Into Practice (Beers, Probst, Rief):

"While NCLB mandates that 100 percent of all students in each school pass all portions of state-required tests by 2013-14 academic year. . . NCLB does not mandate, require, or even suggest that local communities (much less states or the nation) address minimum-wage issues, work to bring the income level of African Americans and Hispanic wage earners to that of white wage earners (at all levels of jobs), make health care coverage available for all, make decent home ownership available for all, eliminate child poverty, make school spending equitable across districts, or even provide school supplies. . . for all school-age children in all schools.

If I sound angry, I am. . .

I have to wonder what would happen if in addition to demanding that schools close the academic achievement gap, No Child Left Behind legislation required that local and state leaders close the poverty gap that exists in their communities, along with the health care gap, the housing gap, the technology gap, the access-to-college gap, and the many gaps that exist between low- and higher-income schools . . . What would happen if NCLB legislation required that business owners completely close the wage-earning gap between races and genders by 2014, that social institutions close the preschool-years preparation gap as well as the nutrition gap between low-income and middle- to high-income pregnant women, and that we all had to examine and eliminate our own expectation for success among and between races and genders?"

(my bolding)

So here Beers is summing up quite succinctly what I think my major issue has been with NCLB. . . it just seems absurd to assume that educational institutions alone could work as the great equalizers when so many obstacles unapologetically remain--greater stratification of rich and poor, limited access to resources and/or institutions that increase the likelihood of upward mobility, a health care system that is quite simply a corporation model which seeks to, like all successful corporations, increase profit and decrease losses. Even if NCLB was reformed to monitor not whether or not a school has reached adequate yearly progress (AYP), but rather the genuine, measurable improvements of students in their schools from one year to the next (assuming there was a way to do this without a bureaucratic nightmare ensuing--perhaps there is and it's common knowledge--remember I'm a novice here, hence "on the learn"), this alone could not be enough to deliver all children from the depths of the injustices sown day in and day out by a host of factors inherent to the organization of our society.

In this way, schools serve as an absolute patsy (btw, perhaps from the Italian, pazzo or paccio, meaning crazy or fool--how do I love the OED? Let me count the ways...) for the deeper causes polarizing our society, and NCLB frees up the government to wash its hands, to feel as though its done its part. If government truly cared about leaving no child behind, it would pursue that goal holistically, not merely within public education system.

After reflection, I suppose I understand that NCLB is not, as Beers points out, all bad news. That our government and society are maintaining, albeit superficially and/or inconsistently at times perhaps, an air of concern regarding the responsibility of this country to its citizens--the responsibility to provide each child with a free public education equal to that of his or her peers--is a remarkable step in the right direction. But I'm still sad that school is becoming a culture of not worrying about whether or not Paulo can read skillfully and confidently and craft compelling responses to thoughtful questions, so long as the teacher's "testing skills" base is covered (in Londa's case, that meant, upon my departure, a packet of photocopied practice test items students would work on independently for the remainder of the semester course. Revolutionary.)

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