Daily Howler logo
WE WERE EXPERIENCED! Kids need experienced teachers, Wiener says. But what must those top teachers have? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 6, 2006

WE WERE EXPERIENCED: What can we do to help low-income kids who may be struggling in the classroom? On Monday, The Education Trust’s Ross Wiener addressed that question in a Washington Post op-ed column. (The Education Trust is a highly-regarded research and advocacy group.) “Guess Who's Still Left Behind?” asks the headline. Wiener starts by noting some “sobering” results from this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federally-run testing program known as “The Nation’s Report Card:”
WIENER (1/2/05): The results are sobering from at least one other perspective: The knowledge and skills of students of color and those from low-income families are not just low compared with white and more-affluent students. They are also low in absolute terms, shutting these students out from meaningful civic engagement and economic opportunity.

The scores of African American, Latino and low-income fourth-graders indicate that the average student in these groups demonstrates skills below the level required to classify numbers as even or odd. Eighth-grade students from all of these groups on average score far below the level that would indicate an ability to convert written numbers into decimals.

America’s low-income and minority kids are still being “left behind,” Wiener says. Quite correctly, he says that this deprives these children of their full rights of citizenship.

But uh-oh! When Wiener suggested two ways to address this problem, we’ll admit we were less than fully satisfied. Let’s review the suggestions he made—and present one more he omitted.

How are low-income kids being “left behind” in our schools? Wiener offers two explanations. First complaint: Many states maintain low standards on their statewide testing programs:

WIENER (continuing directly): One thing put in stark relief is the low level of state standards. Students who demonstrate proficiency on their own state's tests often perform far below that level on NAEP, suggesting that the states have set standards too low to indicate adequate academic preparation... If we are going to maintain the fiction that it is acceptable to have different reading standards in Mississippi and Maine, then national policy needs to provide some incentives for states to align their expectations and assessments with the demands of the real world.
It’s true. In many statewide testing programs, the standard for attaining “proficiency” is lower than that maintained on the NAEP. But if State X “raises the bar” on its tests, will low-income kids attain higher skills in the process? After all, let’s remember the basic problem—many of these struggling students can’t meet the (lower) standards on these state tests today! Why would raising standards help a kid who can’t meet the existing standard? We’ve never understood the logic of this suggestion as it applies to low-achieving kids. We asked Wiener about this, and he gave a prompt reply, which we’ll post (and comment on) below.

At any rate, Wiener ’s second point is the one he stresses. Why are poor kids being left behind? They tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to teachers, he says:

WIENER (continuing directly): The most important lesson from these results, however, is that we are not doing enough to improve teaching and learning in our public schools. There is no question that educators are trying harder to reach students, especially those students who have struggled, but there is a crippling lack of intellectual capital in many of our lowest-performing schools. Instead of confronting this problem, we reward teachers with higher status and higher pay the farther away they get from the students who need the most help. This is true across districts, within districts and even within individual schools, where the most experienced and effective teachers are assigned to the "best" kids.
According to Wiener , “the most experienced and effective teachers” tend to be assigned to higher-achieving kids. We have no doubt that this is true, and, on balance, it’s surely undesirable. But we were once an “experienced teacher” assigned a class of low-income fifth-graders, and Wiener’s article doesn’t mention a large, groaning problem we faced every day—a groaning problem that made it hard for this “experienced” teacher to be effective.

Should struggling children in low-income schools be taught by highly experienced teachers? You can bet your sweet bippy they should be. But let’s say we visit Low Income School X, where we find a class of fifth-grade children reading on second- or third-grade level (or below). Would suitable textbooks and instructional programs be available for an experienced teacher? For example, when this experienced teacher taught her school system’s science curriculum, would she have a wide range of textbooks and supplementary materials written at a reading level her class could understand and learn from? Would she have similar appropriate materials to teach her social studies curriculum? Would her room be full of books for private reading—books which are appropriate for 12-year-olds who read at third grade level (or below)? (Why do we say 12-year-olds? Some of her children will have repeated a grade already—or two.) And if her kids are years behind in math, does she have textbooks which present an instructional program specifically designed for such children? Or is she forced to jury-rig an instructional program for her students—students whose educational profiles are quite different from the long-standing norms assumed by most published textbooks?

When we were an experienced teacher (long ago), we did not have those classroom materials. In large part, those materials simply didn’t exist—and we rather doubt they exist today (see further note below). As a result, teaching our kids was always a patchwork process—and children of the working class and the poor deserve to go to schools which aren’t patchwork. They deserve to walk into vibrant classrooms brimming with materials designed for their needs. They need to be handed books designed for them—for delightful, deserving children who are not reading at the level traditionally associated with their age.

In our classroom, those deserving children weren’t handed those books—because those books simply didn’t exist. For example, there was no readable science textbook to teach our school system’s fifth-grade curriculum (link below). And when such textbooks don’t exist, children get robbed of reading experience, without which they can’t grow as readers. Back when we were an experienced teacher, this grinding, debilitating problem pervaded every part of the day.

Yes, children who go to low-income schools should get their share of experienced teachers. But experienced teachers can’t create their own books (or their own instructional programs). As he closes, Wiener says this: “We will forever consign millions of poor and minority children to the margins of society if we do not act now to give them the teachers they need and deserve.” But when low-income children get experienced teachers, will those teachers have readable textbooks at hand? Will they have other appropriate reading materials? When we were experienced, the answer was “no.”

Do today’s urban schools spill with readable books? In this new year, we’ll try to find out.

RAISING THOSE STANDARDS: Wiener focused on the need for experienced teachers. But just for the record, here’s what he told us (by e-mail) when we asked him about his other point—his claim that we need to raise statewide standards. Our question: How does it help to produce higher standards when kids can’t meet the standards we have?

WIENER E-MAIL: Expectations play a critical role in determining what students will be taught, and what they will learn. If the standards are pegged to low expectations, teachers (and the parents and students themselves) may be lulled into thinking they're doing well enough—or very close to it, which inevitably will be seen as good enough for some—even when skills/knowledge are not close to adequate. Ideally, systems for teacher training, curriculum design and evaluation, formative assessments, etc., should be built around the standards—that is, what students are expected to learn. If we start out aiming for mediocrity or worse, we might be giving ourselves a pat on the back when we reach abysmally low levels of achievement.

Research documents that students learn more when they are put into more academically rigorous courses; this is true even for students who had been at the lowest levels of achievement in the past. In fact, students who previously were in the lowest quartile for achievement failed less often when they were put in college prep courses, compared to previously similarly performing students who were put into remedial courses. Standards can help push teachers to teach to higher levels (or not).

We’d still have to list ourselves as doubters. When we were an experienced teacher, we had high ideals and standards in mind. What we needed was readable textbooks in hand. We’re wondering if today’s experienced teacher has such basic materials.

DO READABLE MATERIALS EXIST TODAY: We’ll be exploring that question all year. As we recently noted, we spoke late last year with Daria Rigney, the superlative New York City principal-turned-administrator who was featured in the PBS program, Making Schools Work. We do not, in any way, want to speak for Rigney on this matter, or to suggest that our views are hers. But she told us that it was still hard to get readable science and social studies books. (Thirty-five years after we first taught!) We hope to pick Rigney’s brain (and the brains of others) on these points in the year ahead.

Important note: “Textbooks” are only one part of the problem. Kids should also have appropriate supplementary reading materials, and appropriate library books for private reading. When we were experienced, these books didn’t exist. This affected every hour of the day—including the hours when the kids were at home, where they had walked without the books their teacher couldn’t hand them.

DID READABLE MATERIALS EXIST BACK THEN: Long ago, we wrote on the problem of readable textbooks in the Baltimore Evening Sun. For extended excerpts from that piece, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/05.

EDUCATION TRUST-BUT-VERIFY: Once again, here’s the web site for The Education Trust. Jonathan Kozol speaks highly of the people at The Trust in his new book, The Shame of the Nation. We’ll suggest that you follow the work of The Trust—and we’ll suggest that we all work to verify the wisdom of their proposals.

ONE MORE QUESTION: What exactly did Wiener mean by the second sentence in this paragraph?

WIENER: The scores of African American, Latino and low-income fourth-graders indicate that the average student in these groups demonstrates skills below the level required to classify numbers as even or odd. Eighth-grade students from all of these groups on average score far below the level that would indicate an ability to convert written numbers into decimals.
We asked—and Wiener answered: “When presented with a prompt of ‘thirty five and thirty three hundredths,’ [eighth-grade] students would need to write or identify 35.33.”

Eighth-grade students can’t do that. Fourth-grade students can’t tell odd from even. Our instant reaction, drawn from experience: Do their teachers have math textbooks and instructional programs explicitly designed for kids with such truncated skills? These children need the most careful instruction. Do their teachers have appropriate textbooks? Or are they forced to jury-rig instruction, drawing from fourth- and eighth-grade texts which are too advanced for kids who are far below traditional level?

Do their teachers have the best materials? We plan to ask all this year.