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Daily Howler: What on earth is Ruben reading? Or is he just doing cheap drills?
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WHY RUBEN CAN’T READ! What on earth is Ruben reading? Or is he just doing cheap drills? // link // print // previous // next //

MORE IT NEVER STOPS: Good God! According to Eric Alterman, “The great Jonathan Chait is Michael Kinsley with more energy, but not quite the same level of brilliance, as if that were possible.” Absolutely! Who could be as brilliant as Kinsley? When the Downing Street Memo emerged, he ridiculed liberals who found it significant (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/13/05). When Bush dissembled about SS, he rushed to praise POTUS for his forthrightness (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/2/05). Appearing on C-SPAN, he made it clear that he’d never heard of the Project for the New American Century (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/05). And as recently as this Feb, he was still blaming conservatives for ridiculing Major Dems in the past decade—while ignoring the members of his own Pundit Elite (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/06). Who could be more brilliant than that? Kinsley’s genius washes over us constantly. We find ourselves drowned by its depth.

For the record, Alterman links to an excellent piece by Chait. You know what to do—just click here.

Special report—Why Ruben can’t read!

PART 2—DRILLS WITHOUT THRILLS: What on earth does Ruben read during his three reading periods? As noted yesterday, Ruben Jimenez is a seventh-grade student at Sacramento’s King Junior High—a school where the lower-achieving kids take extra classes in reading and math (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/06). And—like more than a couple of seventh-grade boys—Ruben thinks it might be fun to chop up (“dissect”) a frog or three. But uh-oh! According to the New York Times’ Sam Dillon, Ruben doesn’t take any science or history classes; his schedule is heavy with reading and math. “Rubén studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth,” Dillon writes. Let’s be clear—giving this child extra reading instruction may be a very good idea. But if he doesn’t take any science or history—subjects where students have always done lots of reading—then we’re left with that puzzling question. What on earth does Ruben read during those three daily classes?

Needless to say, we can’t answer that question—and Dillon doesn’t seem to have asked. But sadly, it isn’t really hard to guess what could be transpiring during Ruben’s three reading classes. He might be engaged in “drills without thrills”—the kind of worksheet-based instruction which observers have often criticized during this age of Big Testing. Uh-oh! Ruben might not be doing much “reading” at all—except, of course, for the kind of reading which shows up on his state’s high-stakes tests.

What does Ruben actually read? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Dillon isn’t the first to report that basic subjects—like science and history—are being dumped for more reading instruction. For the reasons stated above, it’s a slightly odd idea—but no, this isn’t a new report. Consider Jonathan Kozol’s detailed account in last year’s under-discussed book, The Shame of the Nation.

In Chapter 5, “The Road to Rome,” Kozol discusses the type of drill-based instruction spawned by the drive to produce better test scores. Kozol notes that important, traditional, basic subjects have sometimes been cast by the wayside as schools try to bump up their test scores:

KOZOL (page 118): There is another way in which the students in increasing numbers of our low-performing urban schools are being penalized by the insistent pressure to deliver higher scores on standardized exams. In many of these schools, traditional subjects such as history, geography and science are no longer taught because they are not tested by the high stakes examinations and cannot contribute to the scores by which a school’s performance will be praised or faulted. Anyone who talks informally with children in some of these elementary schools is likely to discover quickly the effects this has had in limiting their capability for ordinary cultural discernments.
Kozol goes on to discuss a group of fifth- and sixth-grade New York City kids who couldn’t name the country they live in. (“Two of the children told me that the country we live in is ‘the Bronx,’” Kozol writes.) Kozol assumes that this misapprehension resulted from the elimination of social studies instruction. We won’t make that assumption ourselves, but as he continues, Kozol tells more about the dumping of traditional subjects in the pursuit of high test scores in reading. “In some of the same schools,” he writes, “art and music are excluded from the organized curriculum, not solely because of budget cutbacks that have decimated art and music programs, as we’ve noted in New York, but also, again, because these subjects are not tested by the state examinations and, for that reason, are regarded as distractions from the subject areas that will be tested.” History and science are being dumped, Kozol writes—and art and music have been dispatched too.

Yes, agreed, that’s art and music, which some may regard as less important than academic courses like history and science. (A short note on art instruction tomorrow.) But what’s actually happening in those reading classes—in the classes being added as science and social studies are being withdrawn? Earlier, Kozol describes the drill-based instruction which is found in some schools—schools which are aiming for higher test scores in reading and math. In the following passage, he refers to “Pineapple,” a child he knows in the Bronx:

KOZOL (page 111): Teaching materials used in many urban districts do resemble “manuals” in the sense that they are not real texts but workbooks narrowly conceived to prime the children for the taking of specific tests. The workbook used by children in Chicago’s summer session was, indeed, called Test Best, with no pretense that it served a purpose other than the one its title indicated. Similarly, in New York City, where Pineapple was in third grade, she had a mathematics workbook with a title that referred specifically to getting ready for her high-stakes tests. (Bridging the Test Gap, it was called, a pretty awful and demoralizing title, I thought, for a book we hand to children!) The reason I remember this is that she brought it to me once during the afterschool at St. Ann’s Church and asked if I would help her with her homework. When she handed it to me, I asked her, “Where is your real math book?” “This is it!” she answered...
“It may be there were real math books in her classroom that the children weren’t allowed to take home,” Kozol writes. Based on our own experience, we’ll also say that there may not have been such books. More on that topic on Thursday.

In this chapter, Kozol runs through changes which have sometimes occurred due to the focus on high-stakes tests—including the dropping of science and history in service to drill-based reading instruction. Indeed, how drill-heavy can “reading” now get? Let’s drop by a school in the Bronx:

KOZOL (page 113): In some schools, the principals and teachers tell me that the test themselves and preparations for the test control more than a quarter of the year. At P.S. 65, during the three months prior to the all-important state exam, fifth grade students had to set aside all other lessons from 8:40 to 11:00, and from 1:45 to 3:00, to drill the children for their tests. In addition to this, two afternoons a week, children in the fourth and fifth grades had to stay from 3:00 to 5:00 for yet another session of test preparation. “So, on Wednesdays and Thursdays,” said one of the teachers, “students have five hours of test preparations” and “they also have to come to school on Saturdays to get three hours more of this during the last four weeks before exams.”
Imaginably, of course, this could be a great thing—if struggling kids from low-literacy backgrounds got extra reading experience and instruction. But are the kids in these test prep programs really getting useful experience? Are their teachers and principals showing good judgment in the types of activities they offer? Ouch! Kozol describes how schools have dumped recess for test preparation—and yes, it goes downhill from there:
KOZOL (page 115): In Alabama, for example, in which kindergarten children are required to take standardized exams three times in the academic year, officials in one district did away with “nap time” so that teachers would have extra time to get the students ready for their tests.
“Schools Drop Naptime for Testing Prep,” said the headline on the AP report. Even the AP saw the dark humor in the district’s decision:
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (10/2/03): Hey, all you 5-year-olds, wake up! It's time to get ready for your test.

Gadsden city schools have eliminated naptime for kindergartners so children will have more time to prepare for new, mandated standardized tests.

Wynell Williams, elementary education director for the Gadsden school system, said she and elementary school principals decided in June to end naptime.

"If the state is holding us accountable, this is the way we have to do it," Williams said. “Kindergarten is not like it used to be."

Apparently, kindergarten is the new seventh grade! Meanwhile, get ready to take in a wonderful phrase. Not all parents agreed with the “nap ban,” the AP went on to report.

At any rate, Dillon is not the first to note the dumping of science and social studies. If kindergartens are outlawing naps, can seventh-grade history be far behind? But here’s the irony—when we eliminate history and science, we eliminate the most basic motives for reading. Will deserving kids like Ruben Jiminez—boys who just want to chop up a frog—be encouraged to read library books about this compelling creature? Will they be led into science texts, where they can read about similar subjects? Because Dillon doesn’t seem to have checked, we don’t know what Ruben does each day during his three reading classes. But children have always learned to read by reading about great historical figures—and children have always learned to read by reading about the innards of frogs. If Sacramento has deep-sixed science and history, what is Ruben reading about? Uh-oh! Perhaps he isn’t really “reading” at all—perhaps he’s just doing cheap drills.

In The Shame of the Nation, Kozol argues against the loss of esthetic experience which comes from the dumping of music and art. We will stick to a simpler question: If Ruben isn’t reading about tadpoles and frogs, what in the world is he doing all day? Sadly, the Times doesn’t seem to have asked. Will we ever have a public discussion which takes us inside children’s classrooms?

TOMORROW—PART 3: Do cheap drills really “work?”

IT HAS BEEN REDUCED TO ONE SUBJECT: In today’s Times, six letters react to the Dillon report. The first, from a New York City teacher, expands on Kozol’s discussion:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (3/28/06): The curriculum in failing schools is often narrowed not to two subjects but one: strategies.

Topics and reading materials are selected not for their inherent value, but for their usefulness in illustrating a strategy that might come into play on a standardized test.

Students practice strategies all day long, then stay after school and attend Saturday school to learn still more strategies.

Of course strategies are important. But when they take precedence over compelling material, you end up with a closet full of clanging tools.

This is a very instructive letter. Three cheers for this teacher for writing it! But we’d have to say that even this teacher is a bit too fair-and-balanced. Why should test-taking “strategies” be “important” when we’re trying to teach young children? We also think she’s a tad too kind in the following passage:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: There is no reason reading cannot embrace music, art, science, history and more. There is no valid argument that the study of a foreign language would interfere with a student's reading progress.
We understand what the teacher means—but we think she’s a bit too kind. Reading almost has to “embrace” science and history—or there’s nothing to read about!

At any rate, one question is raised by the remarkable approach which this teacher describes in her letter: Does the dumping of history and science “work?” Can children really be taught to read by dumping the things they might read about? Dillon takes a cursory look at this question. Tomorrow, we’ll review what he said.