Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

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The life of Allen Lee still hangs in the balance as Community High School District 155 officials fail to take any action in the case of Allen Lee, the student accused of disorderly conduct for writing what his teacher and other school officials considered to be a disturbing paper in response to a “free” writing assignment.At no time has the school or the district taken appropriate action in this case. Before involving the police options like counseling, social service intervention, or simply making parents aware of the situation should have been taken. The more appropriate actions would, then, have never been news. No one would even know Allen Lee’s name, which is as it should be. Had this young man been found to be a danger to himself or others then, and only then, should authorities be notified.

The chilling effect this story has on teaching creative writing is enormous. I spoke with several high school seniors who clearly understood Lee’s side of this controversy. One of the seniors told me that were she to be assigned a free write she would simply write “I can’t think of anything to write.” She would do this until the time for writing was over to assure that she would not have her life disrupted. What I find interesting in this student’s case is that she is a top-student, involved in many school activities, maintains a top grade point average and is headed for an elite school. While I have not seen her writing, her teacher assures me that she is creative and thoughtful. Now this…she is turned off and the incident didn’t even occur in her school.

Somewhere, somehow, there is an adult that will do the right thing in the case of Allen Lee. If not NOW–WHEN?

clipped from www.chicagotribune.com
After listening to two Cary residents speak in support of a Cary-Grove High
School senior whose essay resulted in a disorderly-conduct charge and his
removal from school, the school board met in closed session Monday evening
without taking any action on his future.
After the two-hour closed session, Community High School District 155 board
President Ted Wagner refused to answer any questions about Allen Lee, 18,
whose lawyer said earlier that he hopes the student can return to school as
quickly as possible and graduate as scheduled May 26. Lee is being tutored in
a district office away from the school.
During a creative-writing class April 23, students were given a “free
writing” assignment in which they were told not to censor or judge what they
wrote. Lee’s stream-of-consciousness essay included references to “shooting
everyone” and “having sex with the dead bodies.”

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While the DoED is praising the outcomes of Reading First through an internally funded study, the House Education and Labor Committee is investigating potentially criminal behavior at the DoED surrounding Reading First.

Rep. Miller scolded Mr. Doherty at one point.

“Was your mantra, ‘Mistakes were made’?” Rep. Miller said. “You don’t get to override the law because you’re turning the law into a program.”

Mr. Doherty responded: “We thought then, and we think now, we did abide by the law.”

The hearing was the first of two that are expected in Congress in the wake of reports by the Education Department inspector general and the Government Accountability Office that found federal officials had mismanaged the program.

“We found that the department obscured the requirements of the statute by inappropriately including or excluding standards in the application criteria,” Mr. Higgins told the committee.

Ms. Lewis noted that one of the consultants providing assistance during the grant-review process had financial ties to the assessment, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS. Kentucky was asked to revise its Reading First grant proposal three times.

“We were repeatedly advised to replace our current assessment tool with DIBELS,” Ms. Lewis said.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the education committee, has introduced legislation that would require the Education Department and its contractors to screen Reading First peer reviewers for potential conflicts of interest, among other provisions.

Rep. McKeon was much less hostile to the witnesses connected to the Reading First program than Mr. Miller and some of the other committee Democrats.

“I want to thank you for your service,” he said. “I’ve been here almost 15 years, and I’ve seen a lot of people get crucified, and I’m really getting sick of it.”

But after hearing some four hours of testimony about alleged missteps and wrongdoing in the implementation of the federal program, Rep. Miller said he would consider making his own request for a criminal investigation.

“I think this process was cooked from the very beginning,” he said.

clipped from www.edweek.org

“We found that the department obscured the requirements of the statute by inappropriately including or excluding standards in the application criteria,” Mr. Higgins told the committee.
The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education has referred some of the information gathered in a lengthy audit of the Reading First program to federal law-enforcement officials for further investigation, he said during a lengthy and contentious hearing today before the House Education and Labor Committee.
The former director of the Reading First program denied in the April 20 congressional hearing that there were conflicts of interest in the implementation of the $1 billion-a-year federal initiative. He also denied that he and other officials and consultants had overstepped their authority in directing states and school districts on the curriculum materials and assessments that would meet the strict requirements of the grants awarded under the program.

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For the purposes of this post, I define ethics as representing that branch of rigorous thinking that asks questions about human practice and behavior as that practice relates to the good. On this definition, two positions stand out as being at opposite ends of the same continuum. Bakhtin thinks of ethical interactions as being the state in which one is responsible to the Other. Levinas, on the other hand, thinks of ethical in terms of the face-to-face encounter in which one accepts responsibility for the other. The to/for distinction is found in the children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. Three characters help me to think in terms of this distinction. Charlotte, Templeton and Wilbur, each for different reasons, are characters with whom one can draw on the to/for distinction.

Templeton, the rat, represents the to of Bakhtin. In Bakhtin’s sense, one is responsible to the Other, however, as one accepts this responsibility one is acting in one’s own self-interest. For Bakhtin, a personal reward, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is always attached to the act of being responsible to the Other. In the case of Templeton, usually at Charlotte’s urging, he accepts responsibility to Wilbur only when he is convinced that there is something in it for him. Charlotte, on the other hand, is purely Levinasian. She is responsible (better written as Response-Able) for Wilbur. On this stance, Charlotte accepts the idea that she is response-able even before the existence of the Other is known. Response-ability is a selfless act, pointing to the absolute imperative of action for the Other–even at the risk of one’s own existence.Ethical Space

Then there is Wilbur himself. In the story Wilbur is the one who waits. Wilbur is the recipient of Charlotte’s for and Templeton’s to. In a sense, Wilbur’s character provides the mediating tool allowing both Charlotte and Templeton to act to his benefit but Wilbur is not the agent of the to/for. He merely waits, anticipates what is to come. He prays without prayer while he lives his life within the boundary of (not)knowing. In a very real sense, Wilbur is us!

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This week the American Educational Research Association is holding its annual meeting in Chicago. This important conference brings together researchers and teachers from all areas of the spectrum of education and, as such, is one of the more exciting places to be as a professional educator. In this post I am going to summarize some of the more important points I heard today.

David Berliner spoke about the state of education in the United States today as a political space in which the ENDS of education have been taken away from professional educators and the MEANS of education have been corrupted by the reduction of knowing to a single test-score number. As test scores become the ENDS of education, primarily due to NCLB, then the MEANS of education become teaching to the test. When knowledge as an END is replaced by test scores then the only thing worth knowing is “is that going to be on the test?”

Another speaker argued that there is simply too much policy, policy layered upon policy upon policy. Fossilized reforms are something like geological layers as legislators fail to review either old policy prior to passage of new policy or evidence in support of policy legislation in the first place. The result is a web (more like a rabbit warren) of overlapping policies and legislation that boggles even the least capable minds.

Perhaps my favorite speaker argued that we do not live in an age of educational uncertainty. Quite the contrary, NCLB has placed a strangle hold on certainty. Schools are certain as to what programs count and what to teach in order to avoid the degradation of being labeled low performing. The problem is not certainty but faulty logic. NCLB is based on a confused logical structure where knowledge is reduced to test scores, schools are expected to solve social problems, and reading and math instruction are scripted and uniform across irregular contexts. This speaker called not for evidence based teaching as NCLB does, rather he argued that there ought to be EVIDENCE BASED LEGISLATION. I suggested to a colleague sitting next to me that perhaps those that pass the laws ought to be subject to the consequences of their own legislation. Congress ought to be forced to sit for say the 12th grade test. It was also suggested that no legislation be passed that does harm to anyone.

Finally, a speaker argued that education cannot be reduced to a model that corresponds in any way to producing widgets in a factory. By that logic FedX Delivers–Teachers Teach holds supreme. The fact is, however, that teachers do not exist, only teachers in a context exist and only in that context can teachers navigate through the murky waters that make up the classroom. Teaching is not something that can be planned except in broad brush terms if only because the unexpected is bound to happen at any moment of the day. Teachers are not tutor technicians preparing their students for tests. In the end, high stakes testing is blocking effective implementation of curriculum that encourages students to solve problems, to think about difficult problems, to rigorously reflect on ideas and concepts, and to remain curious about the world in which we all live. American educators for years have been critical of the centralization of European and Asian educational systems. The irony is that Europe and Asian nations are becoming decentralized as the United States moves toward a centralized national system of education.

I expect to be NCLB’d out by the end of the week. More to come later.

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From Time.com

The first three months of the new Democratic Congress have been neither terrible nor transcendent. A Pew poll had it about right: a substantial majority of the public remains happy the Democrats won in 2006, but neither Nancy Pelosi nor Harry Reid has dominated the public consciousness as Newt Gingrich did when the Republicans came to power in 1995. There is a reason for that. A much bigger story is unfolding: the epic collapse of the Bush Administration.

The three big Bush stories of 2007–the decision to “surge” in Iraq, the scandalous treatment of wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys for tawdry political reasons–precisely illuminate the three qualities that make this Administration one of the worst in American history: arrogance (the surge), incompetence (Walter Reed) and cynicism (the U.S. Attorneys).

I want to comment on the arrogance, incompetence, and cynicism of the Bush administration from a slightly different point of view. While Time focuses arrogance on the Bush insistence on the surge strategy, incompetence on the Walter Reed scandal, and cynicism on the Gonzalez flap over the sacking of US Prosecutors, I want to suggest that all three attributes are contained within the Bush policy on education.

Bush and his appointees at the Department of Education (both Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings) are all three–arrogant, incompetent, and cynical–all rolled up into one neat package. At the core of the issue is the impact on the next generation of Americans.

I begin with arrogance. The Bush administration marches forward with the zeal of reform that is (and never could be) bothered by the facts. I suggest that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is fatally flawed because of the arrogance of the policy. For example, it is statistically impossible to have all children reading at grade level simply because grade level is an expression of the mean, the arithmetic average, for any given assessment. To obtain a mean score means that there must be at least half of the tested population performing below the mean score. It is arrogant to suggest that test scores can be improved so that all children perform above a mean score. Of course, it is very appealing to the uninitiated.

Incompetence at the DoED is most apparent in the case of incentives offered by student loan companies in order to be placed on a college or university’s “preferred” lender list. Examples cited in the New York Times article included an all-expense paid trip to the Caribbean for university officials and their spouses, gifts such as iPods, and bonuses that are based on how much students borrow. Bush’s lack of control over those that work in his administration whether at Walter Reed Hospital or the DoED is striking. This incompetence was tolerated by the Republican Congress that refused to exercise any oversight over the Bush administration.

Finally, the Bush policy on education is cynical at its core. The failure to pay attention to critical research done by respected members of the field, while arrogant to be sure, demonstrates a degree of cynicism in that the leadership is focused only on their ideas and will push them, right or wrong, to the end. If, by cynical we mean believing the worst of human nature and motives; having a sneering disbelief in the actions and thoughts of others, then this failure to address issues raised by others critical of the administration head on is a fine example of cynicism.

The problem with the Bush education policy is that it relegates an entire generation of American children to second-rate experiences in the classroom. The Bush policies destroy curiosity, the desire to know school based knowledge. This is not to suggest that children do not learn things. Just that what they learn comes from outside the schoolhouse. So much research points to the dangerous effects of NCLB and the Bush policies on education, but there he is giving his marching orders to Secretary Spellings to oversee the reauthorization of this flawed act. Arrogance, incompetence, and cynicism all rolled up into a single package…654 more days to go for this, the worst president this country has ever had.

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The issue is important enough to simply present FAIR TEST’s plea for action on the part of all concerned citizens. So here it is. PLEASE TAKE ACTION on this one. Save the children, save the entire next generation from a life of basic skills ignorance.

The Bush Administration and its Congressional allies are trying to push through fast-track renewal of the fundamentally flawed “No Child Left Behind” law without the public debate it requires. Now is the time for assessment reformers like you to act. Contact your U.S. Senators and Representative today. Tell them NCLB should not be reauthorized unless all these issues are addressed. Ask them to contact the Education Committee and press for adoption of the reforms listed here.

End arbitrary and unrealistic “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) requirements used to punish schools not on track to having all students score “proficient” by 2014. AYP should be replaced by expectations based on real-world rates of improved student achievement. Academic progress should be measured by multiple sources of evidence, not just standardized test scores.

Reduce excessive top-down testing mandates. The requirement that states assess each student every year in grades three through eight (and once in high school) should be reduced to once each in elementary, middle and high school. Over-testing takes time away from real teaching and learning.

Remove counter-productive sanctions. Escalating punitive consequences, which lack evidence of success, should be eliminated. These include requirements to spend money on school transfers and tutoring, as well as provisions calling for the replacement of teachers or privatizing control over schools.

Replace NCLB’s test-and-punish approach with support for improving educational quality. This includes holding schools accountable for making systemic changes through locally controlled professional development and family involvement programs. Federal funding should be more than doubled so that all eligible children receive support.

The thrust of this approach is outlined in the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB with details in Redefining Accountability: Improving Student Learning by Building Capacity. http://www.fairtest.org/FEA_Home.html.

Members of Congress are in their home districts during the first half of April. Take advantage of this opportunity to make your views heard. Personal calls, letters, faxes and visits are much more effective than email. Addresses and phone numbers are available at http://www.house.gov and http://www.senate.gov.

Please take action today. The U.S. will continue to leave many children behind unless your voice is heard.

FairTest Home

FEA Website

FairTest’s FEA Page

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Study gives teachers barely passing grade in classroom

The findings, published today in the weekly magazine Science, take teachers to task for spending too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies. They also suggest that U.S. education focuses too much on teacher qualifications and not enough on teachers being engaging and supportive. (emphasis added)

Why would such a conclusion surprise anyone? Given the constraints of NCLB and the emphasis on basic skills as the fundamental outcome of the entire process of education, is it any wonder that teachers spend far too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough time on the stuff that actually matters to educated people? I am not surprised at all. What I am scandalized about, however, is that the research team led by Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia doesn’t address the core of the problem–NCLB as bad school policy. Rather, the research team lead by Pianta choose to engage in teacher bashing because teachers are an easy target. Better the National Institutes of Health, the funders of the study, should look at the underlying cause for schools reducing curriculum to only the basic skills that are tested. But, why kid myself. The NIH is a federal agency under the ultimate control of the Bush Administration; heaven only knows this group couldn’t stand for NCLB to look bad. Denial, Mr. President, ain’t just a river in Africa. Time to come out of the shadows and into the light and see that the emperor really has no clothes.

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In a post on the NCTE blog, Barbara Cambridge writes in part:

I am encouraged that we are beginning to distinguish between formative and summative assessment, not to affirm one over the other but to accent that each serves a particular purpose, formative primarily to improve teaching and learning and summative primarily to answer accountability needs.

At the same time that we make that distinction, however, we might also think how doing each kind of assessment might affect the other kind. To return to the AFT forum Kent referred to, listen to points made by Paul Barton in a forum presentation labeled “‘Failing’ or ‘Succeeding’ Schools: How Can We Tell?” Barton makes four points about accountability data, the kind of data most often generated by summative assessments.

First, Barton contends that current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned. Test scores used for accountability are invalid if alignment is not in order. My take from this point: Pedagogy, curriculum, and formative assessment need to track with summative assessment.

Secondly, Barton states that a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year. Barton recommends administering the same test at the beginning and the end of the school year. My take on this point: Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments .

Thirdly, Barton says gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents. Transparency would be supported by having student identifiers to track students from grade to grade or by stretch tests that cover several grades worth of work but are taken each year. Tests, however, are really not needed every year. Samples, rotating testing, or testing on an unannounced basis would free time for more diagnostic testing (formative assessment), which research shows improves instruction. My take on this point: A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning.

Fourthly, standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system. My take on this point: Hurray that teachers are identified as the professionals who should set standards.

Each of Barton’s points, it seems to me, recognizes the (potential) interaction of formative and summative assessment.

I want to comment on the points made as Cambridge relies so heavily on Barton for her analysis. I must begin by addressing the problems with the current obsession with notions of assessment and evaluation. As I have said many times in the past, the current reliance on technocratic solutions begs the question regarding the purpose of education in the first instance. The overarching problem with the reliance on assessment and standards is precisely the reliance on predefined outcomes as a substitution for real education, for real learning. It is somewhat akin to coffee without caffeine or wine without alcohol (Žižek, 2003), virtual reality is substituted for reality. The obsession with test scores, curriculum alignment, and the like creates the phantasm of real education allowing for the maintenance of the status quo, or worse, plunging the system of public education into the abyss of what Žižek (2002) references as the “Desert of the Real.”

The first of Barton’s points is that “current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned.” The underlying assumption here is that by aligning curriculum with assessments one will know with some degree of precision what is being learned, and by implication, what is being taught. The argument is a technocratic, utilitarian view of what should occur in schools, a neatly packaged Utopian understanding rather than one that addresses the complexities of teaching and learning, the multiplicity of contexts, interactions, and the like that make classrooms messy, nuanced spaces that require well developed professional judgment and flexibility in response to changing circumstances. Notions of alignment of curriculum to assessment deny the complexity in favor of packaging, of sound bites, of billboard slogans.

According to Cambridge, Barton’s second point, that “a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year,” is well taken. Her solution, however, fails to inspire. She states, “Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments.” Here she relies on Barton’s position that the way to overcome prior learning in any given school year is to pre-test and post-test thereby controlling for prior learning. Cambridge translates that idea into a distinction between formative and summative assessment but this is a solution that merely extends the utilitarian view that testing accounts for learning, at best a naive position.

Barton’s third point, that “gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents,” presents an interesting problem. In the first place one must have faith that what is measured by testing actually represents gains in student knowledge. It seems that Barton’s first point negates this possibility unless, somehow, pains are taken to actually align curriculum with assessments. More curious, however, is Cambridge’s take on this point. When Cambridge states, “A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning,” she seems to be privileging formative assessment without admitting to the potential problem that formative assessment is created to simply mirror the summative assessment thereby training (as one might train a seal, a dog, or a dancing bear) to perform well on the only test that counts, the summative assessment. Too many contradictions to suit my take on all this.

Barton’s final point according to Cambridge is that “standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system.” Where do I start. The whole notion that specific gain can somehow be measured represents a view of human nature that reduces everything to a number or a set of numbers. From my vantage point, that of a teacher of literacy, I tend not to trust the Positivists faith in this form of reductionism. Quite the contrary, I trust words, stories, narratives–NOT NUMBERS! Oh how I hate to shout, but English teachers need to shout from time to time. I am disheartened by Cambridge’s response as she cheers the notion that teachers should set standards. Well, duh! Of course teachers should set standards. But, when imposed assessments, notions of formative and summative assessments, dictated standards and the like are the norm, teachers will be reduced to nothing more than conduits for the transmission of the standards to children who are, in turn, reduced to nothing more than a number.


Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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What a breath of fresh air. The idea of using literature and/or trade books for teaching history is not new but many people have a hard time actually doing it. Here is a story of a teacher with the courage to make the switch. Bravo! I am sure his students will benefit from this move. Read the post for yourself.

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In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2006) offer a well reasoned critique of NCLB. They analyze both the language of the act itself as well as the language of the tools used to implement the act published by the U.S. Department of Education. Cochran-Smith & Lytle explore in depth what they refer to as three images of teaching or, even more specifically, the “central common conceptions symbolic of basic attitudes and orientations about teachers and teaching that are explicit or implicit in NCLB (p. 668).” This article argues that NCLB is disingenuous toward teachers leaving them void of active agency as contributors to their own professional practice. The argument is further supported as they point to multiple instances where NCLB oversimplifies the processes of teacher learning and teacher practice because the act relies on a reductionist view of teaching and learning. NCLB focuses on a transmission model of teaching and learning at the expense of all other methods and models, this in spite of the fact that the past 30 years have pointed us in more constructivist approaches to classroom practice.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also argue that NCLB has multiple detrimental effects on schools, students, teachers, administrators, the communities served by schools, and the nation as a whole. They argue that NCLB undermines the broad democratic purpose of education in our nation. Public schooling, since the late 19th century, has been, at least in part, dedicated to the development of a productive, contributing citizen; active members of the body politic. They argue that NCLB, by removing democratic initiative and decision making from local and state authorities, effectively removes decision making from the classroom. The imposition of a top-down system of regulations for public schooling flies in the face of democratic principles, hence NCLB undermines democratic principles by teaching teachers and their students that following orders is more important than thinking about the source or legitimacy of those orders.

Cochran-Smith & Lytle also remark on the effect NCLB has had on narrowing the curriculum by privileging reading and math at the expense of social studies, science and the arts. What is more disturbing is that when considering reading NCLB only considers the technical aspects of the reading process and then only follows a single model for the transmission of reading skills to students. There is no effort to address competing models, for reading for aesthetic pleasure, or for reading for content and information. Some studies have found that better than 71% of American schools have dropped social studies, science, and the arts from their curriculum and that the majority of these schools are those that are historically under-served in terms of both money and staff.

I am appalled by the problems that NCLB has created. I suspect that they are far more serious in both the short and long term than the problems the act purports to correct. I will be spending some time over the next few weeks thinking deeply about the issues presented by NCLB. I will address questions such as whose interests are really being served by NCLB. I will deconstruct the language of the act and the supporting documents that are designed to support the implementation of the act. As I do this I will be looking seriously at work by David Berliner (1985, 2002) and his colleagues and Walt Haney (2000) as well as a number of other researchers. I believe this is an important debate and invite broad discussion.


Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Retrieved July 19, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2006). Troubling images of teaching in No Child Left Behind. Harvard Educational Review, 76(4), 668-697.

Haney, W. (2000, Aug 19). The myth of the Texas miracle in Education. Retrieved July 22, 2002, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/

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Over the next few weeks I want to explore some of the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) especially as NCLB impacts attitudes directly engaged with teaching and the image of teachers in general. NCLB is deeply problematic at many levels, not the least of which are the many tensions that are explicit within the language of the act itself. In this post, I want to explore the notion that highly qualified teachers, as defined by language in NCLB, are those with content area knowledge that can give their knowledge to their students.

The notion that content knowledge can be transmitted from teacher to student is one that professionals from many disciplines over the past 30 years have dismissed as being far too narrow and simplistic to be of any significant value for serious classroom consideration. Both teaching and learning are socially constructed, dependent on local knowledge, customs, and ideas, and deeply embedded in class, status and other cultural issues. Learning is not a matter of absorbing what another tells us, rather it is a complex pattern of acquisition of new and important ideas, finding parallels to one’s own prior knowledge, experimenting with ways of integrating that knowledge into new and meaningful constructions, and finally making the newly integrated knowledge public—only to repeat the entire process over and over again. In this sense, learning is a messy, contextualized process that is dependent on well informed and well educated teachers.

NCLB, however, defines highly qualified teachers as those that have content knowledge they can give to their students—to transmit their wealth of knowledge and experience to their students regardless of context, culture or other mitigating factors. This can and will be done by applying scientifically based methods (SBM) to the classroom because SBM is what works. In short, NCLB takes the position that just about anyone with adequate content knowledge can teach what they know to others if they are provided with the appropriate SBM to apply, sort of like a salve to an itch, in the classroom. This view understands students as a disease for which the cure is the SBM applied to them by content savvy teachers. The problem is that there is no SBM, no unbiased research to support this position. What little research there is that supports the NCLB position comes from think tanks that support NCLB. Relying on these results is a bit like parents relying on a study that points to benefits of delayed toilet training funded by the manufacturer of Pampers! Biased funders of what passes for research do not present reliable, trustworthy findings.

Classroom teaching is a complex, fluid experience as any experienced teacher will relate. The act of teaching is not guided by a single size fits all approach anymore than it is fair to assume that everyone would be pleased to sit down to a meal of fried grasshoppers. Teachers are adept at making quick and necessary adjustments to their teaching because they are constantly making informal judgments about the progress of their students in the classroom. Teachers gain this expertise in two ways. First, through professional training in schools that emphasize pedagogy, lead to effective practicum, clinical and student teaching experiences and finally to on the job experience. Secondly, teachers seek advanced degrees to improve their understanding of teaching and learning so as to be more effective in the classroom. Experienced teachers know, both practically and instinctively to be wary of those that introduce the absolutely perfect program, the one guaranteed to fix everything. They have seen it all before. They know that what works varies from day to day, class to class, year to year. What I did in my 1st period English class may or may not work in my 4th period repeat of the same content material. If I am not aware of that then I will fail my students in both the short and long terms. NCLB makes no room for this kind of reflection.

Just as an aside, I have been wondering lately why those who most ardently support NCLB and SBM tend to reject science when it comes to evidence supporting evolution? It seems curious that science is such a fickle partner!

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I have often argued that engaged teaching and learning must be so much fun that children do not know what they are doing is good for them. This idea turns on the notion that teaching and learning must be ENGAGED. To be engaged teaching and learning must be rigorous, must be of value to students, and must be targeted to a real audience that goes beyond the teacher. Another way of thinking about engagement is to label this teaching and learning in this way as authentic.

In American schools today the emphasis on high-stakes testing resulting from the No Child Left Behind requirement to demonstrate adequate yearly growth (AYG) has placed a damper on engagement. Furthermore, NCLB requirements are causing schools to concentrate on technical aspects of reading and mathematics while abandoning aesthetic reading purposes as well as science, social studies, and the arts. Students are encouraged to follow specific formulas for writing, apply technical language to their acts of learning, and spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for the standardized testing that is required by NCLB.

By abandoning literature, science, social studies and arts integration into the curriculum, American schools are effectively creating an entire generation of Jeopardy players; an entire generation of people who are able to recall isolated facts without the ability to relate those facts to anything meaningful. Americans, sadly, are tolerating, perhaps even encouraging, the dismemberment of intellectual capital among the younger generation.

Integrating the arts into the classroom by introducing models of creative dramatics such as improvisation, choral reading, text to script adaptations (and performances) as well as teaching music, drawing, and the like as these important and engaging activities relate to the content of literature, science, mathematics, the social studies, and the like will restore creativity for sure. Additionally, students will learn to contextualize knowledge rather than understand knowledge as a bunch of facts.

Fear of being less than Number 1, an American obsession, seems to be driving the political and cultural movement toward a standards based curriculum and high stakes testing. Becoming well schooled in a Western hegemonic world view is the goal of some. Reliance on technical aspects of reading and mathematics is on the plates of others. What is missing is a commitment to knowledge as thinking rather than knowledge as a matter of being able to recall facts and structures.

Of course this little rant comes about because it is testing time in Illinois where I live. I have personally witnessed nearly two months of test preparation mostly at the expense of instruction. If I count the time dedicated to test preparation in the schools I visit on a regular basis over 70 instructional days have been dedicated to preparing for the multiple tests being administered to Chicago Public School students. This amounts to better than 50% of the school year so far spent on testing and test preparation.

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This was posted by Educating Alice. I found it so intriguing that I simply had to place this link here.

Teaching with Blogs: Podcasting Literary Salons

I made the following comment to this post:

What a wonderful idea. I really love your mention of the weaker reader preparing so that they perform well. This is a fine example of the aspect of authenticity that suggests that there be an audience beyond the teacher for the product of work produced by students. Responsibility for learning shifts from belonging only to the teacher to belonging mainly to the student. I want to share this idea with my English Language Arts methods students. Bravo!!!

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Wonder is the beginning of all learning (Rowen, 2007). But wonder alone will not insure that learning occurs in a classroom. Wonder by itself is a subjective manner of confronting the world around us. As a subjective approach, wonder may be transformative but there is no way of validating the importance of the wonder fed inquiry, no way of relying on the evidence collected nor is there any way to confirm the relevance of the analysis of the data collected. It is entirely conceivable that I could wonder about how to convert lead into gold, a preoccupation of the Medieval alchemists. Believing that lead can be converted to gold does not make it so and all the wondering about a methodology to do so will not provide a method that works. If wonder is not subjected to what Dewey (1938) called warranted assertability then wonder is necessary but not sufficient to learning.

Wonder certainly stirs passions. Wonder is the beginning of interest. But passion and interest must be guided by reason and experience. In this sense, wonder is a political activity that is embedded in cultural expectations. Medieval alchemists drew on the culture and climate of their own times to wonder about what, today, we might consider a fool’s errand. Wonder can be guided as well by self-interest—I wonder because it is in my best interest to wonder about this or that. It can also guided by group interest—I wonder because it is in my group’s interest to wonder about this or that. I might also wonder because I have always wondered about or have been taught to wonder about this or that. In each of these cases, wonder is not enough; in fact, it can play a destructive role in learning.

In the classroom, teachers have a responsibility to kindle wonder in students at all ages. This is an awesome responsibility that can be guided by principles laid out by Newmann and his colleagues (Newmann, Byrk, & Nagaoka, 2001; Newmann, Marks, & Gamoran, 1995; Newmann, Secada, & Wehlage, 1995; Newmann & Wehlage, 1993) for authenticity. Viewed as a three-legged stool, authentic planning and execution in the classroom rests on three integrated and integral legs:

  1. Work must have value beyond the classroom for students.
  2. Work must be academically rigorous.
  3. Work produced must have an audience beyond the teacher.

If the work planned is not valuable there is little, if any, incentive for students to become interested in the work, to wonder about what they are learning. If the work is not rigorous, if it does not challenge students (not frustrate them but challenge their thinking) then students will seek out things that do challenge them. Finally, by creating an audience beyond the teacher, the responsibility for performance shifts from the teacher to the student creating a context for high levels of performance.

Wonder, coupled with authenticity, then is the beginning of developing classrooms that invoke serious inquiry, focused wonder, and awe for and about learning.


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Harper & Row.

Newmann, F. M., Byrk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence (Special Report Series). Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Newmann, F. M., Marks, H. M., & Gamoran, A. (1995). Authentic pedagogy: Standards that boost student performance (No. Issue Report No. 8). Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

Newmann, F. M., Secada, W. G., & Wehlage, G. G. (1995). A guide to authentic instruction and assessment: Vision, standards and scoring. Madison: Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Newmann, F. M., & Wehlage, G. G. (1993). Standards of authentic instruction (No. Issue Report No. 4). Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

Rowen, T. B. (2007). A retrieval of awe: Examining disruption and apprehension in transformative education. In N. C. Burbles & D. Vokey (Eds.), Philosophy of Education 2006 (pp. 212-220). Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

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Prompts and the TIP Writing Process

The TIP Writing Process is an approach to balanced literacy practice in which writing instruction is understood as a three-level approach to teaching.

  • TEACH writing strategies directly to students
  • INTRODUCE skills and mechanics in mini-lessons
  • Allow time for frequent and sustained PRACTICE

Is the TIP Writing Process prompt friendly? The answer is an overwhelmingly positive yes! Throughout the process students are faced with many exercises that are specifically designed to help pave the way to respond to completely random writing prompts, the kind one might find on state writing examinations. The process of developing skills for addressing issues of prompts, however, is not explicit—if it were it would lose an underlying sense of authenticity in the process. We want to provide three specific examples of how the TIP Writing Process addresses prompted writing.

The Friday Essay

The Friday Essay asks students to write an essay addressing either a motivational quotation such as: Never, ever quit! (Winston Churchill), or a study tip, for example: Always make a priority list of what you must study and then follow that list, checking off each completed task. Often schools provide agenda books that include both types of quotes. Our intent is to create an appendix to include 40 motivational and 40 study guide quotations for teachers to use for the Friday Essay. The Friday essay may be written in class any time the class meets on Friday but never on Monday through Thursday. Why else would it be called the Friday Essay? The Friday Essay may also be assigned as homework. Without actually telling students that they are practicing prompted writing, the Friday Essay provides an authentic approach to developing the skills to respond to prompts in a meaningful way.

Timed Writing Strategies

Two timed writing strategies address the issue of prompted writing. The first is the basic timed writing exercise. Round Robin Writing provides a second.

Timed Writing

Beginning with a single word, for example HOLIDAY, students brainstorm what the word reminds them of. They are instructed to write continuously about one of their ideas generated during their brainstorming session from the start signal to the stop signal. Students are then instructed to read what they just wrote and find a word or phrase they would like to write more about. They then write about the extended thought following the same rules. The directions are repeated three to four times giving students 1.5 to 5 minutes intense writing time for each segment—the process builds into longer time periods as it is repeated. Writing is analyzed for coherence and flow by the students as the pieces are read aloud.

This strategy helps students develop skills to brainstorm unfamilliar prompts and to develop skills to extend writing by building on what has already been written.

Round Robin Writing

Much like basic timed writing, Round Robin Writing builds on an initial prompts. A round robin prompt is longer and always ends unfinished, for example:

The night was cold and damp. We all huddled around the campfire cooking Smores and telling stories. Low clouds were glowing orange, illuminated by the glowing embers of our campfire. A lone owl hooted in the trees to our left while a coyote howled in the distance. Frogs croaked in the nearby swamp and crickets chirped in the tall grass of the clearing where we made our camp. All seemed right with the world when suddenly…

What differes in Round Robin Writing is that students are instructed to exchange papers at the end of each timed session so that they have a new story in front of them at each turn. This high interest exercise engages students at all ages and, while it is designed primarily as a way to engage students in reading/writing connections, it secondarily focuses on prompt type writing.

Some Concluding Thoughts

The TIP Writing Process is prompt friendly. What is important to realize is that the fundamental force of the process is to engage students, to help students to enjoy writing so much that they don’t realize that what they are doing is actually good for them. So we are never explicit with students. We never begin a lesson with words like, “Now students, we are going to work on writing prompts.” We can almost hear the sound of heads banging on desks as students fall asleep just thinking about the torture of writing to a prompt. By not being explicit we find students beg for more, especially timed writing and round robin writing.

Students taught writing through the TIP Writing Process tend to perform well on high-stakes writing tests. In Lawrenceville, Texas students working with the TIP Writing Process for and entire academic year moved their writing scores from a miserable 44% pass rate to a 78% pass rate on the TAAS writing test (Passman, 2003; Passman & Duran-Klenclo, 2002). The paradox of extraordinary student performance when engaged in non-explicit instruction speaks volumes for engaged classroom experiences.




Passman, R. (2003). Overcoming Consequences: Using Reflection as a Compensatory Tool for Addressing Reductionist Curriculum Policies. Paper presented at the Fourth International Federation of Teachers of English Conference: Transforming Literacies Changing English, Elsewheres of Potential, July 5-8, 2003, Melbourne, Australia.

Passman, R., & Duran-Klenclo, P. (2002). Teachers talk about change: Reflection as professional development (Vol. ED 465 723).

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Writing is a unique way of thinking.
Janet Emig (1977)

This (therefore) will not have been a book.
Jacques Derrida (1983)



Writing is often described as communication; the text represents a tool of description, persuasion, argumentation, and or narration, among other things. To this end, writing is often taught as a rhetorical exercise, pitting the writer’s skills against the diaphanous vagaries often associated with the notion of writing. Writing classes are often disarming places for both students and teachers alike. When audience is privileged over self-awareness, and the construction of knowledge through the act of writing and rhetorical skills are emphasize to expend expensive content a disconnect between form and function created. This leads to disengaged failures on the part of learners. I have no intention of arguing and rhetorical form is not important. That will not be my point. In fact, strongly supported ground inappropriate use of discourse models. Rather, much in the language of Bauhaus architecture, I will argue that form follows from function, not the other way around.

My argument rests, in part, on the two quotes at the beginning of this entry. Emig (1977) and Derrida (1983), it seems to me, share an important characteristic when it comes to and understanding of how the act of writing functions for the writer him or herself. The creation text is not focused on transaction with an audience, rather, the act of creation is an effort at the construction of knowledge — of making meaning on the part of the author.

As an autonomous transaction, writing may be considered through the lens of the reader or that writer. When considered through the reader’s lens construction of meaning is derived through transactions with text (Rosenblatt, 1978, 1994). When the creation text is understood through the author’s lens quite a different picture emerges. The author to it has transactions with text in which meaning is constructed. However, the meaning constructed by the author is centered on the process of creation rather than on the transactions with creative thinking or creation.

Both Emig (1977) and Derrida (1983) help us to understand ways of looking at the author’s purpose in writing text. Derrida’s contribution is to privilege formation of text as an internal process of constructing meaning; of lending permanence, however fleeting, to the construction of textual ideas resulting in publication (at any potential level) of the text prior to authorial abandonment. In short, from the author’s point of view writing functions as a means of coming to know; it is an internally motivated project, allowing authors to construct personal meaning from otherwise disconnected tidbits of thought, nothing more. In this sense, writing is a transaction between the author and the author’s experience.

Emig (1977) suggests the interiority of the writing process itself. When she writes, “Writing is a unique way of thinking,” two words focus on her main point: unique and thinking. I want to explore these two terms, and how they contribute to an understanding of how writing informs the writer without regard to the reader or audience. On this view, audience is turned inward, rather than functioning as an external ideal — something to be satisfied through the absorption of text.



Derrida, J. (1983). Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, May.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In R. B. Ruddell, M. R. Ruddell & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International reading Association.

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