December 5, 2008

THE WORST READING STRATEGY IN THE WORLD—and one of the most common—is round robin reading. For decades, literacy experts have warned against this method; yet teachers continue to practice it. Sadly, building leaders fail to challenge them when they do. What is round robin reading? You probably remember it from your own school days. The class will open a book and Miss Chilblain will ask a student to read aloud. Johnny will read a page, stumbling over many words as Miss Chilblain supplies the correct pronunciation of each. Meanwhile, the other students are doing one of the following:

• Daydreaming
• Reading ahead to examine the page they’ll read when it’s their turn
• Complaining that they can’t hear or can’t understand Johnny
• Causing trouble (anything from spitballs to fistfights)

As a staff developer, one of my lifelong goals has been to put an end to the use of this most useless of pedagogical strategies. I have failed. Round robin reading is alive and well—and it’s hurting our kids.

When teachers use this method, they labor under the illusion that something productive is happening, but students are not gaining comprehension strategies, decoding strategies or content knowledge. They’re tuning out.

If round robin reading is being used in your school, I recommend that you gather other PTA members, visit the principal and throw a fit. Round robin reading is a waste of instructional time and a waste of taxpayers’ money. There are alternatives.


Teachers (or parents) model comprehension strategies by giving a child a book to read and then assessing how well he/she is using the strategy. Predicting is one such strategy. Adults can use a model reading passage to demonstrate how they use characters’ words and actions to predict what will happen later in the story.


The teacher reads aloud as students follow in their own texts. Periodically, the teacher “thinks aloud” how he/she interprets the text. For example, the teacher can demonstrate how to interpret a characters’ feelings by saying, “The hero said (fill in the blank) or did the following (fill in the blank) so know I know he must be feeling (fill in the blank).” Later, young readers can try the same type of comprehension strategy in texts of their own.


The teacher reads a short passage, demonstrating how he/she uses punctuation marks as cues to modulating his/her voice. Students then build their fluency skills by reading aloud the same passage.



November 17, 2008

I believe there should be a national information bank of lesson plans and
units in all content areas.  Communities could then use these units as-is or
modify them as they see fit.  The units should cover all content areas and
incorporate best practices.  Such an initiative would head-off the political
infighting that would inevitably occur if the Dept. of Education were to
impose a national curriculum on the populace; yet it would also allow
districts around the country to quickly and easily adopt an array of units
that would fit their students’ needs.  

I recommend that the US Dept. of Education form curriculum writing
committees for early childhood curricula, upper elementary curricula, middle
school curricula, high school curricula, and college preparatory curricula.  
I also recommend the formation of an alignment committee to interface with
all the others.  This committee would ensure that the content and critical
thinking strategies of each curriculum builds upon those taught at previous
levels.  This will allow communities to adopt(should they choose to do so) a
complete soup-to-nuts, grade-by-grade curriculum.  We would have, thus, a
National Curriculum that is available but not imposed on individual

As for No Child Left Behind: We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the
bathwater.  I’m no fan of 24/7 test prep; but NCLB has led communities to
identify research-based intervention programs that have a track record of
success. Some of these programs have effective systems of data collection,
allowing for meaningful differentiation of instruction. This is much better
than the blind and hysterical test preparation now plaguing the nation.  The
Dept. of Education should find a way to enable every state to purchase some
of these programs at very low cost–or at no cost.  Additionally, the Summer
2008 edition of the Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy (JAAL) provides
a review of several reading interventions.  The interventions outlined in
this edition should be included in the programs made available across the


November 14, 2008

The New York Daily News reports that NYC’s Department of Education is spending $350 million per year on the Chancellor’s great dog-and-pony show, his so-called “accountability” system.…

Chancellor Joel Klein is quoted as saying, “The dollars we’ve invested in this work are some of the smartest dollars we’ve spent.” This is nonsense. His multi-million dollar computerized system is a waste of taxpayer money. Why spend millions to invent a system when there are already several field-tested, time-tested and highly successful reading and math programs already in existence? All of these programs include student performance data that enable schools to demonstrate accountability. This is do-able because these programs include procedures for adjusting instruction based on the data generated through their assessments.

When Klein became Chancellor, the nationally renowned Chancellor’s District was already using, with great success, one of these programs—Success for All. Instead of spreading this program, which had demonstrated measurable improvements in under-performing schools around the city, Klein trashed it for an unproven “approach” to teaching literacy. “We’ll give you the guidelines,” the trainers told us, “and you can go and write the curriculum.” Lucy Calkins of Teachers College told us: “These Units of Study are not finished products. Think of them as gifts.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Instead of Success for All or any of a half-dozen other proven programs, we had Lucy Calkins and her staff (some of whom had little classroom experience and seemed barely beyond puberty) flying by the seat of their pants writing curriculum guidelines. And this was done only after lots of complaints from teachers. Lucy’s trainers began their new initiative by stating flatly that they don’t write curricula.

To this day, we still don’t have a citywide curriculum. We have experimentation and a lot of schools stumbling around in the dark—which is sometimes called entrepreneurialism. And now we have an “accountability” system instead of tried-and-true programs. It is unethical to make teachers accountable for results when they have not been given proven resources.

I have said before that I am in favor of value-added accountability systems, but they have to be managed wisely. In tough economic times, it would be wiser to incorporate existing, effective programs into a value-added approach to school accountability. If the millions being spent by the DOE are the “smartest dollars” they’ve ever spent then I pray that Klein and company never get their hands on my checkbook.


November 14, 2008

The Huffington Post reports that NYC’s Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, is rumored to be on the President-elect’s short-list for Secretary of Education. Blogger “godrummer” speaks most eloquently on the topic:

Joel Klein has single-handedly–well, with Bloomberg’s help–made a bad system much worse. His complete dependence on high stakes tests, his manipulation of school principals, his packing the schools with unprepared teachers, his Draconian approach to budget making, his consistent lies about serious matters like the NYC drop our rate (close to 70% for African Americans and Latino’s according to the best respected expert–Gary Orfield), and his utter disrespect of parents by excluding them completely is a partial list of why making him Secretary of Education is the worst possible move for Obama on education. I suggest Linda Darling Hammond or almost any other talented educator–we don’t need a lawyer.


It is also to be noted that under Klein’s watch, the NYC Department of Education:

>>Adopted an unproven literacy program that ran contrary to federal guidelines;

>>Set up new bus routes in midwinter that left children stranded;

>>Failed to prevent schools from lying to parents who were told (falsely) that their children had to transfer to GED programs because the youngsters hadn’t accumulated sufficient credits in high school;

>>Set up an accountability system that failed to articulate with Federal and State standards;

>>Spent millions on a data-analysis system that is so overloaded that most teachers can’t access data unless they get online in the middle of the night;

>>Continues to hire new, inexperienced teachers while forcing experienced, skilled and highly-paid senior teachers to serve as substitutes and hall-monitors;

>>Spends five-million dollars a year on couriers;

>>Failed to keep tabs on a Deputy Chancellor who pressured a school district into giving her unqualified husband a high-paying job.

Last week, the City’s Comptroller charged the DOE of submitting misleading numbers when reporting cost-cutting efforts.

Chancellor Klein’s leadership is questionable, to say the least. I’ve never heard a teacher speak well of him. President-elect Obama won the election because he is an inspirational leader. Joel Klein has drawn the ire of teachers and parents alike. Choosing him as Secretary of Education would be a provocative move.


October 27, 2008

In New York City, being a loving parent is now an ethics violation.  Recently, a Brooklyn school librarian attracted the wrath of the Department of Education’s Conflict of Interest Board.  What did he do?  Robert Grandt, a longtime educator put up a library display that included a book illustrated by his daughter. 


How much did the Grandt family earn from this display?  Nothing.  How many books did they sell in school?  Actually, Grandt gave them away free to anyone who asked.  What did the conflict of Interest Board do?  They fined Grandt five-hundred dollars and made him sign a statement “admitting” he had violated the conflict of interest rules.  At one point, they even threatened Grandt will possible termination. 


Considering all the no-bid contracts settled by the NYC Department of Education over the past few years, they have some nerve fining a parent who earned nothing. 


People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  


October 17, 2008

A recent study out of Duke Hospital offers evidence that reading books can help obese girls lose weight.  Yes, I said reading books!  How is this possible?  Working with pediatric specialists, the publisher of Lake Rescue produced a book that provided girls, ages 9-13, with a character who overcomes her self-esteem issues and learns how to follow a healthy lifestyle.  Even though the character is fictional, she managed to exert positive peer pressure, encouraging the girls in the Duke study to take control of their lives and to lose weight.


The implications of the study are powerful.  If this approach works for obese, preadolescent girls, it could work for preteens dealing with other issues.  Think of it.  The gay teen dealing with internalized homophobia, the young woman or man trying to recover from abuse, the kid with alcoholic parents, the boy who is trying to resist pressure to join a gang, even the math-phobic child who doesn’t think she can succeed in school; all of them might find their lives improved through a combination of support services and good reading.


I hope publishers, authors, mental health experts and educators begin working together to develop books that teach young people how to manage life’s complicated issues.  Right now, this is most likely to happen in fantasy novels, like the Harry Potter series.  Such novels often center on the adventures of “nerdy” kids who discover their own inner resources.  What a blessing it would be to flood the market with realistic YA fiction featuring young characters who learn how to negotiate life’s vicissitudes. 


Authors and publishers:  Take note!

Banned Books & Captain Underpants

September 22, 2008

Banned Books Week is coming!  September 27th-October 4th marks the celebration of the American Library Association’s annual celebration of the freedom of expression.  I prefer to call it Get a Life Week.  I can understand why some books upset conservatives; but there are others that make one wonder:  “Why do you care?  Honey, get a life!”   Chief among these is that great hero of the toddler set:  Captain Underpants.  Yes, Captain Underpants is listed by the ALA as one of the most banned or challenged series of the twenty-first century.


In the April 2008 edition of The American Educator, Gary D. Askins writes:

There is an incredible wealth of literature written for young people that is life affirming, humorous and fun to read. I do not include the writings of Dav Pilkey among them. His body of work is largely built on the lowest common denominator: the humor of bodily functions and frat-boy disrespect toward teachers, parents and adults in general.


There may be lots of books that Askins thinks are “fun to read,” but there’s a problem.  Boys aren’t reading them.  Most boys don’t think the approved canon of children’s books is fun at all.  So, boys don’t read:  not for pleasure, not for higher grades, not even if you threaten them. 


If we are to turn boys into willing readers, we must start with their interests.  Boys like gross humor, action, adventure.  Boys like antiheroes.  Such characters have been favorites for centuries.  If we ban Captain Underpants, should we ban Shakespeare’s Puck?  The coyote tales of the American Southwest?  Aristophanes?  Peter Pan?  What about Gulliver’s Travels or The Wife of Bath’s Tale? 


Let’s face it, the Captain Underpants series falls squarely into the tradition of world literature.  If boys like the series, more power to them.  If we kick the Captain in his pants, we’re kicking world literature, too.  So, to those who would ban Captain Underpants (and there are a lot of you out there), I say again:  “Honey, get a life.”  I also say, “Sweetie, reread the Western canon.  You’ve missed a few things.” 


September 19, 2008

Remember the scientific method?  You probably learned about it in school.  Let’s review.  These are the basic steps:


  • You observe the world around you.
  • You raise questions about what you see.
  • You form a hypothesis (theory) about how something in nature works or will work given a specific set of circumstances.
  • You conduct an experiment to see if your hypothesis is correct.  If it’s not, you revise your hypothesis.


So: creationism: 


Does it fall within the parameters set by the scientific method?  Is it scientifically measurable?  No.  Creationism is the idea that the world and all the creatures in it were created in six days by an invisible deity.  This is not directly observable; you cannot make direct observations about the process of supernatural creation.  You cannot do experiments on God or ask Him to fill out a questionnaire about His involvement in the generation of all things.


Evolution, on the other hand, can be subjected to experimentation through direct observation of the fossil record and a host of biological and biochemical experiments.  Can these experiments be faulty?  Of course.  But they can be criticized by scientific peers through further observation and experimentation.  Evolution, unlike creationism, is a topic of study that belongs squarely in the world of science. 


So when Sarah Palin (as “W” before her) suggests that creationism should be taught alongside evolution she’s just plain wrong.  A discussion of creationism does not belong in scientific circles and it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.  Should creationism be taught in public schools at all?  Certainly.  There is a place for it: the social studies classroom.  World mythology is a topic often discussed in social studies classes.  If the Christian myth of creation is placed along side other myths, such as the Iroquois tale of the earth being created on the back of a turtle, then creationism is a proper topic of study in the classroom.


This is no trivial matter.  Last year, the Washington Post reported a study that showed that American students are falling behind many other industrialized nations in math and science.


Falling behind in science and math will prevent young Americans from competing with their counterparts around the world; and it will lower their chances of prospering in the global economy.  To encourage American students to confuse mythology with science is to endanger their economic security in years to come.  In the glory days of America, we prided ourselves in being the leaders in scientific innovation.  The rest of the world may surpass us if our leaders continue to show disdain for science.  Those who advocate teaching evolution in science classrooms are short sighted in the extreme and may endanger the livelihoods of their children—and ours. 


September 10, 2008

Senator Obama is taking the high road, refusing to use the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter as political fodder. If he did so, it would be a “no win” situation, making Obama look like he’s attacking an innocent girl. The Senator’s decision is admirable; but still there is a political dimension to this pregnancy and someone’s got to talk about it. So here goes.

Governor Palin is an ultra-conservative and such people don’t just oppose abortion. They oppose birth control of any kind including the form of birth control known as information. Ultra-conservatives disapprove of any sex education that includes references to condoms, the pill or any other kind of birth control. Sex, they believe, is for reproduction only and only when one is married to a person of the opposite sex. Ultra-conservatives will fight funding for any program that focuses on anything but abstinence.

So it’s likely that Governor Palin’s daughter never received sex education beyond “just say no.” Is it a surprise that she got pregnant? Palin told the world: “Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned.” With proper counseling, Bristol wouldn’t have had to grow up quite so fast and become enmeshed in a marriage that she might bitterly regret some years hence.

And what of HIV? If my theory is correct and Bristol received no information regarding protection, an unplanned pregnancy could have been the least of her worries. By denying her information, Bristol’s “loving” parents may well have condemned her to death. Is this God’s will? I submit for your consideration the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”

Denying one’s child information that might prevent her early demise is moral, if not legal murder. If the Palins did indeed take an “abstinence only” approach, then they have broken God’s law. If Governor Palin supports a political agenda that forces all government programs to follow the same “abstinence only” plan, then many “beautiful daughters,” not to mention handsome sons, may lose their lives for lack of information.

Do we want our children to die before their time? If the answer is “no” then Bristol Palin’s pregnancy becomes an issue that is gravely political.


August 14, 2008

Here’s a modern myth: lowering class sizes will improve your child’s education.  This is supported by the American Federation of Teachers.  The A.F.T., one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, quotes a research study in support of lowering class sizes:


Reducing class sizes, the A.F.T. claims, will give teachers a chance to know the children better and will reduce the number of disciplinary problems.  The problem is, there’s no guarantee that the teachers will make the effort to know individual children better; and many teachers are lousy classroom managers.  There’d be pandemonium in their classrooms even if the class size was reduced to ten.


Now I’m not opposed to reducing class sizes, but this alone won’t improve children’s education.  And the STAR Project, the study quoted on the A.F.T.’s website is flawed.  There have been many criticisms of its imperfections.  Among these is the fact that some parents put extreme pressure on the district to place their kids in the smaller classes.  The teachers who conducted these classes were often those considered strongest by the district.  Additionally, class sizes seem to matter less beyond the third grade.  Some educators recommend (rightly, I believe) that the quality of instruction is as important as the size of the class.  Here’s where the canker gnaws. 


The A.F.T., while supporting smaller classes, has also elected Randi Weingarten, an apologist for incompetent teachers, as its new president.  In her last job as president of the U.F.T., New York City’s union, Weingarten staged mass demonstrations against the city when it tried to standardize the quality of instruction.  I’m not saying that New York’s Department of Education managed the changes well (they didn’t), but Weingarten’s response was telling.  “Let teachers teach!” she would stridently shout as demonstrators took up the chant.  “Let teachers teach,” was Weingarten’s clever way of demanding that accountability be rolled back. 


I personally heard Weingarten urge teachers to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid because: “We have to get rid of No Child Left Behind.”  NCLB, while flawed and poorly funded, is still our government’s greatest attempt to improve the quality of instruction nationwide.  Weingarten didn’t call for the government to refine NCLB.  She wanted it GONE.  Her job, along with improving teachers’ benefits is to shield them from accountability.  The A.F.T.’s demand that class sizes be reduced is a joke unless our nation also does the following:


Ø      Eliminate lifelong tenure

Ø      Develop nationwide guidelines for assessing teachers in each grade.

Ø      Develop national guidelines for due process: When should a teacher get fired?

Ø      Lower class sizes in grades K-3 and buy EVERY SCHOOL one of the well-researched reading programs.  Demand that teachers learn these programs well or be fired.

Ø      Lower class sizes in grades K-3 and buy EVERY SCHOOL one of the well-researched math programs.  Demand that teachers learn these programs well or be fired.

Ø      Require that every teacher spend longer hours learning these new programs, but pay them well for their time.

Ø      Pay for short term individualized tutoring FOR EVERY CHILD WHO NEEDS IT.

Ø      Buy every secondary school the best researched programs in reading and math.  Demand that teachers learn these programs well or be fired.

Ø      Require that every secondary-level teacher spend longer hours learning these new programs, but pay them well for their time.

Ø      Do not hire someone as a principal or assistant (vice) principal until they’ve spent a year, under close scrutiny, demonstrating their ability to teach using the reading and math programs their district has chosen. 


Teachers should be highly paid and receive incredible benefits packages, but they must prove their worth every year or be fired.  As long as education is held hostage by teachers’ unions, we’ll continue to hear a phrase that I’ve heard scores of times: “I have tenure; you can’t make me do this.”  As long as this is allowed to continue, lowering class sizes won’t mean a damn.