Monday, December 02, 2013

Wondering about reading skills & The Catcher in the Rye

Perhaps I should take Harvard University Professor Paul E. Peterson’s advice:  Common Core is just the latest reform movement in education.  There’ll be others, so there’s no need to sweat this one.

But as a concerned dad, with kids in Massachusetts’ public schools, it’s anathema to me to simply leave their education in the hands of the professionals.  I reserve the right to step in. 

And so my biggest worry, after math instruction, is how reading is coming along for my fifth and fourth grade sons.

Last year, when my elder son was in the fourth grade, he was required to produce a book report each month.  He read Wonder; Hoot; Steve Jobs:  Thinking Differently; A Wrinkle Time; and Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets, among others.

Our younger son, when he was in the third grade, also read Wonder as well as many of the Harry Potter books.

But, so far, a book report has yet to show up for either boy.

Still, that hasn’t stopped their school district from implementing another standardized test – the Benchmark Reading Assessment – as a means of determining the kids’ reading abilities.

Louise Snyder, principal of the Dale Street School in Medfield, described the test in her email (provided to you as it showed up in my inbox):

“Irene Fountas and Gay Sue [sic] Pinnell, highly respected teachers of reading and leaders in reading research developed this program to meausre [sic] the many aspects of what makes a person a reader.  This test has students read a passage from a short text aloud.  Teachers record when a student misreads, repeats, or corrects him/herself as he/she reads.  Then the child is asked to read the rest of the passage silently.  The teacher takes note of the student's fluency and grades him/her according to a rubric.  The teacher also calculates the students [sic] correct words per minute. Aftere [sic] the student has completed the reading, he/she has a comprehension conversation with the teacher.  Students are asked literal, inferential and evaluative questions that are within the text, beyond the text, and about the text.  The teacher then grades the student using a comprehension rubric.  All of this information is used to determine a student's reading level.  Some students will read 2-3 levels of books while being tested and others will need to read more to determine the appropriate instructional level.”

The school is checking out this new test, Snyder wrote in her email, on a select sample set of kids:

“First, this endeavor takes time, modeling and conversation for teachers to learn the procedural aspect of the system.  [sic] Secondly, [sic] we have a lot of other new initiatives on the plate this year. (new schedule, new evaluation system, new math tools) so that we did not want this to take a back seat or become too overwhelming and fail.  Thirdly, [sic] we wanted time for teachers to be able to interact with the tool and ask as many questions to feel comfortable with what information the test gives them about their students as readers.”

I responded to her note, saying if the school required more book reports, there would be less of a need for another standardized test.  I also mentioned that my elder son read The Catcher in the Rye during the summer.

Snyder's response is what I should have expected:

“We do need to keep in mind that reading the words and
being able to comprehend the meaning of the story both within the text and
beyond it are critical to developing a strong reader. This new test will
help teachers to better hone their skills to find those books that do all
that for each reader in their class.
Thank you for your feedback.”

Sure, it’s an insulting reply but that’s to be expected when you’re challenging the education industry’s wisdom. 

She’s saying my son just scanned the words, if that much, when I thought he was reading J. D. Salinger’s great novel. 

A far more appropriate response might have been something along the lines like good for you.  Keep up the good work. 

But an acknowledgement like that just might signal parents know their children better than their teachers. 

And heaven forbid that should be the case!

For the record, I’m fully aware of what my son understood when reading The Catcher in the Rye because on more than one occasion he needed my assistance to comprehend the text.

But by reading the book, he disproved the idea that kids can only comprehend “age-appropriate” texts.  He understood most of the story. 

When his reading skills were assessed recently, his fifth grade teacher told me, he scored as reading at the 7th grade level; another test showed him reading at the 9th grade level, she says.

Our younger boy is also reading above grade level, so we’re thrilled.

The problem with Common Core, as least how it’s being implemented in our little Burg, is that the thrust of English education – this year – is vocabulary.  I’m not about to knock vocabulary instruction but it’s limiting.  It’s about spelling and definitions.

The broader education – learning how words are used to describe people, situations and settings – is missing.  Literature, like a good history book or a biography, can make a kid think.  That’s what’s not happening now.

So in accepting Common Core, our school system traded the opportunity for teaching kids how to use their minds and imagination for rote memorization.

I suspect that’s good if you’re bringing up robots, but I don’t know any parents who are.

From time to time, especially lately, I wonder how our kids’ literacy skills would measure up if they hadn’t read challenging books, like Wonder or The Catcher in the Rye. 

Not nearly as well, I say!

P.S.  Can someone please edit Ms. Snyder's emails -- before they're sent?

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