Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

A Perversion of Terms

A number of aspects of the corporate/bureaucratic reform movement make me angry, but among the most egregious is the deliberate attempt to pervert and twist the meaning of valid educational or other terms into something that is often the opposite of their true essence. I first became aware of this phenomenon when I began teaching pre-service elementary teachers in a state that had bought into DIBELS in wholesale fashion, but I have become aware of many others, and I will address several in this blog post. No doubt you can think of more.

Perversion #1: Fluency

In my course work to become a Master Reading Teacher, I learned about fluency. Fluency is a concept that identifies a good oral reader; a fluent reader reads at an appropriate speed using emphasis and expression that suggest the reader understands what he or she is reading. In fact, comprehension is one aspect of true fluency. Fluency was identified as one of the five critical concepts that readers must master and that teachers must teach to help their students become competent readers by the National Reading Panel. Then, along came DIBELS.

Since our newly minted teachers would be asked to administer this assessment in most schools they might be hired in, our teacher education department felt it was important to give them some experience in how this collection of assessments is administered, and in the process, make them aware of its shortcomings. Although I had heard about DIBELS, I had no experience with it, so I learned along with my students.

I learned that DIBELS assessments are composed of one-minute “probes” of minute skills related to reading (but in most cases, not actual reading), all of which were labeled as some kind of “fluency”–First Sound Fluency, Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency, etc. None of these tests have the remotest connection to real fluency; yet by naming them with the word “fluency,” the idea is fostered that they must have something to do with the kind of fluency confirmed by the National Reading Panel. I have no idea what bureaucrat at the USDOE decided that DIBELS was exactly what was needed by schools who received Reading First Grants, but a huge percentage of the recipients of the RF grants adopted DIBELS as their screening tool. Of course there is much more to that story, but that’s for another post. What I do want to point out here is that the only aspect of fluency that DIBELS even tenuously incorporates is the idea of reading at a proper pace. However, because the tests are timed for one-minute, and smart children know they are being timed, they quickly catch on that what is important is speed, not accuracy, not expression, not even true understanding. Fluency has become “How fast can you say it?” and children become brilliant word callers with little or no comprehension. So, this perversion of a valid educational term has had and is having a negative impact on many students.

Perversion #2: Choice

Choice sounds like such a good thing, a really democratic thing. Making our own choices about how to live out our lives is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. How can choice be bad? It’s bad when it isn’t really choice at all.

What Choice has come to mean in the current political dialogue is choice in name only. The idea is this: since public schools are failing (a contention thoroughly discredited by many experts), students who attend a school that they believe is not serving their needs may either receive money in the form of a voucher to pay tuition at a private school (which has its own problems in terms of the separation of church and state), OR they may attend a publicly supported charter school. These charter schools claim that they do a better job of reaching these underserved students, but the research casts serious doubt on these claims. In addition many of the charter schools are organized as non-profits, but then hire for-profit corporations to actually run the schools. Thus public money is moving to private coffers.

Moreover, these charter schools often limit the number and kind of students they will accept (that is they refuse to admit students on an IEP or English Language Learners), or they take the money for these students, then find reasons to drop them or expel them for behavior or lack of progress or whatever excuse they can find. These students are then “dumped” back into the public schools, which now have even less money to meet their needs. The students who perform well on tests are the ones who get to remain in the charters. The level of accountability for charter schools is rarely as high as for public schools. One of the results of this kind of choice then is even less opportunity for the most at-risk students and ultimately a wider achievement gap than ever. Not much real choice going on here. I’m not at all sure these are the facts that people think of when they adopt a pro-Choice stance. Thus Choice is a good candidate for the perversion label.

Perversion #3: Accountability

Accountability is the name given to the idea that a person is held “to account” for his or her performance regarding something that is a requirement. So an “accounting” means that an explanation must be given as to whether the performance is acceptable and why or why not. We hold people accountable who have agreed to meet the performance requirements, not those who have NOT agreed to meet them. With the case of children who are students in the classroom, because we have compulsory attendance laws, they have no choice in being in school; therefore, when we hold them “accountable” for their school work, we have to ask how much accountability we can justifiably expect. Beyond that concern, what should be our response to a student who is not “accountable”–punishment or support? Of course, we train our children to do as they are told and for good reason. But we also want to train them to think for themselves, evaluate situations with logic, and make their own decisions, a scenario that is somewhat at odds with training them to follow our rules and extremely difficult to assess with standardized tests, which have become the only measure of “accountability”.

With the development of the theories that ultimately led to the passage of No Child Left Behind, we saw the push for accountability initially focused on students. The implication of the legislation is that children are inherently lazy and will not achieve the levels of learning required without pressuring them to pass tests. Tests are not inherently bad, but the tests that NCLB gave us were high-stakes tests; if the students were not accountable (i.e., didn’t pass the tests at the required level), bad things could happen. Even that might be tolerable IF the tests actually accurately assessed the students’ learning; they do not. One test alone can never be a valid litmus test of the depth and/or breadth of a student’s body of knowledge or thinking on a topic.
NCLB required that all third graders in the nation be proficient in reading and math at grade level by 2014. It quickly became apparent even to the most optimistic that this goal was impossible, so the accountability piece was moved to rest on schools for not pushing the teachers hard enough to raise student test scores and then to the teachers themselves, lazy sloggers who lap at the public trough, and finally to the teachers colleges that did a shoddy job of preparing the teachers to raise student test scores. (It strikes me that when the buck has been passed that far, the only place left to pass it to is the education policy creators–oh, no, of course not! They can’t be held accountable for anything!)

Nevertheless, the result of adopting this stance is that accountability comes to mean a method for sorting good test takers from poor test takers and punishing the poor test takers and those who are responsible for their poor showing. Any reasonable person would have to agree that this is a perversion of real accountability.

Perversion #4: Rigor

Closely related to accountability, at least in the minds of some, is the idea of rigor. Rigor is defined in most dictionaries as making something extremely and unreasonably difficult. As NCLB morphed into Race to the Top and Common Core, we began to hear that standards needed to be rigorous, and the accompanying tests that assessed the students who were learning under those standards should be rigorous. Perhaps they meant “challenging,” but that is not the word they used. Again the implication is that students (and teachers and administrators) are simply not expecting enough of themselves; they are taking the easy way out; they are lazy. But is rigor really what we want for our students, our children? Do we want them pushed to and beyond their highest stress levels? In the past, rigor was a term used in very negative contexts, and it was not even an educational term–but it is now! The perversion-of-terms menace has struck again!

Perversion #5: Close Reading

Speaking of Common Core, the requirements of the English Language Arts portion of these standards have led to yet another perversion of a good educational concept. For decades reading experts have recommended a series of word attack strategies to help students identify unknown words. One of those strategies is the use of context clues, that is, using other words in the sentence or paragraph to deduce the meaning of an unknown word. This is a very basic form of close reading. Re-reading is another recommended procedure. Both of these concepts are inherent in close reading. The idea is to thoroughly read a passage to glean as much information from it as possible. The twist comes when Common Core advocates maintain that students should not use any other information outside of the specific words in the passage to build comprehension. This is in direct contradiction to years of research that show that it is important for a reader to activate and use prior or background knowledge that they may have about the topic in the passage to build a complete understanding of it. Limiting an interpretation to only the words in the passage can and will lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Score one more for the reformers’ perversion machine.

Perversion #6: Personalized Learning

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what personalized learning is supposed to mean. With my background in education, I interpret it to mean the following: a teacher very carefully presents material to be learned to a student at an appropriate rate using knowledge of his/her ability, level of prior knowledge, interest, and preferred engagement mode, and providing supports as needed (we call this scaffolding) to enable the student to eventually construct an understanding or complete a task on his/her own. This is the essence of differentiated instruction and is as old as the one-room schoolhouse. It is difficult to do in our current factory-model of schooling, but many good teachers accomplish it. I believe this is the model that the minds of most classically trained educators jump to when the term “personalized learning” is used.

Sadly that is not what the corporate reformers mean when they use the term. In their minds, personalized learning cannot happen without a computer of some sort, be it the traditional desk top model, a lap-top, or a tablet. It involves something called adaptive programing, in which the computer has algorithms built into its programing that evaluate the answers a child gives on certain questions, then make a determination (instantaneously) as to the next item to present. Some of these programs actually can use physical feedback from the child’s hand on the mouse, perhaps even eye movement tracked by the computer, to determine stress levels, and adjust the material presented accordingly. Sounds great, right? Not! No computer can understand a child at the level that his human teacher can. The computer has no way of assessing whether an incorrect answer was given because it is too hard for the student or because he was distracted by something going on in the classroom or something that happened at home the night before or whether he didn’t get breakfast this morning. Corporate reformers envision large classes of children working primarily on some type of computer without much interaction with teachers or peers, taught “personally” at their specific level by the computer. What is missing here is an understanding of how children really learn. Children learn through manipulation of physical objects (sorry, the mouse or a touch screen doesn’t count as manipulative) and interaction with knowledgable others, either adults or peers. They learn by being in their world, not passive observers of it.

Personalized learning as touted by the corporate reformers is really pretty scary. Imagine how much data the computer needs about a child to be able to respond in a logical way to him. Imagine where that data is stored and where it is going. Who creates the programs that teach the child? If you guessed Pearson, you are correct. Adaptive learning and “personalized learning” is the focus of their new business plan.

I have reviewed only six of the terms that have been perverted to support the corporate reform agenda. Perhaps you would like to comment and add some of your own. Feel free!


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One thought on “A Perversion of Terms

  1. Excellent blog Doc!

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