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Steven Singer weighs in on teaching, learning, and the trying process of education reform at his blog, GADFLYONTHEWALL (capitalization and jumbling together, his), which sports the tagline “To sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” Be forewarned.
A nationally certified public school teacher, Singer is also the father of a daughter whom he calls “kindergarten tot,” whose adventures, along with his own, he’s been chronicling. Last month, at the L.A. Progressive, he gave a blow-by-blow account of the first parent-teacher night noting his daughter’s great affection for her teacher, how “enlightening and bizarre” it was for him to be in the parent’s seat, and the radical changes since his own kindergarten days. She has homework almost every night, and a full day of school. His mother would walk him home for lunch—the prelude to an afternoon of play.
Recently, in a post at his blog, Singer described “One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl from Toxic Testing.” He’s an activist, and he’s comfortable railing against the corporatization and standardization of public education. But then the political got personal.
He discovered his daughter would be getting familiar with the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and the Group Reading and Assessment Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE). The former is defined on the website of the authors, as “a set of procedures and measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills from kindergarten through sixth grade.” One-minute “fluency measures,” they’re designed to flag early reading problems. The latter, a product of Pearson, the Goliath of market-based education, is described as a full-battery paper/pencil test of 50 to 90 minutes that everyone from preschoolers to adults can enjoy.
But as Singer thought about calling the principal of his daughter’s school to talk about excusing her from the tests, he was nervous. Would his actions get his little girl in trouble? Ultimately, he couldn’t suppress his strong belief that standardized testing is destroying public education, and demanding that kids “perform at levels they aren’t developmentally ready to reach.” He made the call.
The outcome was a meeting with the kindergarten teacher, a school counselor, the principal, and others. Following are some edited excerpts from the script of the meeting, which Singer began by praising his daughter’s education at the school. You should check out his original account, which eloquently captures the drama and nuance.
As you know, I teach at the secondary level and proctor the GRADE test to my own students. I’m sure the version given to elementary children is somewhat different, but I know first-hand how flawed this assessment is. It doesn’t assess academic learning. It has no research behind it to prove its effectiveness and it’s a huge waste of time where kids could be learning.
As to the DIBELS, I had to really do some research. As something that’s only given at the elementary level, it’s not something I knew much about. However, after reading numerous scholarly articles on the subject, I decided it wasn’t good for my daughter either.
When taking the DIBELS, the teacher meets with a student one-on-one while the child reads aloud and is timed with a stopwatch. Some of the words the child is asked to read make sense. Some are just nonsense words. The test is graded by how many words the child pronounces correctly in a given time period.
Singer was surprised to see the principal nodding in agreement—he even mentioned a Keystone to Opportunity Grant, which stipulated use of the GRADE. When the grant ran out, the district would likely stop administering the test, the principal confided.
But here’s the piece de resistance. The principal finally put the kindergarten teacher in the spotlight. Does the DIBELS provide you with useful information?” he asked. Singer’s description of that moment says it all:
The look on her face was priceless. It was like someone had finally asked her a question she had been waiting years to answer.
No, she said. I don’t need the DIBELS to know if my kids can read.
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I didn’t learn a second language until the advanced age of 12, as was the practice in the dark days of linguistic exceptionalism. By that time, my status as sponge had altered. Still, I plowed on, determined to earn my dual-language bonafides. I studied and lived in a Spanish-speaking country. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and the classics of the Siglo de Oro in the native tongue of Cervantes. But I couldn’t get past the first sentence today. And I can barely manage an intelligent conversation in the language I had grown to love.
So I was pretty excited to hear the latest NICHD podcast on how acquisition of a second language increases mental acuity. Now, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is hardly known for dazzling use of social media and other cutting-edge technology. Their website puts you to sleep with staid shades of blue and lots of eye-glazing text. They leave a tiny imprint on Twitter (NICHD News & Info @NICHD_NIH). But they seem to be getting with the program.
Meredith Carlson Daly opens the segment, an interview with Viorica Marian, a professor of communication sciences and disorders, psychology, and cognitive science at Northwestern:
About 22% of school-age children speak a language other than English at home, according to the US Census Bureau. The percentage is even higher, 64%, among Hispanic children. Still, it is commonly believed by some that teaching more than one language to children confuses them. Now, new research shows that in fact, bilingualism actually boosts the brain. Shifting back and forth between two different sets of vocabulary and grammar provide a real mental workout.
Marian and colleagues in the United Kingdom had conducted a study of word recognition in school-age children, recording their brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the bilingual kids were better able to ignore background noise, focusing on the target sentences. Apparently, the researchers noticed changes in blood oxygenation levels and blood flow in the part of the brain the youngsters had used to complete the task. But Marian said she was especially excited by the work of Ellen Bialystok, at York University, who found that bilingualism can postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as four to five years.
I’m more interested in educational equity—which remains elusive here across the pond. The universe of all America’s children is expanding exponentially. As the first decade closed, the majority of babies born in the U.S. were ethnic and racial minorities. The U.S. had also surpassed all nations as a destination for immigrants, taking in a record 40.4 million—11 million, undocumented—who were moving from Mexico and Central America across the continents to Asia and Europe, and Africa. More than half of the 18 million children of these immigrant families are non-white. By 2018, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be people of color, and by mid-century—if not sooner—no single racial group will dominate the population.
Spanish is only one of the dozens of languages proliferating like mushrooms today. But the U.S. Latino population is rapidly growing. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, released last fall to celebrate “Hispanic Heritage” month, the population of Spanish-speaking residents was 54 million—nearly 12 million families among them—making the group the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority. The census takers project that this number will soar to 128.8 million in 2060—or 31 percent of the population. Achievement gaps persist among the children of these families, and enrollment in preschool tends to be low. And when they do get there, dual-language learning is far from the norm.
Early childhood educators with expertise in dual-language acquisition in young children have long been pondering the implications of all of the above, the data confirming what experience and practice have demonstrated. Yet the bridge between research, policy, and practice is still wobbly. Conor Williams, a senior researcher in the early education initiative at New America, zeroed in on the promises and challenge in a policy brief last month.
Summarizing the research of Temple University professor Carol Scheffner Hammer, he noted the benefits of developing two language systems, including more cognitive flexibility and stronger conflict resolution skills. But Williams also wrote of the difficulty of isolating the effects of bilingualism on children’s academic trajectories. We’ve got those pesky, confounding variables—including socioeconomic status. In addition, there’s “the difficulty in applying lessons learned from studies of older Spanish-English language learners,” which “may have limited applicability to younger language learners who speak, say, Somali at home.”
These are valid—and urgent—questions in our multilingual society. We must continue to explore them. But I’m heartened by the findings of neuroscience, which offer evidence that can move us beyond monolingualism to a more expansive framework for language acquisition. How fast we get there is the question. The new American child is waiting.
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Today I almost lost it on LinkedIn. Posted at one of the many online “water coolers” was “Early Childhood Teachers Who Can’t Read Hurt Students.” The provenance? Fox KRIV, an affiliate in Houston.
Fox is known for such irresponsible tripe, of course, but this one got to me. The narrative, by Ashley Johnson, a “multimedia journalist,” [... click post title to read more ...]