Thinking About Education

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think. ~Socrates

Tiger Basketball


Inspired by one of my young students, this poem is especially for children who prefer visual art expression to reading and writing




I see the lines

I see the color


They are bold

And they are bright


I see a tiger in the basketball

I see a panther in the night


I love to paint

I love to draw


It doesn’t matter

If “was” is “saw”


My world is full of patterns and hues

My brushes speak through reds and blues


I show the world

What I have to say


Through colors and paint

And shapes and clay


I see the lines

I see the color


They are bold

And they are bright


I see a tiger in the basketball

I see a panther in the night




The Discrimination Behind “Easy” Grading Practices


There seems to be a growing trend to revise grading practices so that courses are easier to pass. Some have called such practices the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but how is bigotry ever soft?

When inflationary practices began several years ago at my middle school, teachers and administrators were quiet about them; they weren’t sure they wanted parents to know that, for example, if a student turned in nothing or made a zero on a test, the teacher nevertheless gave the student a 60–or excused the grade altogether. Or maybe they didn’t want parents to know that they were giving one student a much easier test than others because in the past that student had not performed well on a test. Now it seems much more publicly acceptable not only to admit to such practices, but for teacher leaders to claim they are “motivational” and lead to “greater success.”

Grades can affect student learning significantly, so it is important to consider carefully the implications and consequences of the practices we choose, as well as their purpose and transparency.

About 7 years ago, just after the effects of NCLB starting sinking into public school districts everywhere, my principal called me into her office and said that the grades for some of my black students needed to improve, and that, in fact, one of our new district goals was improving black students’ grades. She wanted to know what was I going to do about that since I had a few black students (and a few non-black students as well) at the time who were failing.

It concerned me that my principal seemed interested only in the demographic group, not the individuals. No names were mentioned, and no questions were asked about why certain students were failing; she just asked me to make that demographic group look better on paper.

I was also concerned that my principal was focused more on grades than learning. I asked if she were asking me to simply change their grades from failing to passing, and she said that would be fine, confirming to me that she was concerned more about a statistic than student learning. It was not clear how changing a grade would help the student learn or perform any better on the end-of-grade assessment, but she did not appear to be worried about that.

I explained that I felt a responsibility to parents and students to report student progress honestly. In an effort to help her understand, I elaborated: I had seen cases where students made a C or B in a class but when the final assessment came at the end of the year, students failed, and their parents were angry that they had not been told of their children’s lack of progress. I understood parents’ anger at the school or teacher for not letting them know their students needed help sooner. I was working with some failing students outside of class, and would have been happy to work harder to motivate them to meet the standard, but I couldn’t give them a grade they had not earned and still respect myself as their teacher. I knew they were capable of the work; I expected them to do it and was willing to help them. I also had suggestions about how other school resources might support my efforts.

My argument seemed to have no impact on her.

The situation reminds me of a section from a book many teachers have read called Sahara Special by Esme Codell, a former teacher herself. In the story, Sahara is a young girl who is not doing well in school because she refuses to participate. Her mother goes in for a conference and tries to explain to the teacher that Sahara actually likes to write. The teacher says,


“Well, we need something to show that you like to write, don’t we, Sahara?” Ms. Singer smiled. “We certainly don’t have any schoolwork to make that point…she doesn’t do it here.”

       “You’re saying she doesn’t do her work? So take care of your business! Fail her! Fail her like a normal kid! The failure will be between me and my daughter then. You won’t like it if her failure is between me and you.”

       “There are serious repercussions to retention…”

       “Blah, blah, blah!” My mother can be very rude.

       So they promised to fail me…

       The door closed and we stood out in the hall. I knew they were talking about my mom behind the glass, saying mean things about her, saying What Sort of Mother Would Deny Her Child Individualized Attention. But Mom was smiling and I was proud, really proud of my mom not being afraid of failure. I am. I’d sooner not try than fail. They may think I am stupid, but I’m not. Knowing I am not stupid is enough for me, I’m enough for me. When my mother smiled at me, I could see I was enough for her, too.


Why are we so afraid of failure? Failure can be a great lesson; and it creates an opportunity to learn the content you missed and to learn about yourself and the system in which you work. Had my school passed me when I deserved an F I got in 7th grade science, I could not have respected the teacher or the system. I also would never have learned that I must earn my grade, a lesson for which I am grateful.

There is no altering the truth no matter how hard we try to mask it. Students should know their truth, because the sooner they do, the sooner they can choose what to do with it.

Retention is another issue of course, which may or may not be involved when we give students the grade they earn in each class. It can be largely avoided, however, if we find authentic ways to motivate students, one of which being that we find what they love to do and use that to motivate them (see “Elementary, My Dear Watson” post).

But let’s look beyond the motivations of administrators or NCLB since they don’t seem to be interested in learning as much as in school statistics. Are grades a good vehicle for motivating students as some teacher leaders claim? Should grades be used as anything other than an honest report of a student’s progress toward mastery?

This is a much more difficult question in public than in professional schools (or some private schools) because the students in a public school classroom might be extremely wide-ranging in ability or in pre-requisite knowledge. We have ways of dealing with that, though. For example, if a student is placed in my class who cannot speak English very well, we may decide on a grading system or change of class schedule that will make sense for that student. We may decide to put that student on a pass/fail system which is decided on effort, attendance, and participation if we decide that just listening and observing will help that child learn through immersion. Or, if a student’s language skills are low enough, s/he might be placed in an ESL class. We also have a place for a comment in our report card that indicates the child was not graded according to grade level standards, so parents or school officials will know that student needed special criteria for reporting progress. But these cases are exceptions and are dealt with as such. How do we grade most students—those without special exceptions?

Ideally grades are based on the demonstrated mastery of the material taught. Why? Because that is all a teacher can do or know for certain. I may have a student who has good writing skills but does not demonstrate them in class. I have to grade the child on the work submitted, not the work I imagine s/he can do—as in the case above. We don’t want a student’s grade determined by the teacher’s imagination.

A good teacher works with the student and parents to motivate the child to show his or her work (unlike the case above), but the grade must be what was demonstrated. A grade is what the student earns, not what the teacher feels like giving based on all sorts of perceptions that may or may not be accurate. If we do not grade based on what students earn, grades will depend on the teacher students get instead of the work they do—or the counselor or the administrator who needs certain statistics to make his or her school look good—or the parent with political clout. Many of us have probably exploited situations like that—take an easy class to get our grade average up, or put our kid in the easy teacher’s room to build his or her self-esteem because that is more important to us than knowledge acquisition. We can also get rear-ended by such a system when it turns out I can’t get the desired teacher or later need the skills I didn’t learn.

Grades are not a prize or reward; they are feedback about progress. To load them with other meanings is to confuse the student, vary the standards from teacher to teacher, undercut their significance, and falsify school and student data–which, in a courtroom, would be considered intentional fraud. We make decisions based on grades all the time. If we pass students who shouldn’t pass because we use inflationary practices, those students are being denied services and attention they need. We are discriminating against those who need the school’s services the most. The students with the best grades—and those with parents who make sure students earn their grades–are not as impacted by this discrimination because most of them do their work. Many have parents who make sure they do because they want a good education for their children. Educators should be looking out for those less fortunate in the same way if they truly care about their future success.

In my district teachers are made to feel they are not successful if their students make Ds or Fs, shifting the focus of the problem from the students to the teachers. So naturally many grading strategies have been implemented to make teachers feel like rigor is preserved but their students’ grades improve, such as automatic free passes, extra credit, easier rubrics, 60s instead of 0s, and tests that have the same questions as the study guides. Unfortunately learning diminishes for everyone under such practices, but the lowest performing students are the ones who suffer most and the ones who are being most discriminated against by this type of system. They are misled as to their perhaps severe lack of mastery and given easier material so they are not expected to think critically. As teachers, life is a lot easier the lower we keep our expectations, students are never disappointed in their grades, and they like us more (as do our administrators). And down the road, when students are cursing their lot because they can’t get a job, we won’t be around, will we?

Ironically, at a time when “data-driven education” is a major trend, we have never been further from it.

It is not easy to take a stand against district policy, but teachers and parents can and should come together through the PTA, the local media, tenured teacher committees, or other organized groups to stop this kind of discrimination if they care about student success. They should demand transparent grading practices and honest feedback. Then they should demand the school meet the needs the feedback indicates so students are not held back in learning or in grade level.

To do otherwise is to discriminate against those with the greatest needs. We will never close the gap if we don’t have accurate data about who or what is involved in it.


Data Central = Bad Karma


Public schools in my area have developed a new karma over the last decade: data central.  It was student central for a while, but alas, like many other movements in education, it was replaced by something perceived to be bigger and better. What could be more scientific and certain than basing decisions on data? And which data are the most important?  Student performance data, of course. We measure our schools by how their students perform.

To be more specific: In North Carolina we measure our schools by how their students perform on a state-wide multiple choice test at the end of the year that is designed to measure school-wide mastery of the state’s grade level educational objectives for reading, math, and science. This type of measurement does not take into account other student performance data, such as how well students can talk about what they have learned, what projects or portfolios they have completed, how their writing has improved, or whether they can think critically.

It also means that it is the combination of all the different versions of the test that has meaning for school-wide achievement, but the individual versions of the test vary greatly. For example, Form A of the test might be much thicker than Form B. Form C might have several technical terms, and Form D might have none. Taken collectively they purportedly measure the chosen learning objectives for the grade level, but individually there is no such validity. (One wonders if the Common Core Assessment will be of the same type.)

The test does not take into account students who get very nervous when their most significant measurement is a one-shot deal that measures an extremely narrow range of knowledge and skills. It does not take into account that schools don’t always modify for students who may need it but don’t have an IEP (Individual Education Plan). It doesn’t take into account that the test covers such a small percentage of what most teachers cover in their classroom that it cannot possibly be a reliable measurement of student learning. It measures, for example, certain kinds of reading skills but not English or Language Arts curricula in general.

More important, however, is whether the performance data is achievement data or growth data. Since the NC test was designed to measure school achievement rather than individual achievement, how meaningful are the individual student growth figures that are extrapolated from these test results? How many students could have passed the test on the first day of school that year? Since there is no pretest given on the grade level objectives for the coming year, we in fact don’t measure student growth at all. Yet the only meaningful data for measuring the school or its students is individual student growth data.

Despite all these problems, the latest trend in education is to use the all-important student performance data to measure our teachers as well as our schools and students. Since the tests don’t measure student growth, how can they possibly measure teacher competence?

Additionally, learning is affected by many variables of which teacher quality is only one. We might conclude that a plant died because it didn’t get sunshine when it really died from drought.

Proponents of measuring teacher quality by students’ test data say they will make the test data only a part of a teacher’s evaluation, so drought will not be too much of a discrediting factor. No one has  heard yet what part it will be or how much it will weigh, however, and since the tests are not measuring student growth, it is a moot point anyway. Until we offer testing that measures pre- and post- performance, and until we include broader kinds of pre- and post- data—such as writing, speaking, thinking, acting, creating—we can’t say we are even coming close to measuring student growth.

What does this mean for measuring teacher competence? Quite a bit, since the two are inextricably related. Student growth should be a critical factor in teacher competence. Assuming we had such data, should that be the only kind of data we use? Should there also be qualitative considerations?

Qualitative data require much more work for administrators. It is much easier simply to rest everything on test scores and not do the hard work of evaluating a human being in his or her work setting. Qualitative data require knowledge of how the teacher’s classroom operates on a daily basis, how well the teacher knows and communicates his or her subject, how the teacher thinks about lesson planning, how well the teacher relates to all kinds of students, and much more. It requires extensive observation and communication with the teacher, which many administrators forego due to being pressured to favor data that fits their district’s agenda.

The bottom line is that if you want to measure teachers in their interactions with students and their learning, there is no way to do it objectively; you must tell the teacher’s story based on observation and evidence, starting with data such as how many hours did the administrator spend in the teacher’s classroom? How many minutes did the administrator spend talking to the teacher about his or her practice?

During my last year of teaching my new principal (he did not know me since he was new to the school that year) spent 37 minutes total in my classroom over three visits. He spent 0 minutes talking to me about my teaching (although he did talk at me at length about his interpretation of the data he chose to record during my 30-minute observation and the research on which he based it).

Performance data has its place in education, but it should not be our central operating principal. People and their learning are not subjects that can be represented best by numbers and test scores. Our goal in education is not to train students to take tests, after all; it is to help students develop into good citizens who can deal productively, effectively, and creatively with the complexities of modern society.

We need to break out of the web of data central karma; and since we are capable of freedom and thought, we can.

“The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.” ~Plato


There has been a lot of talk about how best to evaluate teachers lately, especially with the “new” movement to include student test data as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Diane Ravitch’s blog has provided much evidence about how student test data has been shown not to be a good measure of teacher quality. So what is a good measure of teacher quality, and why is this question one we find it so hard to answer?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink states that experienced students are capable of making incredibly accurate decisions about how good teachers are within seconds of sitting in their classes.

Our amazing brains may be accurate in such split-second knowledge when we are connoisseurs of a particular skill, but since we also want to document this quality and provide feedback about improvement, we need a little more to go on. We need not just the accurate  judgment of who is good and who is not, but the substance that constitutes it to help administrators and teachers do their jobs well.

North Carolina’s attempt to do this resulted in a ten-page teacher evaluation instrument—fairly comprehensive but overwhelming, especially for new teachers and for the administrators who were expected to fill these out multiple times a year for every teacher. Modifications were still being suggested last I heard to make the process more efficient and practical.

At my latest evaluation, my principal said he didn’t like the re-directive look I gave a student to get her back on the task of editing instead of talking, even though it effectively got the student back on task. He said instead I should have been walking around the room telling students what a good job they were doing, even though I couldn’t possibly read the papers and assess the editing job by just glancing over their shoulders. I wish he’d had a context in which to judge that look or that student or my class, but he only sat in one day at the very end of the year. He didn’t use the NC form at all so that good comprehensive material wasn’t covered in my evaluation. Tenured teachers have different guidelines, I think.

I heard something recently, however, that turned my head about teacher evaluation. We were discussing this topic at the Sunday dinner table last night, and my daughter’s boyfriend offered his suggestion for how to evaluate teachers: The only way to know if a teacher is effective or not is to look down the road many years and see what becomes of the students the teacher had—what kind of jobs they have, what kind of citizens they become, what kind of people they become.  This is the measure of a good teacher.

I can certainly recall the teachers who had an impact on who I became and continue to become. Can’t you? Anyone want to tell the story? Maybe we will gain some insight on teacher evaluation through your stories.

Eduspeak: “Authentic” Reading


I have another story to tell about reading–a story about educational trends that may lead us astray if we get too caught up in them.

“Authentic” reading is one such trend in Language Arts. I have heard principals deny programmed reading materials to Reading and Language Arts teachers because they were not “authentic,” and current “best practices” dictate that we use only authentic texts in our classrooms (these are texts that readers might encounter in daily life: advertisements, novels, newspapers, etc.).

Current “best practices” also dictate that we match text to reader, texts that “meet the needs of the learner.”

What are we to do when these two “best practices” conflict?

The current trend is for teachers to meet students’ needs with authentic reading materials at all costs, and that such materials be at a level that meets the needs of the reader. Using authentic materials will be a sounder practice, according to some educators, than using programmed materials.

Finding such materials may not always be possible, but even if it were, the authentic texts are not always as effective as the inauthentic, programmed reading materials—and sometimes not as high-protein or age appropriate. Is it reasonable to expect the teacher to find the right set of authentic books for the wide range of abilities in a typical core classroom, and to prepare to teach them all or provide materials for all? Aren’t skills often best learned in a controlled, graduated environment? We don’t place a beginning dancer in advanced ballet—especially if s/he is challenged by dancing in the first place. Life for a core Language Arts teacher today entails many difficult decisions, and is further complicated because many are expected to be Reading teachers as well as Language Arts teachers.

There are varieties of programmed reading materials, but I have found authentic SRA (Scientific Research Associates) reading materials to be wonderful resources for struggling readers (and other readers as well). The SRA Reading Laboratory has reading passages that are well written and of varied genres, which include questions to develop comprehension and language skills. Students get their results immediately as well.

The SRA reading passages offer many advantages to developing readers. They are clearly leveled so students can visualize and measure their progress as they work through the cards.  The comprehensive SRA kit offers different cards for different reading skills. If speed is an issue, there are pace cards. If inference is an issue, there are one-paragraph passages that focus primarily on making correct inferences. Finally, there are long passages that develop reading endurance and comprehension as well as offering information on the structure of language, vocabulary, and spelling.

An extra perk with SRA is that the content of the passages is also beneficial. Nonfiction passages include biographies of famous people or facts about science and nature. Fiction passages tell exciting stories with information about their subjects whether it be horse training or life in the Arctic. In short, they provide background knowledge that many struggling readers are lacking.

I enjoy teaching authentic great works of literature to all students, but a Reading and/or Language Arts teacher needs a comprehensive bag of tricks for all kinds of students and different reading environments. An SRA kit serves well for several types of students and situations.

Michael was a student who “hated” reading anything of any length. He didn’t like any kind of book I suggested and also had trouble making correct inferences from his reading. His parents were tired of trying to entice him to complete independent reading assignments.  We met and decided to put him on the inference cards for homework in place of the authentic reading most of the other kids were doing for independent reading. He much preferred the short 10-question cards. His parents scored them immediately for him, and they discussed why an answer was wrong so he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. By the end of the year, he had covered three grade levels of cards. When I gave the post-test on inferences, he had grown by 5 grade levels. Our last unit was reading a novel independently. Michael read a novel, and he commented to me that he had read the whole thing and enjoyed it. That was the first time I had heard a positive thought about reading from him.

Zeya was a Burmese student I taught in 6th grade. He was a struggling reader because he didn’t know written English very well, and he had trouble sitting still and concentrating for more than a few minutes. One day when other students were reading and he was, as usual, having a hard time finding an “authentic” book that would engage him on his level, I pulled out a low level SRA card for him, one of the inference cards that has 10 one-paragraph multiple choice questions. He gave it a quick glance, saw that it wasn’t too long, and went right to work. When he finished, he came up to me and said proudly, “I can do this!”  He had finally found a place to start.

The Lost Art of Storytelling?


My parents are the most literate people I know. They are in their 80’s and still attend a monthly book group where group members, including retired English professors, discuss an important book they have all read. They still learn and grow from such an experience. As a group they understand, connect, enrich, and enlarge upon the stories they read and tell.

There is nothing quite like a discussion of a good book to bring us face to face with not only a great work and the craft of writing, but also ourselves and humanity in general: our past and future, our deaths and births, our conflicts and resolutions. Of all my experience in academics, a well-orchestrated discussion has led to more learning and understanding for me than any other method.

Albert Borgmann in his erudite book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry describes what he calls “focal experiences.” These are experiences that are centering or orienting points that gather certain contexts of relationships and emanate meaning. In chapter 23 of his book, he elucidates this concept with a discussion of the history of the word “focus.” In Latin the word means hearth. In pre-technological times, the hearth was the “center of warmth, of light, and of daily practices” in most homes. This is a beautiful image to use in understanding “focal” things: things or experiences that gather things and enlighten us—what he calls a “gathering and radiating force.” Some of the examples he offers of such focal things include works of art, the wilderness, and the culture of the table.

One of Borgmann’s important messages about focal things (if I read him correctly) is that technology, if we are not careful in how we relate to it, can scatter and/or clutter our focal experiences as humans. It can therefore interfere with the practices we establish to maintain our focal experiences and their meaningful force in our lives. If we lose our practices, we lose also their enlightening power; we lose an important part of our humanity.  Perhaps this is what parents today are thinking when they bemoan the loss of shared mealtimes with their families due to their busy schedules.

I have been concerned as I see the changes taking place in Language Arts classes today that discussion has become a lost art, a lost focal practice. The elders of our generation know its value and continue it on their own even though they are retired–beyond school and career. Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon understand the transformational power of shared storytelling—their method is consistently the most successful one in battling substance addiction. Junior Great Books, the Paideia Program, and Philosophy for Children are also successful educational models that are based on discussion or seminar pedagogy. Why aren’t these programs flourishing in our public schools?

As Borgmann mentions, technology is probably one important factor. We can do so much with video, computers, and multi-genre projects now that a simple discussion seems pale by comparison. Another factor is the “Reading/Writing Workshop” approach where the primary pedagogy is individual reading and writing, mini-lessons, and conferencing with peers and teacher. Another factor is the shift in emphasis from content to skills in Language Arts. Language Arts teachers today focus much more on reading and less on content curricula (due to pressures of testing and the ever-widening range of student abilities?). A final factor seems to be teacher training or confidence. A well-managed discussion requires maturity, knowledge, and critical thinking skills, yet we have fewer and fewer veteran teachers.  We need training programs and schools that value discussion and sharing of common knowledge and great artifacts. These values are harder and harder to find in today’s public schools.

I hope we return to appreciating focal experiences in education, things such as storytelling and art. They teach us to listen, to share, to construct layers of meaning from narratives, to appreciate clear expression, to agree and disagree respectfully, to imagine similarities and differences, examples and counter examples, to express ourselves clearly, to substantiate an opinion, and a host of other important skills and knowledge. They are the practices that expand us as humans and help us realize what a world fit for humans should be like.

I. A. Richards and Reading Diagnosis


Reading teachers, diagnosticians, interventionists, tutors, and all readers interested in honing reading skills might appreciate reading (or re-reading) the classic work Practical Criticism by I. A. Richards—at least the part where he explains the principal difficulties of readers. His list deals specifically with reading poetry, and the difficulties his students have with critiquing poetry, but I think the same difficulties can occur in other types of reading as well. Interestingly, his book was first published almost a century ago in 1929.

Here is a brief summary of the interpretive and critical difficulties he describes, as I understand them:

1. Students fail to make out the plain prose sense of the reading

2. Students failing to appreciate the sensuous aspects of the language—its motion and rhythm, for example

3. Readers differ in their power to visualize or appreciate other kinds of imagery

4. “Mnemonic irrelevances” – being overly influenced by one’s personal connections when reading

5. Stock responses – something in the reading elicits an already fully developed set of ideas in the reader

6. Sentimentality – emotional over-reaction

7. Inhibition –emotional under-reaction

8. “Doctrinal adhesions” – fixed ideas the reader has about the world—about what s/he perceives as truth—getting in the way of experiencing a work of literature for what its purpose is.

9. Technical presuppositions – judging the work by its technical aspects

10. “General critical preconceptions” – prejudices toward a certain kind of writing, genre, etc.

It seems when we read, we can learn almost as much about ourselves as the subject of the writing.



Opening our Eyes, Ears, and Minds to Reading


Students who struggle with reading, or perhaps anything, do so for different reasons. The most rewarding and interesting part of my graduate work in literacy was learning how to diagnose and then design appropriate lessons for individual students who struggled with reading or writing and find ways to solve their problems or at least get around them.

As a core classroom teacher, there is little time to delve so deeply into individual student’s troubles, especially when the difficulties require extensive diagnostic testing and tutoring to overcome. But sometimes the difficulty and its solution are not so elusive and can be remedied fairly simply.

I have worked with several students, for example, who simply needed glasses. This is easy to detect if you observe your students while they’re working. Usually you will see students squinting when trying to read the board—an obvious give away. Many might think this is too obvious to mention, but I worked sometimes with 8th graders who sat in the back row squinting and no one in the school to that point had taken notice or worked to solve the problem.

Once I had a student, however, who never squinted at the board, but whenever she had to read at her seat from a handout or book, she literally took her thumb and forefinger and physically opened her left eye so that it was open wider than normal. After seeing her do this on more than one occasion, I asked the nurse to test her eyes. Sure enough, one eye was seriously impaired compared to the other. Her body was quite naturally reacting to try to increase the vision in her impaired eye.

I have also had students who could not hear well, and when you consider that reading is most fundamentally a phonological skill, this can be a serious obstacle to effective reading. We learn our alphabet as a set of sounds that correspond to certain symbols. So any infection or injury that may have impacted a child’s ears in his or her early years could also have an impact on the child’s ability to identify sounds.

Hearing issues impact learning in other ways as well. One student I tutored was not enunciating very clearly and it turned out she had several complications but one of them which may have been related was that she had allergies, which in turn caused her a good bit of congestion, which in turn caused her hearing to be seriously impaired for several months during the school year. The degree of the impairment was likely affecting her learning in many ways. There was no visible sign to alert an observer how badly this was impacting her hearing other than her speech. She was a quiet student and very shy. She rarely volunteered in class. I had her assessed for hearing because she was so congested, and I was hoping she could get some decongestants if it was documented that she had hearing loss. It was.

A sixth grade student I had once had been told as an elementary student that since she liked listening to books on tape, she could listen to the books she read for class instead of reading them.  She tended to choose only books with accompanying tapes, and became a very passive reader as a result. Yet when I tested her, she had no fluency problems or reading problems that would necessitate audio books as an intervention. So we stopped that right away.

I worked with a fourth grade student who had a fairly easy problem to fix, but it took me a few sessions with her one-on-one to notice what her problem was. Her mother came to me saying she was bright, read well and a lot, but when it came to testing, she always failed her benchmarks.  As I worked with her I discovered that when she read, what interfered with her comprehension was what I. A. Richards in Practical Criticism called “mnemonic irrelevances.” This is when the reader is diverted by irrelevant personal experiences or feelings that s/he associates to the material. She did what a lot of teachers try to teach students to do as a comprehension skill (namely, to personally connect to the reading) only she did it to such excess that it was difficult for her to focus on the main idea of the author.  I witnessed her doing this as we read  together a passage of a few pages, so I suggested that she make a note in the margin about what each paragraph was about as she read. She tried this and found she could answer almost all questions correctly. Giving her the task of taking notes forced her to stay focused on the author’s point and not all her related experiences. She aced her next benchmark.

I’d be interested in hearing from other readers of this blog what difficulties you notice students having or what kinds of reading difficulties you have noticed or solved. It is fascinating to discover all the different ways we approach the same skill.  What reading story can you tell?

The Carrots and Sticks of PBIS


“PBIS” stands for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. This is one of the groundswell initiatives moving through the schools in our area right now. It’s hard to argue with its premise: let’s focus ourselves on promoting good behavior rather than on punishing bad behavior. Let’s celebrate victories not wallow in failures. Let’s be positive, not negative.

Sounds good on the surface. If you look at research about motivating human behavior, however, we might be getting a bit carried away with all the prizes, stickers, parties, and day-long celebrations.

Daniel Pink wrote a book about motivation research entitled Drive in which he suggests that we think carefully about how we motivate kids to behave. Rewards and punishments, he points out, if done in the wrong vein, can give rise to cheating, addiction, and dangerously myopic thinking. Research indicates that rewards actually disrupt performance of intrinsically rewarding tasks (such as learning). Indeed, I have seen these consequences in action in schools:

Cheating. When my school system wanted to close the gap, I was asked to alter my grades for low-performing students so it looked as if they were succeeding in learning when they weren’t. Look at the test scandals in Atlanta: when certain results are desired and rewarded, we will find ways to get them, sometimes with no regard for method.  The end justifies the means. We have seen real examples of transcript tampering in our school district—we want students getting into college at whatever cost. It seems dishonesty as a shortcut to a goal is a scandal going on all over the country in different degrees right now, with athletics and academics.

Addiction. Students who are trained by prizes come to expect prizes, and bigger and better prizes. I have seen the PBIS system in some schools grow from little prizes like erasers and gum or an end of quarter raffle to day-long celebrations with dances or field events every quarter, for which teachers have to stamp all their students’ behavior cards once a week during their instructional time. I have seen it grow from using prize incentives only for students for whom nothing else seemed to motivate them to setting every student in the school on an external incentive course, even if they were already internally motivated to succeed. I have heard students say that the prize for compliance in a school reading contest (the once-cherished pizza party) was not “good” enough to motivate them to exert the effort.

Myopic thinking. Many administrators focus on the grades, the scores, and not the individual learning of the students. Some administrators pressure teachers to focus only on the low end where the improved scores would mean rewards for their school rather than focusing on the learning of all students. Pink cites this example, “So if students get a prize for reading three books, many won’t pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading…”. The short-term result becomes all important.

This is not to say that positive incentives should never be used. Pink describes the exceptions in his book. I have certainly seen positive initiatives that seem to be designed in ways that would meet Pink’s criteria for effectiveness; it is all in why it is being done, how, and when. One team I worked with had a quarterly raffle that was conducted in a way that I think avoided the pitfalls Pink describes. It was just a fun, end-of-quarter celebration for the whole team and prizes were arbitrarily won—not specifically tied to achievements.

There is also a well-known positive behavior program that I think avoids these problems called the “Nurtured Heart Approach” created by William Glasser (for books on this approach see As I understand it, the core of the practice is that students are motivated by having educators notice what they do well and giving students feedback on those skills/traits/knowledge that is honest and specific. It is a much harder program to implement—not nearly as easy as purchasing prizes. The approach fosters engagement instead of compliance, however, and has long-term benefits as well as short-term ones.

Some educators are quick to point out that school, for some, is not intrinsically rewarding, so we need more prizes. But why isn’t it intrinsically rewarding? Should not be working on that rather than all the bells and whistles of conditioning? A more dedicated effort to find students’ “elements” might help here (see post on “Elementary, my Dear Watson”)—just as Glasser suggests in his Nurtured Heart Approach.

Looks like carrots and sticks are not the best motivators for learning and kids!



“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” ― Daniel H. Pink


Autonomy. This is a vital characteristic of a satisfying human life. As interdependent as we and other creatures of the earth are in our communal and global ecosystems, each healthy life system is also organized around some principle. As humans, for example, we make choices, we determine what we will or will not do, or how we will relate to the larger system of which we are a part.

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, autonomy is one of the three most important natural motivators of human endeavor and excellence, along with mastery and purpose. Unfortunately, one of the problems many of us experience in school systems today is that autonomy (more on mastery and purpose later) is no longer valued as an important motivator for learning.

The most popular book in the running of public school systems today in this country seems to be Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Gayle Karhanek. These authors advocate a new way of organizing schools through Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s). There are many components to the system they advocate, but I will focus on autonomy here. Let me quote several sentences from Chapter 2 of their book :

…a system of interventions is more effective when it supports collaborative teams of teachers who have agreed on what students must learn, and how they will demonstrate their learning—as opposed to attempting to support individual classroom kingdoms in which each teacher has his or her own interpretation of what students should learn, appropriate curricular calendars, and methods and standards of assessment. In short, they recognized that if they were to help all students learn, they needed to place a higher value on systems, coordination, and cooperation than individual autonomy and adult convenience.

The DuFour’s, et al. book has good intentions about effective responses when students don’t learn in a classroom; and I, among many educators, was happy to see that their suggestions put some responsibility on other professionals in the school to help when students don’t learn–and put pressure on all of us working together to do a better job of supporting these students.

Taking autonomy out of the equation, however, is not the answer to encouraging humans to work at their highest levels of achievement and happiness. Pink gives ample data in his book that the most successful organizations (e.g., open source initiatives) build their systems around autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Let us look closely at the above quotation, which deals with what makes a system of interventions most effective. This model (DuFour, et al.) of school systems management is organized around the idea of effective intervention (for the moment we will assume that they are right about what things make intervention most effective). The whole school revolves around what makes intervention most efficient and effective. Since intervention means the strategies we use when students fail, the school is organized around students who are not succeeding and how to enable them to succeed.

Is this wise? Especially since, as they go on to say, the most effective intervention involves dethroning teachers’ autonomy—one of the most important motivators of human achievement?

Is it wise to structure any general public school around one type of student or problem? Ideally the school’s organizing principle should be one that promotes learning by all students  at the highest levels, not just improving  performance for the lowest achievers.

As important as effective intervention is, it can only work in the long run if it doesn’t interfere with what is best for the learning of all students—not just those who are not currently succeeding. So perhaps in addition to being the wrong organizing principle for schools, the DuFour, et al. model may also not be the most effective type of intervention.

Part of the problem in understanding intervention may also be in understanding what “success” is in school. It seems that often in discussions about learning we assume that grades determine whether a student is successful or not in school, but this is clearly not a sound assumption. The most obvious exception would be the student who may be making an A but not learning anything—perhaps it is material the student already knew or was very easy and the student was not really being challenged at all.

These are important problems to clarify in the model described in Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap since so many schools are structured around it today. It seems to me that the authors have myopically focused on non-achievers, with respect to grades, and not on optimum learning for all kinds of students regardless of grades.

Success has also been thought of with respect to standardized test scores. Many charts in the  book represent student progress through a school’s standardized test scores. Standardized test scores can be important sources of data, but we all know that many students ace them before the year even begins, so basing a school’s success on them is not a reflection of whether all students are learning or not. Clearly the school as a whole may be improving because they are making more efforts at bringing up the low performing end, but these data do not tell us at what cost.

If the cost is loss of human autonomy and neglecting other types of students, clearly it is a price we don’t want to pay.

So if we organize according to individual learning for all students instead of intervention for the few, what would that kind of system look like?

I think a key ingredient is autonomy. In fact, if current psychological theory as described by Pink is correct, students will also benefit from a system that encourages autonomy for them. If we could motivate students to choose learning over non-learning, that would be a great accomplishment indeed. Why not build a system focused on the three principles Pink suggests—autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Then we would not only be meeting the psychological needs of all individuals in the system, but allowing for the greatest possible potential for learning and happiness as well. Why not structure schools around what is best in us? Emily Dickinson writes beautifully about it:


How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.

~Emily Dickinson