24 March 2011

Teachers should encourage growth

So, I've been banging my fingers randomly against my keyboard since August, and you've been faithfully clicking on links since they started appearing on facebook pages. Today, I am going to do something new. I'm not going to talk about my experiences in education. Instead, I'm going to take a request.

Now I know that this might seem impossible, since this blog is obviously not "live", and therefore taking requests might seem impossible. However, through some back channels, I recieved a story out of an elementary school, and the author wanted to know what the BlazeBlog thought about the situation. So, here I am, responding to a request!

I think that the easiest way to do this (but I don't know, since I've never done this before), is to quickly summarize the situation, and then follow up with my thoughts on said situation. If this format doesn't work for you, please feel free to propose an alternative in the comments section.

The Summary

There is a program out in the wide world of educational assesment called "Accelerated Reader". This program is intended to be used as a tool to encourage students to read outside of class. However, in this school, the AR program is used as a part of the students' reading grade. In this case, a student had read Harry Potter 1 at home, and wanted to use it to complete his AR testing, since he hadn't been reading any other books at home. His teacher wrote home, concerned that if he took the test now, and didn't do well, that might hurt him in the future, because you can't ever re-take an AR test for credit. She also has concerns about the student reading content that he "isn't ready for" yet in the book, since the student in question is a second grader.

Mom complains, student takes test, doesn't do all that well.

My take

Ok, let's tackle AR first. I did some exceptionally cursory research (read: googled "Accelerated Reader Criticism") and found that the program has had decent results, especially among older readers, when used as an extrinsic motivational tool. Our own Dr. Johncock has written extensively about motivation, and in fact created his NBR and STFU systems in response to what he felt were foolish attempts to incentivize behaviors which should be second nature to students. I'm not going to delve into that too much, but I think the major problem here is the pressure created by using AR as a part of the reading grade.

If AR were just an ancillary program, designed to encourage reading outside of class, then I don't think any of this conflict would have happened. You see, the only reason that Mom pressures teacher into letting student take the test is that he needs to get a reading score. Also, as the student progesses, he'll have to continue taking the test, so the teacher is concerned that taking the test now will stop him from being able to take the test later, so she's worried that his later reading score will also be hurt by taking this test now. The test being a part of the school's reading grade is really the root of this problem.

This is indicative of a larger problem in American education. We love to implement programs that authors say will change student learning and achievement or behavior. However, many times school districts fail to use the programs the way they were intended, which leads to situations like we see in today's BlazeBlog. 

However, there's a secondary problem: the teacher's concern about the material in the book for a second grader. This is a problem for me as a teacher. I firmly believe that the role of teachers, among many other things, is to push students' comfort zones in regard to content. One of the great, untestable values of public school is the constant exposure to ideas and views that are different and uncomfortable for students. I don't think this is important just to make students uncomfortable, but because that discomfort is often a sign that growth is taking place.

I can't speak for this teacher. I don't know why she thought the content of the book was inappropriate. I suspect that she either believes this herself or has in the past been badgered by people who believe that. Either way, I think she's doing a disservice to her students. Parents have every right to teach their kids familial beliefs at home, but they should expect a good school to expose their children to different believes. The school shouldn't pass judgement on which of those beliefs are correct, however, and that's what this feels like to me.

Well, that's that, then. I feel a little uncomfortable, since I think I just sided with a parent, and I once wrote a 3500 word diatribe about parents. Who am I, and what have I done with the author of the BlazeBlog?    

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