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Why Johnny can't read

The following is the second of several postings I'll write that synthesize my experiences as a first year teacher.

Near the end of the school year, a teacher friend loaned me a book called, "There are no shortcuts." The author, Rafe Esquith, says, "Poverty, greed [by administrators and bureaucrats], and incompetent teaching are just some of the reasons why Johnny not only can't read, but has no interest in reading." (p. 4, emphasis added).

Read more below about why fixing our educational system isn't going to be easy.

Esquith goes on to say, "Using a new reading series or changing the classroom environment isn't going to solve all our problems." Esquith is a winner of the American Teacher Award and has been a successful teacher for 19 years, much of it in a challenging urban environment. His feeling was echoed very strongly by a 25 year veteran science teacher who helped mentor me (and probably countless other teachers) with his wisdom. Bob Fabini says, in a slight paraphrase, "Every year they come out with some little tweak in the way we present material, and they expect it to completely change our results. It's not going to happen." It's true that research shows that there are ways to effectively present information and there are ways that just don't work. Each year, research on the brain and cognition get better, so why don't Fabini and Esquith think that techniques are our answers?

According to Esquith, Johnny will never learn to read until he wants to learn. Fabini came to the same conclusion. He shared with me that one of the biggest changes he's seen is his quarter century of teaching is that he feels like students have no vision about where they are going with their lives any more. Without this vision, it's not surprising that they don't want to learn.

It's true that each year there is a new trend in educational research. And each year, policy makers inflict this new trend on teachers. In our case, at the beginning of the year we had a crash course in popular new techniques to teach reading for understanding. Teachers weren't interested because, two days before school, they were more concerned with the fact that they had not yet been told what classes they would be teaching. (In my case, I was not even sure that I would be officially hired, I had not been assigned a classroom, and had not prepared the curriculum for even first day of class). And standing before all of us was some well meaning educational researcher who hadn't been in charge of a classroom in a decade telling these teachers how to best reach their students. While I feel her information was valuable, it was almost completely disregarded by the teachers because of the circumstances of its presentation. Esquith adds that many of the so-called experts brought in to help school districts work for private corporations that have a vested interest in selling you new materials to go along with these new ideas. Even though the fact that ideas are summarily ignored is unfortunate, in the end I don't think it matters either way. Here's why:

By the end of the school year, I think I became a really good teacher. I had students write in my yearbook and one of the most powerful entries was, "Even though I did not pass your class, I still think you are a good teacher." There were a lot of things I could improve, but I'll say it -- I'm an awesome teacher. But even with an awesome teacher with a Ph.D. in my content area (I taught all earth science, all day, every day), 60% of my students earned D's and F's. I had the truly sad realization that, when it comes down to it, teachers don't matter for most students.

Perhaps it's a different story for kids younger than high school. And I certainly feel that I made a huge difference for a few students. But for most students, I think I was totally irrelevant. Good students have the skills to teach themselves. Esquith describes this sort of student as, "practically on autopilot." (p. 9) They don't need excellent teaching to excel. Students with no desire to learn and no accumulated skills for learning will not rise to the challenge from even the best of the teachers. These students need substantial intervention before they can begin to learn in a classroom setting, and that intervention is well outside the range of most teachers.

Fabini and Esquith are both exceptional teachers, so they take the time to provide some of that intervention. Once Mr. Fabini realized that his students lacked vision and direction, he started taking the time to talk with them (often one-on-one) to help them sculpt these ideas. As an experienced teacher working with mostly college-bound students in classes like physics and AP Chemistry, he can take the time to do that. Be he and his students have the skills to get one-on-one time. The fact of the matter is that a lot of teachers are more like me -- new, inexperienced, and working with tougher kids. I had to deal with constant behavior problems my first semester. Most of my students are not self-motivated, so once I solved many of those problems I still couldn't just set the class working on something and then have meaningful individual discussions with them one by one -- they need constant supervision, support, and praise. My students, in general, do not respect or value teachers as authority figures while Mr. Fabini's do. He's earned a lot of that respect, but the fact of the matter is that he teaches a different sub population of students in physics than I do in Earth science. But over the course of a year, there are twice as many students taking Earth science at our school than take physics. My students are the majority, not his.

When Mr. Fabini says that his students lack vision, I feel like he means that their autopilot lacks a well programmed destination. While my students don't know where they are going either, many of them don't even have a steering wheel. The solution for both sets of students begins the same way (sit down and talk with them to help them find motivation and direction), but for many of my students, they feel like it is too late to actually reach a meaningful destination. That's why so many of them won't even bother trying. This is the idea of "learned helplessness" that I'll discuss in more detail in a future post. But in essence, when Johnny doesn't have any desire to read and sees no reason to do so, he will never learn how to read.



Thanks very much for taking the time and making the effort to put these thoughts into your blog. In 1997, I worked as a tutor in a program called College Track http://www.collegetrack.org/main/content/view/13/129/ in EPA. The founders of this program recognized two problems you have noted: (1) in many homes there is no physical space, quiet place, or support for spending time on homework; and (2) transportation to supplemental programs is essential. The program required >2.5 GPA for admission and continued participation. The students were picked up from school in a van and brought to the center for two hours, then taken home. At the center they worked on their homework and we were available as tutors.


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