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Tracy Rosen

This is a conundrum.
In our school, and I am sure this is echoed in others, we all agree that reading is central. We know that many of our students (I work in a Quebec high school, so that means the equivalent of grade 7-11) struggle with reading. We know that they struggle in ALL of their courses because of this. We say 'if only they could read...'.
Yet this is combined with high stress regarding teaching curriculum. And since the curriculum is provincially mandated it trumps the teaching of reading.
Timely example. In Quebec we are about to write brand new report cards this year for our cycle 1 (grades 7 and 8) and cycle 2, year 1 (grade 9) students. The reporting is based on competencies that students are expected to achieve within their cycles, combined with % grades to appease parents. So teachers need to assure that they are able to report on these competencies, that they are providing learning scenarios that enable the reporting. In order for this to happen they need to work with other teachers in their teaching teams. This is all new stuff for a lot teachers. The curriculum has changed quite a bit over the last few years at the middle school level and will continue to change as it is introduced at the high school level.
Students still struggle with reading, but teachers are very busy learning new curriculum, evaluation, and reporting techniques.

Scott McLeod

Why would you expect that your teachers' curricular efforts would be successful in any way if the kids can't read the material they are being given? Why would you expect students to achieve on competencies when they don't have the underlying skills to do so?

It's like saying "No one in this area knows how to ski but we are expected to keep building new and different ski runs."

First things first, no?


Terry- Nicw post! We stress fluency in the early grades and I appreciate this information which furthers explains this concept.
Scott I agree with you but it is easier said than done. As policy makers we have to be aware of this challenge and give the teachers the time/resources/pull out prorams/ whatever it takes to assure basic literacy. My own teachers struggle with the pull between covering the content and my policy that if a third grader misses some social studies for a pull out group for extra reading instruction that it is okay...If they can't read they can't learn. So I also agree with Tracy, it is difficult.

Tracy Rosen

Scott - that is my argument exactly. Even though it makes no sense to stress curricular reform in a culture of illiteracy that is what is happening.

There is a tendency to focus on assessment, evaluation, and reporting as of late. I see it across the board in different countries, provinces and states, regions, districts, school boards, schools, and classrooms.

Teachers are held accountable to curriculum - by the end of grade 9, for example, students are expected to know, understand, and do a series of competencies (in Quebec) that will determine their educational path from that point forward.

Of course, if they cannot read they can not be expected to know, understand, and do a fraction of it, yet it is not their reading that is being assessed. It is content so teachers focus on content and if kids can't read it, whether it is right or wrong, they continue to focus on content because that is what is being assessed, that is what they are supposed to teach.

I am lucky. I work in special education so I have much more freedom within the curriculum (I design my own). When I spoke with a math teacher at our school the other day the frustration with expectations vs. reality was dripping from him. He teaches an average of 32 students/class. He starts his year already behind the starting line in a frantic race to end of term testing. Along the way he needs to learn new evaluation and reporting methods, which is what occupy his valuable PD time. The frustration comes because he knows that there are students in his class who are verging on illiteracy - both in math as well as in reading skills, yet he feels helpless in the face of it all.

In fact, when I speak with many of the teachers at my school I get a sense of frustration and helplessness. As if they have been taken hostage by reforms. As if they do not have control over what and how they teach. I hear this in statements like 'we have no time for collaborative projects in science' or 'I don't know what to do - my students can't read the math problems but I have to finish this unit by the end of term 1'.

It IS a conundrum and it can suck the soul from a teacher.

As I wrote earlier this week or last - until reforms focus on teachers and not on curriculum we will not have much chance for sustainable and purposeful change in education where teachers take control and teach kids the way they need to learn.

Scott McLeod

We have to take responsibility for our own behavior. If we are choosing to focus on curriculum coverage rather than address the root problem of students' lack of reading skills, we have no one to blame but ourselves. An outsider looking into a system that says "We know they don't know it - we know they can't do it - but we're going to keep moving forward anyway" should rightfully be disgusted.

I understand this is not all the teachers' fault. Obviously the administrators share massive amounts of blame here. But the teachers need to own their own complicity in this ridiculous behavior.

Tracy Rosen

Scott, I know that this is not behaviour that happens only at one school. And I think it is very easy to say that teachers should own this behaviour. An educational system based on standards is how this behaviour becomes prevalent. Many teachers try their hardest to teach their students and do what they can, often on their own time, but when the number of students in a classroom is high and professional development is focused on throwing new things at teachers rather than supporting them and their current issues, I think it would make more sense for policy makers to be looking at their behaviour.

I want to let you know that I agree with you Scott. Yet I also can understand teachers' position when they are faced with such judgment within the overwhelming context that they work.

Scott McLeod

Tracy, I agree with you that this is a common problem, not an anomalous situation at just one school. That said, I don't think the fact that an educational system has standards is the problem here. Educational systems SHOULD have standards: skills and knowledge that we agree as a society our children should master before leaving school. How we respond to educational standards is another matter, however. If administrators and teachers respond to educational standards in ways that are ludicrous, it is okay to say "That's not right." I'm sorry, but I'm not in favor of allowing the Nuremberg defense here - for teachers or administrators. We always own our own behavior.

Tracy Rosen

As I read through my posts, I realize that I was mistaken to write that it as at the cause of standards that students and teachers aren't getting what they need to succeed.

Yes, standards need to exist but when standards change (often) and bring with them other changes in practice, such as in evaluation and reporting, they do take a lot of a teacher's time. Time that is taken away from dealing with the reality in front of us - the students.

And when this is joined with increasingly growing class sizes with increasing numbers of students with difficulties the task of teaching becomes quite large indeed. (I don't know about other places, but in Quebec students with disabilities and cognitive delays used to come with funding and a certain weighting so that teachers with students with disabilities would potentially have fewer students in a class. Very recently this practice has been abolished.)

What to do? We can blame the teacher for not addressing the reading needs (ranging in level from grade 4 or lower to university) in her class of 30-35 grade 10 science students while she is at the same time responsible for teaching the content of a provincial exam that is required to graduate.

We can do that, but until policy is created that ensures this teacher receives the support she needs to be able to do all of that (and learn how to use the new report cards, or the new technology, or the new instructional methods that the school board thinks are necessary this year ;) ) it is grossly unfair.

So, the standards don't cause the dilemma. But standards often seem to be the cause because meeting them with all of the variables I described above (and more that I didn't) is overwhelming and needs to be supported in a systemic, sustainable way.

Jason Bednar

I am very interested in reading these comments. I don't mean to interrupt, but I will say that my past as a high school English teacher and present as an elementary school principal give me an interesting viewpoint for this conversation.

While standards are important, in what ways can we prioritize skills to meet those standards. For example, we have science and social studies standards in Illinois. Those already take a back seat to reading and math under the guidance of NCLB. Now, we are using the RTI model and providing reading interventions for students not hitting the targets linked to ISAT and PSAE success. Within the limited hours of the elementary day, we have to pull students out of some curricular area to create time for those interventions and science and social studies are the most frequently targeted times. Now, these interventions are intended to supplement regular literacy instruction and help students improve their reading comprehension. Without skills in reading, the lessons in science and social studies cannot have the same impact anyway.

Does this plan devalue science and social studies as we prioritize reading as the foundation for all curricular lessons? The ISAT in 4th grade assesses science, so that is a concern as we pull struggling readers out of science for additional literacy instruction. We are doing it because we know that these students cannot succeed in elementary school or beyond without the skills to read with fluency and comprehension.

What I don't know is how this fits within the discussion between Scott and Tracy.

Tracy Rosen

I agree - students can not succeed if they can not read and it sounds like your school offers a lot of support for students in that area.

It is similar at our high school in that students who are at risk to not graduate are pulled out and either learn in a learning centre (and are on a completely modified program, on a life skills path) or work with a resource teacher a few times a week to supplement their regular program.

The issue is that there are many, many students who are struggling and who don't fall into these categories. A typical classroom in our school has at least 4 or 5 general groupings of students: x (the group of students at grade level), x+1 (the students who are advanced), x-1 (those who need a little support), and x-2 (those who need more support). Quite a number of classes also have the x-3s and 4s. I imagine it is similar at many other schools.

It would be fabulous if all of the struggling students could receive support in reading, however the reality is that they don't.

My point is that in order for students to meet the standards that are set for them by the government (and therefore graduate) there will need to be a revolution in the way teachers are supported as they help students to succeed. And as long as professional development time is reserved for learning about things like how to use the new report card as opposed to how to deal with reading issues while teaching math to multi-level classrooms of 30+ students, well... I can see how frustrated and helpless high school teachers can feel within the context of this reality!

Jason Bednar

Tracy, I absolutely agree with your wishes for staff development. While the gulf may not be as wide at elementary ages, my classroom teachers still have need for strategies to reach a variety of skill level readers. Our building leadership team has significant control over staff development offerings and as principal I fully support their ideas. The district organizes some of our larger events, but the goal is the same.

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