Thursday, May 27, 2010; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
May 2010

A Boston High School Senior, Chrismaldy Morgado, writing an Op-Ed in The Boston Globe [April 30], has claimed that students have some responsibility for their own academic achievement.

The Boston Globe may be forgiven for printing such a heretical claim, because it is trying to give a “voice” to young people, and the high school student may not be aware that his suggestion goes against the settled wisdom of the vast majority of U.S. Edupundits.

Our Edupundits are in substantial agreement, often repeated, that “the principal variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality.” I have nowhere found much interest in my own argument that the principal variable in student academic achievement is student academic work.

Yet here is a high school Senior, writing that: “students seem to socialize more than they should. In hallways, stairwells, and bathrooms, students sit and talk to their friends after the late bell rang for classes.” He adds that: “My friends agree that new teachers alone are not going to solve the problems at Burke [Jeremiah Burke High School in Boston is one of 35 schools in the state that is asking its staff to re-apply for their jobs]. Jussara Sequeira, a Junior, said: “Some of us students are not trying hard enough and I don’t think the school’s teachers should pay the consequences.”

Paul Zoch, a high school Latin teacher, in Doomed to Fail [2004] points out that: “the United States looks to its teachers and their efforts, but not to its students and their efforts, for success in education. That being the accepted wisdom, students are free to do nothing more than wait for the teachers to create success for them. Education reform literature rarely contains the thought that our students are primarily failing because they do not study enough.” Another heretic!

Many thanks to Paul Zoch, Diane Ravitch, Chrismaldy Morgado, and Jussara Sequeira for pointing out the egregious folly of leaving student effort out of the analysis of those things which make for academic success in the schools.

It is hard to understand how so many Edupundits miss this essential sine qua non of good learning outcomes for our schools. One possibility is that their view is so lofty and unfocused that they never take the academic work of mere students into account.

Tony Wagner at Harvard has found that only three high schools in the country, for instance, ever sit down in a focus group with their graduates and ask them for their thoughts about their education while they were at the school.

This still does not completely explain why students’ academic responsibility gets so routinely overlooked in all the multi-billion-dollar efforts at school reform.

Paul Zoch writes: “In reading about Japanese education, one is repeatedly struck by the expectation that the students must work hard for success, in contrast to the United States, where the teacher is expected to work hard to find a way for the students to succeed...Effort and self-discipline are considered by the Japanese to be essential bases for accomplishment. Lack of achievement, then, is attributed to the failure to work hard.”

What chance is there that the voices of Chirsmaldy Morgado and Jussara Sequeira will be heard in their call for more student academic effort in Boston high schools? It is hard to say. So much attention and concern, on the part of parents and the rest of us, seems to be on whether our students have friends and are having a good time in school, rather than whether they are working as hard as they can academically. It is far easier to blame teachers if student academic achievement is too low.

If we listened to those two public high school students, we should surely inform our students at the start of every school year, that they have the responsibility to pay attention, do their homework, read books and write papers, and in general give their very best efforts to making the most out of the free public education which has been provided them. Let’s tell them that their academic success is their job. It is up to them how much they learn and how much they grow in competence through their own work in school.

Monday, May 10, 2010

“Will, this is brilliant. You have been on a roll lately.” Diane Ravitch

[, Madison, Wisconsin;, Houston, Texas;
Education Matters;; Curriculum Matters; ]


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
10 May 2010

Kudzu, (Pueraria lobata), I learn from Wikipedia, was “...introduced from Japan into the United States in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where it was promoted as a forage crop and an ornamental plant. From 1935 to the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers in the southeastern United States to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion... The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it widely for many years. It was subsequently discovered that the southeastern US has near-perfect conditions for kudzu to grow out of control—hot, humid summers, frequent rainfall, and temperate winters with few hard freezes...As such, the once-promoted plant was named a pest weed by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1953.”

We now have, I suggest, an analogous risk from the widespread application of “the evidence-based techniques and processes of literacy instruction, k-12.” At least one major foundation and one very old and influential college for teachers are now promoting what I have described as “guidelines, parameters, checklists, techniques, processes and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something that they have learned.”

Most of these literacy experts are psychologists and educators, rather than historians or authors of literature. Samuel Johnson, an 18th century author some may remember, once wrote that “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book.” A recent major foundation report suggests that Dr. Johnson didn’t know what he was talking about when it comes to adolescents:

“Some educators feel that the ‘adolescent literacy crisis’ can be resolved simply by having adolescents read more books. This idea is based on the misconception that the source of the problem is ‘illiteracy.’ The truth is that adolescents—even those who have already ‘learned how to read’—need systematic support to learn how to ‘read to learn’ across a wide variety of contexts and content.”

Therefore, no need for adolescents to read books, just give them lots of literacy kudzu classes in “rubrics, guidelines, parameters, checklists, techniques, and processes...”

Other literacy kudzu specialists also suggest that reading books is not so important, instead that: (to quote a recent Washington Post article by Psychologist Dolores Perin of Teachers College, Columbia) “many students cannot learn well from a content curriculum because they have difficulty reading assigned text and fulfilling subject-area writing assignments. Secondary content teachers need to understand literacy processes and become aware of evidence-based reading and writing techniques to promote learners’ understanding of the content material being taught. Extended school-based professional development should be provided through collaborations between literacy and content-area specialists.”

E.D. Hirsch has called this “technique” philosophy of literacy instruction, “How-To-Ism” and says that it quite uselessly tries to substitute methods and skills for the knowledge that students must have in order to read well and often, and to write on academic subjects in school.

Literacy Kudzu has been with us for a long time, but it has received new fertilizer from large private foundation and now federal standards grants which will only help it choke off, where it can, attention to the reading of complete books and the writing of serious academic papers by the students in our schools.

Writing in, Lisa Roney recently said: “But let me also point out that the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better.”

Educrat Professors and Educrat Psychologists who have, perhaps, missed learning much about history and literature during their own educations, and have not made any obvious attempt to study their value in their education research, of course fall back on what they feel they can do: teach processes, skills, methods, rubrics, parameters, and techniques of literacy instruction. Their efforts, wherever they are successful, will be a disaster, in my view, for teachers and students who care about academic writing and about history and literature in the schools.

In a recent issue of Harvard Magazine an alum wrote: “Dad ( a professional writer) used to tell us what he felt was the best advice he ever had on good writing. One of his professors was the legendary Charles Townsend Copeland, A.B. 1882, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Copeland didn’t collect themes and grade them. Rather, he made an appointment with each student to come to his quarters in Hollis Hall to read his theme and receive comments from the Master...“Dad started reading his offering and heard occasional groans and sighs of anguish from various locations in the (room). Finally, Copeland said in pained tones, ‘Stop, Mr. Duncan, stop.’ Dad stopped. After several seconds of deep silence, Copeland asked, ‘Mr. Duncan, what are you trying to say?’ Dad explained what he was trying to say. Said Copeland, ‘Why didn’t you write it down?’”

This is the sort of advice (quite unintelligible to the literacy kudzu community), which understands that in writing one first must have something to say (knowledge) and then one must work to express that knowledge so it may be understood. That may not play to the literacy kudzu community’s perception of their strengths, but it has a lot more to do with academic reading and writing than anything they are working to inflict on our teachers and students.

I hope they, including the foundations and the university consultant world, may before too long pause to re-consider their approach to literacy instruction, before we experience more damage from this pest-weed which they are presently, perhaps unwittingly, in the method-technique-process of spreading in our schools.