California English Journal
“Between you and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man…To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I seldom answer a word.”
Fresno Unified, California’s 4th largest school district, is home to approximately 80,000 students, with some 76 languages represented. Demographic data show the student population to be 57% Hispanic, 16% White, 15% Asian, 11% African American, and 2% other. The district average for free and reduced lunch, often a marker for poverty, is 77.8% (Fresno Unified, 2006). As a whole, the district has been labeled “Program Improvement” for failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress requirements several years running (California Department of Education, 2006). Now, what do we do with this “problem”?
Hard numbers betray part of the story—not all. As a teacher, depending on where I choose to teach, I can pretty much tell you what I will encounter. As a student, I know what I have encountered. Everyone clamors to fix the problem through their lens, and so that is how I approach our “condition”. What would theory have to say?
The landmark Coleman Report (1966) argued that achievement was related to the larger issue of resource inequality, and that resource inequality was stoked and maintained by segregation, and thus, the argument for integration as a means to address achievement was forwarded. This led to compensatory education programs and to the idea of school as a “leveler” of sorts, the intervening variable necessary to address the relationship that existed between family background and educational attainment (Jencks, Smith, Acland, Bane, Cohen, Gintis, Heyns, & Michelson, 1972). Fresno Unified is definitely diverse and has made an effort to engineer integration through magnet schools and busing (derided in some corners as the BMW express and the Soul Train express respectively). The district also receives government funding to address categories of need. But still, the district is underperforming. Coleman, a supporter of the “school choice” movement, would now probably champion school vouchers to get our kids out of failing schools/failing districts and into successful schools that would presumably take them.
However, scratch below Fresno Unified’s surface and see if we really are as integrated and diverse (at school building level) as the numbers claim. Orfield’s (1996) analysis of race and poverty led him to conclude that segregation, especially in big cities, is even more entrenched and growing. In fact, it’s folk wisdom in Fresno that if you drive south of McKinley Avenue, all of the schools you will see are free and reduced lunch schools and the students minority and “disadvantaged”. Drive 15 or maybe 20 minutes north and you might end up at Forkner, where only 14% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch and AYP targets don’t have staff and students running and hiding. It’s also the only public elementary school where the student body is 65% White (Fresno Unified, 2006).
What is more, the notion that extra funding is filling the gaps and therefore, all is absolved misses the point entirely. No doubt there will be those who point to Fresno Unified’s $869 million budget and argue that money is not the issue. Well, yes and no. The “funding straw man” conveniently provides fodder for those who refuse to address the deeply rooted issues of fundamental justice, historical and economic. Indeed, Jonathan Kozol (1991) pointed out as much in his observation that the American psyche predicates itself on the distinctly American notion of “fair play”, and yet, conveniently forsakes this principle when the arena changes to education or healthcare.
Back to our problem, Orfield (1996) offers insight, not hope, “In other words, the existing patterns of income distribution and residential segregation make it almost impossible to disentangle the problems of race and poverty in American schools.” What alternative does that leave Fresno, then, especially when 43.5% of its citizens live in concentrated poverty (Nieves, 2005)?
The push towards accountability and higher standards in public education ushered in a new era of “choice”. Chubb and Moe (1990) famously argued that school choice would lead to competition and by design more effective schools. A market approach would ensure that only quality schools stay “in business” and that failing ones close down.
In assessing our “problem district”, proponents of school choice would probably propose overhauling Fresno Unified, too costly and bulky and ineffective. Public monies earmarked for public education expenditures could be used to set up voucher programs. Theoretically, parents who are unhappy with low-performing neighborhood schools could then use their vouchers to, let’s say, transfer their children to high-quality, high achieving schools. We sort of have this already in the current NCLB law. In Fresno Unified, the number of “failing schools” continues to grow and the reality of “choice transfers” is already here. To this a note of reality, I have known of “high achieving” schools that didn’t want to accept transfers because they were choice transfers from “low–performing” schools, and the fear was that their “numbers” would be blemished. As for charter schools, there are some 10 charter schools operating in Fresno Unified. One of them is Edison-Bethune, of Edison Schools Inc. The school consistently ranks near the bottom in API formulas (California Department of Education, 2006). Regardless, many people advance choice and privatization as a viable avenue towards equity. This is an oft-sold argument to minority or low-income parents. Who really benefits from this well-crafted argument remains to be seen. Researching the politics of urban education, Wells and Crain (1997) concluded that many African-American parents felt so “beat down” by the system that voluntary choice transfers did little to displace their sense of powerlessness.
Nevertheless, choice and in particular voucher proponents, would maintain that for-profit “ed-ventures” are exactly what’s needed to shake up Fresno Unified. But what else is there for those who find vouchers untenable and are disheartened by the lack of commitment to real redistribution of resources? Because no one seemingly wants to do the heavy-lifting needed to move the elephant, let us reframe the argument again, this time on what to do in spite of the pernicious pachyderm.
Reframing Around Achievement
Owing to the fact that the economic transformation of the type that researchers Bowles and Gintis (1976) argued as necessary for real change is unlikely to occur, our attention turns to the problem of the “achievement gap”. Traditionally, the achievement gap has referred to the black-white achievement test gap which has historically indicated that overall African-American students perform lower on language and math measures than their European-American “peers”. Although recognition is given to the legacy of inequality in the U.S., reducing the achievement gap is viewed as the most politically viable option on the table, and the notion that gap reduction is sufficient for substantive change to occur is championed (Jencks & Phillips, 1998).
Current reform movements reflect this move to “test ourselves out of” the achievement/poverty predicament, where higher standards and accountability will solve the issue of educational inequity. This achievement ideology heavily permeates Fresno Unified and similarly diverse school districts. The majority of Fresno schools have been labeled Program Improvement, with many poised to face sanctions under NCLB guidelines. Having taught at a PI school before, I can say that instruction was highly regimented and focused on meeting measurable objectives. And because measuring up to reading and mathematical benchmarks was the goal, other curricular subjects were (privately) shelved. Fresno Unified has subscribed to this model of achievement through higher accountability and testing for several years now, and the list of underperforming schools continues to grow.
Apparently, attacking the gap is one thing, but affecting measured change is another. Fordham and Ogbu’s (1986) seminal work on minority achievement asserted that a possible explanation as to why African-American students underachieved in schools was that they were trying to avoid the stigma attached to academic achievement—the “burden of acting white”. The researchers recommended that this worldview be counteracted through presenting positive images of education and of black role models to young students. What follows, then, is a shift from “frames” to transformation.
A Transformative Education
“Education is indoctrination if you're white - subjugation if you're black.”
--James A. Baldwin
A growing number of scholars have rejected the “problem” paradigm of failing students or educational systems by critically focusing on the interaction between the individual and constructed systems across race, class, and gender lines. Lani Guinier’s (2003) “miner’s canary” analogy argues that those historically pushed to the boundaries by power are most susceptible to its side-effects. Moreover, much is to be gained from the object lesson learned at their expense.
Within the context of our discussion, it means that “failing students” and “failing districts” are not agents in a vacuum, but symptoms of a larger design. They are symptoms of a problem that simply can not be “tested away”. Even Mayor Alan Autry recognized the enormous divide that few will name when he invoked Dickens and waxed that Fresno was “A Tale of Two Cities” (Nieves, 2005).
What educational measures, then, can be taken to counteract the detrimental effects of entrenched systems of class inequality, racial inequality, and gender inequality? How do you combat a system predicated on privilege through sustained inequality? A small but growing number of voices offer an alternative to the traditional test-is-best chorus to school reform. Researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings (2003) argued for a culturally relevant approach to education where student achievement is documented through various types of performance-based measures and sociopolitical consciousness the fruit of the educational encounter. Similarly, Sonia Nieto (2000) proposed that a sound education is one that requires critical passage through the panorama of experiences, requiring deep processing of how truly complex variables such as power (within and without), identity, and experience transform the educational encounter for students. Education no longer is the conduit to unchallenged power but a channel to critical agency.
What would a critical approach to education look like in Fresno Unified? Well, for starters, the scratch and spit curriculum fed to students, particularly poor and minority, would be reexamined. Traditional “instruction” would be replaced in more “radicalized” settings by a curriculum of advocacy and sociopolitical consciousness, different at each site depending on the interests and needs of the students. Such anti-racist curricula, though I think anti-exploitation would be a truer frame, would promote critical citizens that work for sustained change.
Unfortunately, this is one educational frontier that the power structure is unwilling to cross, and so it is often the canaries/students that have to start sacrificing themselves before power takes note. Witness the recent walkouts by students (mainly Latino) in response to the proposed immigration legislation or the walkouts by Fresno High students awhile back in protest of deplorable building conditions.
On Being a Problem
Asking why Fresno Unified is such a “problem” district and then proposing that higher standards is the panacea is akin to rearranging deck chairs on a famously New York-bound cruise liner. But come on, how does it really feel to be a problem? I don’t profess to know why W.E.B. DuBois seldom answered. I can only guess he knew America would never accept his response. Likewise, no one really wants this answer, and the “standards-testing juggernaut” is but another attempt to cover up what education miserably fails to.
J.S. (1966). “Summary Report” from
Equality of Educational Opportunity.
S. & Ogbu, J.U. (1986). Black students’ school
success: Coping with the “burden of
Jencks, C., Smith, M., Acland, H., Bane, M.J., Cohen, D., Gintis,
H., Heyns, B.,
C. & Phillips, M. (1998). America’s
next achievement test: Closing the Black-White
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage
inequalities. Crown Publishers Inc.
Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming diversity: the Sociopolitical context of multicultural education (3rd edition).Longman.
Nieves, E. (2005, November 21). In Fresno, tackling poverty moves to the top of the agenda. The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com
Orfield, G. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown V. Board of Education. The New Press.
Wells, A.S. & Crain, R. (1997). Stepping over the color line: African-American students in White suburban schools. Yale University Press.
“All children can learn:” The politically correct, humanistic mantra we read in policy reports, hear in professional development workshops, and from district and site administrators who together believe that saying it often enough will make it so; saying it often enough will pierce what teachers see in their classrooms every day—children aren’t learning. I do believe it is true, that all children can learn and do learn, (after all, they learned to walk, to talk, to master their game boys) What is missing from this mantra, and from education policy, is that all children don’t learn at the same pace, in the same way, for the same reasons, or at the same level. We need to drop the lie that tells children there is no difference between them, that they can be whatever they want to be if they will only try. The children I see in the impoverished communities where I work do try. They show up for school even though their days are filled with math and English classes, where art and music and play production have been stripped away so they can receive more intense remediation. But in spite of taking the joy out of learning and replacing it with more skill and drill, the remediation isn’t working, and the achievement gap isn’t closing.
I have been working in the math classes with students who don’t know the multiplication tables. Calculators aren’t the answer when the child doesn’t understand the concept underlying multiplication and division. When a 7th grade student can’t cipher 2 times zero without guessing, and often guessing wrong, there is no point in introducing Algebra or Algebra readiness, or pre-Algebra. We have students, many of them, for whom we need to go back to basics and teach them one concept at a time until they have mastery, building blocks on which to place additional math rules. We do know how to help children learn, so why aren’t we doing this?
It’s the numbers more than anything else. We can assist with one on one tutoring the child who enters school with major deficits. The kids I see in the inner city are eager to be successful, to please, to have those AHA moments, but there are so many of them and their needs are so great. This past week, two weeks before the break for winter recess, three new students enrolled in the middle school—the transient rate is high. We put them into classes by age level as if that is an accurate indication of skill level. And the classes are large-40 and more. We don’t have skilled math teachers who understand how to break a mathematical function down and teach its parts, concept based instruction. In spite of having unfilled teaching positions five months into the semester, the kids keep coming. We’re overwhelmed by the numbers. Rising poverty levels, rising levels of homes where parents are unable to cope with the demands of parenting, where they are working long hours, living crowded into inadequate quarters, struggling for sustenance, more and more homes without two parents to support their children and one another, overwhelm what our schools can do. We can support students when they arrive singly, when there’s time and place for one-on-one assessment, but not when the schools are open to all comers without end in sight. In the classroom I go from student to student, each one eagerly wanting the time and attention to help them to understand, but there’s so many of them I never help them all.
Dare I address
the elephant in the living room? We can’t close
the achievement gap, maybe we need to refocus our efforts. Perhaps
the goal is to add academic and social value to every child in our
communities. Maybe we need to accept that it takes about three generations
to rise from immigrant or poverty status into more successful middle
class. The dirty secret is that no nation in the world educates all
of its citizens to even the basic level. We’ve set a goal for
ourselves that is impossible to reach, although it is an admirable
one. Then we throw money and effort and best intentions at it, and
still we fail. Along the way we are beating up teachers who are leaving
the neediest schools at a far higher rate than 50% in 5 years. Children
face failure every day because they can’t do what we ask them
to do, they don’t all have the skills and we don’t have
the time and resources to wipe out the accident of their birth (into
poverty, into immigrant families, into uneducated, or broken families).
This is a land of great opportunity, but it is not equal opportunity
for everyone. Not all will learn in the same amount of time, at the
same level, or even the same subjects. It’s time to stop, think
about what one needs to be successful and independent and a participant
in this democracy, and then redesign our schools to meet those goals.
Let’s abandon this misguided movement to close the achievement
gap. Our current efforts are only lowering the top, not raising those
on the academic bottom. We’ve reached a negative tipping point
in our cities where more children are below basic than above proficient.
When students whose families can afford it are leaving the city to
attend private, charter, alternate schools so they are not swept into
the morass of poor performing classes.
About the Author
The Challenge of Achieving Academic Literacy for ELLs
For a growing number of English language learners (ELLs), the complexity of academic English is an obstacle as they struggle to develop higher-level reading and writing skills. Some studies have shown that ELLs require six to ten years to acquire grade-appropriate reading and writing proficiency in English (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). Many teachers of struggling students and ELLs avoid teaching and requiring students to write analytical essays because they feel the skills required (strategic reading, development of a meaningful thesis, control of organization, effective use of evidence and supporting details, sentence variety, and command of the conventions of written English) are too sophisticated for the population they serve. Yet, these are the very abilities assessed on high stakes exams. A recent study of prototype test items for high school exit exams across the nation (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2003) reveals the degree of academic literacy expected of all secondary students, including ELLs, who are assessed on their ability to do the following, and more: summarize texts, using linguistic cues to interpret and infer the writer’s intentions and messages; analyze texts, assessing the writer’s use of language for rhetorical and aesthetic purposes; evaluate evidence and arguments presented in texts and critique the logic of arguments made in them; and compose and write extended, reasoned text that is well developed and supported with evidence and details.
Since many ELLs are exposed to a reductionist curriculum focused primarily on skill and drill, they often lack the opportunities to practice higher-level reading, thinking, and writing. In order to help students develop confidence and competence, research suggests that teachers need to provide systematic and explicit instruction in the cognitive strategies used by mature readers and writers in the process of meaning construction. Students need to develop declarative knowledge of what cognitive strategies are, procedural knowledge of how to implement them, and conditional knowledge of the when and why of strategy use, thereby building students’ metacognitive control of specific strategies (Paris, Lipson & Wixon, 1983;). It is the teacher’s responsibility to make visible for students what it is that experienced readers and writers do when they compose; to introduce the cognitive strategies that underlie reading and writing in meaningful contexts; and to provide enough sustained, guided practice that students can internalize these strategies and perform complex tasks independently.
The Pathway Project
Using a cognitive strategies approach to enhance the academic literacy of ELLs was the focus of the Pathway Project, an intensive professional development program initiated by the UCI/California Writing Project in SAUSD and sustained over an eight year period (1996-2004). Students entered the Pathway in 6th grade when they were in Transitional English Language Development and progressed as a cadre up the grade levels from the class of one Pathway teacher participating in the project to the next. The vision underlying the project was that if ELLs are treated from the early grades as if they are college-bound, if they receive exemplary curriculum and explicit strategies instruction, and if there are consistent, coherent and progressively rigorous expectations among the teachers from grades 6 through 12, students will attain the necessary academic literacy to succeed in college and their college-going rates will be substantially improved. Throughout the duration of the project, we exposed teachers and students to an extensive set of cognitive strategies and a wide array of curricular approaches to cognitive strategy use.
Introducing Students to the Cognitive Strategies in Their Readers’ and Writers’ Tool Kits
To help students understand that experienced readers and writers use cognitive strategies to construct meaning from and with texts, we introduced them to the concept of a tool kit.
To make this analogy more concrete, some Pathway teachers actually brought real tool kits into their classrooms to demonstrate the three kinds of knowledge that are necessary to strategic literacy. For example, they might search through the tool kit to find the appropriate tool to nail two boards together and ask students why a screwdriver or a wrench wouldn’t work to demonstrate that students had declarative knowledge, ask for instructions as to how to use a hammer to nail the boards together to illustrate procedural knowledge, and ask the class to tell them how long to keep hammering in order to get the job done properly to exemplify conditional knowledge. Teachers then furthered the analogy by proposing: “So, in language arts class, think of yourself as a reader and writer as a craftsman, except instead of constructing an object with wood, you’re constructing meaning from or with words.”
Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters
To help students develop declarative knowledge of what the strategies in their tool kits are and the procedural knowledge of how to implement the strategies on their own, Pathway teachers also supplied students with the sentence openers shown in Figure 2 to use in dialectical journals and in marginal notes in response to texts:
These sentence starters later became guidelines for students as they met in Writing Groups to comment upon each other’s writing.
Practicing Strategy Use in Book Clubs
During self-selected reading, students were given a variety of options to express their understanding of texts which target the use of particular cognitive strategies. They then shared their artifacts in Book Clubs, small groups of students who are reading a variety of different texts and who meet weekly to share their responses to what they are reading. One example of a Book Club activity, the postcard activity in Figure 3, is based on a suggestion by Tierney and Pearson (1983) that students can practice adopting an alignment by projecting themselves “into a scene as a character, eye witness or object” (p. 573), and writing from the character’s perspective, thereby developing and deepening their engagement in reading.
As students became increasingly familiar with and adept at strategy use, we enhanced their conditional knowledge of how to orchestrate cognitive strategies, focusing on metacognition, through a tutorial, adapted with permission from the Strategic Literacy Initiative (Schoenbach, et al., 1999), that begins with the creation of a play-doh animal in which the teacher engages in a Think-Aloud while constructing his/her artifact as a student records his/her remarks on a transparency. For example, the teacher might say, “Hmm. I think I’ll make an elephant that looks like Dumbo” and later label this as Planning and Goal Setting and Visualizing, or in the process of shaping the play-doh say, “Whoops! That looks more like a mouse than an elephant. Back to the drawing board,” and later label this Visualizing, Evaluating, and Revising Meaning. After this concrete example of “constructing meaning,” the teacher demonstrates the Think-Aloud process while interpreting a complex text, writes a brief reflection of his/her meaning-making process, and then provides time and guidance for students to work in pairs and experience the same process. This introductory workshop set the stage for ongoing invitations for students to metacognitively reflect upon their reading, thinking and writing throughout the year.
Color-coding: A Making-Visible Strategy for Analytical Essay Writing
Many struggling readers and writers, especially ELLs who have had little practice, think that the point of writing a literary response-based analytical essay is to prove that you understood what you read by retelling the story. Yet this type of response will only merit a 1 on a 4-point scale on the STAR Grade 7 and 10 California High School Exit (CAHSEE) direct writing assessment rubrics. One of the most powerful making-visible strategies we developed to help students write analytical essays was color-coding. Each year, students were given two sample papers (one strong and one marginal) written by Pathway students from the previous year. Teachers then designated a color for three types of sentences that make up an analytical essay. For example, they might say, “Plot summary reiterates what is obvious and known in a text. It is yellow because it’s kind of superficial and lightweight. We sometimes need some plot summary to orient our reader to the facts but we want to keep plot summary to a minimum. Commentary is blue because it goes beneath the surface of things to look at the deeper meaning. Commentary occurs when we move from what the text says to what it means. It’s your opinion, interpretations, insights, and Ahas. Supporting detail is green because it’s what glues together plot summary and commentary. It’s your evidence to support your claims. In writing a successful essay, it is especially important to quote from the text to provide evidence for your ideas.”
Next, students were given colored pencils and, starting with the weak paper, they went through the two papers, sentence by sentence, color-coding the essays as a class. Finally, students applied the color-coding strategy to their own pre-tests, working with a partner to determine if they had simply retold the plot or had included some interpretation and comment as well as textual evidence. Subsequently, they revised their pre-test essays into a multiple draft essay as practice for the timed essay they would take towards the end of the semester, thereby gradually internalizing the difference between summary and commentary.
Assessing Students’ Reading, Thinking, and Writing
At the end of each year of the Pathway Project, students assessed their own pre- and post- writing samples and wrote reflections analyzing their own growth as learners over time such as those at the beginning of this article. As teachers read through their students’ pre- and post- tests and self-assessments, they were impressed with their ability to recognize and identify the indicators of their progress as readers and writers. Further, teachers attributed their students’ growth to their own development as professionals. As Jamie Salafia-Bellamo, a sixth grade teacher at Villa Intermediate noted, “I think what has been most inspirational to me as an educator is that these strategies emphasize teaching our students what good readers and writers do naturally that make them effective interpreters in reading and communicators in writing. To quote another Pathway college, we strive to make the ‘invisible’ visible to our students.”
Achieving Academic Literacy
Students receiving cognitive strategies instruction significantly out-gained peers in a comparable control group on our pre- and post- assessments of analytical writing for seven consecutive years. Additionally, Pathway students out-gained peers on GPA, standardized tests of reading and total language, and high stakes writing assessments. We were particularly gratified to see our Pathway 10th graders beat the odds by achieving a 93% pass rate in 2004 on the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as opposed to control group pass rates of 66% and district pass rates of 62%. (For more complete data, see Olson and Land, in press.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In California, we teach a standards-based curriculum that presupposes all students must prepare for university course work, yet higher education is an unimagineable world to most students from low socio-economic communities. The California State University’s Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) is trying to change that. By providing advanced literacy strategies to students and professional development to teachers, the ERWC has the potential to significantly increase and diversify participation in higher education.
The ERWC provides a model of rhetoric-based instruction that is particularly conducive of academic identification and competence. Direct instruction in composition-rhetoric fosters academic identities in several ways; it develops the academic English learner’s skills in evaluating arguments, identifying writers’ purposes, distinguishing between data and claims, and positioning oneself within scholarly debates —all tasks demanded of cross-curricular academic literacy but not necessarily addressed by traditional literature-based English classes. Rhetoric is a way of thinking; it is the practiced art of analyzing all language with an eye to form, motive, and context. When college composition instructors speak of “good writing,” they typically mean the ability to write rhetorically.
Without the ability to comprehend college-level texts, draw warranted conclusions, and craft persuasive arguments, our students have difficulty gaining access to higher education, lucrative employment, or positions of cultural influence. Reading Next, the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s report on literacy research, cites several studies that share the same dismal conclusion: “In 2004 […] there are few opportunities for the high school dropout […] jobs, welfare, and social safety nets will no longer be available as they once were” (1).
Even students who graduate from high school may still face “linguistic discrimination” (Scarcella 16) if they are among the millions of young people who can pronounce the words in an academic texts but who struggle with reading comprehension and verbal expression. For example, a study of students’ college-readiness in California found that “only 1/3 of entering college students are sufficiently prepared for the two most frequently assigned writing tasks: analyzing information or arguments and synthesizing information from several sources, according to faculty respondents” (ICAS 4). Achieving academic literacy likewise determines “whether and where [students] go to college” (McDonough 4) and ultimately has a direct impact on their quality of life and capacity for making social contributions. These young people are ill-equipped to negotiate the many cultural situations they’ll face “where some people’s words count more than others, where being heard is more difficult for some people than others, where some people’s words come true and others’ do not” (Writing Study Group of the NCTE Executive Committee).
For those of us English teachers trained primarily in literary criticism, teaching rhetoric can be a daunting task. We may dimly recall lectures on Aristotle and Quintilian or the dizzying numerology of the discipline: Two types of figures (tropes and schemes), three types of appeals (ethos, logos, and pathos), four modes (narration, description, exposition, and persuasion), five questions of motive (Burke’s act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose), six parts of an argument (exordium, narratio, partitio, confirmatio, refutatio, and conclusio), and twenty-eight lines of inquiry (Aristotle). A history of rhetoric’s confounding formulations can read like “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Rhetoric has been defined as everything from “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle), to “a study of verbal understanding and misunderstanding” (I.A. Richards), to simply “discourse” (James Kinneavy). As Erika Lindemann points out in A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, the term “rhetoric” itself can refer alternately to a practice, theory, discipline, or even a type of book (instructors assign a “rhetoric” as the textbook in many college classes).
As a discipline, rhetoric encompasses fields as diverse as ethics, feminism, politics, discourse studies, anthropology, psychology, composition, logic, philosophy, and linguistics. Even its institutional affiliations are contested; some universities house rhetoric in Speech and Communications departments while others assign it to English departments.
Enter Task Force 12—a group I like to think of as the X-Men of higher education (minus the gender bias and mutations). Task Force 12 is a unique collaboration of university and secondary educators whose purpose is to design and implement a rhetoric-based curriculum that will better prepare high school students for the literacy demands of higher education. Several of the CSU faculty on Task Force 12 are themselves Directors of Writing; two are the authors of the CSU’s English Placement Test. Working with the CSU Center for the Advancement of Reading, county offices of education, and local CSU campuses, Task Force 12 has created an unprecedented statewide effort to help under-performing high school seniors become college-ready. It does this by training high school teachers and their students to read and write about texts with the attention to purpose, audience, argument, writer’s persona, style, and persuasive strategies at the heart of rhetorical inquiry.
The official name of Task Force 12 is the California State University Task Force on Expository Reading and Writing and its official product is the CSU Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC)—a junior or senior English elective that has been granted “B” status by the University of California.
Unlike the arcane array of approaches and methods presented by the 2,500 year history of rhetoric, the ERWC has a strategic focus; the fourteen instructional modules target those aspects of rhetoric most essential to promoting critical thinking, independent reading skills, and academic writing proficiency in college-bound juniors and seniors. Modules use topical subjects such as fast food consumption, racial profiling, animal rights, bullying, and gender communication styles to engage students in analytical reading and persuasive writing. This clear focus, however, does result in a simplistic approach. The modules challenge students to think about context and ambiguity with greater sophistication than is typical of many reader-response approaches to literary study.
I first began using the Task Force’s materials with a group of AVID sophomores. I was searching for ways to help my struggling tenth graders develop academic “habits of mind” (ICAS ) when I learned about the CSU modules at a training session at Cal Poly Pomona. I was immediately taken with the clarity of the intellectual processes the modules presented. What the modules offered—and what my students lacked—was a metacognitive method for attacking challenging nonfiction texts. The assignments train students to think like scholars—to read recursively and reflectively, entertain multiple viewpoints, question the author’s techniques and intentions, persevere in their construction of meaning, and develop and support original arguments. My AVID class spent three weeks reading, re-reading, and responding to Assignment Three: “The Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos”—a module that applies classical means of persuasion to an opinion article on animals’ capacity for feeling.
To be honest, my AVID students were not used to working this hard; never had I asked a “regular” class to do so much with one text. After the first few days of tapping into prior knowledge, surveying the article’s features, making predictions about the author’s views, and pre-teaching key vocabulary, my students began to ask the classroom equivalent of “Are we there yet?” No, I had to tell them; we hadn’t even read the article. By the time we had worked our way through multiple reading and writing activities, my students were beginning to understand that I wasn’t looking for just a right answer from them—that this way of analyzing and writing about texts was dramatically different from the quiz and comprehension questions that typically followed their reading assignments. Our culminating Socratic dialogue on the ethics and science of animals’ emotions confirmed what I had begun to suspect the first week: the intensive, critical instruction that I had previously thought was only appropriate for my Advanced Placement classes was also the most effective means of helping under-prepared students to develop a taste for scholarship. The AVID students’ dialogue sparkled; they were confident and informed, and I, for once, was able to sit back and enjoy the show.
The institutional genealogy of the modules testifies to the number of people and organizations who believe in the value of a rhetorical approach. Led by Dr. John Edlund of CSU Cal Poly Pomona, Task Force 12 has ties to the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, the California State University, and the CSU’s Early Assessment Program.
The Early Assessment Program—Task Force 12’s parent program—was created to provide high school students with the opportunity to measure and improve their college-readiness before they begin university course work. The need for pre-college interventions is great: Nearly half of first-time freshmen admitted to the California State University’s 23 campuses in recent years have scored below proficient on the CSU’s English Placement Test.
Remediation is costly to both students and institutions; in addition to the financial burden of additional classes, students also must cope with the disappointment and frustration of having successfully completed four years of high school only to find they are unable to begin course work toward the completion of their college degree.
These findings corroborate what many educational researchers have identified as a general weakness in secondary students: an inability to read and write about nonfiction in sustained, sophisticated, and informed ways. A survey of higher education faculty in California found that 83% of faculty respondents attribute their students’ lack of success in a course to a lack of analytical reading skills (ICAS 18). The ICAS’s report warns that “[…] when students fail to learn the very different reading strategies necessary for comprehending non-fiction (essays), they may have difficulty with college reading, and, we might argue, may fail to develop life-long interests in reading” (18-19). Reading Next similarly identifies explicit instruction reading in disciplinary-specific reading strategies (1, 2) as a key factor in improving secondary students’ reading skills. These findings have significant implications for the social and economic opportunities of under-prepared students.
To counter this trend, organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English and the College Board have advocated a comprehensive approach to writing instruction that addresses a wide range of rhetorical purposes, including both literary and expository compositions. In “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing” (2004), the Writing Study Group of the NCTE Executive Committee recommends that teachers understand the “appropriate [writing] forms for varied academic disciplines and the purposes and relationships that create those forms.” The Neglected “R”—the College Board’s position statement on writing instruction—likewise endorses the importance of extra-literary writing opportunities.
EAP works within this educational context to meet three important objectives: to assess high school juniors’ math and English college-readiness through STAR testing; to provide strategic college-preparatory learning experiences to those seniors EAP identifies as under-prepared; and to provide professional development to 12th grade math and English teachers. Task Force 12 and the ERWC address these last two goals.
As the above reports suggest, basic literacy is not the issue. Most high school graduates can read and write; what they cannot do, as The National Commission on Writing argues, is to read and write “well enough to meet the demands they face in higher education and the emerging work environment” (16). The CSU Grade Expository Reading and Writing Course specifically targets those complex, content-embedded literacy skills and strategies that can help under-prepared high school seniors become college-ready freshmen.
Thus, the academic intervention that the ERWC offers is a matter of both equity and educational excellence; by preparing more high school students to meet the rigorous expectations of university faculty, this program has the potential to improve California students’ access to higher education and enhance the quality of future university learning environments.
In a meeting with some Berkeley teachers to discuss genre, I handed out the announcement from California English requesting manuscripts on “Closing the Achievement Gap.” A hand shot up; then a question: “What does this sentence mean: ‘While socio-economic factors, parents education, peer pressure, language challenges, school funding, and teacher expectations may begin to explain the disparity, the gap must be closed.” ”Interrogate the author!” shouted someone in the back. “This is directed to US---Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco teachers---not Beverly Hills, Woodside, Marin County or Orinda or Walnut Creek and those other bastions of white people. The Achievement Gap is between Whites and Blacks or Latinos. We city folks have the Gap because we have low-income minority students. Those other districts don’t.”
Things were quiet for a moment. A teacher near the front, head down, commented quietly, “And, guess what, the announcement is addressed to us---What is your school doing…? How can we insure (sic) …rigorous instruction…? What have you done…? How can we accelerate student learning….?” Another added, urgently, “Here, everything is on our backs---the back of the city school and the city teacher. Socio-economic factors, parents, peer pressure, language challenges, school funding, teacher expectations--- they all get off, without even a plea bargain. If society can blame enough on teachers, then society can ignore its own educational sins.”
We were all sitting quietly for a time. In my mind, genre was receding into a long ago past. Finally, I asked, “What are some of those educational sins?” A quizzical look. I repeated the question. Then the torrent started, soon too fast for anything but a scribbled summary. I promised to write up some of the list, with elaboration, for the Ethics Committee of the Curriculum Study Commission (another quizzical look!). Why? Because some of the so-called causes of the Achievement Gap reflected confusions about the professional ethics of a K-12 English teacher. For example:
First cause: K-12 teacher commitments and expectations: The CSC’s Ethics Committee (Myers and Quincy, 2006) found (1) that a profession’s Code of Ethics provides a framework for discussing collectively what a professional practioner’s commitments and expectations should be (a discussion often lacking in teacher preparation programs and in the forums of teacher organizations). The CSC Committee also found that (1) CATE and NCTE did not have a Code of Ethics and (2) that many ethical questions were unsettled because K-12 teachers were now facing a number of conflicting definitions of the K-12 teacher’s role in schools, many of these conflicts arising in debates about the mandates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
These Committee discussions suggested that some teachers felt that they had, in the name of Academic Freedom, an ethical commitment to determine their own expectations of students and to select their own books and curriculum content. Others insisted that although this notion of Academic Freedom may have governed K-12 ethical behavior at one time, it no longer did. In fact, the CSC Ethics Committee asserted that a Code of Ethics must call for teacher practices that are anchored in some kind of professional, collective review, not just individual inclinations.
In addition, the Ethics Committee concluded that K-12 teachers, recognizing the importance of individual differences, have an ethical obligation to commit to a broad array of initiatives to eliminate the Achievement Gap. The Committee noted that NCLB (No Child Left Behind), not teachers’ organizations, called for and got disaggregated scores, revealing the Achievement Gap for the first time in some districts. As a result, in another Code, the Committee called for an ethical commitment to transparency in teaching, including state testing (teachers are denied access to the actual test booklets completed by students), textbook selection, curriculum decisions, school district budgeting, hiring, and so on.
Transparency suggests, for example, that K-12 English teachers should have an ethical commitment to make the complexities of teaching and learning as clear as possible to parents and students. But teachers cannot ethically promise\guarantee growth in achievement by a particular date, despite the claims of NCLB. Says, Paul Tough in the NY Times (November 26, 2006), “…the schools provide evidence that the President is, in his most basic understanding of the problem, entirely right: the achievement gap can be overcome, in a convincing way, for large numbers of poor and minority students, not in generations but in years. What he and others seem not to have apprehended quite yet is the magnitude of the effort that will be required for that change to take place.”
In the meantime, teacher organizations have an obligation to make certain that stories about the efforts of individual teachers are not be used to disguise the magnitude of the educational task to close the Achievement Gap. In addition, teachers should keep their ethical commitments quite distinct from government promises. The former are professional understandings of the workplace, and the latter are government and foundation understandings. The two understandings are in constant conflict in the daily work life of today’s K-12 teachers. In any case, teacher commitments and expectations need to be an on-going theme in the conversations of our organized collective, our profession of K-12 English teachers. In most professions, these conversations are generated by the profession’s Code of Ethics.
Second cause: California’s school finance system: The CSC Ethics Committee also examined the degree to which a code of ethics for K-12 teachers should extend to obligations for adequate youth services in the community or to obligations for an adequate K-12 school finance system. Everyone agreed that working for an adequate K-12 school finance system in California \was part of a California K-12 teacher’s ethical obligation. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) has also suggested that the Achievement Gap could be reformulated as an Education Debt. But what action can be taken? One suggestion has been that K-12 teachers could adopt Opportunity to Learn Standards (OTLS) to define “adequate” and then, working through professional committees, impose sanctions on districts or schools that violated the organization’s OTLS. Sanctions could begin with K-12 teachers wearing buttons reading “I Work in a Sanctioned School (or District).” Physicians have used this tactic with some success when they find themselves working in hospitals that a medical board has judged to be “below standard.” At a minimum, this action generates conversation about the evidence.
The evidence is overwhelming that California has fallen below any reasonable OTLS for closing the achievement gap. Bruce Fuller (2006) reports, “But we now see that rules and penalties hitting many schools don’t motivate educators and students in the long run. Sacramento expects educators to deliver world-class educational standards on a Third World budget.” EdTrust’s 2005 Gap Report argues that funding gaps create huge inequities: “California's funding gaps between districts are significant and have a large cumulative impact. In combined state and local funding, California spends $534 cost-adjusted dollars less per student in its high poverty districts than in its districts with the fewest number of low-income students. But even relatively small per-student differences really add up. Consider, for example, the average comprehensive California high school serving 1,800 students. This means that with a $534 funding gap, a low-income high school gets $961,200 less every year than its counterpart serving higher-income students.
“ California’s funding gap between its high- and low-minority districts is even greater: $684 cost-adjusted dollars per student, or $1,231,200 fewer dollars every year for the average high-minority high school.” Question: Is it reasonable to ask someone what are you doing in your classroom to off-set the effects of the one million dollars gap? Probably ok, as long as the act is recognized as heroic, and only if the one million dollar gap is mentioned, reminding the readers that important social issues cannot be reduced to the heroic act of a single person. Finally, it is important to report the professional, collective action taken on the problem, if any. If no collective action is reported, then one might ask why stories about individuals are allowed to stand alone, without any other references to collective action. Ironically, in K-12 English classroom, Vygotsky’s influence is everywhere, recognizing the impact of the social and the collective on student learning. Outside the classroom, even among English teachers, the social and collective switch seems to get turned off.
Third cause: Language challenges and child rearing practices: One of the problems that the Ethics Committee struggled with is the pervasive public attitude that education and learning are public entitlements or political rights. Thus, the failure to learn is characterized as a failure to receive a public entitlement or an official denial of a political right granted to everyone ---for example, the right to free speech (right to learn). Sometimes the issue gets entangled with the right to access to information---the right to read a book or to get information on evolution or some other topic. But in the public schools, the problems arise when the right to learn is equated with the right to vote or speak. The right to learn is not the same as the right to speak or vote. Unlike speaking and voting, the concept of learning the new literacy requires a two-way street, an interactive effort and interactive responses from the student and parent and from the teacher. One can speak without an interaction. One cannot learn without an interaction. In the interactive learning of the new literacy, there is a new urgency for both a Code of Professional Ethics for K-12 teachers, describing the teacher’s obligations to interact with learners, and a Code of Learning Ethics for K-12 students and their parents, describing the student and parent obligations to exert an effort to engage.
Reviewing the Achievement Gap problem, Paul Tough reports (November 26, 2006), “When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child's home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 ''utterances'' -- anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy -- to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.
“What's more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of ''discouragements'' a child heard -- prohibitions and words of disapproval -- compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another -- all of which stimulated intellectual development.”
In this analysis of the Achievement Gap problem, the engagement of parents, students, and the teachers in a common project is essential. In addition, the Achievement Gap problem requires some new thinking about K-12 subject matter and cognition. First, K-12 teachers have been investigating how student engagement can be created in the classroom through classroom Culture-Creation. For example, in a recent study, Sarah Freedman has shown how Verda Delp provides both engagement with subject matter content and Culture-Creation within her middle school classroom (Freedman, 2006). In addition, ISCA has defined Lesson Design as a two-part project, a Lesson Unit (Content and Cognition) and a Lesson Culture (Classroom Map and Classroom Civics). Some teachers call “Culture-Creation” “teaching character” (Watson, 2006).
Second, K-12 teachers have been analyzing how English subject matter should be reconceptualized to help students at the low end of the Achievement Gap. For example, some K-12 teachers have been designing Lessons in which Academic Language (both its vocabulary and its habits of execution) is treated as a second language, often requiring code switching mechanisms when it is used (Michaels, et. al., 2002). In some of the ISCA (Institute for Standards, Curricula, and Assessment) Lesson Designs, the content of instruction is packaged by the students in different speech events, the Academic Event being one of several (Myers, 2004).
teacher’s practice, the CSC
Ethics Committee has considered whether
or not to recommend that every textbook
or curriculum unit carry a warning label:
Do Not Use These Materials To Learn Without
First Consulting with Your Classroom Teacher.
Remember that the classroom teacher is
expected to anchor practice in some form
of professional, collective review. In
any case, Richard Rothstein reminds us
that in trying to reduce the Achievement
Gap, “This exclusive focus on schooling
is wrong” (Rothstein, 2004). As the
list above shows, some of the causes of
the Achievement Gap do reside in schools
and in the teaching profession’s
concept of itself----in its ethics,
if you will. But the causes outside
cannot be ignored. Attention to those
causes, also, falls within the ethical
of K-12 English teachers, at the very
center of the way K-12 teaching profession
As I write this piece, the 48th annual CATE convention in Fresno hasn't yet occurred, yet I know all who attended it and who are now reading this issue of California English will join me in thanking the team of teachers, volunteers all, who worked so hard for our benefit. On behalf of the CATE Board of Directors, I want to thank Pauline Sahakian, professor at UC Merced and our 2007 Convention Chair, for her willingness to take on the ominous (and ultimately rewarding) task of providing a top-notch, weekend-long professional development opportunity for nearly 1,000 English teachers from around the state. We also want to thank her hard-working local committee, other teachers who graciously gave of their time and energy as well. A convention takes a full year or more to plan and execute; the number of details to be considered are monumental. Again, thanks to Pauline and her wonderful team for a job superbly done! Year after year CATE's Convention Coordinator, Teisha Hase, provides continuity and leadership for the local committee. CATE owes her a huge debt of gratitude.
I also have some exciting news to share with CATE members. Our own Carol Jago -- editor of this professional journal, and a true leader of English/language arts teachers nationwide through her work on countless committees and commissions, author of numerous publications and books, and wonderfully powerful presenter of workshops -- has been nominated to run for NCTE Vice President, a position from which she will ascend to presidency the following year. It is my honor to announce her candidacy in this column. NCTE members will receive their ballots in the mail in mid-April, and have a month to mail them back in. I hope Carol will join the list of outstanding CATE members who have become President of NCTE.
As with every issue of California English, this one proves to be one of interest to us all. The achievement gap is as evident now as in the past. While it's easy, and perhaps understandable, to blame those outside forces we all know so well, it is still imperative to do what we can, individually and as a profession, to assure that all our students to achieve to their highest potential. There are some programs to support such achievement (AVID, MESA, locally-run writing labs, to name a few), yet not all students have access to those programs. I look forward to reading the suggestions you, my teaching colleagues, are using in your classrooms to bridge this gap.
Another way in which we might renew our efforts to help close the achievement gap is to remember the power of political advocacy. To do so, we must remain informed about the legislation that impacts our classrooms and our students. This can be done in a variety of ways, including but not limited to joining CATENet, our listserv for discussion on English/language arts-related issues. We can read legislative reports from CATE's legislative analyst, Martha Zaragoza-Diaz, on CATEweb, or those of CATE's California Department of Education liaison, MaryAnn Goodwin. Further, we should use our voices, collectively and individually, in large and small settings, to help bring attention to the needs of our kids. Some teachers write op-ed pieces for newspapers, for example. Others serve on school site councils. Some might even want to consider running for office, locally or otherwise, in retirement, perhaps. How refreshing it would be to have more school districts count former teachers on their school boards, or for state commissions to include more teachers in their decision-making processes. You might consider joining your local CATE council affiliate's board. Or running for CATE office next year. Or serving on our Resolutions Committee, a group that writes commendations and suggestions to governmental agencies, elected officials, newspapers, and such. Involvement is the key. Who better to help guide the powers-that-be towards resolving this and other educational issues that impact all, than classroom teacher?
We invite you to begin by sitting in your most comfortable chair, and reading this issue of California English.
According to the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Recent changes in Federal education policy have put the spotlight on the achievement gap. The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set the same performance targets for children from economically disadvantaged families, with disabilities, with limited English proficiency, and from all major ethnic and racial groups. Within a school, if any student subgroup persistently fails to meet performance targets, districts must provide public school choice and supplemental services to those students – and eventually restructure the school's governance. This is required even if the school performs well overall. In other words, schools now are considered successful only if they close the achievement gap. Many schools are struggling to meet this benchmark. http://www.subnet.nga.org/educlear/achievement/ .
This issue of California English offers classroom perspectives on the perceived achievement gap as well as both classroom and policy solutions. In the opening essay, Color Cognizant Observations on the Achievement Gap,” Emily Fuller Gibson offers the following advice to teachers, “Being Color Cognizant” is not the same thing as being ‘color blind.’ Often teachers with good intentions will tell me that they are ‘color blind’ – that they see all students the same. But kids are not the same. They have different needs, different learning styles, different cultures, and different issues. My philosophy of “Color Cognizance” begins with this premise and demands that you see your students with new eyes and let the best ideas of culturally relevant and culturally responsive teaching guide your classroom practices.”
I hope you find this issue of California English on the achievement gap provocative and that you close the magazine with some answers but also with new questions. To my mind the best thing that has resulted from No Child Left Behind legislation has been the transparency it has lent to performance by English learners, African American students, and special education students. We can no longer look away. If we believe that all students can achieve, there must be more we can do to make this dream a reality.
I draw inspiration from Martin Luther King, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”