Friday, October 26, 2007

Novels a No-No: Update--The Disinformation Doctrine

I remember vividly five years ago: as then-English department chair at Riverside Poly High School, I emailed the downtown district office to express department frustrations with the opaque and disingenuous mixed messages circulating about reading and instruction. In public, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) was telling the community that "novels weren't banned, just not required." At our campus, teachers weren't allowed to check sets of books from the library to use with students.

Like a little kid, I was summoned into the principal's office. He handed me a copy of a district response to him regarding my communication. One line from that email still haunts me, and it seems particularly relevant now: "I find it interesting that Ms. Scott [sic] still refers to 'teaching novels.' Hasn't she seen the test scores yet?"

Who would have thought that a small, little-known school district in Southern California could so perfect the art of public doublespeak? Now twice in five years, the same district has distinguished itself by using disinformation to rid its English classrooms of the pesky novel.

Documents defending their latest purge are linked below:
If you saw our first report, you learned that RUSD has a strange attitude towards reading book-length works in accelerated high school English classes. Apparently, you can read too much. Now responding to local criticism by columnist Dan Bernstein, as well as outrage from students, teachers and parents in school board and department chair meetings, RUSD landed a local headline and long article in the local newspaper, The Press-Enterprise, to dismiss the controversy as a "novel mixup" (PE, October 15, 2007, B1 and B10).

Eerily, the piece appeared just days from the five-year anniversary of an almost identical article making the same assurances when RUSD first applied its restrictive novels policy--to some public outcry--in the mainstream (i.e. non-Honors) instructional program five years ago (PE, October 13, 2002, B1.)

This year's message is exactly the same one offered in 2002. Sure, teachers are allowed to teach novels, but only after all of the standards for each month are mastered via Holt, Rhinehart & Winston assessments and district-approved materials. How one is supposed to cram this hypothetical novel into remaining instructional days is not quite clear. In the regular program, for most students in RUSD as well as surrounding districts, the novel option amounts to "up to" one book per year, unless teachers fill out a form to begin a review and approval process.

Consciously or merely by osmosis, the district has for five years now simply parroted language long cultivated by captains of the test industry. Even Bernstein has poked fun at RUSD's disingenuous explanation, writing last week that "the novel, much like a Dickens child, has become an orphan," abandoned in favor of the "McNovel" transplanted into textbooks and complete with worksheets.

RUSD officials apparently think that if they simply avoid or ridicule the word "ban," no one will notice that reading whole books has become extraneous, disposable work for English classes. RUSD also insists that as a "program improvement," or "PI," district it has no choice but to respond to demands made by financial and political forces determining success and failure under No Child Left Behind. However, RUSD was not yet a PI district five years ago when first trimming back novels from its program.

No wonder. In a report from the Book Industry Study Group released in June 2007, general publishing sales will barely expand over the next few years. The one expected area for big growth? Elementary and high school textbooks.

In a unconfirmed and poetic act of desperation and protest against RUSD's insult to student and teacher intelligence, the English department at one local high school (serving a high number of poor and minority students) gave all of their novels away--putting them directly in the hands of students.

No, no, no, whines the district, playing Prufrock. That's not what we meant at all.

Well then. Sources inside RUSD have provided copies of official internal paperwork (linked above), including meeting minutes which set off the controversy in early September, followed by the official memo two weeks later, supposedly clarifying the issues for all 7-12 Language Arts Departments.

These documents, not seen by the general public and certainly not discussed in the recent PE article, illuminate startling contradictions. Reading through, you have to wonder if despite all the hype about critical thinking for students, teachers themselves are expected not to think too hard.

A few highlights (emphases added; all caps in the originals):
  1. Responding to teacher and parent concerns about scripted learning maps, the Sept. 19 document virtually shouts out a semantic distinction: "We have a CURRICULUM guide, not a pacing guide." However, both official documents use the phrase "pacing guide" over and over to describe required lesson plans and classroom structure: e.g. "Pacing guides are MONTHLY to allow teacher/site autonomy and flexibility as much as possible"; "It is IMPERATIVE that all teachers follow the new grade level pacing guides for English."

  2. In fact, both documents reveal how teacher-designed "pacing guides" can be used as both buy-in and blackmail: if teachers do not follow the pacing guide they themselves so willingly designed (a "proactive" option provided by RUSD), they could be "mandated to follow procedures such as implementing the Holt 'red-line' pacing guide." Oooh. Lucky for those kids. But there's more: "Pacing guides may not be modified nor the order changed," and "Selections should not be moved from one month/one quarter to another," and "The curriculum guide can not be accelerated in any class so that an entire quarter, semester or year is covered in compressed period of time, so that the rest of the year can be spent on other materials." Reconcile those statements with the following: "This is a LIVING document which will continue to evolve and change over time as we see how fast we can/can't move . . ."

  3. How about supplementary materials? "The practice of using outside materials such as newspapers or magazine articles 3 times a week, for example, is not appropriate . . . Teachers must be able to justify and explain how a piece is appropriate for the standard." Also: "Magazines for independent reading are not appropriate unless they are tied to such standards as technical documents, and students are given a specific criteria/task related to them."

  4. The district notes a decline in Gifted and Talented (GATE) scores last year. Could it be that too much thinking and too many complicated assignments during class time hurt student performance on Scantron tests? Nevermind what that might imply about multiple choice assessments--here's how vague unease becomes big policy: "Board members have expressed concern over the depth and complexity of schools' Honors/GATE classes. Some of these students are currently not showing consistent, district-wide growth. This issue is a current RUSD board goal. GATE/Honors classes are required to follow all pacing guidelines set forth for the regular curriculum...[then] they should move on to other challenging assignments."

  5. What about independent reading? "No one disputes the idea that getting students to read more will help increase their overall achievement with reading..." but "work should be reading-level appropriate, and teachers should hold students accountable." Also: "Middle schools with an independent reading period should hold site discussions to determine how to make this time the most effective..." Perhaps most importantly, teachers must not permit students to read in class too much, only a "minimal amount of time to reinforce the standards for that time period. Minimal is defined as a maximum of 30 minutes per week NOT to be done in one class period. An appropriate standards-based assignment must accompany the independent reading." (This last point is repeated verbatim in both documents.)

  6. Honors and AP classes, which have traditionally required summer reading, have been viewed as a haven for students and parents seeking access to a now-privileged program of more instruction for complete primary, rather than predigested, materials. But one new Riverside high school is already being touted as an example for neither requiring (nor strongly encouraging?) Honors students to read books as summer prep. In the September 4 document, RUSD says that the whole concept of summer reading needs to be "reassessed" district-wide, "by looking at what is the purpose of reading/assignments."
These last two points, not discussed at all in the newspaper, perhaps reveal more about RUSD's real attitude towards curriculum and micromanagement than any spokesperson's clarifications about how and when novels "can" or "can't" be used in classrooms.

How are teachers to cope? Already used to this rhythm of disinformation, many shrug it off. One Honors teacher says she expects, maybe, to get through one novel by the end of the year. Teachers in the regular program? Maybe none at all.

Here's one irony: Brand new teachers at Poly High this year were required by their principal to read Harry K. Wong's The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher within the first six weeks of classes. These teachers were required to complete "homework" and meet to discuss the first "unit" during second period of a regular instructional day.

Here's another: the RUSD main office sits right across the street from the PE (not-so-locally owned by the Belo Corporation). In 2006 RUSD hired a PE reporter, Jacquie Paul, to be "spokesperson" for the district when speaking to her former colleagues at the press. Like any good bureaucracy, RUSD knows that narratives are best controlled with a kinder, gentler turn of phrase--and that good professional connections help, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Teacher Watch: Student Race and Discipline

So much for desegregation.

At the end of September, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report stating that, on average, black students in the U.S. are suspended at three times the rate of white students. According to analysis of senior correspondent Howard Witt, who mined through U.S. Department of Education data collected in 2004-05, there's a dramatic disparity between rates of suspension and expulsion for blacks and their total numbers of enrollment.

The study examines suspensions and expulsions only, with no distinction made for preliminary stages of intervention, such as referrals, parent conferences, or detentions (school site data which is much more difficult to get). In addition, there is no evidence yet regarding the nature of infractions by students of all races, crucial information for evaluating whether suspensions and expulsions were merited. Are we talking about fights? carrying weapons? chewing gum? selling drugs? carrying an iPod? cheating? eating Doritos in class?

Witt reports that the disparity of consequences is more extreme with African American students than with other minority groups, such as Hispanics (apparently disciplined in proportion to their overall numbers) or Asians (disciplined at lower rates). Idaho, perhaps not surprisingly, is cited as the only state where no such discrepancy exists.

In a conversation on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Witt alludes to a backlash of defensiveness from teachers, who feel targeted by charges of racism and are eager to "explain away" the disparity. Interestingly, the Tribune report underscores the fact that 83 percent of teachers are white, but Witt and those he interviews notably ignore the equally intriguing and complicating factor that now nearly 80 percent of teachers are also female.

Witt stresses the impact of discipline unfairness on black students, implying (though never stating) that perhaps a majority of these students received suspensions or expulsions they did not deserve. However, the report does little to scrutinize how white privilege--administrative fear of connected, affluent, and/or litigious white parents whose children "can never do any wrong"--may have exaggerated the disparity in recent years. In other words: How many white students did not receive penalties they might certainly have earned?

This report on student discipline, like most others, also fails to interrogate the complex attitudes directed towards women in positions of authority. Perhaps school institutions, like the larger milieu, tolerate white male disrespect of white female teachers more indulgently (consider the recent Carl's Jr. ad, which attempted to sell burgers by valorizing white male sexual aggression towards a "hot" female teacher). Perhaps white female teachers themselves learn to have higher thresholds of tolerance for misbehavior in white males. (Not a good thing, by the way.)

It's unfortunately not unthinkable that school officials would be more righteous in policing perceived aggression directed by black students at white female teachers, and teachers therefore may learn to be more confident about soliciting backup from administration when dealing with black males.

There's another angle here as well. Because the Tribune report only documents statistics of suspension and expulsion, we have no way of comparing rates of lower-level interventions that sometimes prevent or delay escalation: student and/or parent conferences, referrals, detention. While white teachers may initially bend over backwards to engage this process with white students and their parents, some may indulge "white guilt" about facing black students honestly and frankly at early stages of trouble, actively involving parents in discussions about behavior. One logical result would be that no intervention takes place with black students until something really drastic happens--going from zero to sixty in ten seconds on the discipline meter--giving a reasonable appearance of unfair haste. Another, more ironic result could be that white students gain some immunity from regular forays into the principal's office ("we're working with him; let's not suspend him yet...")

Reversing this trend of apparent unfairness requires more than a patronizing acknowledgment that racism still exists in America. (Duh...) It also requires that we ask whether white students are really "behaving better" by avoiding suspensions and/or expulsions, or whether schools are more afraid of following through when their detentions and referrals stack up. That means scrutinizing invisible privilege, not simply visible punishment.