Friday, December 14, 2012

Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas

Several years ago the Alliance for Excellent Education released a report entitled Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. It is available at This report rationalizes the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement as a way to improve education. The authors, Rafael Heller and Cynthia Greenleaf, acknowledge that one of the reasons for the weak literacy instruction is that the "existing accountability systems create incentives for teachers to drill students in simple, formulaic kinds of writing, at the expense of time they might otherwise spend teaching them to write thoughtful, independent, and varied kinds of papers in science , history and other subjects." (p.18) I would go further to state that writing is often minimized completely as a result of large student loads, enormous curriculums, accountability measures that do not value authentic writing and, in some cases, teachers who are poor readers and writers themselves. The CCSS movement intends to change what is taught, reducing curriculum and spreading out the teaching of literacy across subject areas, and changing how it is tested and the Race to the Top winners have bought into not only the CCSS but higher stakes for the teachers themselves. I have previously argued that the inch wide and mile deep mantra of the CCSS is nonsense since they do not reduce the standards by that much, so while curriculum is being reduced, it is not reduced by enough to substantially impact the volume of learning, especially when paired with the enormous increase in depth desired. Teachers are not being given more prep time or fewer students. Most teachers are not being trained to be better readers and writers themselves. So I will not hold my breath for the roll out of the CCSS to improve learning in our nation.

The report details four key considerations for policy leaders and policymakers. In light of the fact that this was written during the development of the CCSS, it is interesting to see which of these things have been addressed in the past five years.

1. The roles and responsibilities of content area teachers must be clear and consistent.
The authors assert the importance of content area teachers not being responsible for teaching basic reading and writing skills at the secondary level, but for the discipline specific skills of their academic discipline. With the CCSS we seem to have ignored this aspect. We continue to put students reading and writing far below grade level in classes without support in the basic skills. Some schools are indeed providing support under RTI programs, but this continues to be an area of concern. Intensive, high-quality intervention in foundational literacy skills needs to occur for students far below grade level. This may require the idea of a age based grading system needs to be swept aside as some students need five or six or seven years to graduate from high school. Many of our students are currently doing this because of failing classes, that is if they choose to press on to graduate at all. Wouldn't it be better to not fail the students but provide interventions that provide the time and teach the skills needed to graduate? To help develop young adults who are college and career ready. It seems that there is a major flaw in the program if we continue to press on ahead, blindly following the idea that all students learn at different rates but have the same time to learn the material anyway.

2. Every academic discipline should define its own essential literacy skills.
While some organizations like the NCTM and NSTA have identified literacy skills and specific content based reading strategies have been identified, disseminating this information throughout the community is slow and expensive. Part of the challenge is that far too many teachers are not practitioners of their discipline- just teachers (no disrespect intended). Innovative programs getting teachers involved in the actions of their disciplines have existed for decades. The National Writing Project, NASA collaborations and many more prove that this is doable. What we need to embrace is that is critical. Every teacher needs to perform the discipline to refine skills and understand what industry requires of its members. Sabbaticals and summer institutes could go a long way to helping teachers refine skills and identify critical components of their disciplines.

3. All secondary school teachers should receive initial and ongoing professional development in the literacy of their own content areas.
The authors assert that secondary certification should require a course on on literacy in the specific discipline and on-going coaching is essential to skill development and refinement (p. 27). Many states and universities are revamping their preservice training requirements to ensure that teachers will be prepared to teach CCSS. Whether these efforts are going to be adequate will only be discovered with time. While many schools have embraced the CCSS and are providing professional development in meeting the demands of the new curriculum, some have not. Furthermore, with the common professional development program of one and done, the idea of ongoing development is one that is questionable in light of tight budgets.

4. Content area teachers need positive incentives and appropriate tools to provide reading and writing instruction.
The authors believe that it is "crucial that open ended writing and analytic reading items be included in all high-stakes reading and writing assessments, content area tests, and graduation exams." (p.29) This is expensive and time consuming. The authors point out that without adjusting class sizes, teaching loads and schedules, teachers are not going to change the way they do business. Culture change at the most basic level is required. The way we do business needs to change, not just the expectations of results. Testing  or a new curriculum is not the answer. Labeling teachers effective or ineffective based on test results is not the answer. Paying teachers or students for good performance is not the answer. These strategies do not address the root of the problem- the beliefs and expectations of the students and teachers.

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