Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Students who need to read in school

It works to make kids do their homework in school

Leafstrewn has just gone through a remarkable episode in which the headmaster's proposal to cut the administrator of an alternative program for kids who are having a lot of trouble in school was met with such opposition from the faculty that she changed her mind.  The episode was remarkable mostly for the teachers' support for a program serving a small fraction of our students, support that will mean losing teacher jobs, but also because the headmaster admitted, quite gracefully, that she had made a mistake.  Everyone came out looking pretty good, and I was proud of our school.

The episode also reminded me of how effective this particular alternative program has been. Five students from my ninth grade classes last year are now in the program, and four of the five have spoken to me positively about it (the fifth I haven't happened to bump into). As the potential cut to the program was in the balance over the past week, I've been thinking a lot about what has made it so successful for my former students.  It certainly helps that the program has very good teachers and a caring and very hands-on administrator, but perhaps the key element of the program is that the students are made to do their homework in school.  As one of them told me recently, after I'd asked if he was doing the assigned reading, they have to get the work done, or they don't get to go home at the end of the day.

This is a simple but extremely important practice.  It seems indisputable that the number one proximate cause (as opposed to indirect factors like poverty) of student failure at Leafstrewn is failure to do homework.  Having an even better teacher might help, being more genetically gifted might help, and coming from a richer and more educated family certainly helps, but the line separating passing from failing is basically whether kids get their homework done. Certainly for my five students from last year who are now in our alternative program, had they all done their homework, they all would easily have passed English for the year.  (Another program here, the "Tutorial" program, essentially gives students time, space and encouragement to do their homework in school.) This makes me wonder, again, about the value of homework, and it makes me think that Bruce Baker is right and the (modest) success of programs like KIPP is mainly due to spending more money on, among other things, a longer schoolday.  It also makes me think, again, about the value of reading in school.

A student who doesn't read

I had a chat today with a former student who isn't in this alternative program.  I'll call him "Billy."  Billy is a bright, polite, very appealing kid whose family has not had it easy, to put it mildly.  When he was in my ninth grade class two years ago, Billy told me regularly that he wanted to drop out of school so that he could get a job and help support his family.  Like everyone else, I told him that he would be able to help his family better if he stayed in school.  Billy passed my class, barely.  He read virtually none of the assigned reading or our whole-class texts.  He did, however, read four or five Alex Rider books (which are at about a fifth grade level).  Those may have been the only books he has completed in high school.

Billy told me he had failed English in 10th grade and he was in danger of failing this year as well. I asked why. He said: "Because I don't do my homework."  I said, "Do you do the reading?"  He said, "No.  Never."  I said, "But you read in my class.  I remember you reading Alex Rider."  He said, "Yeah, because we read in class. I don't read at home.  I never read at home in your class either."  I don't think that's strictly accurate--I remember him reading Alex Rider at home as well--but it gets at an important truth.

Reading is the most important academic skill.  As I wrote last year, "Our school has kids under its control for over six hours a day.  There is no good reason we can't have them sitting and silently reading books for at least an hour each day.  Nothing else we do with them is as important; nothing else would be as efficient, productive, and individualized." Or, as a Mexican novelist recently wrote in the New York Times, "One cannot help but ask the Mexican educational system, “How is it possible that I hand over a child for six hours every day, five days a week, and you give me back someone who is basically illiterate?”"

If we think reading is valuable, we should be using time in school to have them do it. That a child as bright and wonderful as Billy--a student who devoured Alex Rider books during a six-week independent reading unit--can have read fewer than ten books over his whole high school career is shameful for our school.  We have taken care of Billy in many ways, and we have always treated him with gentleness and respect, but we have mostly not done for him what we would do for our own children--given him books he can read and time to read them.

Homework in School and Social Justice

The proximate cause of these students' failure is that they don't do their homework, but they all share a deeper cause as well: Billy, the students I had last year who ended up in the alternative program, and every student I have this year who is in danger of failing, all come from families that are at the low end of the economic spectrum.  If we really want to "reform" education in a way that will help poorer children succeed, we should start by finding a way to do what our excellent alternative program here at Leafstrewn does, and give kids time to do their homework--especially their reading--in school.

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