Sunday, July 23, 2000
'Boring' Texts No Excuse for Doing Less in High
California's Stanford 9 test results have
administrators and policymakers in Sacramento breathing huge sighs of relief. In
the lower grades, the plan worked. Show teachers how to provide effective
instruction in math and reading, reduce class size so they can work with
individual kids, and scores go up.
Though some of the increase is a result of greater
attention to test familiarity, the gains are large enough in the primary grades
to indicate that real progress has been made. Take California's spelling scores,
for example. Over the past two years, second- and third-graders have improved
their scores by 12 percentage points.
What made the difference was that, instead of
continuing to tell kids that their ideas in writing were more important than
their spelling, teachers began letting students know that both ideas and
correctness were important elements of good writing. Combine this message with
systematic instruction in spelling patterns and regular diagnostic assessment of
students' progress, and suddenly our students are performing at the national
Where we need to work next is in our high schools.
Forty-nine percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the national average,
compared with 36% of 11th-graders. Cynics might look at the drop and suggest
that the longer kids remain in California's public schools, the dumber they get.
Another spin on the drop in performance is that
while the test items get harder from grade to grade, in many classrooms
instruction does not. How can this happen? The answer is, very easily.
Most students arrive at high school--all high
schools, mind you, both suburban and urban--with chips on their shoulders.
Everything is boring.
The teachers are dinosaurs and their textbooks are
dull. Many refuse to do homework or read for class on the grounds that
schoolwork is all too stupid for words and utterly unconnected to their lives.
Well-intentioned teachers often try to combat this
adolescent malaise by engaging students in activities designed to stimulate
interest in a subject. These projects can take up an enormous amount of class
time, time that students should be spending reading, writing and talking about
the subject at hand.
Trying to cope with their students' refusal to
read the textbooks, many English, history and science teachers tell students
about what is in the book and then show a related videotape. Students may indeed
be "covering" the material, but they are neither improving their
reading skills nor learning how to learn.
Rather than giving in when high school students
say something is boring, teachers need to help students get over it. Warranties
on appliances, rental contracts and voters' pamphlets are boring. The difference
is that adults recognize how their personal welfare is tied up with an efficient
and effective reading of these documents.
Teachers must help students see that, although the
American history text is indeed boring compared with an article in the Source on
Eminem, this fact in no way absolves students from the responsibility of reading
about the Monroe Doctrine.
The more teachers buy into students' cries of
"boring," the more we dumb down the curriculum and work against
students' success in college and in life. If we want high school students to
begin to make the gains our little ones are beginning to make, both parents and
teachers are going to have to demand that teenagers do more work.
Combine this new work ethic with a commitment to
intervention for high school students who can't read, class sizes of no more
than 30 and standards-based professional development for teachers, and I am
utterly convinced that the Golden State will soon see its secondary students
shining on the Stanford 9. - - -
Carol Jago Teaches English at Santa Monica High School and Directs the
California Reading and Literature Project at Ucla. She Can Be Reached at Jago@gseis.ucla.edu