Sunday, July 23, 2000

'Boring' Texts No Excuse for Doing Less in High School


     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 average.
     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.

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Carol Jago Teaches English at Santa Monica High School and Directs the California Reading and Literature Project at Ucla. She Can Be Reached at


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon