How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.