Literacy Learnings

by Suzanne Simons

Well, I feel a bit like I’m in the midst of an intellectual and state of mind tsunami this month. Reading the early Darling-Hammond chapters is a stark articulation of the realities I grapple with daily—how do we make systemic change organized around accelerated student literacy progress that embeds teacher professional growth and continuous improvement and focuses on deep, rich, meaningful data and also rights the wrongs of so many generations of “institutionally sanctioned discrimination?” (p. 28). It’s very discouraging to think about salvaging the Titanic we are on—the charts on child poverty alone (p. 32) are enough to really make me question our world. How is it possible that we have allowed such flagrant abuse of the power our system has to do good?

Things become increasingly problematic when Allington and others remind us, as they seem to over and over again, that our problems aren’t fated—that we have the knowledge and wisdom to teach children to read, to provide the right structures for learning, that we could teach children if we put our minds and hearts into it (2005; Braunger & Lewis; Darling-Hammond, p. 34, 43). The pressure to ignore this knowledge and wisdom is great, so how do we keep commitment alive?

I heard Bill Ayers speak this week, reminding me of how vital it is to keep a relentless focus on social justice and the dual goals of liberty and responsibility within a democracy and how hard it is to maintain that relentless focus in the face of personal and professional tidal waves. It was, however, his thoughts on framing that most impacted me. “There is viciousness in how educational issues are framed,” he began, pointing out that “those who frame the arguments win.” He suggested that the current framing on educational reform—you either believe in one-size fits-all, teacher proofing, scripted, top-heavy management reforms or you are a radical and believe in breaking up school systems and offering them up to private entities to try to do better—automatically and necessarily offers very little room for alternate views. Ayers argued that we need to reclaim the framing around education and reform and in doing so, bring back a focus on values and goals for our educational system.

I left the session feeling as rejuvenated 
as I was dispirited.

I left the session feeling as rejuvenated as I was dispirited. For me, there is a very basic bottom line to the whole conversation—what I want for my own children at school is what I want for every child. I find it fundamentally unacceptable that poor children across the US spend their days thinking about skills and strategies and tests while my own children, even at ages 7 and 9, get to think about ideas—justice, and fairness, and historical opportunity, and the development of community as a metaphor for the development of society, and their own places within such dynamic and changing spaces. How is it that we have come to a point where we assume that in our public schools measuring is the same as teaching, that school performance is a show of obedience to authority, and value-add is both unusual and related to reinforcement of some sense of the low bar of basic skills?

I asked Ayers before leaving the session if he sees any hope for accessing the public discourse around educational reform or at least contributing to it within new frames. He responded that he thinks Diane Ravitch is our best national voice for hope—that she is leading a conversation that has wide implications in a national space. And it’s true that reading Ravitch feels like a breath of fresh, reasonable, thoughtful air. While she and Allington may disagree on the place of curriculum or content in reform (Ravtich, p 27; Allington, 1997, p. 6), I think they both arrive at the recognition of absurdity in a system that allows testing to drive teaching and learning instead of the other way around (Ravitch, p 16; Allington, 1997).

I rounded out the month with Davidson’s work, and therein lies my quandary. This book is the most exciting educational text I’ve read in ages—so much so that I’m trying to figure out how I can finagle a way to meet her and experience her in person. I have flags on almost every page and there are so many things I can’t stop thinking about: “neural plasticity” (p. 15), “cultivated distraction” (p. 19), “collaboration by difference” (p. 20), “6.5 seconds” (p. 24), “multidistraction” (p. 31), “learning is the cartography of cultural value” (p. 41)—there are too many to list. I think about children and cell phones, children and attention, children and curiosity, children and a hunger to learn and innovate. Where is any of this represented in our schools? How is any of this represented in the ways schools structure learning? If “65 percent of children entering grade school this year will be working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet” (p. 18), how on earth are our stodgy, tedious, stilted, and extraordinarily paternalistic schools preparing them?

The answer is, of course, they’re not. Children who are going to learn think in these ways are going to learn it in spite and despite their schooling experiences. Of course, this begs the question of how much children actually learn in school anyway. I’m constantly asking teachers from magnet or high performing schools for their secrets and am always astonished when they reply that the teaching isn’t that much better, but the kids are, or the families are, or the systemic organization is. Really? Does that mean that in general our kids are learning despite and in spite of their own schooling? This belies the research showing that good teaching matters and great teaching can overcome all other demographics (Sanders & Horn, (1994); Haycock, (2005) as cited in Schmoker, Results Now, 2006, p. 9). But it does seem like it’s happening all around us.

The answer is, of course, they’re not.

On Tuesday of this week, Pedro Noguera is coming to my office with about 250 superintendents and district administrators from around the country for a working meeting on educational equity for Black and Latino boys. In my conversations with him, I’m struck by how the work is hard, the work is long, but the work is not new. We know how to solve the problems we have—it takes a lot of collaborative talk; the facing of assumptions; belief in the power of independent and collective potential; and genuine interest, respect, empathy, and expectations for other people. Perhaps this is why educational reform seems so grueling. Perhaps it’s because there are so many who know what the path ahead is, and yet the other forces at work—the political will; the embedded racism, classism and sexism; the system set up to afford power to a few; the legacies of a too-polite, puritanical sensibility coupled with the hypocrisy of a democracy built on the enslavement of people—are so great a force. Perhaps it’s because it’s complicated work and we are a culture of sound bites. Perhaps the era of multidistraction has distracted us from the values and ideals we want for our children.

Ayers said this week that,

Every society tries to inculcate their people through their schools. Schools are always places of struggle because they are the places we invest in our future. In other societies, obedience and conformity are the hidden curriculum as a major teaching and children learn moral blindness. Education in a democracy has certain qualities that are different than in any other system. We have to believe there is something in a democracy that is different. We must retain an adherence to a fragile and precious ideal—that every human being is of incalculable value, initiative, courage, imagination, entrepreneurship, and a mind of their own. If we are not teaching this, we are not teaching for democracy. The fullest development of each is us is the fullest development of all of us and the converse. Whatever the best and most privileged and wisest people want for their kids is what we want for every kid. It should be the starting point.

Perhaps the reframing and reclaiming of the educational reframing is as simple as this. What I want for my child is what I want for every child. This could stop some conversations cold. 6 weeks of benchmark testing? Not what I want for my child. Extended school days filled with increased test prep instead of art, music, physical education, science outdoors in nature? Not what I want for my child. Schools publically designated as “F schools” or “failure factories?” Not what I want for my child. Class sizes of 33-38? Not what I want for my child.

What I want for my child is 
what I want for every child.

Of course, it’s utopian. But since “we are training kids not to be utopians, dreamers, theorists, or intellectuals (Agger & Shelton, p. 111) currently, perhaps it’s time to reengage the public discourse in an idealistic and utopian way. “Only by experimenting, trying things on (including noncompliance with adult expectations), and searching for their muse can kids become citizens for democracy” (Agger & Shelton, p. 103).

Said in another way, our system is designed to enact the policy that claims loudly “you should have picked the right parents” (Ayers, 2012). Not for my child. We need a system that instead says—“you did pick the right parents and here’s why.”


William Ayers, (May 9, 2012). Speech presented at Houston Hall, GSE, Philadelphia, PA.

Suzanne Simons is the VP for Professional Development and Turnaround Partnerships at the American Reading Company. Suzanne joined PhilWP in 1993 as a teacher consultant.