"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Discussion of LEARN with Sen. Murray's staff member

A discussion about the LEARN Act with Mary Conway, a member of Senator Murray's staff.
Kathy Egawa
Stephen Krashen
December 8, 2009

We met today with Mary Conway, a member of Senator Patty Murray's staff, at Senator Murray's Seattle office, to discuss our concerns about the LEARN Act.

We said that we were concerned with two parts of the law: The emphasis on "direct instruction" (of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and text structure) and the emphasis on testing.

The document gives the impression that direct instruction is the only view of literacy development. It isn't. There is very strong evidence that direct instruction is only responsible for a small part of our literacy competence. Rather, the bulk of our competence in literacy (reading, writing, vocabulary, etc.) comes from reading. The studies showing this have been done by highly respected scholars over several decades and published in scientific journals and books. In addition, many teachers hold this view. (Our suspicion is that most do.) LEARN, however, only allows direct instruction. In fact, it insists on the opposite of what many professionals regard as the way literacy develops.

We are not opposed to assessment, but object to the amount of testing LEARN will require and encourage, and the fact that it will reinforce the direct instruction view of literacy development. Clearly, companies that produce tests are eagerly waiting in the wings.

We recommended that there be far more emphasis placed on reducing and overcoming the effects of poverty; we pointed out that international test scores of American children from high income areas are among the best in the world, which shows that the problem is not with teaching and schooling. We pointed out that the US has a very high rate of child poverty. Dealing with poverty would guarantee excellent international test scores.

Aspects of poverty we can deal with directly include lead poisoning, which has a devastating effect on brain development, and the fact that children of poverty have very little access to books. A modest investment in school libraries would help overcome at least one aspect of poverty. It has been established that library quality is related to reading achievement.

Our final point was this: Many children live in poverty, and the schools these children attend are inadequately funded, with crumbling infrastructure and few books. These children struggle in their home lives and, rather than getting help from school, encounter more obstacles. Our first priority should be dealing with this situation, not imposing dry curriculum and more testing.

Ms. Conway took notes, asked relevant questions for clarification, and recommended that we present our concerns to Senator Murray's education specialist, Kathryn Young. She said she would appreciate any of us spelling out what the changes in an actual classroom would look like if LEARN went into effect.

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