Dumbing Down What Students Read Didn’t Make Them Any Smarter

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/09/01/dumbing-down-what-students-read-didnt-make-them-any-smarter/

Yesterday as today, what we call reading skills heavily influence academic achievement. They further influence the development of writing skills beyond the early years of schooling when writing is almost a transcription of a child’s speech patterns. The development of reading skills, especially a reading vocabulary, and then writing skills depends largely on willing practice in reading. There are no silver bullets for a large reading vocabulary. Perhaps we can learn something by looking at what educators did at the turn of the 20th century and over the last century to keep students with a minimal interest in reading and studying engaged with schooling as compulsory education laws and prohibitions against factory work compelled most students to stay in high school — and still do.

The surge in high school enrollment at the turn of the 20th century — mainly to address the huge wave of immigration to our urban areas — led educators to make many changes to the high school curriculum as high schools were being built or expanded — in large part to accommodate the wide range of reading skills and student interests in grades 10-12. Several sinister theories have long been advanced to account for these changes (e.g., to sort out the children of an upper class or upper middle class from those who would become part of the workforce).  The students attending newly formed or expanded high schools were not apt to be children of the wealthy but children of a broad middle class and immigrants. What and how could teachers in a high school or any secondary classroom teach if large numbers of students (but not all) in typically large classes couldn’t read the textbooks and literary works assigned for their grade level?

Choice of a curriculum track within a comprehensive high school seemed to be the best solution local educators could work out at the time. Most urban high schools ended up with four tracks:  college-preparatory, general, vocational (industrial arts/home economics), and commercial. Junior high schools also began to be established around the beginning of the 20th century. Achievement-based or ability-based classes were then considered a reform of a seeming strait-jacket — a one-size-for-all curriculum. The internal problem all schools wrestled with was the growing spread in reading skills as students moved through the grades.

While students in a secondary school’s college preparatory program always read a demanding range of books/speeches/biographies/essays, George Tanner, author of a well-known survey of 67 high schools in the Midwest in the first decade of the 20th century, found a wide array of titles assigned in these high schools’ English classes “to meet the various conditions in different schools, and the different personalities of the teachers” instead of what he expected — a narrow list of College Board-required titles for the common college admission tests that had begun around 1900.

Despite the intentions of the Committee of Ten in 1892 to establish a demanding curriculum for all high school students, other forces wanted alternatives to a college-oriented curriculum in order to address better, they thought, the interests of non-college-intending students. Separate vocational schools were established in 1917 with help from the federal government, and their numbers were expanded in 1960. Other kinds of high schools were occasionally developed (for the performing arts or for mathematics and science) during the 20th century, while magnet schools focusing on an occupational area became popular after World War II as a possible way to reduce racial isolation across school district boundaries and improve the achievement of urban low-achieving students.

But most students in this country still attended (and still do attend) a “comprehensive” high school — an institution unique to this country — whether or not they encounter a socio-economically narrow range of students in their academic classes. The effects on the secondary classroom curriculum of having students with poor reading skills in English or history classes together with students with higher reading skills have not been well-researched.

Books have been written about the changes in the high school curriculum over the course of the 20th century (the establishment of “tracks” in high school and then, after World War II, semester electives in high school English), and about the establishment of junior high schools, and then, after World War II, their transformation into middle schools. All these structural changes were motivated by the desire to kindle the interests of non-academically oriented young adolescents in reading, especially students who didn’t read much — and keep them in school. But all failed to reduce low achievement much (if at all). Why?

Until well after World War II, high school English courses, like courses in most other subjects, were year-long courses.  Breaking them into two semester-long courses and into electives gave students choices of what to read. It also made it possible to increase attention on writing. But it was never the case that intellectual benefits from the increased time allotted to composition in public school instructional time could be demonstrated on a large scale (e.g., on NAEP tests of writing).

The conversion of junior high schools to middle schools, instead of providing a better “transition” to high school, allowed the curriculum in grades 7 and 8 to become the culmination of an elementary school curriculum rather than remain the grounding for secondary subject matter learning as in a 7-12 school or in a junior high school. This was clearer in mathematics than in English. In retrospect, the major result of the “reform” known as the middle school movement was the eventual replacement over time of academically qualified teachers in grades 7 and 8 by under-qualified teachers (often an elementary teacher who had “added” a middle school license). A teacher capable of teaching algebra was more likely to be in a junior high school than in a middle school.

We have not yet, in this country, worked out better academic solutions to the increasing range of interests and reading skills in young adolescents than either the junior high school or the middle school seems to have provided as educational institutions. The splitting of the year-long high school English class into two semester-long electives, and the conversion of the junior high school to a middle school, reduced time for whole-class discussions of challenging reading assignments given to the whole class (whether literary or non-literary texts) and allowed greater use of in-class instructional time for writing; and they also led to the staffing of middle schools with content-lite teachers.

As the writing process movement swept the country after the mid-1970s, teachers seem to have been more interested in student-centered writing and students’ choice of what they read because they saw them grounded in student motivation. English teachers seemed to be less interested in language learning and the development of thinking — what English educator James Moffett was trying to encourage.

No planned reading curriculum is possible if students choose what they want to study in the English class. It is almost impossible to find a set of reading/literature standards in public schools that are as demanding as the specifications in academically-oriented private schools to this day. (See, for example, the required titles in the English curriculum for the Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C.) 

Possessed by the notion that low achievers in certain ethnic groups would be more motivated to read texts about and by people who looked or talked like them, but at the same time believing that poor readers couldn’t read the difficult titles required by College Board exams, educators gradually replaced more difficult works in the secondary English curriculum with weaker books on the grounds that existing works were by dead white males, Eurocentric, or reflective of an oppressive culture. Older, or “canonical,” works (almost anything written before 1970) were regularly discredited and replaced by more contemporary works. The result:  it is difficult to find a currently popular contemporary work assigned in high school that is as difficult to read with respect to its vocabulary and syntax as the “canonical” work it may have displaced. For example, The Scarlet Letter, about adultery in an early New England Puritan community, once a staple in a grade 11 course in American literature, is rarely taught in high school today. Its reading level is estimated to be at a grade 11 level.

To this day, no researcher has found a positive effect on student reading interest from eliminating what were denigrated as “canonical” works. According to Renaissance Learning’s annual reports on what thousands of K-12 students read, the average reading level of the top 25 titles assigned to or read by grade 11 students is at about the grade 6 level. Unsurprisingly, Congress, parents, and the public at large have no idea why all the practices now apparently “justified” by English educators have resulted in average student achievement levels in 2015 that are not very different from those in 1970 on the “Nation’s Report Cards.” 

So, what can we learn from past efforts by educators to address low achievement? Better choice of high school curriculum? Academically stronger teachers at all grade levels? Perhaps we need to look beyond the schools at other sources of influence on children’s interests in school. As the Coleman Report noted, children’s families were more influential than their schools. Have policy makers been barking up the wrong tree since the first authorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.