|A few of the books read by real students|
in the author's middle school
American history classes.
"Bloomberg, Michael," I call out, not looking up from my grade book. Here. "George W.?" He's here, too. "Arne? Arne Duncan?" Present. "Davis Guggenheim?" "Klein?" He's busy flirting with Michelle Rhee, one row over and doesn't answer until I call him again. "Obama?"
I run down my roster and they're all here.
"Today, " I explain, "we're going to discuss reading scores in the United States. Can anyone raise a hand and tell me where this country ranks in reading compared to other nations?
Hands shoot up all around.
"Mr. Viall. In 2003, we ranked 15th out of twenty-nine countries. I think it's because teachers are in unions...."
"Thank you, Ms Rhee."
"I'd like to add that teacher tenure is a major problem," she continued.
I gave her a look and she fell silent.
Little Arne waved his hand from the back of the room. I called on him for comment. "Mr. Viall," he said, "I think the problem is in how No Child Left Behind is being implemented. We need to create national standards..."
"Alright, Arne, I feel your pain. Does anyone know what the latest report from the National Assessment of Education Progress shows?"
The Bush kid raised his hand, seemed unsure, and lowered it again. Nice boy. Not necessarily the brightest kid in the bunch. The new kid (born in Kenya one of my colleagues recently said), waved his left hand to get my attention.
"According to recent testing data, U. S. 12th graders had an average score of 286, down one point since 2002. Eighth graders were up one point, to 265, over the same period. Fourth grade scores rose two points over a nine-year stretch, from 219 to 221. According to experts these gains were statistically insignificant."
"How do you explain this trend, class? If the U. S. is spending billions to implement all kinds of reforms in education, why aren't scores rising dramatically?"
Michelle has her hand up again. I try not to grimace and call on her again. "I think it's because we don't tie teacher pay to test scores."
The Bloomberg boy, and the Klein kid, both want to speak. "I think we need more charter schools," Michael says. Joel, his buddy, agrees. "Vouchers, too," says Joel. "We need vouchers and charter schools."
"Okay," I respond. "Let's say we wanted kids to improve their reading scores--but we didn't have one additional DIME to spend to design new standardized tests and we couldn't afford to hire one more bureaucrat to draw up all kinds of national standards?"
The Chisman girl, probably the most logical thinker in the room, put up her hand, and I called on her to respond.
"Well, it's not like libraries don't exist. Maybe you could raise scores, without spending a dime, if parents took their kids to the library more often."
Michelle and Arne and W. and most of the other kids seemed dumbfounded. "Good point, Lori," I said, and smiled.
Andrea Dubell, the hardest worker in the entire class, waves her hand to get my attention and adds when called upon: "I think we could raise reading scores in this country without doing ANYTHING differently in schools. I don't think we need more standardized tests, or vouchers, or charter schools. I think if parents read more to their little children and and set a good example by reading more themselves, test scores would definitely rise. You know...don't let kids watch six hours of TV every day. I think I can improve my own reading score, no matter what you do, Mr. Viall, by reading more for pleasure."
A hint of a smile passes over my face and I tap the side of my skull with an index finger, to indicate that I believe her thinking is exactly on target.
Except for Andrea and Lori, the rest of the class appears stunned.