Maya Angelou and Judy Blume Are Wrong About Childhood...

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EDUCATION OCTOBER 22, 2013

Maya Angelou and Judy Blume Are Wrong About Childhood Reading

This morning, over 120 children’s book authors and illustrators sent a letter to President Barack Obama expressing concern for “our readers,” a.k.a. tots through tweens. The undersigned, who include such luminaries as Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, Jules Feiffer, Phillip Hoose, and Jane Yolen, say they fear the preponderance of testing in American schools keeps children from learning to love to read.

Two public policy giants—former White House health care expert Ezekiel Emanuel and education historian Diane Ravitch—recently debated the merits of testing in the pages of The New Republic. Though they differ on some points, they agree on the following: Students would actually benefit from more testing, as long as the assessments are written by teachers who know them and are using the grades for immediate feedback. That kind of test is vastly different from an anonymous standardized exam like the SAT. The artists and writers behind Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and The Phantom Tollbooth didn't keep that in mind in their blanket condemnation of testing in general. Here's what their letter gets right and wrong.

“Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.”

True. Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, which tied teachers’ salaries to their students’ test scores, earned his administration mountains of criticism. “Accountability” has become a watchword for Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan as they try to beef up America’s education performance—and it often seems to be nothing more than a codeword for more testing, even as progressives produce more and more evidence that test scores don’t accurately represent a teacher’s worth.

“We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.”

Fair. To give credit where credit is due, the Obama administration has championed a new approach to public school education (the Common Core State Standards) that is precisely designed to “reverse the narrowing of curriculum” in the U.S.—even as Republicans fight the standards tooth and nail. Unfortunately, the standardized tests that are being designed to accompany the Common Core are reported to contain the same, uncreative style of multiple choice questions as the tests we already use, and already know don’t work.

“Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.”

Silly. You won’t get any arguments from this corner about the wonders of reading, but it doesn’t make sense for schools—public or private—to use their precious hours with students telling them to read on their own. A good teacher, and a good classroom discussion, imparts not just a love of reading, but a love of chewing over the material afterwards. And testing has a role to play. Emanuel writes about something he calls “the testing effect”: “Testing [enhances] learning and retention more than just studying… A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving.”

“Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman who said, ‘We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.’”

Strong (even for Philip Pullman). A Pew Poll this summer found young Americans are actually more loyal to print books than their middle-aged counterparts, and even if a depressing number of them are just paging through the Twilight series, “hostility” is not the word.

The letter writers failed to mention something much more pressing: the sharp correlation between reading ability and income level, and between income level and test performance. Last week, The Washington Post reported that children from poor families are the majority in schools in the South and West. As schools teach more and more kids who aren’t growing up with books at home, they assume the responsibility to make the whimsical worlds of children's literature available.

Here's the letter, in full:

Dear President Obama,

We the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators write to express our concern for our readers, their parents and teachers. We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.

We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.

Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations. As Michael Morpurgo, author of the Tony Award Winner War Horse, put it, “It's not about testing and reading schemes, but about loving stories and passing on that passion to our children.”

Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman who said, “We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.” Students spend time on test practice instead of perusing books. Too many schools devote their library budgets to test-prep materials, depriving students of access to real literature. Without this access, children also lack exposure to our country’s rich cultural range.

This year has seen a growing national wave of protest against testing overuse and abuse. As the authors and illustrators of books for children, we feel a special responsibility to advocate for change. We offer our full support for a national campaign to change the way we assess learning so that schools nurture creativity, exploration, and a love of literature from the first day of school through high school graduation.

Alma Flor Ada

Alma Alexander

Jane Ancona

Maya Angelou

Jonathan Auxier

Kim Baker

Molly Bang

Tracy Barrett

Chris Barton

Ari Berk

Judy Blume

Alfred B. (Fred) Bortz

Lynea Bowdish

Sandra Boynton

Shellie Braeuner

Ethriam Brammer

Louann Mattes Brown

Anne Broyles

Michael Buckley

Janet Buell

Dori Hillestad Butler

Charito Calvachi-Mateyko

Valerie Scho Carey

Rene Colato Lainez

Henry Cole

Ann Cook

Karen Coombs

Robert Cortez

Cynthia Cotten

Bruce Coville

Ann Crews

Donald Crews

Nina Crews

Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Laura Dower

Kathryn Erskine

Jules Feiffer

Jody Feldman

Mary Ann Fraser

Sharlee Glenn

Barbara Renaud Gonzalez

Laurie Gray

Trine M. Grillo

Claudia Harrington

Sue Heavenrich

Linda Oatman High

Anna Grossnickle Hines

Lee Bennett Hopkins

Phillip Hoose

Diane M. Hower

Michelle Houts

Mike Jung

Kathy Walden Kaplan

Amal Karzai

Jane Kelley

Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff

Amy Goldman Koss

JoAnn Vergona Krapp

Nina Laden

Sarah Darer Littman

José Antonio López

Mariellen López

Jenny MacKay

Marianne Malone

Ann S. Manheimer

Sally Mavor

Diane Mayr

Marissa Moss

Yesenia Navarrete Hunter

Sally Nemeth

Kim Norman

Geraldo Olivo

Alexis O’Neill

Anne Marie Pace

Amado Peña

Irene Peña

Lynn Plourde

Ellen Prager, PhD

David Rice

Armando Rendon

Joan Rocklin

Judith Robbins Rose

Sergio Ruzzier

Barb Rosenstock

Liz Garton Scanlon

Lisa Schroeder

Sara Shacter

Wendi Silvano

Janni Lee Simner

Sheri Sinykin

Jordan Sonnenblick

Ruth Spiro

Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Whitney Stewart

Shawn K. Stout

Steve Swinburne

Carmen Tafolla

Kim Tomsic

Duncan Tonatiuh

Patricia Thomas

Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

Deborah Underwood

Corina Vacco

Audrey Vernick

Debbie Vilardi

Judy Viorst

K. M. Walton

Wendy Wax

April Halprin Wayland

Carol Weis

Rosemary Wells

Lois Wickstrom

Suzanne Morgan Williams

Kay Winters

Ashley Wolff

Lisa Yee

Karen Romano Young

Jane Yolen

Roxyanne Young

Paul O. Zelinsky

Jennifer Ziegler

CC: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

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posted in: the plank, culture, children's books, common core, obama, arne duncan, standardized tests, politics

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