In the race to close the achievement gap, many districts and schools may be eliminating opportunities for all students to use writing as a means for analysis and higher order thinking, according to a two-year study of literacy practices across the high school curriculum by UC Davis School of Education assistant professor Kerry Enright.
According to Enright, though the focus on eliminating disparities among subgroups of students is good, the result has been an over-emphasis on standardized, packaged curricula and high-stakes assignments that can reduce students’ access to advanced uses of literacy if used improperly. In her two-year study at a large linguistically diverse high school, the district implemented explicit curricular standards tied to packaged curricula and high-stakes benchmark assignments. The emphasis in classrooms was on standardizing instruction for all learners, and then remediating learners for whom this did not work.
Enright argues, “This runs counter to everything we know about good teaching, which is designed to differentiate instruction for the needs of learners with different linguistic and academic needs, not standardize it. The push to standardize instruction has resulted in practices that seem to standardize learners as well.”
“Reforms have responded to historical inequities in our public schools by measuring achievement via standardized tests and assignments,” explained Enright. “Unfortunately, our study revealed a growing opportunity gap between English-speaking, white students and bilingual Latino students by inadvertently reducing English learners’ access to rigorous and authentic uses of advanced language and literacy skills.”
For example, in one instance, students studying a poem by Emily Dickinson were told to focus on the uses of metaphor in isolation of any larger analysis of the meaning of the poem. “To prepare students to pass a district-wide required essay, the whole lesson became something technical,” said Enright. “The product was more important than the learning.”
Students unable to produce assignments that met standardized criteria were sent to a tutorial center for remediation. “Language development isn’t about remediation, however. It’s about thoughtful literacy-rich instruction that focuses on meaning, not just rubrics and products. Many English learners are being remediated instead of educated, all in the name of closing the achievement gap,” said Enright.
According to Enright, this narrow focus precludes students learning how to think through their ideas or communicate an argument in their writing, skills critical to success in the 21st century workplace.
Enright presents her study, “Raising Standards and Reducing
Literacy,” at the annual conference of the American Educational
Research Association on Monday, April 16, 2012.