12 Jan

I was born on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Perhaps that is why I have always had such a strong social conscience.  I’ve been teaching reading nearly my whole life. When I was six, I was dragging neighborhood kids into my “schoolroom.” In addition to teaching in a 9-12 reading lab, Title I teacher, etc. I was also connected to various literacy-related boards and organizations, including school boards, Literacy Volunteers of America, neighborhood study centers, Fantasy Theatre, Harmony Arts, Laubach Literacy, Homeless Coalition, etc. I was a preschool and K-6 Principal, HS English teacher and more.

Today I finally made it to the Eugene AAUW (American Association of University Women) meeting to get involved with their Book Club and Readers’ Theatre groups. I was not surprised a university town had women sitting around on a Sat. morning, with a full agenda, guest speaker and intelligent conversation. What did surprise me was when the topics turned to ESEA, Title I legislation, which deserves to be a national conversation right now; a very hot topic. It affects all of us. Major, key provisions are about to be eliminated. It’s certainly worth taking a look and getting informed.

I worked as a Title I program evaluator for many years. This has always been a great program, a landmark act dedicated to helping needy kids. The intent was and is to bridge the achievement gap between underachieving, underserved American schoolchildren. For many years money funded special teachers and programs, before, during and after school. The sad news is the ethnic black-white gap has widened since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with twelfth grade black children scoring lower in 2013 than 1992. With so many schools under Improvement status, and many states getting waivers, obviously there needed to be a rewrite of this legislation. It’s always good to step back and see what’s working and what’s not. And high stakes testing is not working to improve instruction.

A tsunami wave is coming together of conflicting reading research, a rift between theory and practice, politicians involved, unsure practitioners, questioning parents and kids caught in the middle.

This week, I read many articles about Common Core reading. Pro and con and overall, it’s not a pretty picture. I read that parents are opting out, teachers are divided especially with evaluation tied to student performance, and students are opening test booklets, on and offline and refusing to do them. The joy of teaching reading to anyone at any level is the greatest feeling–ever. When you finally get the inevitable “a-ha,” you know you are a great teacher.  And it doesn’t take a test to give you that feeling or tell you an achievement level. Teachers are under fire from multiple directions regarding over-assessment of children on mandated tests while the art and craft of teaching reading is in jeopardy of going the way of the dinosaur.

My best friend Pamela Laird, homeschool coordinator and teacher for many years just gave me her 70’s McCracken reading instruction book with her original notes. I have a Dick and Jane Big Book and a very old McGuffy’s Reader. And I tell you, kids learned how to read, even though they were barely tested. The McGuffey’s 6th level reader reads like the books I first used as a high school English teacher. Because the curriculum was consistently challenging from the beginning, groundwork was set for high reading level skills. Nobody really disputed what or how reading should be taught, at least until Jeanne Chall’s Learning to Read, The Great Debate (’67, ’83,’96). And that debate was mostly about the disagreement over methodology, whole language versus phonics. (Or, literature-based, versus code).

So imagine a child being bombarded by a scripted reading program, constant practice tests and a core curriculum that dramatically  jumped to a very high cognitive level, without appropriate foundational skills. Timed tests based on nonsense words determining grouping is not a great practice, in my opinion. Teachers recently reported up to 288 hours, or seventy-two days of mandated test preparation. That is a multitude of lost instructional prime time.

Data-driven instruction replaced evidenced-based instruction, scientifically designed instruction and other similar terms. Yet even the most basic diagnostic-prescriptive-evaluative cycle works with anecdotal and informal observation, running records, etc. Teachers know their students and are “spot on” re assessment guiding their instruction. Target teaching works effectively for them.


  • Teachers are unfairly having their performance evaluations tied to testing progress. There are years and classes which are more difficult than others. The foundation is set, but the growth doesn’t show yet. A year or two later, the student shines.
  • Despite NCLB, the gap between black and white students is unconscionable.

The intent of Common Core was to share a national conversation about what students ought to know, offer consistency between states- a national curriculum and to raise standards to world class level. That is admirable. But let me repeat, the foundational building blocks of reading must be reviewed before any more testing is done. Filling in the gaps should be a top priority before children and teachers are judged on their performance. A reminder, Reading Champs provides ready-to-use mini lessons which you can use a chapter at a time, and help your child or class get ahead or catch up.

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”. But we’d better take a better look at where all this testing is going. Not needed and hardly motivational.

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2 Responses to It’s My 65th Birthday! 45 Year Reading Teacher, On Common Core

  1. Beth Foraker

    January 20, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Rita, Thank you for this very important post and Happy Birthday!! That is some serious good karma. 🙂 As a classroom teacher for many years and now a supervisor for student teachers in the elementary program at UC Davis I concur strongly with everything you have stated. This line in particular I want to highlight and bold and place in capitals for all to see:
    “High stakes testing is not working to improve instruction.”
    Most definitely not.
    As the reprehensible and unconscionable statistics of the federal government reveal themselves, BLACK CHILDREN’S SCORES ARE WORSE IN 2013 THAN COMPARED TO 1992.

    NCLB is an utter failure.

    We know what works…you’ve stated it here. Good teaching, joy in reading, opportunities for rich literature in all grades…this will provide our students with real opportunity. We need to take back the conversation. Your post is a good start. ~Beth

    • rwirtz

      January 20, 2015 at 9:06 pm

      Beth, you are making a huge difference in the relevant conversation regarding the importance of assessment but the limitations, as well. As a Title I program evaluator for many years I applaud the need for CFU, checking for understanding, but when assessment overshadows instruction I have great concerns. If teachers are not capable of successfully taking the Common Core practice tests with 100%, how can we possibly expect children to successfully show growth and mastery of instruction? As a curriculum developer, as well, assessment was never intended to drive instruction, but to provide working information when to reteach or proceed instructionally. My gratitude for your insights and passion.

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