The reading blip


Our eyesight has evolved over time. Same for our hearing. And our other senses. But a skill like reading? Natural selection simply hasn’t had enough time to do its work.

According to estimates compiled by Bruce L. Gary in his book “Genetic Enslavement,” only 5% of the global population was literate 500 years ago. The rate hit 10% in 1650, 20% in 1750, 50% in 1850, and currently sits at a 60% plateau first reached in 1900.

What will it take to jolt the system and restore the climb toward 100%? My bet is nothing.

In fact, I’ll double down and bet that a hundred years from now, fewer people … perhaps substantially fewer … will be reading in any sense that we currently associate with the term.

I won’t be surprised if reading eventually takes its place alongside arts like calligraphy as a practice of hobbyists but not a path to learning. As a means of receiving information, reading will give way to high speed video, immersive VR simulation, skill-on-a-pill, direct neural implant, or mechanisms we can’t yet imagine.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and have spend a considerable portion of my professional career helping educators help children learn to read. If I’m right and around long enough to see the decline, I’ll shed a tear.

But if you want to know what I think about the development, don’t come back here expecting an update. Instead, just tune your neuroport’s ultrabluefli scanner to //dieffenblog{history>arcane>reading}//.

Thoughts on an evolution of the Wayland Public Schools

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

A thread on the private Town Crier/Wicked Local discussion board includes considerable back-and-forth on data showing US students trailing their international counterparts on certain standardized tests. One contributor to that thread makes the wholly unsupported claim that Wayland, being part of the US, is therefore in a similar trailing position. That’s entirely possible, but I know of no data indicating such a gap.

Let’s imagine, thought, that a Wayland Public Schools (WPS) education isn’t the best in the world, the country, or even Massachusetts. Because that’s what we should imagine as the motivation for continuous improvement. Twice on the TC/WL thread, I asked the critic for something more than criticism: what might the WPS look like to truly compete? Twice getting no answer, it occurred to me to take a stab at the question myself.

I included “evolution” rather than “revolution” in the title of this thread because the data (test scores, athletic results, art performance, college acceptances, …) reveal a system that is at least strong, and that doesn’t need to be “blown up” and started anew.

I would start with what we have–excellent teachers, solid curriculum, adequate facilities, all aimed at our delivering on our mission statement–and then evolve consistent with the best thinking of our superintendent, our administrators, our teachers, and experts beyond our borders:

  • More professional development: As our Superintendent says, this is our research and development. Teachers get better when they learn, and their learning in the classroom will be slow without training in the classroom and outside the current school day.
  • Longer school day: I would start with Kindergarten, moving from a 2/3 to a full day. Then, I would consider extending the full day by an hour or two. This is more an issue at the elementary level, as our co-curricular program (more on that below) already provides a longer day.
  • Technology infusion: Educational productivity in terms of student:teacher ratio hasn’t really changed in a century–we still have one educator in a class of 25 or so children. One promise of technology is a shake-up of this ratio. Instructional software and distance learning don’t have to come at the expense of the teaching staff, whose count would reduce through attrition. In fact, such a shift would benefit the teacher, freeing him or her up to spend more time in smaller groups providing truly differentiated instruction.
  • Differentiated instruction (1): As commonly used, differentiated instruction connotes different or extra work for struggling students. A broader use of the term, though, means having each student at their “zone of proximal development” (where work is challenging, not frustrating or boring). This applies to all students across the spectrum of ability, not just those who struggle.
  • Differentiated instruction (2): While this isn’t the traditional use of the phrase “differentiated instruction, I’d like to explore having one teacher for reading/social studies and a second for math/science at the elementary level. This would allow for teachers with more focused education and experience coming in and professional development going forward.
  • Curriculum enhancement: In recent years, we’ve made great strides in the key foundational skills of early reading and math. All curriculum is reviewed and improved on a revolving schedule. Two areas that are obvious candidates for expansion/overhaul are foreign language and health/wellness. Both should be considered district-wide, including a look at foreign language at the elementary level (sometimes called FLES). Regarding health/wellness, the research is clear on the positive academic effect of nutrition, fitness, proper sleep (perhaps enhanced through later start times for older students), and avoiding destructive habits.
  • Co-curricular program: Currently, because of our athletics fee structure, we spend on the order of $50 on academics for every $1 we pay for our athletic program. I’d like to see that ratio drop to $30:$1 (by eliminating the fees) or even $25:$1 or so (by publicly-funding crew and hockey). Athletics should be on par with our rich arts program, and they aren’t. Athletics are an important part of an education, not only for reasons of fitness, but for their contribution to the “competitive skills” listed at the end of this entry.
  • Adequate facilities: As great as it would be to house a world class education in world class facilities, that has not been–and likely will not be–our approach. With ongoing significant (roofs, windows) and minor (flooring) work, our elementary schools are adequate. Our Middle School, recently renovated, is a bit better than adequate. The deficiencies of our High School physical plant are well-documented; through the outstanding work of the High School Building Committee, we hope that these deficiencies will shortly be the subject of some redress. Across our buildings, we need to be “thinking green” by implementing energy efficient features.

My list above builds on our current offering, it does not replace it. Commensurately, my list above requires funding on top of what we currently spend. I fully appreciate the precarious position of our current finances and the considerable challenges we face in increasing the amount. Nonetheless, I think it important to paint a picture of what a reasonable–not excessive–public education might look like.

I offer all of the above in the context of the current structure of public education. I do so not because this structure is perfect, but rather, because it is what we have. I’m all for working to improve public education by changing its structure, but doing so requires effort far beyond our control here within the borders of Wayland.

Earlier, I referenced our mission statement. My shorthand for our goal: helping young people become global citizens. A recent survey of 400 national companies found the following qualities to be most important to competitive success on the global stage:

  1. Professionalism and work ethic
  2. Written/spoken communication
  3. Teamwork
  4. Critical thinking/creativity/problem solving

All are consistent with our mission statement, and all should be at the forefront of our thinking as we continue to evolve the Wayland Public Schools.

There are probably some areas that I’ve inadvertently neglected. I look forward to reading people’s comments on my thoughts as well as the addition of their own.

(Appropriately) valuing co-curricular activities

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

Co-curricular programs include athletics, arts, and activities (clubs). Appropriately valuing these programs takes on particular importance during tight financial times.

It’s a fair question to ask what percentage of our programmatic budget (excluding fixed costs such as custodial services, maintenance, transportation, and utilities) should be allocated to curricular (academic) versus co-curricular programs. 75%? 80%? 90%?

If we look at the FY09 school budget, we see that we spend 88% of our funds on program. Those program costs are then broken down as follows.

  • Academics: 91.1%
  • Art: 1.8%
  • Music: 2.7%
  • Theater arts: 0.7%
  • Athletics: 3.0%
  • Activities: 0.7%

In my opinion, these percentages reflect a reasonable prioritization.

Some sports (golf, skiing) and activities (ultimate frisbee) seem to be particular targets for charges of “over-spending.” We should be careful not to imagine these endeavors as “resort activities,” but legitimate competition that bring all of the benefits of the more “traditional” sports: fitness, teamwork, character, and so on. Moreover, they provide (as does crew, for instance) a markedly different type of competition for athletes who might not have the “tools” for the traditional sports.

In a comparison of 25 FY07 teams, cost per student ranged from a high of ~$1,050 (swimming) to a low of ~$250 (track). Golf ranks 4th at ~$800 (behind boys and girls volleyball) and skiing ranks 8th at ~$625 (behind boys and girls basketball, and comparable to baseball). Note that skiing’s rank will drop considerably now that lift passes will be paid for by a separate fee to match the practice of peer districts. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with lift passes being part of the athletic budget–they are a necessary part of the sport, one that has athletes paying for their own equipment unlike most other sports.

I value co-curricular programs for the breadth that they add to a public education, and see devoting roughly a tenth of the budget to their pursuit as being appropriate.