I am pleased and honored to be here today. When I was first asked by Mary Yepez if I would deliver this address, I responded that I was not sure that she had called the right person. After all, I explained, I had never taught English as a Second Language and, while I was familiar with some of the main topics and issues in the field, I was certainly less qualified than many. She, nonetheless, insisted that the conference committee had decided that my comments would be welcome.
I still feel, however, that I come as a stranger among you. As I prepared for today, I realized that I knew too little about you. Often, when I speak, I know who I am talking to and I can anticipate whether what I will say will produce consensus or controversy. Since it’s not likely that the conference will allow me to get to know you all that well, let me, at least, tell you who I am.
I work in the Division of Adult and Continuing Education at the University’s Office of Academic Affairs. That Division is charged with the responsibility of promoting and coordinating the University’s involvement in a wide range of non-credit areas, including adult literacy, ESL and GED – or high school equivalency – instruction. My specific responsibilities include the supervision of a twelve campus GED Program. In any case, our position at the edges of the University’s traditional mainstream has allowed us to look across many boundaries and to learn from many different people. We, for example, have learned from high school reformers, that less is more. We have learned from academic faculty members that inter-disciplinary perspectives are essential perspectives. And so forth. Since our programs are responsible for instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, we cannot afford to be too provincial in our disciplinary orientations.
I hope that I do not presume too much of what your concerns are and I hope that my comments today are helpful. But, let me say from the start that I am usually convinced that I need to be provocative if I am to be helpful. I also would like to note that much of what I say today will be about CUNY. I realize that many of you are not of/or from CUNY and I hope that my remarks are not too CUNY-centric.
I’d like to organize my comments around a contrast between common sense and good sense. Although we are inclined to nod our heads when someone invokes common sense, I am afraid that it often does us no good. For common sense is plagued with all too many notions that have little justification and little to recommend them. It is, of course, at the same time characterized by some perfectly sound ideas. Its very commonness guarantees its mixed character. Good sense, on the other hand, has a greater consistency and coherence and is less compromised by problematic assertions and assumptions. With that in mind, let’s move on.
In preparation for today’s talk, I have been re-reading CUNY documents on assessment and instructional practices over the last twenty odd years. I was struck by how much the various decisions appear to reflect an avoidance of first order questions – for example, we discuss whether the same test should be used for different purposes, but not whether it should be used at all. Some of this avoidance, I think, is nurtured by a reluctance to open up the can of worms. Some years ago, the former Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education, Anthony Alvarado (who now serves as the Superintendent of Community School District #2), authored a quite critical assessment of CUNY’s performance. He pointed out what is somewhat familiar to many of us. All too few of those who enter the University leave the University with academic degrees. His report was not especially welcomed by the University at the time. When I discussed this with someone who had been at the Central Office for many years, he commented that for the University to really address the issues that Alvarado had raised would require that the University admit that the problems were as significant as he had charged. But, the conventional wisdom had it that the University could not afford to do so. Whether his judgment was right or wrong, I don’t know. But, his observation that you can’t do much about something if you spend a lot of time avoiding it seems sensible enough. On the other hand, I am quite aware that admitting a problem is not the same as solving a problem.
Although the core features of CUNY’s dilemma have been evident for some years now, the dilemma continues. More often than not, a type of routine functioning prevails. That routine functioning reflects neither the knowledge of the faculty nor the potential of our students. The linchpin of that routine functioning, in the case of CUNY, is the University’s approach to developmental skills – including the Freshman Skills Assessment Program and the characteristic forms of instruction on the campuses.
I’d like to suggest a parallel with the way in which special education functions in the New York City public schools and public school systems elsewhere. There are those who remember when there was no space in the city’s schools for children with disabilities. Federal legislation and several court decisions changed that and now, as you can see, if you notice the buses with wheelchair lifts and the ramps and elevators, children can indeed get to school.
But, the common sense of resource allocation, traditional school practices and a concern for accountability overtook the good sense of a school system open to all. School systems, for example, discovered that special education funding could be spread further if the maximum number of students were referred and certified. Since the number of those with physically handicapping conditions (such as blindness, deafness and limited mobility) was more or less constant, the variable increase was found in the broad category of undifferentiated learning disabilities. The availability of the funding and the enumeration of hierarchies of categories of student needs and instructional modalities led soon enough to the identification of specialized professional training required, to new forms of licensing, to the development of professional organizations and journals, etc.
Relatively few students, who have been referred to special education, return. Worse still, relatively few complete their school studies and obtain a high school diploma. And within the special education bureaucracy, decision-making is effectively dominated by the need to follow prescribed procedures. So long as the formal procedures are observed, it is assumed that the decisions are wise. Many are aware of these intricately connected problems but the problem is not consistently identified and remedies tend to be designed to modify small pieces rather than the whole.
I imagine that you can see the parallels for developmental education at CUNY and other post-secondary institutions. Open admissions created access for those who had been excluded. The apparent need to assess skills and certify competence led to the development of elaborate procedures. More and more students were deemed to be in need of remediation. New forms of professional expertise were promoted. But all too few who enter our colleges complete their studies successfully. And all too often, remedies are imagined to lie in refined procedures, more carefully implemented.
I am aware that ESL instruction at CUNY, and elsewhere, cannot always be put into quite the same type of box that the traditional developmental ed programs can be. I know that many of you, for example, believe that the case for the award of academic credit for English language learning can be made quite differently than a case for the award of credit for a reading or writing course for native English speakers. Let me proceed, however, on the assumption that many, if not most, of your/our ESL students are, upon entry to the University, unsatisfactorily prepared to succeed in college. Of course, such a judgment implies that we – or at least, I – know what it means to be prepared for college.
Several years ago, a Task Force – composed mostly of CUNY faculty and administrators -was convened by our Division to assist us in the re-design of our GED Program. As I hope to indicate later, it was exceptionally helpful to us. In any case, the Task Force determined that the following skills, knowledge and habits were essential for successful college work:
* fluency and facility in reading and writing;
* background knowledge in relevant subjects;
* precision in the use of language;
*sophistication in thought, including the ability to make abstractions and to conceptualize from concrete experiences;
* self-monitoring of cognition, and
*knowledge of academic expectations, conventions of formal and informal presentation and disciplinary traditions.
In passing, I should mention that the group was much influenced by the timely publication of Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary.
The summary might require some amendment and refinement today. For example, it says little about mathematics. But, it’s been quite serviceable. I would suggest that it has been so because of a few quite simple facts. We brought together a group of knowledgeable faculty, who did not necessarily agree with each other on all issues. They spent some time learning about the particular issues at hand. They read; they discussed, they wrote about important matters.
I believe that the faculty of this University and of other institutions is capable of doing at least that much and most likely more. But it is too infrequently asked to do so. And, more important, it too infrequently insists that it do so. Let me illustrate what I mean by taking you back to the summer of 1970 – the summer before Open Admissions was introduced at CUNY. What was then called the Office of Academic Development at the University organized a three-week workshop for experienced teachers from SEEK and College Discovery programs. The aim of the workshop was to produce a manual which would give some guidance to new teachers specifically hired for the Open Admissions effort. And, three such guides were published – in Reading, Mathematics and English. Let me read brief excerpts from each.
From the Guide for Math:
The teacher should bear in mind that his purpose in the classroom is to teach the students, who, in turn, have come to learn mathematics. So often the teacher has “covered” the lesson in the classroom, but the students have not. This is not teaching. In order for teaching to take place the students must be learning, rather than merely being fed some information or “knowledge” to take home and memorize. Real learning involves using the mind actively, not passively.
We can … arouse the student by borrowing from his experience that which he already knows about the topic under discussion. This is a vital point. Suppose the topic is the Commutative Law. From experience the student already knows that 3 x 4 is the same as 4 x 3, that it does not matter if you go 4 blocks east and then 3 blocks north or 3 blocks north and then 4 blocks east. He also knows, however, that it does make a difference if you first open a window and then stick your head out, or if you reverse the order of the two operations.
From the Guide for Reading:
Using Feedback, a technique of ongoing discussion of course techniques and materials by teachers and students, will help develop a personal diagnostic approach in this and all areas of education at the University. This diagnostic approach before and during a reading and skills program is contrary to the placement approach now used by City University. The placement approach does not credit the student with dormant powers of conceptualization, for implicit in determining a student program through test norms is the assumption that learning equals a high score on a test. This approach depersonalizes the learning process. We assert, as we so often do in this report, that passing tests is not synonymous with education.
From the Guide for English, in An Essay Contributed by Mina Shaughnessy:
The term “basic writing” implies that there is a place to begin learning to write, a foundation from which the many special forms and styles of writing rise, and that a college student must control certain skills that are common to all writing before he takes on the special demands of a biology or literature or engineering class. I am not certain this is so. Some students learn how to write in strange ways. I recall one student who knew something about hospitals because she had worked as a nurse’s aide. She decided, long before her sentences were under control, to do a paper on female diseases. In some way this led her to the history of medicine and then to Egypt, where she ended up reading about embalming – which became the subject of a long paper she entitled “Post-mortem Care in Ancient Egypt.” The paper may not have satisfied a professor of medical history, but it produced more improvement in the student’s writing than any assignments I could have devised.
It might interest you to know that the catalyst for the workshop was Dr. Caleb Gattegno. In the acknowledgements of the three guides, the University staff mention that his message was simple -there are no underachieving students, there are only underachieving teachers. They go on to say: “It marks the first time that the University has systematically attempted to synthesize the academic lessons during its five-year experience with the SEEK and College Discovery Programs. It is our hope that this manual will be continually revised as our experience in new approaches to education grows.”
Although there have been many faculty efforts since, I am not sure that they represent a consistent advance from that early work. Too often, the best work is on the margins of our institutions, promoted not because of, but in spite of, institutional practices. I am afraid that the sedimentation of our common sense has allowed us to lose an appreciation for the provocative optimism of those pioneers. That common sense often borders on cynical resignation. Its characteristic features include a conviction that the people at 80th Street neither know nor care what goes on at the colleges, that the students are too unprepared, that the community colleges are not serious enough, that the senior colleges are elitist and that “politics” prevents us from doing what needs to be done.
Faced with these realities, many of the faculty choose to concentrate on their teaching, to close the door on the larger institution and to do as best as they can. Many of you, I’m sure, can provide us with stories of the victories your students have achieved in spite of the difficulties. But those victories, no matter how moving, do not seem numerous enough. Too many of our students falter and the prevailing common sense offers too few solutions.
How might we replace the common sense with good sense? Let me return to GED. Currently, more than twenty percent of CUNY students entering for the first time do so with a GED-based diploma. In each of the last several semesters, approximately 3,500 individuals have entered the University in this manner. This represents an increase of almost five hundred students per semester since 1982.
Individuals who enter college with a GED diploma are not so different from many of their counterparts who enter with regular diplomas – especially at the community colleges. They generally require developmental skills courses and experience considerable difficulties when they begin content-area coursework. Many do not persist until they obtain a degree. Few GED candidates or diploma holders have had the opportunity to participate in academically demanding programs. Thus, it is likely that they lack substantial background knowledge in various academic fields and that they engage infrequently, if at all, in reading and writing of an academic nature. Students are oftentimes unaware of what constitutes substantial knowledge. However, they are often encouraged to think that all they need to do is to brush up on a few skills. When they receive that encouragement, they are almost always receiving bad advice.
For the last ten years or so, the emphasis of the CUNY GED Program had been the remediation of what were thought to be particular skills deficits to enable individuals to “pass” the GED Exam. Students were implicitly or explicitly encouraged to stay only as long as necessary to be ready to “pass.” Not surprisingly, this de-emphasized the programmatic and personal importance of achieving high scores on the Tests. In addition, students often believed that they were ready to move on much sooner than was the case. This was reflected in a program pass rate only marginally better than the overall rate of passing in New York State.
We believe that relatively poor performance on the GED Tests and low persistence rates in college, in part, reflect student misconceptions about their preparedness for the exam or for college. Unprepared students need to be disabused of false expectations concerning their preparedness. At the same time, teachers and other staff members need to examine some long held assumptions about student capacities and effective instruction.
The overall goal of our redesigned GED Program is to provide an opportunity for substantial academic learning to all students who enroll. In addition, it is intended to improve GED Tests performance of all those who enroll and to contribute to the college readiness of those interested in postsecondary study. Our intent is not to accelerate the remediation of skills but instead to nurture the acquisition of substantial knowledge. For the most part, we believe that efforts focused on skills remediation have fostered a preoccupation with minimum competencies. What has become clear, however, is that minimum competencies are not enough. No student, and least of all those who have been least successful, can be too well prepared. Rather than defining our task as more efficient movement through a traditional skills hierarchy, we have instead been attempting to articulate essential skills (such as the ones enumerated above) and to design enriched academic environments.
This approach has major implications for the ways in which teachers’ roles are imagined and classrooms are organized. Rather than being efficient and effective dispensers of knowledge, teachers must instead be creative organizers of demanding and interesting projects. Few students will be able to attempt or to complete the kind of work we have outlined without substantial assistance from teachers. Teachers have to become knowledgeable about many different topics and issues in order to provide helpful suggestions along the way and to evaluate student accomplishment. Simultaneously, classrooms must be organized in ways that facilitate a great deal of student interaction in the completion of projects.
In addition, our approach also has major implications for GED students. Students are expected to invest many hours completing assignments outside the classroom. They have to become accustomed to reading and writing a great deal. However, it deserves emphasis that we believe that students are more than capable of the work we have in mind and that, having completed it, they will discover anew something of the power that proficient reading and writing creates.
Our GED initiative is, quite obviously, a small one and it is hardly representative of what is going on across the University. It does, I believe, have some lessons to offer for those who would like to do things differently. But, as I mentioned above, we can only move on to doing things differently after we have clearly said that what we are doing is not going well. But, we still seem unable to say this out loud. I’d like to suggest that part of the explanation for our distressing state of affairs is that our common sense is overly influenced by the metaphor of accountability. It evokes images of accountants poring over books, of items being counted, of things being checked. It also, I believe, suggests a profoundly passive role for teachers and students. But, aside from the images I have drawn, the notion of accountability is worrisome because it tends to promote a lot of explaining away. What I mean is that when, as happens often enough, programs or colleges do not meet the specified goals, faculty and staff members are accustomed to explaining away the shortcomings by citing either the personal characteristics of the students, the difficult circumstances of their lives or the shortage of staff.
I don’t mean to suggest that those issues do not matter. But, the tendency to want to explain away apparent shortcomings distracts us from the far more important work of being responsible for what we do and don’t do. We need to become accustomed to the idea that looking at ourselves and our large and small interactions with students carefully and thoughtfully can and should be the soundest guide for the evaluation of how well we are doing.
Fortunately, there’s been a lot of good looking going on recently. For example, Denny Taylor has been working with a group of elementary school teachers in New Hampshire. She is now preparing a volume, entitled From the Child’s Point of View, that will tell the stories of those teachers and of their students. Some of the key ingredients in the stories to come were revealed in an article written by Taylor in Phi Delta Kappan several years ago (Taylor, 1989). She described how a few teachers were composing literacy biographies of their students. The biographies chronicled the students’ varied encounters with print – their puzzlements, their difficulties, their breakthroughs, their learning. From a review of those biographies, Taylor concluded that the process of becoming literate was distinctive, if not idiosyncratic, for each child. The resulting literacy configurations, she suggested, were as unique as fingerprints. In a sense, the children did not so much learn literacy as create it.
I imagine that language educators recognize the parallels to their own work. The acquisition of a new language, as distinct from the learning of its formalized rules and procedures, depends a great deal on the active self-creation of the novice language user. Although we all speak English, we very much speak our own English. I refer not only to the sounds and rhythms of our voices but, as well, to the remarkably diverse rhetorical and syntactical patterns that we display. Even then, I would not want to suggest that any of us has only one package of language use. As we move through the different social and physical circumstances of our lives, we (with more or less forethought and effort) shift our discourse patterns. The range of patterns is not set in advance.
It is perhaps obvious that the same complex creation is present as students struggle to learn English. I use the word struggle not so much to suggest that the tasks of language acquisition are necessarily so difficult but rather to remind us of the powerful significance that language has for our own self-conceptions. Some of you may be familiar with the work of James Gee. In an article several years ago, he used Count Dracula as a model for the challenges encountered by language learners and asked us to appreciate that acquiring a new language very much involved not merely the technical questions of vocabulary and structure but intensely personal ones of identity and meaning (Gee). Let me read a brief excerpt from the novel cited by Gee (Stoker):
“But, Count,” I said, “you know and speak English thoroughly!” He bowed gracefully.
“I thank you, my friend, for your all too-flattering estimate, but yet I fear that I am but a little way on the road I would travel. True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them.”
“Indeed,” I said, “you speak excellently.”
“Not so,” he answered. “Well, I know that, did I move and speak in your London, none there are who would not know me for a stranger. That is not enough for me. Here I am noble . . . the common people know me, and I am master. But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one; men know him not – and to know not is to care not for. I am content if I am like the rest, so that no man stops me if he sees me, or pause in his speaking if he hear my words.
Gee acknowledges that Count Dracula had some rather unusual motives for wanting to blend in with the crowd – after all, not too many of us want or need to collect fresh blood. But, nonetheless, Dracula’s motives are not too dissimilar from those of most language learners. They make our jobs as teachers both more demanding – but also more fascinating.
There is good news and bad news here for teachers. The bad news is that no one can tell you how to enculturate someone into a language system (grammar, words, perspective taking, identity marking) and doing it as if a language were an academic discipline will not work. The good news is that language teachers, if they actually observe themselves and their students . . ., can come to know as much or more than research can currently tell them. Their mastery resides in that sort of observation; in their own tacit knowledge of the language and culture they are teaching; and in their willingness to think critically and at a conscious level about language, culture, and teaching/learning. If they are willing to be creative, to think for themselves, to trust their own mastery, and to take risks, they cannot really fail; at the very least they cannot do worse than what has so often counted as language teaching to date.
Gee closes his essay with a suggestion that “there is only one way to teach someone a language if they need that language `for real’ (so that they will not be a `stranger in a strange land’) and that is `to bite them’ (enculturate them) and hope they do not bleed to death.
This leads me to remind you that the acquisition of a language, therefore, seldom proceeds according to a preconceived taxonomy which enumerates a sequential hierarchy going from simple to complex. Part of this complexity is due to the fact that the acquisition of language and literate capacities is seldom a solitary affair. It takes place in the variety of social contexts that students find themselves in. Furthermore, the requisite skills themselves are socially distributed. In a model developed by Steve Reder, literacy and language development can be seen as occurring along three different dimensions – the social, the functional and the technological (Reder). Individuals’ growing accomplishment along any of those dimensions is rooted in their own position within a social context and the learning made possible by their own prior knowledge and experience. To give an example, in a family, one individual may know how to sign his name but another individual may know what a contract represents. Only an orchestration of the two will produce a valuable literate act.
If these accounts of literacy and language development are accurate, they have far-reaching implications for instruction. First, we need to dramatically re-imagine the shape of our classrooms. In our Division, we have begun speaking of classroom/workshops as a way of identifying the distinctive features of what we have in mind. In classroom/workshops, students will be engaged in doing many things – working at them, evaluating them, doing them better. This approach is consistent with the recommendations of Ted Sizer and his colleagues in the Coalition for Essential Schools. That group, which concentrates its energies on transforming high schools, often speaks of “students as workers” in order to emphasize the active responsibility-taking they believe necessary for learning (Sizer). It also is consistent with the recommendations of Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh (Resnick). Professor Resnick has pointed out that learning in school has traditionally been a very different kind of activity from learning out of school and that, as a result, it has contributed to a profound disengagement from schooling. (See Resnick.)
Not too much of what I have talked about is secret. For the most part, I believe that we can recognize genuine learning and that we know as well which kinds of circumstances are most conducive to it happening. I’d like to suggest that the reason why, unfortunately, we see so much less of those circumstances than we would like is that we have left unexamined the larger patterning of relationships between teachers and students. Fifteen years ago, Mina Shaughnessy, speaking about writing teachers, wrote the following (Shaughnessy):
For unless he can assume that his students are capable of learning what he has learned, and what he now teaches, the teacher is not likely to turn to himself as a possible source of his students’ failures. He will slip, rather, into the facile explanations of student failure that have long protected teachers from their own mistakes and inadequacies.
I believe that far too often, and perhaps far more often than not, many teachers do not believe that their students are capable of learning what they have themselves learned. Worse still, they and their students live in worlds apart. Put simply, the children of CUNY’s teachers do not attend CUNY nor do they attend schools with the children of CUNY students. Would we want to attend, or would we want our children to attend, the courses and programs we teach in and administer? If we cannot answer yes, we will be stuck. But, we need not be. For as Shaughnessy concluded:
But once he grants students the intelligence and will they need to master what is being taught, the teacher begins to look at students’ difficulties in a more fruitful way: he begins to search in what students write and say for clues to their reasoning and their purposes, and in what he does for gaps and misjudgments. He begins teaching anew …
Let us not be content with hearing the echoes of 1970 or with the memorializing of Mina Shaughnessy. Instead, let us be about our own important work well done.
That will require good teaching, but it will require more than good teaching. At CUNY and elsewhere, it will require that the faculty move beyond the classroom and become active participants in the larger institutional discussions and decisions about goals and purposes and about the first order questions that I mentioned previously. We have many outstanding examples of good practice and good sense. They need to become the rule rather than the exception.
Gee, J.P. (1988). “Dracula, the Vampire Lestat, and TESOL.” TESOL Quarterly, 22, 201-225.
Reder, S.M. (1987). “Comparative Aspects of Functional Literacy Development.” In The Future of Literacy in a Changing World, edited by Daniel Wagner. New York, Pergamon Press.
Resnick, L. (1987). “Learning in School and Out.” Educational Researcher, 16, 13-20.
Rose, M. (1989). Lives on the Boundary. New York: Macmillan.
Shaughnessy, M. (1977). Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sizer, T. (1984). Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton MIflin Company.
Stoker, B. (1981). Dracula. New York, Bantam Books.
Task Force on High School Equivalency Program Re-Design (1989). High School Equivalency and Beyond. New York: City University of New York, Office of Academic Affairs, Division of Adult and Continuing Education.
Taylor, D. (1989). “Toward a Unified Theory of Literacy Learning and Instructional Practices.” Phi Delta Kappan, November 1989, 184-193.
Workshop on Compensatory English Education. (1970). A Guide for Teachers of College English. New York: City University of New York, Office of Academic Development.
Workshop on Compensatory Mathematics Education. (1970). A Guide for Teachers of College Mathematics. New York: City University of New York, Office of Academic Development.
Workshop on Compensatory Reading Education. (1970). A Guide for Teachers of College Reading. New York: City University of New York, Office of Academic Development.
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