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SEARCHING IN THE 408! A San Jose teacher—and an ex-textbook czar—weight in about readable books: // link // print // previous // next //

SEARCHING IN THE 408: On Friday, an e-mailer directed us to a San Jose-based “teacher blog,” Teaching in the 408. Specifically, our e-mailer cited the following post, in which a 26-year-old teacher-blogger searches about for readable books for his seventh-grade students:
TEACHING IN THE 408 (1/4/06): Anyone have any ideas for the elusive, highly engaging, yet low level novel I could use with my class of 7th graders who read independently in and around a 3rd grade level? Preferably short?

UPDATE: I should also mention that plucky heroines need not apply. Not that I personally have a problem, but those stories never seem to work.

We have two reactions. First, kudos to this bright young teacher for his diligence and awareness. We note three things. He’s aware of his students’ independent reading levels; he knows reading level is not a precise measure; and he’s been paying attention to the types of stories his students seem to respond to. Ah yes—we remember it well.

Much more significantly, though, the fact that this teacher must conduct this search speaks to the apparent malfeasance of the school system in which he’s working. We all have known—have known for decades—that many kids in low-income schools are reading years below “grade level.” And we all have known, for decades, that teachers of such kids have problems finding books they can read and understand. Good grief! We ourselves conducted a year-long study of this problem in the late 1970s; we discussed our findings, in some detail, in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1982! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/05.) And yet, decades later, in the year 2006, it still is left to this young teacher to search about for reading materials his struggling students can actually use. When on earth will the nation’s school systems decide to take the lead in this search?

Again, let’s use a key word here. This post provides evidence of a troubling matter—malfeasance in the 408. Why isn’t this teacher’s classroom spilling with books his struggling students can read? Why is it left to him to conduct this search for such materials? We’ll continue to explore this topic (and others) as the new year rolls along. And by the way: When have you read about this problem in posts from our education elites? Do you get the feeling that some of our public ed savants haven’t sat in those little chairs lately?

KEEPING PACE IN THE 404: Back then, he even dealt with ol’ Zell! In 1992, Zell Miller—then the governor of Georgia—suggested that the state buy new textbooks every seven years, not every five. A HOWLER reader, Jerry Pace, disagreed with Miller’s proposal, as did other members of the state board of education. In real time, Betsy White recorded the flap for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution:

WHITE (3/12/92): In other business Wednesday, board members decried Gov. Zell Miller's plan to buy new textbooks every seven years instead of five.

"I cannot see in my mind how we can go with a seven-year cycle," said DeKalb County businesswoman Barbara King, noting that textbooks grow worn and out-of-date during an extra two years of use...

A seven-year cycle would mean Georgia would buy textbooks for its schoolchildren less often than any other state in the nation, said state textbook coordinator Jerry Pace.

"I have a severe problem with Georgia leading the nation...in the wrong way," said Henry County developer J. T. Williams.

Who was right? We simply can’t say. But Pace, the former Georgia textbook czar, e-mailed us last week about the problem of readable textbooks. Here was his first missive:
E-MAIL (1/7/06): Regarding your January 6 article: I coordinated textbook adoption in the state of Georgia for about eight years. In my experience (and things may have changed recently, though I doubt it) the textbooks produced for low-level learners were all abysmal. They had black-and-white graphics and uninspired layouts. The writing styles (of course, this is true for most textbooks) were dull and repetitive. There was nothing in them to engage the students or to interest them in even opening the books, no less read them.

The publishers would say that they don't sell enough of these books to warrant spending enough to produce anything better. As a result, the books are the last thing to engage students who need everything they can get to become interested in learning. My guess is that the non-print materials being produced for these students are also bottom-of-the-line.
Jerry Pace

We e-mailed Pace—and Pace told more:
SECOND E-MAIL: I will do a little research and get you the names of the publishers who specialize in these materials. Some of the big five also have subsidiary lines for low-level learners. One caution, I have been retired for 10 years. It may be that things have improved—though I doubt it. The last time I talked to a sales rep, he said that many companies were hurting because they're spending so much money on freebies to give systems who adopt their textbooks and my guess is that they are still concentrating on the mainline stuff.
After speaking to a friend, Pace expanded on his comments. His friend’s comments suggested that things really might have improved—at least regarding what was available:
THIRD E-MAIL: Last night I spoke to a friend who teaches lower-level students and she was actually complimentary about the textbooks. So things may have changed over the past 10 years. She teaches reading and said that the books used well-known authors and the kids liked them. My memories were of the social studies texts which were fact, fact, fact written in a dreary, repetitive subject-predicate-object style. I have found web sites for two of the publishers that specialize in books for low-level learners: Globe/Fearon, which is part of the Pearson Group, and American Guidance Service.

I will continue my searching. Go ahead and use my e-mail if you want. If I am wrong, it may get you some responses that will give you better information.

There are, of course, two questions involved here. First, to what extent are readable textbooks and supplementary materials actually being published? Second, and more important: To what extent are such materials actually being used in schools? Pace’s friend suggests that some current materials may be better than the ones Pace recalls. But if such materials really exist, are they being purchased and used? In our experience (first- and second-hand), school systems are often inclined to overstate the performance levels of their students. For this—and for other political reasons—systems may not rush to put such materials into teachers’ hands. Result? Young teachers in the 408 are forced to search about for books their students can actually use. Incredible! Thirty years after we conducted this search, this search is conducted still.

When we taught, the lack of readable books (and appropriate instructional programs) dogged every hour of every school day. What’s going on in our schools today? We hope teachers in all the codes—and people like Pace—can help as we try to find out.

P.S. Brain cramp from Thursday! Steinbeck, not Faulkner, made the film, The Forgotten Village. You know what to do—just click here.