Monday Coleman levels of lit


In my first Monday Morning essay on the topic of the Common Core State Standards I neglected to cite the excellent article Michael Moore, Don Zancanellla, and Julianna Avila in Moving Critical Literacies Forward edited by Jessica Zacher and Julianna Avila. (Routledge, 2014). That article informs this and my two previous Monday Morning Essays on Common Core State Standards

David Coleman, a lead author of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards entered the lucrative Education/Corporation Complex while an employee of McKinsey and Company which serves as an adviser to businesses, governments, and institutions around the world and which the New York Times referred to as the "most prestigious consulting firm of all." (In Washington D. C. these consulting firms circle the capital on the I 495 Beltway are referred to as “Beltway Bandits.) Coleman is now president of the college board probably earning over $1 million dollars a year. He has been quoted as saying that students in our nation’s public schools need to understand that “No one gives a shit” what they think. This is so naive, so ill informed, so maddening, and so revealing of the power elite’s attitude toward working-class students and teachers in working-class schools. It is reflective of the education policy being driven by President Obama, Arne Duncan, and David Coleman, all products of elite schools who do not have between them a course in education, socio-linguistics, the sociology of education, or simply the much maligned reading and language arts methods courses taught in every teacher preparation program. Truth to tell, I am an enormous supporter of President Obama, and I have some respect for Secretary Duncan who has a good record as a social justice activist from his elementary and high school days at the University of Chicago Laboratory School (his father was a psychology professor at the university), but I find no evidence that he ever set foot in the University of Chicago Education Department, which is in the same building as the Lab School. Coleman’s remark, “No one gives a shit….” is so maddening because it ignores, more likely is ignorant of, the concepts of economic reproduction, levels of literacy, and how levels of literacy are related to social class. James Gee proposed that essay-text literacy is the highest level of literacy. It can be traced back to the 17th century when the British essayists devised ways to exploit writing for the purpose of formulating original knowledge. For a writer essay-text literacy is the ability to make an explicit assertion (topic sentence) to examine it, ferreted out the assumptions upon which it is based, and state them explicitly.


Monday Coleman levels of lit

Through this process inconsistent assumptions and implications are confronted and resolved and original conclusions are drawn. New knowledge is therefore created. For a reader essay-text literacy the ability to comprehend, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize what is read. When essay-text literacy is used by people who are conscious of their own power and self interest and who use literacy to understand, influence, and control what’s going on around them, essay-text literacy becomes powerful literacy—the literacy of actors, doers, leaders, movers, and shakers. Powerful literacy seems natural to people who are raised in affluent professional or executive elite homes. When it is used in working-class or to some extent middle-class classrooms to critique and challenge the status quo, it is called critical literacy. Essay-text literacy and powerful literacy are associated with affluent professional and executive elite communities and is demanded by most affluent professional and executive elite occupations. It is the level of literacy that gets most teaching attention in affluent professional and executive elite schools. It is, no doubt, the literacy that was demanded of David Coleman in his affluent, highbrow home, his schools, and his community. Informational literacy is the ability to read and absorb the kind of high-status knowledge that is associated with school textbooks and to write examinations and reports based on this knowledge. It is associated with middle-class communities and is demanded by most middle-class occupations where one is expected to know the answers or know where to find the answers. It is the level of literacy that gets most teaching attention in middle-class schools. I think this is the literacy Coleman was thinking of when said students need to learn that no one gives a shit what they think. Functional literacy is the ability to meet the reading and writing demands of an average person on an average day—reading USA Today and writing a personal letter or a note to leave on the kitchen table. It is associated with the kinds of employment in which working-class adults typically engage. This level of literacy is associated with working-class communities and is demanded by most working-class occupations. It is the level of literacy that gets most teaching attention in working-class schools. Here again, presumable no one gives a shit what the students think. Curriculum guides and standards (including Common Core State Standards) appear to indicate that all teachers, including teachers of working-class and middle-class students are supposed to teach essay-text literacy. In fact teachers of working-class and middle-class students they do try to teach essay-text literacy, and they are successful to varying degrees—the more poverty-stricken the students’ families the less successful, the more economically secure the students’ families, the more successful. And so they do ask students what they think and what they feel about the texts they are assigned to read and Coleman describes this as bullshit. 


Monday Coleman levels of lit

The previous discussion draws heavily on Bowels and Gintis’s the theory of economic reproduction, that is, American schools prepare working-class students to become working-class adults, middle-class students to become middle-class adults, and so on. This is from aptly titled book Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and Contradictions of Economic Life. I cannot believe that Arne Duncan with a degree in sociology from Harvard and a senior thesis entitle The Values, Aspirations and Opportunities of the Urban Underclass has not read this enormously influential book. How could he not see that economic reproduction is relevant to the discussion of standards?  We must stop ignoring the great variation in the social and economic factors that enhance or impede their students’ academic performance and punish good teachers working in very difficult circumstances. My second teaching assignment was at the Carrie Jacobs Bond Upper-Grade Center on Chicago’s South Side. The approximately 350 eighth grade students were ranked highest to lowest in terms of standardized reading test scores and divided into groups of approximately 24. That resulted in 15 cohorts, the 8-1s through the 815s. In today’s climate, the teacher who taught the 8-1s through the 8-4s would have been graded “excellent,” all of her students having met the standards. The teacher teaching the 8-11s through the 8-15s (me) would have been graded a failure, none of his students having met the standards. Both Mrs. Green (8-1 through 8-4 teacher) and I (8-11 through 8-15 teacher) were very good teachers. No one on the faculty would have said she was a better teacher than I, and they would have been thunders-struck at the idea that our teacher evaluations were based on our students’ scores on end of the year standardize reading tests. And yet, based on this kind of reasoning, teachers are fired, principals are fired, and schools are closed because their students do not meet Common Core State Standards.


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