How often do we think about how our practices influence the lives of individual students? Not the whole class, not a grade level, but each student as an individual? Education has fallen in love with data and the collection of data. Students are divided into populations and subpopulations. Computer programs gather data on each kid, track the answer to each multiple choice question, and generate a label for each student.
Reading programs tout differentiation for each student. But the only differentiation that happens is within the computer algorithm. What about the kid? What about his/her mind and heart? What about what that HUMAN needs?
Twenty years ago one human was damaged by an Accelerated Reader program. And since I gave birth to that human, I paid particular attention. Our youngest was a voracious reader from an early age. I've never seen any person more excited to start school (he was aghast the first Saturday of the first week. He was dressed, ready to go, before we got up and had coffee. He was insistent about going-even if no one else was going to be there.) He read everything, loved for us to read to him, loved books on tape, loved magazines, newspapers, and every possible form of the written word. His teachers were amazing, and they fed his curiosity and his passion.
Then came sixth grade. The school librarian, in an effort to increase reading across the school, introduced an incentive program through Accelerated Reader. Our voracious reader who read everything became hyper focused on "points." He wanted to "earn" a boom box radio. HIS TEACHER DID NOT REQUIRE ANY OF THIS. She had zero requirements related to AR. But the challenge was there, and he was competitive. He wouldn't touch any book that wasn't in the upper echelon of AR points. He read Robinson Crusoe, Little Women (he hated every word of it), and Gulliver's Travels. That last one nearly got him into trouble. He failed the AR quiz, but he was adamant that he had read every word. The librarian told him that he just didn't comprehend it. He argued, and she had enough of his insistence. Thankfully, he had sense enough to get his wonderful teacher involved, and they discovered that the AR questions he missed were over Part II of the book- a second volume that the library did not have.
He ended up earning more AR points than anyone else in the school, and near the end of the year he got his radio. And after he got it, he announced "I may never read another book as long as I live." And for a long time, he did not. For years he only read what was required in class. And his love of school was gone. He still did very well (middle school and high school valedictorian) but it was no longer a joyous endeavor. He refused to read any book that anyone-parent, teacher, or friend-recommended. By his high school years I realized that I could leave an enticing title on the table and he would look at it. But I couldn't share my joy in a book and get him to read it. Over the years he spoke of his loathing of that AR year. He said he still couldn't stand the idea of knowing the "level" of a book. And this is a "smart" kid. One who did school well. One who wasn't starting off behind anyone else.
Once he got to college, he slowly started to check in with me to get reading recommendations, and now we share thoughts about our reading and trade titles we enjoy. He's finishing his PhD at the University of Oklahoma, and he's had an article accepted for publication in the International Journal of Cardiology. He was fortunate. His bad AR experience lasted only one school year. I truly hate to think of what might have happened had he had a greater exposure. And we are both deeply resentful of those "lost" years.
Was AR to "blame" for his reading derailment? After all, the company doesn't promote using its product for grades or incentives. They don't suggest rewarding students by providing parties and field trips. They don't tell teachers to assign grades based on points or quiz grades. They don't tell teachers to punish students who fail quizzes or don't go up in reading level. They don't tell teachers to limit the choice of readers based on a "level." (I've seen EVERY ONE of these abominable practices used in conjunction with AR. And just Google "AR incentive ideas.") And I don't blame Renaissance Learning. Renaissance Learning is just a corporation doing what corporations do. Making money.
Schools and teachers who buy into the hype, into the data mining...I've got a problem there. I blame school districts that spend scarce, precious education dollars on this stupidity. School districts that are looking for instant answers, that are looking for an easy way out, that are looking for "teacher proof" programs. That have bought into the idea that someone else can do it better. I've heard "I use it properly," "MY students love the competition," "MY students love the incentives," "MY students love answering the multiple choice questions," "MY students go up two reading levels," (what is it-a video game where they "level up?") "It's just ONE tool," "I DO conference with them, but the quiz lets me know if they comprehend it." Dear heavens, one person announced that students aren't allowed to do a book talk until they pass an AR quiz over the book. And on and on. I've heard "ANYTHING can be used incorrectly" and they go on to talk about the poorly implemented use of the work of people like Donalyn Miller and Kylene Beers.
I've got a suggestion, take the THOUSANDS spent on AR every year and send your teachers to quality training by Miller, Beers, Robert Probst, Penny Kittle, Mary Howard, Linda Rief, Pernille Ripp or a host of others. And if they still don't implement those ideas well, SEND THEM AGAIN. Or have them work with mentor teachers who do implement those ideas well. Let's work together and turn our kids into readers-not data points.