The Fog of Literacy

Thinking About Literacy Part II


As the politics of school standardized test results continually ratchet up, the fortune of good leadership described in Thinking about Literacy Part I resonated through the lens of a conference I attended.  The topic was a proposed a switch in our state (NH) to move from one high stakes testing period per year to two, potentially creating a more vicious cycle of accountability and teaching to the test. In my view, increased standardized testing  is counterproductive to motivating reading and writing. Ultimately, the biannual testing became a choice of individual school districts.  Districts choosing to test twice though with one set of tests still had to give the annual state mandated test; meaning students in some districts were tested 3 times a year.

The conference packet handouts along with the talking heads’ presentation were striking in that many of the descriptive elements and terminology reminded me of what I might hear if I was reading about a war or battle.  Words like “deploy, powerful, targeted, attack, high-stakes, training, defend, operations, command, armed, arming., casualty, centralized control, combating, tactical, surveillance, marching, etc., showed up in phrases like:

  • Arming teachers and schools with data;
  • Armed with the right information;
  • Targeting areas of improvement;
  • Deploying the test twice a year;
  • Lessening curriculum casualties due to a once a year high-stakes test;
  • Better combating assumptions drawn from fewer tests; and
  • More reliable results for curriculum surveillance.

It was a stark reminder of the corporate/military language that is often heard in our endless news cycles. That language also helps define our school testing culture. Language creates a culture and the discourse used at the conference are examples of what subliminally drives schools away from establishing a culture of best practices. Instead, schools are being driven by a language that doesn’t align with supporting a teaching and learning culture that nurtures a love of learning that translates to a lifelong pursuit.

So how did public schools get to the point of being driven by a corporate interests rather than school-based educators driving the decision-making process that serves the best interests of students? The answer relates in part to how corporate profits have been prioritized ahead of human interests or the greater good across most sectors of our society as noted by my plastics analogy from Thinking About Literacy Part I.  Interjecting military language into the narrative of an academic conference reminded me of a new analogy to help make a point… the fog of war. The term dates back to the early 19th century and is attributed to  Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz. It resurfaced again as the title of a documentary film on Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War.

From a military perspective the fog of war is described as the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. Even those not steeped in history know in hindsight that our military and political leaders lack of situational awareness in Vietnam created confusion for troops on the ground in both direction and perspective. Their decision-making led to a devastating failure of casualties and had long-term negative impacts both to our standing abroad and our institutions at home. One could speculate that the negativity has lingered into this century in the eroding public confidence for our institutions including public schools.

Sticking with the analogy, one could say educators are caught up in a fog of literacy.  At decision points for curriculum, assessments, or reading and writing processes; we are over-saturated with corporate alternatives polluting the reading and writing spheres with materials advancing literacy in name only to push sales. For a healthy portion of corporate publishing companies, literacy has become a key word for creating and selling curriculum materials to schools.  Relative to testing, much of what’s being pushed into classrooms has little input from teachers and is created more to align with algorithms predicting higher test scores for purchased materials.  Additionally, corporate program adoption often suggests the purchase of a corporate centered professional development plan, further marginalizing teachers’ skill-sets, intuition, and most importantly, the intimate knowledge of their students.

The fog of literacy is created by some of our political  and educational leaders at the policy and district level. They too appear to lack the situational awareness that results in creating confusion for school based administrators and teachers working directly with students. Examples can be seen in the school districts choosing to test students three times a year, resulting in the establishment a teaching and learning culture that is test driven. It deflects from a culture grounded in leadership valuing inclusive input from the classroom up. It’s also counterproductive to generating outcomes that serve the greater good of teaching and learning, or nurturing learning as a lifelong activity.

How then did the core understanding of literacy get caught up in this fog… this malaise of test prep, test delivery, and analysis that’s sucked the joy from teaching and learning further diminishing a more literate(reading, writing & critical thinking) society? The short answer is it was hijacked from educators and students by the corporate world because the literacy label translates to increased profits. Business and corporate enterprises control significant shares of state and school budgets in key areas connected to test-related items ranging from textbooks to technology, and yes, The Test(s) themselves. The corporate version of literacy translated through the lens of testing continues to define us…educators, students, schools, and communities.

Culture in schools and organizations is formed through the words we choose in forming diverse relationships in learning communities. How we talk to each other or speak and relate with those to whom we teach or model our expectations is critical to the development of progressive, robust teaching and learning culture.  When we use discourse like targeting students, arming teachers with data, teaching in the trenches, etc., we’re not likely establishing a culture of student-centered teaching, intellectual curiosity, or critical thinking. Instead, the discourse at the policy levels making its way into classrooms creates passionless algorithm based curriculums that doesn’t arm or target(pun intended) students with the ideal curiosity for learning. Nor does it ignite a passion for applying what students learn to evolving interests.

My premise shared in Thinking about literacy, Part 1 was that less is more when it comes to a common understanding of literacy.  As an example, we don’t need the breakdown of 13 types of literacy promoted on The Edvocate website.  Instead, we should advocate for the inclusion of quality reading and writing opportunities into daily instruction across the curriculum…do that, as a sage department head told his staff of English language arts teachers, and the test scores will turn out just fine. Perhaps too it will move our time with students away from teaching to a test with prescriptive materials and instead shift it to reading and writing opportunities that are meaning making, reflective and cultivate critical thinking.

1 thought on “The Fog of Literacy”

  1. Pingback: Has the Word Literacy Become a Cliché in the World of Education? | Gary Tirone

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