Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Race to the Bottom: "Readicide" and Killiteracy

I feel vindicated. I coined a word a little while back to describe what I thought were wrongheaded approaches to teaching reading: "Killiteracy." Now there is an entire book by Kelly Gallagher, a high school English teacher in Anaheim, CA, that describes the phenomenon much more thoroughly and authoritatively than I could. His word for it--and the title of his book--is "readicide."

He's hoping for a dictionary entry with the following definition of his word: "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing activities found in schools."

I'm a public librarian. It's important that a public librarian not make too much noise. When I express my fondness for certain follies, it is a quiet activity. When I blog that public libraries have an important, but completely unrecognized place in education, well, I mean, c'mon. Nobody listens to the tree falling in the forest except the person standing under it.

So when I find an authoritative educator--a real, genuine high school teacher--like Gallagher saying the same things as me, and coining words to do so, just like me, well sure it's vindicating! Especially when I see that one of the goads of the Killiteracy blog--the Accelerated Reader program--gets his goat as much as mine. The motivator of AR is to earn points by reading from a pre-selected list of books and answering multiple-choice quizzes about them. Gallagher calls the quizzes "mindless" and demotivating because the "extrinsic rewards" of the point system don't develop any real interest in the books.

But Gallagher's real target is the national regime that focuses on test-taking as a measure of educational attainment. The tests themselves have no real meaning, and in order to produce successful test-takers, our schools are resorting to instructional devices and strategies that will ultimately destroy any interest in reading as an activity to be pursued in everyday life.

Here's Gallagher: "We are killing readers, and in doing so, we are moving students farther away from those skills that 'expert citizens' need to lead productive lives: creativity, common sense, wisdom, ethics, dedication, honesty, teamwork, how to win and lose, fair play, and lifelong learning. Worse, in the name of raising test scores, teachers and administrators actually encourage this movement in the wrong direction."

Movement in the wrong direction. What that means is ... hmm ... "race to the top" is really "race to the bottom"? Or as another well-known educational theorist, Yong Zhao, puts it, "race to self-destruction"? In a blog by this title (subtitled "a history lesson for education reformers") Zhao invokes the story of Easter Island's famous statues as explained by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. According to Diamond's explanation, the unintended (but at some point, surely predictable) consequences of erecting giant faces on Easter Island included social and environmental collapse.

What an irony if our system of education were to have the unintended consequence of producing a collapse in literacy! And yet that consequence, given the approach to learning that now holds sway, seems entirely predictable. Is it folly to say so? If it were only me, a public librarian, saying it, absolutely! But when a teacher and an educator say so, a library card starts to look like a pretty good thing to let a kid use every now and then.

(By the way, Gallagher's target audience is teachers, and his educational world is the school. Apparently the notion that a public library has a place in that world is every bit as much folly as ever.)

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