San Diego: Jim Cummins Demolish es NCLB ’s Ideology and Practice

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jul 27 13:41:38 UTC 2007

 Jim Cummins Demolishes NCLB's Ideology and Practice by Meteor
Blades<> Thu
Jul 26, 2007 at 11:49:56 AM PDT

Two days before Jim Cummins stood behind the podium at the annual conference
of the organization of California Teachers of Other Languages (CATESOL) in
San Diego, the place buzzed about his coming appearance. Four standing
ovations indicated that he did not disappoint.

*Jim Cummins*

No surprise. A treasured, no-nonsense voice in the world of second-language
acquisition, during the past three decades, Cummins, now a professor at the
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has touched the life of many an
English as a second language teacher, inspiring thousands with a thoroughly
grounded iconoclastic approach to the pedagogy of language. He has shattered
myths, developed new theories and concepts, promoted innovations in the
classroom, affected policy, and arguably done as much to shift the paradigm
of language instruction as Noam Chomsky 20 years earlier did to shift
scientific thought toward a paradigm of innate universal grammar.

   - Meteor Blades's diary <> :: ::

 Cummins is Canada Research Chair in Language and Literacy Development in
Multilingual Contexts at the University of Toronto and a prolific author of
books on second language learning and literacy development. His research has
focused on the nature of language proficiency and second language
acquisition with particular emphasis on the social and educational barriers
that limit academic success for culturally diverse students. Recent books
include *Literacy, Technology, and Diversity: Teaching for Success in
Changing Times, Language, Power and Pedagogy, Negotiating Identities:
Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society, and Bilingual Children's
Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education*?

In a simultaneously scathing and humorous talk, "I'm not just a coloring
person," Cummins laid out a case that what is happening now in the schools
is not science but ideology, with federal and state policies imposing a
pedagogical divide in which "poor kids get behaviorism and rich kids get
social constructionism." In practice, that means skills for the poor and
knowledge for the rich. That ideologically based approach ignores and
rejects research into the way students learn, particularly how they learn
language and how to read, he said.

Cummins challenged educational practices resulting from federal No Child
Left Behind legislation, with its emphasis on standardized tests and
consequent teaching "to the tests," saying instructional approaches now
being imposed are something that most in the audience wouldn't want their
own children to suffer. These approaches have, he said, more to do with
teaching rats than humans. He urged his audience to reclaim good instruction
with attention to the lessons of social constructionism instead of treating
students with a behaviorist approach in which, as B.F. Skinner proved, even
pigeons can be taught to play ping-pong.

"We have choices," Cummins asserted. "A lot of folks at higher levels in the
hierarchy don't want you to know that you have choices because the dominant
model of school improvement that is being inflicted in many states as part
of the No Child Left Behind reading-first approach is to impose what is
viewed as a scientifically supported approach to instruction and to wipe out
teacher choice, to make it as teacher-proof as possible."

In spite of an array of ideological and bureaucratic efforts to undermine
teachers, he said, "we always have choices. Even when we're not conscious we
have choices, even when we're teaching in constrained conditions, where our
principals, our superintendents, our administrators, our coaches, are
ensuring that we use choice in as limited way as possible, we're always
making choices." To make a positive difference under these circumstances, he
said, "We need to make the choice to reclaim our identities as educators

Comparing the research into instructional methods that work with what
actually happens today in the schools, particularly in inner cities, it is
"very clear," Cummins said, that the current approach in too many U.S.
schools is 90% ideology and 10% science. Research is ignored, misunderstood,
misinterpreted and distorted to favor that ideology.

Sprinkling the findings of researchers throughout his speech, Cummins
repeatedly pointed out that when students' identities are affirmed in the
classroom, they feel comfortable investing their identities into the
literacy activities and practices, and they learn more. When they are
encouraged to share unique personal experiences, when use of their first
language is not discouraged, when "decoding" techniques are not the end-all
and be-all of instruction, when students feel they have a voice in the
classroom and that people want to hear what they have to say, when "shared
inquiry," "critical literacy," "grand conversations" and "social justice"
are accepted parts of the teaching process, students learn better and become
engaged with their own education. "I haven't been able to find those terms
in No Child Left Behind," he said.

How does NCLB fit into the pedagogical picture?

Bilingual and English learners are now part of the accountability map.
"That's the good news. ...That's the end of the good news."

On the negative side, he lamented:

• standardized tests dominate curriculum and instruction; first language
literacy is discouraged and undervalued;
• going against extensive research into reading, the NCLB focus is primarily
on early reading (that is, "decoding");
• reading comprehension is neglected in the junior and intermediate grades,
leading to fourth grade "slump." In effect, students don't know what they
are reading;
• there is no focus on the affective sphere or student identity in reading
engagement, and for low-income and bilingual/ELL students, transmission
approaches dominate to the exclusion of transformative approaches.

One problem with the upcoming reauthorization of NCLB is that many
policymakers don't want to change and "there is a lot of resistance to
listening." In other words, it doesn't seem to matter what the researchers
who actually know something about instruction have to say.

Two causal factors underlie the assumptions behind NCLB and Reading First,
both of them profoundly flawed and contradicted by researchers.

Causal factor 1 is students' ineffective phonological awareness and phonics
instruction, which Reading First advocates seek to remedy with a
"systematic, explicit, intensive, sequential phonics instruction" and
"direct instruction (pre-teaching) of vocabulary to promote reading
comprehension." The drawback, Cummins argued, is that one of things the U.S.
National Reading Panel "showed, which has been systematically fudged and
distorted by folks who brought you Reading First, is that intensive phonics
instruction – what they *call* intensive instruction – showed no positive
effect on reading comprehension beyond the first grade for either
low-achieving or normally achieving readers. ... For low-achieving kids, for
normally achieving kids, any effects of phonics instruction washed out after
grade one. That has not been broadly advertised by the Feds."

Causal factor 2 is a lack of accountability to obtain quality control, for
which the NCLB-prescribed remedy is "tests, tests, tests."

Said Cummins, "Schooling has been reduced to the transmission of scripted
skills and facts to the exclusion of inquiry, critical literacy, and social
awareness. In schools across the country, instruction focuses relentlessly
on teaching to the test. This is particularly the case in schools in
low-income areas, which are considered most at-risk of failing to
demonstrate 'adequate yearly progress'." He cited an ESL Maryland public
schools teacher who calculated that in the 2004-2005 school-year, English
learners in a fifth-grade class took five different standardized tests, some
of them more than once. The consequences? "During the course of the year,"
the teacher wrote, "my students missed 33 days of ESL classes, or about 18%
of their English instruction due to standardized testing."

Classroom practices undertaken to deal with these causal factors are
"absolutely at variance with what the research is telling us."

Just how far off the mark the NCLB's behaviorist approach has taken us is
apparent when "many of the reading programs being funded require that all
children's literature be removed from classrooms." The rationale is that if
students are exposed to texts for which they haven't been taught the phonics
rules, they will figure out that spending so much time on such rules is
useless. Phonics instruction is important, Cummins agreed, but it should not
be done "in a mindless way" that ignores the research into its efficacy.

Cummins offered an alternative to the NCLB approach – under which more and
more inner-city schools are failing every day. That alternative is
school-based language planning which instructs along the lines of what the
research has shown. Boiled down to its essentials, Cummins said, literacy
attainment is directly related to literacy engagement. Such engagement
requires participation, and effective participation requires that student
identity is affirmed, which means first language learning should not be
discouraged because "new understandings are constructed on a foundation of
existing understandings and experiences."

His alternative focuses on a four-element approach: scaffolding meaning,
activating prior knowledge and building background knowledge, affirming
student identity and extending language in a way that uses the students'
first language.

One example of a technique for developing participation is the student
identity text – a kind of "journal" that can be written, spoken, visual,
musical or multimodal combinations of these, and which holds "a mirror up to
the student in which his or her identity is reflected back in a positive
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