Kate Gerson: Her Rhetoric vs. Her Research

Last Friday, Kate Gerson spoke at the first regional conference in New York devoted to Common Core at Roberson Museum in Binghamton, NY. Her hour presentation covered a variety of topics, including the shifts in thinking, both for ELA and Math, as wells as ELLs and addressing the needs of all the students in a classroom. As I expected, her presentation was thoughtful, and I don’t wish to take issue with each of her points here. But I do think her overall message falls short of her intent, and her research only supports this assumption.

Gerson’s rhetoric doesn’t represent a balanced curriculum, which is what the research she presented on Friday morning supports.  Gerson presented pertinent research in reading, citing Adams’s 2010 article in American Educator, which claims that “if students read several texts on a single topic,”  then this will allow students to “be ready for texts of greater complexity” (p. 9). Gerson made this easy for us, “a kid who reads a lot about sharks gets better at reading about sharks.” More important, she notes that those skills are transferrable. Gerson’s power point slide accompanied this with research-based approaches to reading that included strategies grounded in both intensive and extensive reading methods. 

However, her mantra, and the one from David Coleman and NYSED, is “less texts; more depth.”  This repeated statement along with modules from the state that spend days on a single text, and Coleman claiming teachers should spend 3 days on two paragraphs, and you pretty much guarantee that teachers will avoid extensive reading strategies that are essential for growth in reading ability.

Research is clear on this: the more you read, the better you get. And not just for comprehension (Krashen, 2004, Power of Reading). The very first English education study done in 1927 by Nancy Coryell at Columbia’s Teachers College shows that extensively reading literature is more effective for improving analysis and evaluation than closely reading a few texts. More impressive, the results show an even greater impact on low-level students in the extensive reading classes. For my dissertation, I replicated this yearlong study and my results were identical, and, as my literature review covers, many studies in between support these findings.

I’m not arguing for an English class that only employs extensive reading. Close, intensive reading methods are important, and certainly have a place in the classroom. But we can’t forget that the intent for reading literature is to simply enjoy the experience, so we need to give students the opportunity to experience this. If we never offer these authentic experiences to students during school, then we have failed them. Voracious readers are not created through assignments that require close reading analyses. They become voracious readers by enjoying what they read, and making reading laborious every time it happens only ensures that we’ll produce a generation of nonreaders.

This all comes back to the “cult of efficiency” model for education (or as Diana Senechal more recently refers to it in, ironically, American Educator“The Cult of Success”), for which Gerson and NYSED are arguing. The thinking behind the “text dependency” derives from this obsession in today’s reform movement to make everything “accountable” and “measurable.” It seems easier to hold students accountable with “text dependent questions” than it would be to simply allow them time to read. However, there is too much literature out there on wide reading strategies, like individual reading programs, that it is not too much to ask of Gerson and NYSED to do a better job of touting them.What’s even more frustrating, though, is that Adams’s (2010) research suggests choice and wide reading (continuing with Gerson’s example, a kid who is interested in sharks should be allowed to choose books about sharks and read them extensively), so all Gerson has to do is highlight this within her presentation.

I know Gerson wants to see a balanced curriculum, and I feel confident that if we sat down to discuss all these points, then we’d agree on pretty much everything. However, I’d ask that she be more clear on this in her presentation. I’d ask that she argue for both intensive and extensive reading instead of repeating “less texts, more depth.” Her research is arguing for this balance, but that is not what her audience heard Friday morning.

McConn

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