Wednesday, April 23, 2014

21st Century Skills and Student Reading

Gordon Stamper, Jr.
The 21st Century Skills movement is an across-the-curriculum teaching pedagogy that has the ultimate goals of preparing students for the current job market and achieving future career success.  Two stated objectives are to improve students’ critical thinking and reading skills, and to promote creativity.  However, a recent example shows how practitioners can contradict their own goals. 
In Elgin, Illinois, School Superintendent Jose Torres and the school board are finalizing the decision to cut Reading classes from the middle school required curriculum.  Torres argued at a recent school board meeting that a second school hour could be opened up for electives.  Currently, only one hour is available for electives and English is already a required class in which reading skills units could be incorporated (Gathman, “Dozens Slam Change”).
On a news radio program, Torres also asserted that “[m]any classes in many grades focus on tales or stories” but sacrifice the reading and writing of facts needed for real world skills (Gathman, “U46’s Torres”).  School districts around the country are in agreement, feeling nonfiction should have greater emphasis in the classroom.
But even nonfiction needs compelling storytelling to engage a reader.  Many people read a biography to see how the hero/protagonist, who happens to be a real-life person, will overcome his or her obstacles and achieve success.  Instructors are continually being challenged to find real life stories engaging enough for their younger audiences.  The educational stakes are high as well in Indiana, as a sample comparison of ISTEP scores in Hammond bears out:  a 56.7% overall passing rate for Morton Elementary students, which drops to a 48% rate for Scott Middle School (Moxly and McInerny).
Too often the scapegoat for educational ills is the study of literature and those impractical liberal arts.  Many of these accusers do not realize the need for exposure to metaphor and symbolism in fiction and poetry to inspire student discussion and commentary.  Often nonfiction will lead to a “just the facts” discussion of the content and not encourage abstract thinking.  Also, students need exposure to works that are cultural touchstones.  What knowledge base for critical thinking will students have without the benefit of being exposed to the prior knowledge and wisdom that literature and more reading in general offer?
Yet, Torres may realize this.  What he may have needed was a pedagogical reason for making cuts, using the 21st Century Skills tenets as justification.  Probably, this is a financial decision at its core, a convenient way to slash the budget by RIFing (Reducing in Force) a relatively expensive group of experienced, licensed reading teachers (Gathman, “U46’s Torres”).  In the meantime, a foundational part of a student’s ability to critically read and creatively think continues to erode.
Works Cited
Gathman, Dave.  “U46’s Torres seeking to explain controversial change in middle school
            reading requirement.”  The Elgin Courier-News 17 March 2014.  Web.  22 March
---.  “Dozens slam change to middle school reading.”  The Elgin Courier-News 18 March
2014.  Web.  22 March 2014.
Moxly, Elle and Claire McInerny.  “Sortable Table:  ISTEP+ Results by Individual School.”
            StateImpact (Indiana Public Radio).  2014.  Web.  21 April 2014.

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