Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thankfully …and no thanks

Onward! 4LAKids
4LAKids: Sunday 25•Nov•2012 Thanksgiving Break
In This Issue:
 •  LAO REPORT: THE 2013-14 BUDGET: California’s Fiscal Outlook
 •  HIGHLIGHTS, LOWLIGHTS & THE NEWS THAT DOESN'T FIT: The Rest (but not necessarily the best) of the Stories from Other Sources
 •  EVENTS: Coming up next week...
 •  What can YOU do?

Featured Links:
 •  OUR CHILDREN, OUR FUTURE: What will California schoolchildren, your school district and YOUR School get when the initiative passes?
 •  Follow 4 LAKids on Twitter - or get instant updates via text message by texting
 •  4LAKids Anthology: All the Past Issues, solved, resolved and unsolved!
 •  4LAKidsNews: a compendium of recent items of interest - news stories, scurrilous rumors, links, academic papers, rants and amusing anecdotes, etc.
“I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks, and ever thanks. And oft good turns
Are shuffled off with such uncurrent pay.
But were my worth as is my conscience, firm,
You should find better dealing. What’s to do?”

Shakespeare’s Sebastian in Twelfth Night gives his thanks and admits that words are cheap – but he has no better to give. I hope the Bard intended a bit of irony amongst the pentameter – he was paid for his words and they have proved golden.

If teaching is a thankless job as Warren Fletcher claims, let me thank each and every one of you who ply the craft and tread the boards and work the art – and the magic – of the trade. We cannot ever pay you enough – and I don’t see much sentiment in D.C. or Sacramento or Beaudry to correct that …just chin music. Eventually we will pay you more, “But were my worth as is my conscience, firm, you should find better dealing.” …but never enough.

But we should heap upon you honor and respect and we don’t.

If you administer or support the work – whether in the office or the classroom or the in cafeteria or in the library or on the playground or driving a bus or filling forms or in a cubicle …or voting yea or nay you too are doing God’s work. Thank you.

If you are a parent stop reading this and go hug your child, Read a book together. Convince your child to thank a teacher. And thank you!

If you are a volunteer: Thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks. And oft good turns are shuffled off with such uncurrent pay.

And if you are a student, please thank a teacher. It will confuse and embarrass them and they won’t know what to think or say. And you will have seized the teachable moment and wrestled that rascal to the ground!

Thank you everyone for reading thus far. I’m almost done.

Thanksgiving is about The Table, groaning with the harvest bounty. We gather together as family – the most important and complicated and continuous unit of civilized existence – all tangled in history and drama and DNA. If we are lucky enough we gather with friends – and if we are even luckier (and truer to the first Thanksgiving): with strangers – usually around the Dining Room Table. We celebrate the bounty and the gift of family and friendship with our family and friends and the strangers amongst us. And in so doing none are strangers; all are family.

Here is a poem about an even more apt and more workaday metaphor:

In "Perhaps the World Ends Here," Joy Harjo – a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Cherokee descent delves into what really happens around the kitchen table:
... It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh at us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
From "The Hungry Ear: [an anthology of] Poems of Food and Drink”


Today’s LA TIMES EDITORIAL: GIVE CHARTER SCHOOLS THEIR DUE [ ] agrees with The Times long held belief that Charter Schools are the magic bullet that solves the ills of LAUSD and attacks Boardmember Steve Zimmer for his questioning of what Leonard Cohen called ‘the beauty of their weapon’.

The Times gushes about the success of charter schools – which it accepts on faith rather than on evidence – and concedes: “No one should deny that some of Zimmer's concerns about charter schools are justified. Many of L.A. Unified's charters are strong performers, but some aren't very good. In general, the schools have not enrolled a fair share of special-education students. Some parents have complained that their children who did poorly in charters were "counseled out" — or simply thrown out — by administrators who suggested they return to traditional public schools. That helped the charters' test scores look better, but it didn't help struggling students. The district has done too little to investigate such practices; it also should conduct a meaningful examination of charter high schools' four-year graduation rates, which aren't always impressive. And the school board has at times been too willing to renew the charters of schools with subpar test scores.”

Wait a minute. How many are the “Many” who are strong perfumers? How many are “Some” that are poor performers? We don’t know, because as the paragraph continues – the numbers and the scores and the rates are either suspect or unimpressive. Or, quoting The Times: “Subpar”.

“In General”, the Times continues, charters have violated the law.

The District “has done too little to investigate such practices…” The Times says – but when Mr. Zimmer suggests they do investigate The Times Editorial Board wraps itself in its historic anti-union bias and attacks him with all the vitriol they can load into their soy based ink.

One must remember that the Charter Law requires – REQUIRES – that charter schools DO BETTER regular public schools; that’s the price they pay for being charter schools.

Charters must maintain a “B” Average or better or they get kicked out of the program; it’s as simple as that! In exchange for waiver of certain rules , regulations and district adminsitrivia charter schools are supposed to be MORE (not less) accountable.

And that, Gentle Reader, isn’t happening.

¡Onward/Adelante! - smf

Postscript: Godspeed to Larry Hagman (1931-2012), whose Larry Hagman Foundation supports and promotes creative arts education for economically disadvantaged children in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.


11/24/2012 03:53:41 PM PST :: Melanie Perez wishes she could have played the saxophone. Octavio Reyes would have liked to take a computer science class.

Both students at San Pedro High School say they can't sign up for these electives because, at some point in their school careers, they were stuck having to take remedial classes for English learners - even though both speak English fluently and have performed reasonably well on English tests.

"I actually feel retarded when (the teacher) says, `What is this (word)?' and it's a carrot," Octavio said. "It's pointless. I already know it, and I don't think it helps me."

Their complaints highlight a wider problem that, although little known, could be among the state's most pressing educational challenges: Students stuck for years in the state's remedial programs for English learners are often denied the opportunity to take enriching electives or the more rigorous courses required for getting into college.

It's a problem that has been attracting more attention of late, leading to a raft of reforms that some say could make California a leader in the field - which would be fitting, considering a third of the nation's English learners attend California public schools.

But as is, the state is failing many of these students.


Numbering 1.4 million, English learners make up nearly a quarter of all K-12 students in the state - and nearly 40 percent of all California's kindergartners. One in four quits school - the worst dropout rate of any demographic group in California. Only 60 percent graduate high school within four years.

Several pieces of legislation addressing this mammoth bloc of at-risk students were signed in late September by Gov. Jerry Brown. All take effect Jan. 1.

One, authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell, seeks to prevent English learners from languishing in the system for years by compelling the state Department of Education to reveal the number of "long-term English learners" at each school district.

Another, by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will force the state to come up with more consistent guidelines for deeming kids fluent. The implication here is that many students are unnecessarily stuck in remedial classes when their command of the English language is sufficient.

A third bill, also by Padilla, takes school districts to task for banking state money earmarked for getting these students on track.

School officials chafe at some of these characterizations, in particular that last one, especially at a time when schools are suffering from historic shortages of state funding.
Meanwhile, advocates of English learners say large numbers of them - for whatever reason - get stuck in the system, and that, at some point, their very status as English learners seems to inhibit their chances for success.

"If kids haven't been reclassified (as fluent) by fifth grade, they have pretty much been tracked, and are not going to be able to go to college," said Oscar Cruz, the head of Families in Schools, a nonprofit advocate for parents of low-income and minority families. "They're on a path where they're just taking remedial classes."

Lara's AB 2193 would create a consistent definition for long-term English learners and force school districts to not only keep track of such students, but also students at risk of earning the distinction.

Studies show that some 60 percent of English learners in grades 6-12 are considered long term, meaning they've carried the label for at least six years.

Padilla's SB 1108 - co-authored by Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton - aims to create a more consistent set of requirements for deeming students academically fluent. As is, the state provides minimum guidelines, but allows school districts to tack on additional stipulations, arguably creating more barriers to reclassification.

"The criteria are just all over the map," Padilla said, adding that he would prefer to see districts err on the side of removing the label.

Padilla's other bill, SB 754, is a transparency measure that seeks to pressure individual school districts out of the practice of stashing the extra money they receive to provide services for English learners. Specifically, it would compel them to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn't been spent.

School districts generally receive $300 to $500 a year in state dollars for every English learner they designate, but they don't spend it all. (This amount doesn't include the additional funds they receive from the federal government.)

In 2010-11, the state gave California's school districts a total of $915 million for helping English learners and low-income students. Known as the "Economic Impact Aid" fund, it lumps the two allocations together. By year's end, the school districts' combined ending balance from this fund amounted to $382 million - or 42 percent of the annual apportionment.

The 2011 carryover for LAUSD alone was $61.5 million, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office.

That money, Padilla said, "should be spent; it should not be hoarded."


Octavio is a good example of a student who could be fluent by state standards, but isn't due to an unique additional local requirement.

A senior at San Pedro High, Octavio still bears the "English learner" label even though he cleared the state-set hurdles for fluency. These include passage of an exam taken annually by English learners until they pass, and demonstrating a basic level of proficiency on standardized tests.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District also has another requirement for shedding the label: Students must maintain at least a C average in their English classes. That has been Octavio's hang-up.

"It was mostly because I didn't try," said Octavio, who has been an English learner since emigrating from Mexico at age 10. "I would get bored."

Other districts have their own tack-on requirements. The K-8 Hawthorne School District requires its English learners to pass a written exam. In Torrance, English learners must score higher on standardized English tests than what the state requires.

As for Melanie, who is a freshman at San Pedro High, she has been successfully reclassified as fluent but says the year and a half spent taking remedial English classes at Dana Middle School in San Pedro denied her the ability to take desired electives, such as band. While she was born in the United States, many other students were immigrants.

"There were times that I didn't care to do my work," she said. "I was like, `Why am I in this class if I know English?"'


Even as several pieces of English-learner legislation have become law statewide, LAUSD has its own new initiative.

The nation's second-largest school system has more English learners than any other district - nearly 31 percent of its 650,000 students. Officials estimate that nearly 40 percent of those are considered long term, unable to attain proficiency after five years in a program.

LAUSD's strategy for teaching English to these students is detailed in its 150-page master plan, which was overhauled last year after a federal civil rights investigation found that English learners weren't getting the same quality education as other students in the district.

Under the new plan, the district is more closely monitoring the progress of its English learners, with tutoring and other forms of intervention available to those struggling with either language or academic lessons.

"The goal is to increase proficiency in elementary grades, before students get to middle and high school and get mired in the long-term category," said Hilda Maldonado, director of LAUSD's Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

"We're using more of the district's data system to be able to monitor the progress and achievement of our students."

The district also wants to remove the roadblocks impeding students who can't test out of the English-learner programs despite their obvious fluency. Beginning next year, Maldonado said, teachers will be assessing middle and high school students with the goal of getting students reclassified even if they can't hit the academic benchmarks on district tests.


Statewide, there is an apparent disconnect between the number of English learners who demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests and the number of students who matriculate out of the English learner program.

In 2010-11, nearly 40 percent of California's English learners made the grade in English on standardized tests, but only 11 percent were reclassified as fluent, according to the California Department of Education.

A South Bay district with a lower-than-average reclassification rate is the K-8 Hawthorne School District. Here, just 8 percent of English learners were deemed fluent in 2010-11, even though nearly 50 percent scored proficient or better on standardized English tests.

Hawthorne schools Superintendent Helen Morgan - whose schools are generally strong performers given their high rates of low-income families - makes no apologies for setting the bar high for reclassification.

"In our instance, the writing component is more of a hurdle, but we want to make sure they are good writers before we drop all the support," she said.


Torrance Unified seems to do a better-than-average job of getting students out of the program in a timely fashion.

For instance, in 2010-11, the latest data available, while just 11 percent of English learners in California were reclassified as fluent, in Torrance the figure was 14.4 percent.

Kati Krumpe, the district's director of state and federal programs, says reclassified students in Torrance tend to outperform many of their peers who were never in the English learner program.

"I think that shows that the program is working," she said.

As for the 39-year-old Padilla, he himself was an English learner as an elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That was before California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, thereby ending mandatory bilingual education.

"My textbooks in first grade were 100 percent in Spanish," he said.

He is the rare example of an English learner who thrived, eventually earning a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.

Taking a step back, Padilla says the crux of the problem is a lack of urgency on this topic.

"English learners are a segment of the population that continues to grow," he said. "If the trend is on the way up, and the educational attainment level of English learners continues to stagnate, I think we have a perfect storm for a crisis. And many would say the crisis is already here."


State Sen. Alex Padilla faults some school districts for banking money they receive from the state meant for English learners and low-income students. This year he passed a bill (SB 754) that seeks to provide more transparency with these funds.

Beginning Jan. 1, local school districts will be required to prominently post online their budgets and carryovers in these accounts, as well as explain why the money hasn’t been spent.

To find out how much money your local school district received in 2010-11 for these groups -- and the size of its reserve -- simply type the name of the district in the field.

The funds in question are known as “Economic Impact Aid,” or – as this chart says – EIA funds. The “reserve balance” is the unspent amount. The 2010-11 EIA entitlement is the amount those districts received that year.

EIA restricted reserve balance as of June 30, 2006 $20,975,555
EIA restricted reserve balance as of June 30, 2007 $95,858,247
EIA restricted reserve balance as of June 30, 2008 $57,040,977
EIA restricted reserve balance as of June 30, 2009 $70,760,344
EIA restricted reserve balance as of June 30, 2010 $70,624,847
EIA restricted reserve balance as of June 30, 2011 $61,561,321

2010 - 2011 EIA entitlement $136,039,688
June 2011 reserve balance as % of 2010-11 entitlement 45.3%
EIA eligible pupils 2010-11 441,231
EIA per pupil rate 308.32

Staff Writer Barbara Jones contributed to this report.

Other School Districts EIA/ESL info available here


By Sandy Banks, LA Times columnist |

November 23, 2012, 4:39 p.m. :: It's not exactly where you might expect to find an example of public school success:

The campus is in a former flower mart, across the street from the Greyhound station and a short walk from skid row in an industrial area of downtown Los Angeles.

But inside the Para Los Niños Charter School, children defined by disadvantage are proving skeptics wrong.

I paid a visit to the school last month, after I'd mentioned it in a column about an effort by parents in nearby South Park to create a new Metro Charter school for children living in the upscale neighborhoods near LA Live downtown.

Some of those parents seem to have written off nearby Para Los Niños; it's too poor, too Latino, too linguistically deprived to offer their children enough of a challenge. They are business owners, architects, technology creators, accountants — not elitists, just upscale high-achievers worried that their dreams and the school's aspirations wouldn't be a good fit.

Those are the kinds of concerns on many middle-class minds. Para Los Niños is a magnified version of a city school system that gets less diverse and more economically challenged with every passing year.

Of the 410 students on Para Los Ninos' elementary campus, 99% are Latino and 96% hail from low-income families. More than two-thirds of the students are not fluent in English.

But the school is proving that demographics are not destiny.

Its test scores are on par with many suburban public schools. And its curriculum relies on the sort of child-centered approach favored by progressive private schools with five-figure tuition.

Admission is by lottery, and the school has twice as many applications as open spots some years. Most students live in the garment district, but others come from as far away as Lennox and Long Beach.

"If you had our parents in a room and asked how many want their kids to go to college, 100% would raise their hands," Principal Titus Campos told me.

Still, Campos knows that the school's student-body profile turns some parents off. "We hear it all the time," he said.

When they try to recruit in other neighborhoods to diversify enrollment, "the question asked most is 'Where do the children come from? Are they all Latino?'"

Does that matter?, I asked sixth-grader Ron Bellamy. He's biracial but looks black and didn't speak Spanish when he came to Para Los Niños four years ago.

"It was perplexing at first," Ron admitted. "But there was always somebody around to translate." Most of his classmates spoke both Spanish and English. Instruction after second grade is in English only.

What mattered most to Ron was not skin color or language but the well-stocked library, lively music classes and elaborate art projects, he said. "My other school didn't have any of that."

What would he say to parents worried that their non-Latino children wouldn't fit? "They'd get along just like all of us. We don't put people in groups," he said. "We don't judge by race."


Social issues are part of the calculus that parents use to choose. But what happens in the classroom is what matters most. And the reality of Para Los Niños seems to me surprisingly close to the prospective Metro Charter's goals:

The focus is on learning by doing and fostering personal growth. Teachers aren't required to "teach to the test" but to reward curiosity and nurture creative thinking.

And the school is beautiful inside, with student collaborations — giant murals, sculptures and collages — lining the hallways. It looks more like a hipster art museum than an elementary campus with skid row roots.

The charter was launched in 2002 by Para Los Niños, a 30-year-old nonprofit that pioneered social service programs for neglected children whose homeless parents were trapped by economics on skid row.

The neighborhood is students' laboratory and their lives the canvas for their discoveries. They take city buses to Disney Concert Hall, hike historic Sixth Street Bridge, study the architecture of Union Station and the history of Little Tokyo.

The school has an artist-in-residence and a team of visiting architects. Students practice math by designing their own playground, study anatomy by constructing a "human" body, learn about the ocean by creating an image out of glass beads, chicken wire and fabric scraps.

It may not be glamorous or high-tech, but the students I met and projects I saw make me believe it works.


My column on the campaign for a new Metro Charter drew applause for parents' efforts to create a downtown school that newcomers can shape through high standards.

But it also drew complaints about "boutique charters" that promote isolation and shortchange "impoverished children of color."

Para Los Niños Charter shows the choice is not so stark.

By using art as a forum for the study of math, science and history, Para Los Niños keeps its students from falling behind while they are still learning English.

That embodies the promise of the tax-funded charter movement: allowing unconventional schools to experiment in ways that will ultimately offer public school systems road-tested measures for raising student achievement.

Para Los Niños Charter works because it brings parents into the process, trusts its team to innovate and isn't hamstrung by district rigidity or by union rules. Teachers create their own lesson plans and can go where students' interests lead; the cafeteria ladies who serve the lunches also clean the tables after students eat.

And the principal is not above mopping up a sick child's vomit, or afraid to receive a second-grader's hug.

"The focus here," Campos said, "is on everybody doing whatever it takes to meet the children's needs."

That may not make it right for every family, but it does make the campus a model of what a charter should be:

Not just a refuge for students fleeing unsafe, uncomfortable or underachieving schools, but a testing ground for new ways of teaching that broaden children's possibilities.

••smf’s 2¢: The PLN model of serving severely impacted inner-city children is exemplary; the kind of thing that charter schools can do in “out-neighborhood-ing” neighborhood schools – rather than out-competing the LAUSD big-box model with another corporate model. Thank you Sandy Banks for recognizing that PLN is a testing ground for everyone to do better - though I wish you wouldn’t fall into the trap of reporting things like the alternative being “unsafe, uncomfortable or underachieving schools”. Children are at their safest when they are in school, whether in the ‘hood or in Westwood or at PLN. They are probably safer in traditional District public schools because most charter schools are not built to the rigorous California Field Act seismic standards or Green Oaks fire safety standards.

LAO REPORT: THE 2013-14 BUDGET: California’s Fiscal Outlook
…your rose-colored-glasses are located in a compartment under the center armrest.

From the 11/20 CCSA email to their members:

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released its annual Fiscal Outlook last week, updating its projections on the state’s fiscal situation. With the passage of Propositions 30 and 39, the LAO reports that “the budget situation has improved sharply” and that we can expect increases to Proposition 98 education funding in both the current year and in 2013-14, with steady increases of about $3 billion per year thereafter.

The LAO suggests that this new funding could be used to begin paying off maintenance factor obligations and deferrals, provide Cost of Living Adjustments and equalize funding. As a reminder, the Governor will issue his budget plan for 2013-14 in mid-January 2013.

[link to complete report follows]


The state’s economic recovery, prior budget cuts, and the additional, temporary taxes provided by Proposition 30 have combined to bring California to a promising moment: the possible end of a decade of acute state budget challenges.

Our economic and budgetary forecast indicates that California’s leaders face a dramaticallysmaller budget problem in 2013-14 compared to recent years. Furthermore, assuming steadyeconomic growth and restraint in augmenting current program funding levels, there is a strong possibility of multibillion-dollar operating surpluses within a few years.


Projected $1.9 Billion Budget Problem to Be Addressed by June 2013. The 2012-13 budget assumed a year-end reserve of $948 million. Our forecast now projects the General Fund ending 2012-13 with a $943 million deficit, due to the net impact of (1) $625 million of lower revenues in 2011-12 and 2012-13 combined, (2) $2.7 billion in higher expenditures (including $1.8 billion in lower-than-budgeted savings related to the dissolution of redevelopment agencies), and (3) an assumed $1.4 billion positive adjustment in the 2010-11 ending budgetary fund balance. We also expect that the state faces a $936 million operating deficit under current policies in 2013-14. These estimates mean that the new Legislature and the Governor will need to address a $1.9 billion budget problem in order to pass a balanced budget by June 2013 for the next fiscal year.

Surpluses Projected Over the Next Few Years. Based on current law and our economic forecast, expenditures are projected to grow less rapidly than revenues. Beyond 2013-14, we therefore project growing operating surpluses through 2017-18—the end of our forecast period.

Our projections show that there could be an over $1 billion operating surplus in 2014-15, growing thereafter to an over $9 billion surplus in 2017-18. This outlook differs dramatically from the severe operating deficits we have forecast in November Fiscal Outlook reports over the past decade.


Despite Positive Outlook, Caution Is Appropriate. Our multiyear budget forecast depends on a number of key economic, policy, and budgetary assumptions. For example, we assume steady growth in the economy and stock prices. We also assume—as the state’s recent economic forecasts have—that federal officials take actions to avoid the near-term economic problems associated with the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Consistent with state law, our forecast omits cost-of-living adjustments for most state departments, the courts, universities, and state employees. The forecast also assumes no annual transfers into a state reserve account provided by Proposition 58 (2004). Changes in these assumptions could dramatically lower—or even eliminate—our projected out-year operating surpluses.

Considering Future Budget Surpluses. If, however, a steady economic recovery continues and the Legislature and the Governor keep a tight rein on state spending in the next couple of years, there is a strong likelihood that the state will have budgetary surpluses in subsequent years. The state has many choices for what to do with these surpluses. We advise the state’s leaders to begin building the reserve envisioned by Proposition 58 (2004) as soon as possible.

Beyond building a reserve, the state must develop strategies to address outstanding retirement liabilities—particularly for the teachers’ retirement system—and other liabilities. The state will also be able to selectively restore recent program cuts—particularly in Proposition 98 programs (based on steady projected growth in the minimum guarantee).

LAO REPORT: The 2013-14 Budget:California’s Fiscal Outlook

By Sara Mosle in Opinionator – Exclusive Online Commentary from the New York Times |

November 22, 2012, 7:58 pm :: Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first “Talk of the Town” story. “Talk” articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 “Talk” pieces, one after the other.

The story nicely illustrates how careful reading can advance great writing. As a schoolteacher, I offer Mr. Gladwell’s story to students struggling with expository writing as evidence that they need not labor alone. There are models out there — if only they’ll read them!

Mr. Gladwell’s tale provides a good lesson for English teachers across the country as they begin to implement the Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12.

The standards won’t take effect until 2014, but many public school systems have begun adjusting their curriculums to satisfy the new mandates. Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction.

For example, the Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” — like recipes and train schedules. Per the guidelines, 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles. Alarmed English teachers worry we’re about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, “memos, technical manuals and menus.”

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

This and similar comments have prompted the education researcher Diane Ravitch to ask, “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” and to question whether he’s trying to eliminate English literature from the classroom. “I can’t imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories,” she writes.

Sandra Stotsky, a primary author of Massachusetts’ state standards (which are credited with helping to maintain that state’s top test scores) challenges the assumption that nonfiction requires more rigor than a literary novel. One education columnist sums up the debate as a fiction versus nonfiction “smackdown.”

A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature. Even Mr. Coleman erects his case on largely dispiriting, utilitarian grounds: nonfiction may help you win the corner office but won’t necessarily nourish the soul.

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing, what Mr. Gladwell sought by ingesting “Talk of the Town” stories.

I love fiction and poetry as much as the next former English major and often despair over the quality of what passes for “informational texts,” few of which amount to narrative much less literary narrative.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.

What Tom Wolfe once said about New Journalism could be applied to most student writing. It benefits from intense reporting, immersion in a subject, imaginative scene setting, dialogue and telling details. These are the very skills most English teachers want students to develop. What’s odd is how rarely such literary nonfiction appears on English — or other class — reading lists. In addition to a biology textbook, for example, why can’t more high school students read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”?

Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond. David Coleman may dismiss self-expression. Yet he recommends authors, like the surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande, who frequently rely on personal storytelling in their reporting.

Models of narrative nonfiction are everywhere, on programs like “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” in nonfiction books for young adults, like “Sugar Changed the World” (which is about slavery and science in the pursuit of the food additive), and even in graphic nonfiction works, like “Persepolis,” which tells the story of a young woman who grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Each has a personal angle that students can relate to but is also a genuinely enthralling narrative. Adult titles, like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” already have young readers editions, and many adult general-interest works, such as Timothy Ferris’s “The Whole Shebang,” about the workings of the universe, are appropriate for advanced high-school students.

Most readily, narrative nonfiction is available every day of the week in the dwindling outlets for long-form journalism. Students are a natural (and the future) audience for serious, in-depth reporting. Skilled practitioners can demonstrate the power of facts, and provide models — topic sentence by topic sentence — for compelling narrative.

There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not “30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?” Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” on many newspaper Web sites, which have begun providing online lesson plans using articles for younger readers, and on Last year, The Atlantic compiled examples of the year’s best journalism, and The Daily Beast has its feature “Longreads.” not only has “best of” contemporary selections but also historical examples dating back decades.

If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Mr. Gladwell, they’ll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.

Sara Mosle has written about public education for The New York Times, The New Yorker and Slate, among many other publications. A member of the first Teach for America’s corps in 1990, she has taught in New York City public schools and currently teaches sixth-grade English at St. Philip’s Academy in Newark, which will become a public charter school as of September 2013. Ms. Mosle is also the author of a forthcoming book about a school explosion in 1937 in New London, Tex., which killed hundreds of children. She lives in Montclair, N.J., where her daughter attends public school.

••smf’s 2¢: “Fiction is something that never happened, not something that isn’t true”. And children should be encouraged to read everything …and discouraged from reading nothing. . Comics. Classics. Cereal boxes. Novels. Textbooks. Poetry. People Magazine and The Atlantic. The idea that children’s reading should be metered or determined by an algorithm isn’t preposterous, it’s evil.

And to say that modern non-fiction writing doesn’t have its roots in fiction not only misses the importance and contribution of Shakespeare but also of Melville and Twain and Hemingway and Fitzgerald – and certainly of Capote and Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.

The Gladwell story is about The New Yorker – a journal of exceptional content that is mostly non-fiction – but with roots in short and long form fiction; poetry, criticism and social commentary. And some fine cartoons. ‘I say it’s non-fiction and I say the hell with it.’

David Coleman has been president of the College Board for exactly one month and 25 days. He writes neither fiction nor non-fiction; he markets tests for a living. Before he went to the College Board - a nonprofit where they pay him almost $750,000 a year to promote the SAT and AP Tests and the Common Core State Standards (NY Times: “…full adoption of the standards is uncertain — and the possibility that all states would agree to use the same tests and passing scores a distant fantasy…”) Coleman was a consultant with McKinsey & Co, a global management consulting firm {“We are the trusted advisor to the world's leading businesses, governments, and institutions”] . Coleman also started a company that became a leading provider of assessment reporting and customized content for states and large school districts across the country; that company was sold to textbook publisher McGraw-Hill. | |

Follow the money/Connect the dots: Coleman is the tester-in-chief for the wonderful folks at School ®eform, LLP. He has Arne and Jeb Bush and Bill Gates and Eli Broad on his speed dial.

Coleman’s hypothetical boss’s hypothetical writing assignment is this: “Johnson: Tell me the story of the market analysis.” And Gentle
Reader - let’s be real: If Johnson can’t make the market analysis compelling+personal he’s gonna be looking for other employment after Friday.
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Scott Folsom is a parent leader in LAUSD and is Parent/Volunteer of the Year for 2010-11 for Los Angeles County. • He is Past President of Los Angeles Tenth District PTSA and represented PTA on the LAUSD Construction Bond Citizen's Oversight Committee for ten years. He is a Health Commissioner, Legislation Team member and a member of the Board of Managers of the California State PTA. He serves on numerous school district advisory and policy committees and has served as a PTA officer and governance council member at three LAUSD schools. He is the recipient of the UTLA/AFT 2009 "WHO" Gold Award for his support of education and public schools - an honor he hopes to someday deserve. • In this forum his opinions are his own and your opinions and feedback are invited. Quoted and/or cited content copyright © the original author and/or publisher. All other material copyright © 4LAKids.
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