Education Opinion

Lowering the Bar

By Donalyn Miller — November 19, 2008 3 min read
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I have radar for kids that read a lot. Kids who read while walking down the hall—noses buried in The Odyssey or The Warrior Heir, kids who pester our librarian daily for the latest sequel in a beloved series, kids who lug books to the principal’s office, the bus line, or the lunchroom— I see avid readers everywhere. Perhaps I recognize kindred spirits, readers for whom books are a natural extension of themselves and who cannot spend a day without reading. I was this kind of reader in school. You might recognize readers like this in your own classrooms. Just look for the kids whose heads are bowed covertly reading a book propped open inside their desks, even when you are teaching. I imagine many of you are gifted readers just like me—finding true self-actualization in a career path that feeds your need to read.

I often wonder how teachers meet the needs of gifted readers and writers in our current high-stakes testing world. The research (hey, it’s all about the research these days) indicates that offering appropriate educational opportunities for the most capable students in our schools is not a priority. According to the June 2008 report, High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that while our country’s lowest-performing students have made academic gains since the introduction of accountability systems, the performance of our country’s highest achieving students has remained static (in both reading and math). When researchers polled teachers about the instructional attention given to students at their schools, 60 percent of respondents admitted that low-performing students were a “top priority” at their schools, while only 23 percent believed that academically advanced students were given much attention. It seems that while raising the academic bar for struggling students, we lowered it for many gifted ones.

Whole class novel units that last two months, endless test-preparation drill, and grade-level vocabulary and spelling lists are common instructional practices in many reading classrooms. This lack of challenge for gifted language arts students prevents them from achieving their potential and denies the reading experiences and interests of students who mastered class material long ago.

The fact is—if you don’t use it, you lose it. I see advanced readers cart around books that are too easy for them. Left without any support for making more appropriate reading choices, they don’t know how to select reading material. Shockingly, some gifted readers lose their interest in reading altogether. Why read if the only books you have to choose from are babyish and predictable? Why endure another book report?

Many gifted readers self-educate themselves through books. Power reading is the only way these kids can still feed their brains. These kids are hungry to learn, yet receive so little real challenge from their coursework in school. Books become their university.

Some gifted readers survive years of meaningless reading instruction by developing split-personalities (I call them underground readers.) with one reading identity for school and one for the rest of their lives. Consider these kids the Clark Kents of the reading world—mild-mannered and compliant in our classes—these students breeze through assignments and pull their own books out of their desks when they finish. Too bad these gifted readers cannot fly until the school day ends.

Last week, I attended our state’s gifted and talented conference, eagerly searching for some fresh ideas to keep my gifted readers challenged and engaged. The program sessions disappointed me. Although the math and science offerings embraced concepts like compacting and acceleration, so many of the sessions for gifted readers were simply enrichment and fun activities—more language arts and crafts. My gifted readers would rather read and discuss Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf than make another diorama.

While strong national support exists for fostering the talents of gifted math and science students, it seems we need an educational movement that develops the talents of verbally-gifted people. Look no farther than the oratory power of our present-elect and see the amazing potential of one who possesses a talent for words.

There are students in our classes right now who read a book a day (and comprehend it), invent their own words, debate better than adults, or write books in their free time. How will we advance their educations tomorrow morning?

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.