Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Russ Walsh, author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child
FQ: With a 45-year career in public education, can you give readers/parents an inside look at your observations when it comes to the monumental changes that have occurred in public schools?
WALSH: The most significant change in public education has been the result of a concerted campaign to ensure that the public loses trust in public school teachers, administrators and schools. This campaign, which began in 1983 with the A Nation at Risk report and has continued through both Republican and Democratic administrations through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has done the American public a great disservice. Undermining the trust we have in schools has led to over-testing, and efforts to privatize education through charter schools and vouchers. These so called “cures” only distract us from the real issues facing society, not schools, but income inequity and segregation.
FQ: Can you discuss the largest “pro” you believe has been placed in the educational system?
WALSH: It is very difficult to find pros in the current state of affairs, but I believe the one pro I see happening now is that parents are waking up to the bill of goods they are being sold by education reformers and are responding by opting out of standardized tests and questioning the motivations of reformers.
FQ: The internet is certainly the “tool” that is utilized for almost everything in this day and age. Do you believe that it is a good thing for students to study without going to the classroom? Does this cause ill effects when we speak about the social/emotional impact of young minds?
WALSH: The computer and the internet are excellent tools for the teacher and the learner and they have a role to play in all children’s education. I prefer that this tool be put in proper perspective, however. No single tool can replace the importance of students meeting with live teachers and other students as a regular part of their learning. Learning is socially constructed. Students need to learn on the internet and in the classroom. Research would indicate that all-online schools are not doing a good job of educating children.
FQ: Is there one thing that has fallen by the wayside already that, if you could, you would bring back to the educational system? Something that children truly need that has been impacted or deleted altogether?
WALSH: I would site two things: recess and read aloud. Children need daily recess to be fully functioning learners. Too many elementary schools have abandoned recess in search for higher test scores. The teachers I talk with also tell me that their administrators are discouraging daily read alouds in the classroom. Read aloud activity is vital to the literacy growth of all children and should happen daily in all classrooms.
FQ: July 9-16, the ILA (International Literacy Association) will be having their conference in Boston. I know you have a background with the organization. Can you tell us a little bit about the goal for the future in regards to getting the U.S. back on track and bringing up the literacy figures for this country?
WALSH: ILA has recently come out with a set of Frameworks for Literacy Education Reform to guide teachers and curriculum writers in developing literacy programs in the age of higher standards and standardized testing. These frameworks could be a first good step in making sure that literacy education does not fall prey to the whims of education reform zealots and politicians. In fact, the introduction says, “Effective approaches to classroom literacy instruction are always grounded in rigorous, peer-reviewed research. Not politics, not ideology, not speculation.”
FQ: (As the daughter of a librarian, I must ask this question). Reading has always been essential. What are your thoughts in regards to reading in this country and how children/teens can be helped to perhaps drop the video game controllers and get back to the book?
WALSH: When I was a child it was the television that was going to destroy reading, when my mother was a child, it was the radio, now we worry about video games, but reading continues to thrive. I suspect that reading fills some needs for children and adults that no other media can actually ever replace. That said, I think we need to be wary today because budget cuts always seem to impact libraries and librarians first. If adults do not value reading and value libraries and librarians, children will not value them. A good librarian is a literacy hero and as necessary to the school and the community as the local doctor and fire department.
FQ: In 2013, there was a debate regarding cursive handwriting being taken out of public schools. In 2015, there was a small light when it was stated that some schools would be bringing it back in to the curriculum. What are your thoughts in regards to this particular discussion?
WALSH: Like the computer and printing, cursive handwriting is a tool for the writer. I think that writers should have all the tools they can at their disposal. Therefore, I think that cursive should be taught because many students find it easier and more fluent to write in cursive. I would not want to go back to the days when I was in school spending laborious hours drawing circles to practice penmanship, however. Kids should be taught cursive in grade 3, be required to use it in grades 4 and 5 and then be granted the choice of what works best for them as a writer moving forward. Also in 5th grade we should begin teaching kids keyboarding skills. They are more likely to do most of the writing on a computer in the future, just as I do now.
FQ: If you had to give one piece of advice to a parent when it comes to the best thing to do for a child’s education, what would that be?
WALSH: The first thing I would tell a parent is that a child’s greatest ally in learning to read and write is oral language, so from a very early age children need to be talked to, included in discussions and asked for their opinions. Language develops best when children are welcomed as full participating members in family talk. The second thing I would tell parents is to make sure that children are surrounded with reading and writing material and that they have a chance to be read and write every day from the time they are born until the time they leave for college.
FQ: On the writing side of things, are you currently working on another project? If so, can you tell readers a bit about it?
WALSH: Thank you for asking. My new writing project is a book for teachers tentatively titled, The Literate Teacher: The Teacher as Literacy Practitioner, Model and Instructor. The premise of the book is that great literacy teachers are also committed to their own reading and writing and professional growth as reading and writing teachers. The book will provide advice on how to make this happen and will be filled with reading recommendations for the professional educator.
To learn more about A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.