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Decelerated Reader

This morning at breakfast my daughter sadly eyed the book I’d gotten her for Chanukah, Alice in Quantumland. This is the sort of nerdy, unusual book I love to buy—once we’re done with it we’ll donate it to our library and hopefully they’ll make it available to other nerdy unusual kids in our community.

But why was she sad?

A book about quantum physics for kids! Featuring a girl! How could AR pass this up?

A book about quantum physics for kids! Featuring a girl! How could AR pass this up?

When you have kids who are avid readers, they run into different obstacles than the general public understands. Our children’s publishing industry is focused on “hi-lo” books—high interest, low readability. In other words, books that are very similar to the type of kids’ movies that Hollywood puts out. The producers of these books assume that:

  1. Kids don’t like to read
  2. Kids have to be enticed into reading by high concept stories
  3. Kids are terrified to come across a word they don’t understand
  4. Kids will refuse to pick up any book that’s heftier than their iPad

Problem is, there are tons of kids who don’t fit this model, but because they are “doing fine,” no one is paying them much attention.

In the past, I’ve written about two periods of childhood in which avid readers run into roadblocks (pre-K/K and tween) and also how hard it is for science-minded girls to see themselves in kids’ literature (here).

Our daughter, now that she’s doing 7th grade in school, has run into another avid reader roadblock: Accelerated Reader.

In concept, AR sounds great. Kids read books on their own, log into AR at school, take a quiz about the book*, and get credit for reading time. At the beginning of each year, teachers set AR goals for all their students. Not having much of an idea who these kids are**, they set a low goal for the semester and kids like my daughter blow through that goal in a couple of months.

You can guess what happens next: The teacher doesn’t say, wow, this child has mastered everything she needs to in the area of reading, so I’m just going to encourage her to keep reading things she loves and stop worrying about proving that she’s reading certain, approved books. Instead, the teacher says, oh, no, this child reached the goal so early, I’m going to have to set a much higher goal.

So kids like my daughter learn a lesson that perhaps the teacher didn’t mean to teach: If you enjoy something that school cares about, make sure to hide it and pretend you’re just like everyone else. If you don’t, you’ll be punished with more busywork that will keep you from doing the things you want to do.

Here’s why my daughter was sad this morning. She clearly wants to read Alice in Quantumland. But she has to meet this new, high AR goal her teacher set soon after winter break has ended.

And Alice in Quantumland is not listed in AR. That means she can’t take a quiz to prove she read it. That means if she reads it, in her words, “I’ll be reading it for no reason since I won’t get credit.”

Oh, no! Reading for no reason! This terrible impulse must be quashed!

I can never get over the irony of being someone who understands how our education system works while listening to politicians and concerned community members talking about education. They want kids to read (mine does), be inspired (mine is), and learn (can’t stop mine from doing that). Yet they push our system for more and more “accountability,” which ends up quashing any interest in reading, any inspiration the teachers might be able to uncover in their students, and any real, deep learning that can’t be proven on a standardized test.

My daughter’s at school only because she wants to be. She knows that when she complains about AR, it’s not my problem. She could be homeschooling right now like her brother is, determining her own curriculum, reading books that inspire and excite her whether or not AR thinks they’re worth reading.

But for some reason, she’s continuing on this social science experiment that she started last year. I still stand firmly behind my reasons for letting her go to school: If I believe in child-led learning, then I have to let her see this through.

But when I saw her lovingly and sadly flipping through her new book, it gave me pause. It’s the last day of school before winter break. I could just say, “Come on, let’s be homeschoolers today.” But she had her celebratory cupcakes for her Humanities class party, and she was ready to go.

“Well,” I suggested. “Perhaps you will have time during vacation to finish your AR goals and then get to this book.”

And then we went to school.

* They take the quiz to prove they actually read the book—I won’t start on my rant about how unnecessary this is if educators were given the time to really work with and get to know their students…

** Another homeschooler rant here: If teachers had fewer students, if there were more continuity in our public schools from year to year so teachers didn’t have to depend on assembly-line teaching to try to serve their students’ needs, if we didn’t think we had to have “accountability” for each and every smidgeon of learning our kids do…

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.

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11 Responses

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  1. Caitie says

    I love this post, Suki. I pulled my son from school last year after one year of 1/2 day Kindergarten. This was one of my top reasons. Just let the readers read books! He learns more through his library card than he did in school. Our education system is in a very sad place right now. Thanks for writing.

  2. Suki says

    Free the readers! Good luck with your homeschooling – Suki

  3. sharon says

    LOVE this Suki!

  4. Sue says

    Have you discussed this with your child’s teacher?

    • Suki says

      Well, this particular issue came up on the last day before school let out. But yes, in general, I do talk to her teachers about issues. But the reality is that middle school teachers often have over a hundred students, and ironing out problems for a student whose grades put her at the top of the class is usually a teacher’s last priority. What administrators and teachers don’t know, unfortunately, is the statistics behind those high-achieving students. Many of them lose interest in middle school and end up not meeting their potential or dropping out. Many become disillusioned and stop trying to do their best because the message they get is that it doesn’t matter. A single teacher can’t change this trend. The first thing we need to do is stop worrying so much about accountability, and the second thing we need to do is give teachers fewer students and more prep time. I’m not completely cynical – I do try to help her work through problems when she brings them up. But I also tell her the reality, which is that high achieving students are not her school’s – or most schools’ – priority. They are very comfortable with telling her that being bored is OK, that not getting to read what she wants is OK, that doing the same math she did last year is OK, and on and on.

  5. Sheli says

    This sums up my current feeling about AR. As a teacher I am required to use the program, but as a parent of an avid reader I tell him to just be sure he is reading and if he doesn’t make his “goal” who cares. He is in 2nd grade but has a reading level of 4.0-5.4, which is great but also excludes a lot of the books that 2nd graders like to read. He gets that sad look that you described when he gets a book “not in his level.” His point goal is higher than anyone else in his grade and higher than what I set for my 4th grade students. Last quarter he did not make his goal on time (but he did get there) and missed out on a movie and treats. Way too much stock in a subpar comprehension program.

    • Suki says

      Yikes! He missed a movie and treats because they set the bar too high? That is truly unfair. He should have picketed the movie! 🙂 I’m glad that my daughter’s school doesn’t seem to restrict her level. She just finished an adult-audience biography of a boy with Asperger’s, and it’s not even in their database. But at least when she reads novels that they assign in high school, she can get points for them.

  6. Jana says

    Another teacher who hates AR for the same reasons you have listed – I taught HS and we still HAD to use it! It gets worse… after elementary AR quickly becomes “how many pages does the book have”, rather than “how advanced the concepts may be”. Students mostly ‘read’ (watched the movie) on a simpler book (Harry Potter), rather reading something shorter, but more complex.

    I haven’t gotten the talk about it for my daughter (2nd grade), but I plan on telling her teacher that we will be boycotting.

    • Suki says

      I’m so glad to hear that you’re planning to boycott! Maybe you’ll start a movement. The problem with having a middle school student who is going to school not because she has to but because she wants to figure out the system is that she wants to do everything “right.” So although I’d love to see her boycott (and I’m sure get a lower grade as a result), I doubt she’d do it. But maybe she’ll write an editorial for the school newspaper. She just finished reading The Spark, an adult-level book, but it won’t “count” at school. Well, at least she’ll be able to relate to Kafka once she starts reading him!

  7. Sarah says

    I am also a teacher that had to use AR. Right now, my 4th grade daughter is being forced to do it as well. What she is learning is to read Berenstein Bears at school, instead of the YA fantasy that she loves, because it will get her to her points faster. We brought up our concerns to her teacher, but she refuses to have alternate assessments if a book isn’t on the list. This month, she almost missed out on the holiday movie by four points. The first time this happens, we are scheduling a conference with the principal.

    I normally don’t do that, because I am very aware of all the hoops teachers have to jump through, but when she is cruising through the same books my sophomore is reading, she shouldn’t be punished for having too high of a reading level.

    • Suki says

      Exactly – you don’t want to punish teachers for being put in a difficult position, but on the other hand, we can’t punish kids for being avid readers! Good luck!

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