Michelle Rhee Make summer reading lists fun and educational - The Washington PostMichelle Rhee, the so-called school reformer, is a female Gradgrind who used to run the schools in Washington, D.C.

Like Dickens’ headmaster in Hard Times, Rhee has dedicated her life to squeezing the joy out of learning. If you want to learn more about Rhee and her ilk and the damage they’ve done, please read Diane Ravitch and Nikhil Goyal as well as Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss

Now chair of of a chain of charter schools, Ms. Rhee teems with chutzpah, and the latest example is her Post essay headlined Make summer reading lists fun and educational. Who cares that excessive prep for standardized testing, a pet cause of Ms. Rhee, steals time away from more helpful pursuits such as recreational reading? The testing mania is a major reason why 15-19 year-olds in the U.S. spend just six minutes a week on reading for fun. We’ve actually gone backwards.

How to set things right? Well, for years, in accordance with The Five Laws of Library Science, I’ve advocated well-stocked national digital libraries with a variety of books matching the needs and interests of young people and others—not just serving up research materials or academic reading. That isn’t a full solution. But it would help. In fact, in the Post essay, Ms. Rhee herself acknowledges the need for the right book for the right reader: “One recent study published by Richard Allington and his colleagues demonstrated that allowing low-income students to select their own books ‘produced as much or more reading growth as attending summer school.’ And students in the very lowest income group experienced twice the reading growth they would have by attending summer school.

“As a former teacher in inner-city Baltimore,” Ms. Rhee writes, “I know that not all kids have access to books over the summer. Many educators would also agree that every student is unique, which makes it essential that young people have options and can choose books that keep them engaged. It’s important that schools, districts and community organizations work to give teachers the support they need in implementing successful summer reading programs that provide these choices.” She goes on to name two useful literacy efforts—Books for Ownership from Reading Is Fundamental, as well as the Teen Summer Reading Programs from the D.C. Public Library.

So far, so good. But then Ms. Rhee spoils the fun by ignoring the possibilities of technology for driving down the costs of books in an era when U.S. public libraries can spend just $4 per capita on content of all kinds. Instead she simply engages in a formulaic attack on technology: “In this Internet era, there’s still something powerful about opening up a physical book—slowing down and taking the time to think, reflect and learn, without the constant need to respond to a text or check your e-mail. And the ability to do that doesn’t come naturally when you’re immersed in this fast-paced, technology-driven culture of ours.” She also writes, earlier: “As a mom of two teenage girls, I see my kids constantly plugged into technology—their phones, their iPads and the computer. Summer reading is a great chance for them to take some initiative, choose a book that’s meaningful to them and unplug for a few hours.”

As if there are no “meaningful” books online now, whether the source is Project Gutenberg, Amazon or OverDrive! The challenge is to expand the number of books available to children and others, and President Obama’s recent e-book initiative for K-12 is far from enough—given the limited number of titles available by public library standards.

We also need well-prepared teachers and librarians to help students find, absorb and enjoy the right books for them. Significantly, reading from an e-book is not the same as reading from a paper book. E-book literacy is abysmal even among young people. Many, for example, complain of screen glare without knowing the slightest about solutions such as the use of light text against a dark background. Or how about a dimmer background and all-boldfaced text? What’s more, e-book-savvy students can get a feel for a novel through wise use of the search feature to keep up with the doings and misdoings of the characters. They can even engage in “slow reading,” for maximum absorption of material, by limiting the number of words per page.

But how often are students taught even the basics of e-book literacy? These are among the issues that a national digital library endowment, about which librarian Jim Duncan and I have written in Education Week, could help address. Imagine the potential of, say, cell phone book clubs.

This isn’t to say that recreational reading is the only kind students should be doing. A veteran educator named Kelly Gallagher gets it right in Readicide (Rhee-dicide?) when he argues not only for reading for fun but also for reading of heavy-duty books with due guidance from teachers. The Gallagher book would make an excellent homework assignment for Ms. Rhee.

If she can absorb the lessons there—and not just in a summer reading context but also a year-round one—I’l reconsider the Gradgrind-inspired depictions of her in the first paragraph and elsewhere. It also will help if she can can better understand the possibilities of e-books. While I’m a big advocate of public schools, I’d be the first to point out that well-stocked national digital libraries could help private and charter schools as well. So many either lack school libraries or have understocked ones. Let’s get all kids—rich or poor, in public schools or alternatives—to enjoy the benefits of recreational reading 365 days a year.


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