Jim Webber (center) meets with fellow doctoral students for weekly discussion. They all read each other’s material and offer feedback: (l to r) Kate Gillen, Kim Dougherty, and Laura Smith. (Lisa Nugent, UNH Photographic Services)
Jim Webber's doctoral dissertation promises to infuse energy into the debate about educational reform
Jim Webber is a former high school English teacher who’s come back to UNH to earn his second graduate degree, a doctorate in composition. “As an experienced teacher, I had to acknowledge that I had a lot to learn,” Webber says.
His return to graduate school has coincided with major reforms in K-12 education, namely the recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by 44 states, including New Hampshire. The standards aim to raise achievement in math and literacy for students in K-12. Progress will be measured by standardized tests processed through centralized testing organizations, and results will be benchmarked internationally against high-performing countries.
Webber’s dissertation proposal, which earned him a 2011-12 graduate fellowship, has some great ideas on how to further the public discussion about these educational reforms in regards to literacy—measures of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. His approach draws on composition studies, literacy research, and rhetorical theory.
When he was a college student, Webber tutored Somali refugees. Then, his first job out of college was teaching high school English at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont.
St. Johnsbury Academy is an independent private high school that serves students from more than 50 Vermont and New Hampshire towns along with boarding students from across the nation and more than 25 countries. It is an unusually diverse educational environment that prepares students for both college and technical and trade fields.
“My first year, I taught all college-bound students,” Webber says. His assignments were ones that were familiar to him—literary analysis papers and research argument essays. After three years of teaching, he decided to earn his M.A. in literature at UNH.
“In 2005, after I had returned to teaching at the Academy, I taught a class called Technical Communication,” he recalls, noting that students in this class spent half the day in diesel truck shop, construction trades, or other vocational classes.
“I quickly learned that the kinds of writing I was accustomed to assigning were not meaningful in this class,” Webber says. “I needed to understand how these students were likely to use writing in their lives and in their professions. As a high school teacher, I was able to work with a single image of writing so long as I worked only with students like myself. When I worked with a broader range of students, I had to revise my understanding of what writing is.
“I found myself becoming more interested in writing as a rhetorical, public, and professional act. But, initially, I got interested in these issues out of necessity, not out of scholarly curiosity.”
In 2006, Webber returned to UNH for his second graduate degree, a doctorate in composition.
Just in Time to Debate
Soon after Webber returned to UNH, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative was announced.
“After reading a draft of the Common Core State Standards in 2009, I felt like it encapsulated 30 years of debate about the goals and measures of literacy education,” Webber recalls. “However it did so without acknowledging the perspectives it ignored or discounted.
“I see the CCSS as something like my early teaching self: well-intentioned but limited in understanding,” Webber says. “My interest in the CCSS now is based on my recognition that any single perspective on writing will fail to account for a range of students. My argument is that these single perspectives that claim to represent the public good need to be challenged and broadened to ensure that they mature. I’m asking the CCSS to learn the kinds of lessons I’ve learned as a teacher.”
Developed through a joint project of the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers with funding from major foundations, the first draft of the standards was written by educational consultants and testing company executives. Afterward, teachers and scholars in the relevant literacy education fields were asked for feedback. The final draft of the CCSS was approved this past June.
The literacy standards, to some extent, mandate instructional methods, many texts, and grading criteria for all of K-12. Multiple-choice tests will be used because other evaluation methods are too expensive to implement on a large scale.
Another goal of the shared standards is to make moving from one state to another easier for students educationally. With 44 states on board that goal is now seemingly underway.
If most people haven’t heard of the CCSS, it’s because as Webber notes, the standards were initiated, drafted, approved, and adopted within a fairly short timeframe. They have also ushered in a new era of education reform, one that calls for a new mode of debate.
Webber, who studies political discourse in addition to composition, concluded with characteristic enthusiasm: “I finally thought WOW—maybe there’s a dissertation in here!”
“When in Rome, do as the Greeks.”
These are the words of Webber’s favorite rhetorical theorist, Kenneth Burke. “Burke argues for a full clash of perspectives as being key to democracy,” Webber says. “In order to have depth of understanding, everyone has to speak up.”
For Webber, and many others, the lack of substantive input into the CCSS from public constituencies—especially teachers and parents—is problematic. After the standards were finalized, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) immediately asked for a revision, citing that the standards did not allow for the country’s diversity.
“As I read both the CCSS and the response from the NCTE, I kept thinking no one is speaking,” Webber says. “There are no voices. Where’s the public in all of this?”
But, Webber sees the need for another kind of approach to the debate: “I propose that the NCTE invite public inquiry in addition to mounting a professional critique into the CCSS,” Webber says. “I think when public audiences ask basic questions about the standards, we will see greater public knowledge, understandings, and critiques.”
Recently, Webber and fellow graduate student Maja Wilson tested this hypothesis. They conducted a small study on grading in Linda Rief’s eighth-grade language class at Oyster River Middle School in Durham. Like schools all over the country, Oyster River uses an online grading system that parents can access. At any time, a parent can just go online and find out his or her student’s grade.
“We interviewed parents of students in Rief’s class,” Webber says. “We wanted to know if parents would say, ‘we just want to know the grade.’”
Here’s an excerpt from their paper:
Rief, a celebrated teacher and author, has been quietly de-emphasizing grades in her classroom for more than 30 years. Yes, she does report them, but several times a year she also sends a binder home to parents with their child’s drafts and revisions, along with her own written responses to this writing, and a letter. In the letter, Rief describes the child’s progress and challenges as a reader and writer. Rief asks parents to sign the binder and invites them to contact her with concerns or conversation.
Webber and Wilson discovered from their interviews with parents that while there was a role for online grades, “reporting wasn’t synonymous with communication.”
They found that parents had a lot to say about learning and their expectations. One parent who described herself as a “math and science person” noted: “It feels different to see the work than to see the grade.” Another said if it were a choice, she’d choose the binder and conversation over the grade.
“We learned that parents wanted more than the grade,” Webber concludes. “A simplistic conclusion about parents would be possible if we only looked at the online grading system. But once we opened the conversation with parents, we learned that their understandings of teaching and learning were complex and wouldn’t be satisfied by a one-way grade report.”
What Webber and Wilson heard were the voices of engaged parents in partnership with the teacher, talking about their children’s learning.
Webber’s adviser, Tom Newkirk, professor of English, offers this assessment: “This work is a good reminder that parents want more than a simple reduction of learning to numbers. As Albert Einstein once said, ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’”
‹‹ back to top