"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Reading Experts Find Their Voices, Finally

Better late than never, I say. This was put up on the ARN listserv this morning:
This op ed piece will be published in the Albuquerque Journal on Tuesday, October 10.
Every Child Left Ignorant or No More Excuses

Dr. Rick Meyer, PhD Reading Professor, UNM
Dr. Kyle Shanton, Reading Professor, NMSU
Dr. Priscilla Gutierrez, Outreach Specialist
New Mexico School for the Deaf
Dr. Anne Calhoon, Reading Professor, UNM

The recently released Inspector General report regarding Reading First programs (one of the central components of No Child Left Behind, specifically directed at struggling readers) indicates favoritism, mismanagement and widespread corruption are operating at the highest levels of the Department of Education. Every person in this state who has a school aged child, grandchild, niece, nephew, or pays taxes should be outraged.

Reading First was designed to provide money to states to teach reading to students and insisted on a higher level of accountability from schools in return. But instead of providing real support to states, the Reading First program became a sham that reaped huge profits for favored publishing companies and researchers, such as CTB McGraw Hill, and the University of Oregon Center for Teaching and Learning. This last group is largely responsible for the infamous DIBELS test (a five-minute test that demands children say non words such as pag or ret, after which the children may be categorized as 'at risk'). Students are expected to read nonsense words within poorly researched phonics programs in order to get ready for the DIBELS. Children are really learning that reading can be nonsensical. Interestingly, the authors of DIBELS just happen to also sit on the "Expert Review Panel" set up by the Department of Education to approve Reading First grant applications. Little wonder that solid teaching resources or programs that teachers had used previously were now relegated to the "dirtbag" (Reading First director's word) category, in favor of programs that use scripts, carnival clickers, and stop watches. The Expert Panel made sure that accountability became nothing more than test scores that could be manipulated for their own economic and personal advantage.

Our children deserve much more than a program that teaches them reading means barking out words (or nonsense words) as fast as they can. Our children aren't automatons coming down the assembly line beltway. Deep, proficient learning and literacy take time. This requires dialogue between teachers and students, something that is crucial for students learning English. Scripted programs that treat teachers like clerks and children like cogs in a spinning gear are the least desirable instructional option we have, and yet that is what the present structure of No Child Left Behind and Reading First forces upon our schools.

The National Reading Panel's recommendations formed most of the Reading First section of No Child Left Behind. The Panel specifically cautioned against using scripted programs, recognizing their extreme limitations; and cautioned against placing too great an emphasis on phonics, stating phonics must be only a part of a balanced program. The Panel further recognized the critical role the teacher plays in guiding children towards proficient literacy, especially those students from diverse backgrounds. Teachers know their students best, and with ongoing professional development and the appropriate tools, they can teach children to read.

The corrupt officials in Reading First hijacked the Panel's words and transmuted them into an endorsement for programs such as SRA, Direct Instruction, Open Court, and the DIBELS test. All are programs that downplay the importance of the teacher, as well as the diversity of children, and allow little dialogue or deep learning to take place. All are programs that ignore the diversity of our state. Some schools entering their second year of participation in New Mexico's Reading First had to waste precious allocated money to purchase these programs.

New Mexico has one of the highest poverty levels in the entire United States. Everyone here recognizes the critical difference a quality education can make. Without question, our schools are one vehicle for change for the children in this state. And yet billions of dollars have been wasted on ineffective mandated programs that ignore the rich cultural heritage that our students represent and leave them at the lowest levels of thinking and learning, all courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education.

One of the Reading First slogans repeated over and over again was "No Excuses." We couldn't agree more. No more excuses for the lack of oversight with Reading First. No more excuses for wasting precious learning time with nonsense programs. No more excuses for phony baloney "scientifically-based" instruction or accountability. And no more excuses for blindly accepting what we KNOW is counter to best instruction for our students. Demand the best from state and federal legislators for our children. Our children are worth the effort and deserve so much more than what they are getting from the current corrupt Reading First program.

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