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

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Wood on Reading First

Part of George Wood' strong post yesterday:
. . . . The corruption and pseudo-science surrounding Reading First is bad enough. But the real problem with Reading First and similar programs is the assumption as to where decision-making authority and judgment should lie.

Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the case of Madison, WI and that district’s experience with Reading First. As reported on the front page of the New York Times, Madison was experiencing great success with their Balanced Literacy approach—blending some phonics instruction with a Whole Language approach. But consultants hired by the Department of Education pushed Madison to abandon this approach in favor of a phonics-only, commercially-produced program. When Madison refused, and provided documentation of their success, they were told that because “the city’s program lacked uniformity and relied too much on teacher judgment” it could not be recommended for Reading First funding.

The Reading Recovery program has faced a similar fate on a national scale. As a program it was specifically signaled out by DOE as “not scientifically based.” And yet, in March of this year DOE’s own What Works Clearninghouse gave Reading Recovery its highest rating (Education Week, subscription required). Responding to this, Reid Lyons, one of the architects of Reading First said he was not opposed to Reading Recovery. Rather “The question we need to ask is what level of professional development is needed to implement a program with fidelity? Can the district provide that? Can we cover the expense of the program? Is it cost-effective?”

These two cases demonstrate what is really at stake in the latest rendition of the ‘reading wars.’ Do we, on one hand, turn over schools to commercial interests who proscribe teacher behavior, standardize teaching practices, and work to be ‘cost effective’? Or, do we choose to trust teacher/parent/community judgment, invest in developing that judgment, and allow for multiple approaches to helping children learn?

This is the crux of what is wrong with so much of what is done in the name of school improvement. Misunderstanding everything that teaching and learning is about, faceless bureaucrats (until they are called before congressional panels) dictate to teachers they are to teach, to communities what is to taught, and to administrators what programs to buy. The desire is to eliminate teacher, and often parent, judgment and replace it with so-called ‘expert’ or ‘scientific’ direction.

This is a recurring dilemma in democratic societies. As Forum Convener Deborah Meier pointed out in our last newsletter, if we believe in democracy as our most special and effective form of accountability we need more, not less, local decision-making. At the same time we do not always trust each other to make good judgments. The solution, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, is not to usurp authority; rather it is to invest in helping people exercise authority wisely.

That is why we have public schools, to nurture in the young the skills and dispositions of thoughtful democratic citizenship. But they will only learn this when they are in the company of adults who demonstrate such abilities—as opposed to sitting at the feet of someone whose judgment is not to be trusted.

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