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

Monday, December 08, 2008

Susan Neuman's Continuing Reinvention of Her Bush Years

In an effort to move past the days when she was riding high with Reid Lyon and his urban education "cognitive decapitation" (Kozol term) team at ED's Reading First Office, Susan Neuman has taken up a PR campaign of sorts, which has included a chat with Time Magazine and occasional blog posts, even at liberal sites like HuffPo.

Dr. Neuman has even been gracious enough to share what she learned during her brief, though enthused, tenure as Assistant Secretary at ED from 2002 to 2003. In so doing, it would seem that Neuman is intent upon erasing her image as a avid supporter of the Lyon-Carnine direct instruction ideology that she had previously rejected during a career as a legitimate researcher. This is from a piece on by Andrew Brownstein that examines some of previously unknowns about Susan Neuman:
. . . .P. David Pearson, dean of the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, worked with Neuman when they served as co-directors of Michigan's Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Ability. He calls her "a first-rate researcher." But like a lot of Neuman admirers, Pearson observed a dramatic transformation after her appointment by Bush. "Boy, it was a sea change," said Pearson. "Rigor — really the illusion of rigor — rather than resources became her mantra. She was speaking out in favor of approaches she had opposed in her research. She began talking like a true believer." . . . .
Be that as it may, here is what Dr. Neuman had to say in her blog post called "Serving in DC: Been There, Done That":
. . . .Here, then, are my list of lessons learned the hard way.

1.) Don't leave educational reform to the feds. The federal bureaucracy is ill-equipped to shape reform. In my stint [Assistant Secretary of DOE 02-03], the Title I Office (the office that oversees funds aimed at helping high numbers or high percentages of poor children meet state academic standards) had some employees who were well past retirement age. Good-hearted people but not exactly the change-agent types.

May I? Just a few years ago when Susan was serving W. and Rod Paige by leading the charge for the parrot teaching/learning model being force fed by Carnine and Lyon through Reading First, Dr. Neuman was supporting change alright--changing right back to a calcified approach to reading instruction that she believed would solve the problem of too much creativity in the classroom. This is from a news article in October 2002 entitled "End Creative Teaching, Official Says," which is quoted in Elizabeth Debray's legislative history of NCLB:

Susan Neuman said the new federal No Child Left Behind Act, if implemented the right way, will put an end to creative and experimental teaching methods in the nation's classroooms. "It will stifle, and hopefully it will kill (them), said Neuman. "Our children are not laboratory rats" (p. 139).

Now that is some change you can believe in! Of course, that was the bad Susan. Here is more of the good:

2.) Write the re-authorization legislation carefully. NCLB is both poorly implemented and deeply flawed. As a result, there are probably more regulations and revisions to this law than all of the past education bills combined.

3.) Don't insult your clients. Teachers have been blamed, maligned and targeted as failures while it's these very same individuals who are supposedly responsible for school reforms. The next education bill would do well to highlight the many teachers who are changing the odds daily for children in schools, especially in low-income areas.

4.) Listen. Outsiders from research tanks to lobbying groups had evidence that the adequate yearly progress goals of NCLB wouldn't work--that they would vastly overestimate the number of failing schools, and underestimate the number of schools that could be better with only minor tinkering. Instead, the get-tough philosophy has drawn all schools down, giving the false notion that our school systems are not working. They are working for the majority of children.

Excuse my continued interruptions, but "outsiders from research tanks and lobbying groups?" Just a few months back in the June 8 issue of Time, Susan had a different take when she told Claudia Wallis that

. . .there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and "blow it up a bit," she says. "There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization."

In the department, not outside. And did Susan know of other insiders who protested about the impossible AYP targets, like Dr. Joseph Johnson,

the federal compensatory education director, [who] told the National Association of Federal Education Program Administators in April 2001: "People are looking at the data and saying, 'This is going to be catastrophic because there are going to be so many low-performing schools and this isn't going to work. Though Johnson urged a more positive response, by June he had submitted his resignation (Debray, 2006, p. 138.

And what are we to make now of this admission, that surely shows that Dr. Neuman has come to accept that as family income goes, so go test scores, yes?

5.) Poverty trumps everything. It's not the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that is the problem with our schools. It's poverty. Children who come to school unhealthy, hungry, yearning for attention and nurturance can hardly concentrate on learning. We need a broader, bolder approach to reform, one that recognizes the inextricable connections between health, social-emotional development, and cognitive growth and learning.

All of us who have been saying the same thing for so many years are glad that Susan has seen the light and smelled the coffee just in time for a new Democratic Administration to be sworn in. In some ways, Susan's last point here helps to clarify her earlier position that so many of her colleagues could not understand, during the time she rallied at ED under the Bush banner of test and punish. Doesn't it clarify her position?

In fact, Neuman has been working on a book to highlight early childhood education interventions, and she is one of three "No Excuses" early childhood experts featured in Paul Tough's big NY Times Magazine piece promoting the Democratic adoption of the Republican agenda for "education reform." Of course, when Tough talks of reforming, he is referring to the kind of re-forming that represents a further sculpting of the same male bovine fecal matter that served to inspire the past eight years of bold bullshit that put business interests over the interests of children and their education.

One of the current Neuman-approved interventions (from her new book) for developing human capital at the pre-school stage of life is called Bright Beginnings. Started on a shoestring, Bright Beginnings is now owned and driven by a Pearson curriculum product, the same Pearson that provides fellowships and financial backing for a non-profit literacy initiative called Jumpstart, which welcomed Susan Neuman to its Board of Directors in 2007.

In the NYTimes Magazine piece mentioned earlier, Tough gushes that Bright Beginnings [is] a "pre-K program in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina that enrolls 4-year-olds who score the lowest on a screening test of cognitive ability and manages to bring most of them up to grade level by the first day of kindergarten."

That's right--now there is "grade level" for beginning kindergarten. And how do we know?

Of course, we have a test to determine that. And a test, too, that was developed by the same scam artists and profiteers that developed DIBELS, which is used across the country to measure the number of nonsense syllables that a small child can say in 60 seconds. DIBELS has made Roland Good, Ruth Kaminski, and their associates rich beyond their wildest dreams, thanks to Reading First contracts.

The DIBELS version for infants and toddlers, such as the ones enrolled in Bright Beginnings in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, is called IGDI. I am not making it up. There is no way you can make this stuff up.

And believe me, when President Obama gets his early childhood education initiative underway, those screaming for accountability the loudest will be the charlatans who brought you IGDI and Pearson products like Bright Beginnings, now sold under the name of Opening the World of Learning.

This page is from the Opening the World of Learning website, which has nothing at all about Pearson on the whole site until you click Buy Now! The page provides a description of the "research" study used in 2005 to assess the effectiveness of the program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg:

A team of five trained assessors completed all testing. The Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDI) assessment is a Pre-K version of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). Letter naming fluency and IGDI measures were administered to all children attending during the first and last week of the summer school program.

  • Letter Naming: Letter naming cards included capital letters only. After naming four capital letters (A-D) presented on practice cards, the child was shown the remaining capital letters of the alphabet one-by-one and asked to name them. If the child correctly named the rest of the letters in less than one minute, the time was recorded as well as the number of letters named correctly.

  • Picture Naming: Photographs or line drawings of objects (e.g., apple, chair, fish, computer) commonly found in preschoolers' natural environments (i.e., home, classroom, community) were presented one at a time and the child was asked to name them as fast as possible. After one minute, the activity was stopped and the total number of pictures named correctly was recorded. Categories of objects used in the subtest included animals, food, people, household things, games and sports materials, vehicles, tools, and clothing.

  • Alliteration: Cards with an image (e.g., teeth) at the top and a set of three images in a row at the bottom (e.g., phone, tire, fish) were presented one at a time and the child was asked to point to a picture at the bottom that starts with the same sound as the picture at the top. After two minutes, the activity was stopped and the total number of pictures identified correctly was recorded.

  • Rhyming: Cards with an image (e.g., mouse) at the top and a set of three images in a row at the bottom (e.g., house, apple, cheese) were presented one at a time and the child was asked to point to a picture at the bottom that sounds the same as (or rhymes with) the picture at the top. After two minutes, the activity was stopped and the total number of pictures identified correctly was recorded.
Kindergarten teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools use DIBELS for progress monitoring and benchmark assessments of their students. Scores on the IDGI provide a baseline for comparison with later performance on DIBELS; they also provide information about a child's performance in summer school.
Bright Beginnings, they call it. Too sad for words.

Dr. Neuman winds up her blog post with this:
Given all these lessons learned, I'm often asked, "Would you still take on the challenge of serving in Washington when you did?" The answer is yes. Our children, our country and our future are too important. . . .
Thank you, Susan, for sharing. Your candor and forthrightness, along with your subtle positioning to get rich during the next Administration's focus on early childhood education, make you someone we should all look up to as an outstanding example of human capital making "education reform" what we all know that it can be.


  1. Anonymous8:06 AM

    Excellent essay and site. I put a link to your compassion essay on my website. Good work.

  2. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Thank you for this revealing portrait. I actually almost forgave her for her betrayal as Assistant Secretary of Education. In fact, I even used her last book in one of my masters courses. I can't believe that she would once again associate herself with programs and methods that are in direct opposition to the developmentally based approaches she advocates in her books and her research. How does she show her face in public anymore at this point? Thank you for this post. I share your outrage. Elaine Garan

  3. DIBLES has also been morphed into EGRA (EArly Grade Reading Assessment) and is being pushed with funding from the World Bank and USAID onto developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is already out in French and Spanish and will be translated into indigenous languages according to current plans. see

    This gives little children all over the world the same opportunity to fail as American five year olds do the first week of kindergarten (and now preschool). This in countries where they already plan only two second grade classrooms for every three first grade classes and few girls survie to sixth grade.

  4. From the trenches, the saddest part of the plethora of standardized testing, including the Massachusetts MCAS and thhe DIBELS test, is its view of children from a deficit model. Ideas about who children are and how they learn from educators like Dewey and Montessori will be remembered long after the people who, make money out from preying on fear will be. Some of my current students came to me labelled Needs Improvement; they do not. The need guidance, education, and care. It is the system that needs improvement, and I resent labels being slapped on unique, beautiful individuals.