Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

ReadingFirst, NCLB, School Accountability, and our Educational Future

Thanks to Doug Noon for bringing Susan Harman and Deborah Meier’s new article series “How to Resist the Growing Threat to U.S. Education” to my attention this evening. As I listened to Scott Elias and Melinda Miller’s “Testing 1-2-3” Practical Principals’ podcast from May 2nd on my commute to and from work today I kept thinking to myself, “How could so many many smart people elected to lead our nation take us down the forsaken path which has led to so much unnecessary suffering and misdirected energy in our classrooms with high stakes testing?” In line with thoughts I first heard articulated well by Dr. David Berliner in 2006, this article series by Harman and Meier offers a much-needed explanation of the educational policy decisions we’ve seen in the past decade which have ushered in the dark age of NCLB.

The purpose of this article series by Dissent is summarized in the following paragraph:

In these pages, we intend to connect the dots between the many pieces of research and demonstrate that the educational crisis is not what the public has been led to think it is, that there is virtually no research that supports ongoing corporate and federal policies, that the media has been irresponsible and complicit in hiding the truth, that the proposed solutions are unsupported and dangerous, and that the devastating consequences we are now seeing are not “unintended.” To the contrary, these radical reforms were intended by a powerful, well-funded wing of the reform agenda to dismantle our public education system and replace it with precisely the kind of marketplace reforms that are by their nature untrustworthy and unaccountable. We hope these articles will mobilize policymakers and citizens to join us in resisting this attack on our public education system and democracy.

These are, without a doubt, “high stakes” issues.

Stephen Krashen has shared the first article in the series, titled “Comments on Reading First: How to Save Billions and Improve Reading.” Krashen is one of my favorite literacy scholars, and granted me permission in the summer of 2006 to share a podcast recording of his fantastic presentation on “Encouraging Reading” at our Oklahoma EncycloMedia conference. Krashen highlights the National Reading Panel’s misrepresentation of research focusing on phonics and reading development:

This severe limitation of intensive phonics instruction was, however, ignored, and intensive phonics is a cornerstone of Reading First. The finding that heavy phonics instruction has limited value is consistent with earlier work by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith, who independently provided compelling evidence for the hypothesis that we “learn to read by reading”—that we learn to read by understanding what is on the page. Their conclusions were not armchair speculation, but based on experimentation and extensive analysis of published research. Smith and Goodman are not peripheral scholars far outside the mainstream. Goodman is the former president of the International Reading Association, both are winners of the National Council of Teachers of English David Russell award for Distinguished Research in Teaching, both have taught in major universities and have published influential books and articles in the most prestigious journals in the field. And both were ignored by Reading First.

Smith and Goodman did not dismiss all phonics instruction. They maintained that children can learn the simpler rules of phonics, and this knowledge can be of some use in the early stages of reading, helping children understand what they read. But they maintain that our knowledge of the complex rules of phonics is the result of reading, not the cause.

Krashen summarizes the findings of studies on the impact of ReadingFirst grants across the nation:

Reading First cost about a billion dollars a year, and, as noted earlier, Reading First children get considerably more instructional time in reading. A more accurate description of the report is: “Nearly half of the states showed little or no improvement, despite huge increases in funding and instructional time.”

What would you do with $6 billion dollars of discretionary money for education in the United States? I certainly wouldn’t try and funnel those dollars into the pockets of companies which produce drill and kill phonics worksheets and activities, as well as other educational testing materials. Yet that has been the result of NCLB and ReadingFirst policies. Instead of promoting more testing and phonics drills, I’d advocate buying more books for our libraries to support recreational reading, particularly in lower SES communities, as Krashen advocates. He writes:

The real issue is how to help children achieve higher levels of literacy; the ability to read and write complex texts.

The only way this can happen is by self-selected reading—reading that children chose to read by themselves. The evidence for the role of recreational reading is overwhelming. It includes studies showing that when students spend a few minutes a day doing recreational reading of their own choice in school, they do better on reading tests. The evidence also includes studies showing strong correlations between how much children read and their writing style, spelling ability, grammar, and vocabulary.

Access to books is the key prescription for reading, writing, and literacy development which Dr. Krashen has and continues to consistently champion. He is not an advocate for 1:1 learning initiatives, and I do not want to misrepresent his views as supporting mine on laptop learning, but I want to point out that these prescriptions for students “learning to read by doing more reading” fuel much of my conviction that we need more initiatives which encourage students to regularly read and write with digital texts as well as atomic texts.

It is tragic to both experience as a teacher and parent, and witness as a citizen, the devastating effects of our political leader’s educational programs in the United States over the past eight years. (Even longer when you count his tenure as governor of the Lone Star state.) My post from February 2008, “A contrary view of education and NCLB” was a response to his State of the Union speech comments about education, and is one of my more impassioned blog entries about these subjects. “Podcast228: Pedagogic Crimes Against Students,” also from February, is one of my more passionate and direct podcasts addressing these educational policy issues.

Our upcoming November elections in the United States are VERY important. We have moral obligations to change the course of educational politics in our nation not only as citizens, but also as educators who KNOW BETTER because of our experiences in classrooms dominated by an imposed culture of high stakes testing. We all should be media literate and savvy enough to read through the smoke and spin.

I encourage you to read Dr. Krashen’s article which launches this important series on U.S. Educational policy and where we need to go in the future. We must all strive to not continue or repeat the failed policies of the past, and we can speak loudly in November by casting our votes at the ballot box.

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2 responses to “ReadingFirst, NCLB, School Accountability, and our Educational Future”

  1. Gary Stager Avatar

    Your readers might also enjoy

  2. James Sigler Avatar

    I had high hopes for NCLB when I first heard about it: highly qualified teachers, focusing in low SES and minority kids, a database of high quality research.

    However, high stakes testing overshadowed it all. I could just see the testing and textbook publisher rubbing their hands and smiling. All their lobbying had paid off. I could also see private schools poised with their hands hanging over the lids of the cookie jar, waiting for all public schools to fail so vouchers could be ushered in.

    I think there was some lobbying and deal-making that went on to make some companies very rich that should be supporting public education instead of tearing it down.

    I politics, follow the money…over $6 billion of it.