I’ve managed to do some some writing during the plague. Thanks for reading and stay safe.

  1. This is Our Moment! 
  2. Let COVID-19 Kill the Pencil
  3. Time for Optimism
  4. Scratch and the Negligent Homicide of Mathland

 

I hope that anyone reading this is healthy and sane during this period of uncertainty. Teachers and kids alike are grieving over the loss of freedom, social interactions, and normalcy. Many families, even those never before considered at-risk, are terrified of the potential for financial ruin or catastrophic health risks. Since I’m all about the love and spreading optimism, I humbly share a silver-lining for teachers and the kids that they serve.

The fact that you are being told to “teach online” in some vague version of “look busy” may mean that teachers are finally being trusted. Districts large and small are abandoning grading as they recognize that education (at home) is inequitable. I guess it’s better late than never to discover the obvious.

Parents and superintendents are vanquishing the needless infliction of nonsense known as homework. Standardized testing is being canceled, an actual miracle. Colleges have recognized that enrolling students next Fall is more important than SAT or ACT scores. Each of these emergency measures has been advocated by sentient educators forever.

So, there is reason to celebrate (briefly), but then you must act! Use this time to remake schooling in a way that’s more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centered. This is your moment!

In the absence of compelling models of what’s possible, the forces of darkness will fill the void. Each of us needs to create models of possibility.

The fact that kids’ days are now unencumbered by school could mean that they finally have adequate time to work on projects that matter rather than being interrupted every 23 minutes. I recently wrote, What’s Your Hurry?, about teaching computer programming, but it’s applicable to other disciplines.

Project-based learning offers a context for learner-centered pedagogy. I was reminded that the new edition of our book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” includes several chapters on effective prompt setting that may be useful in designing projects for kids at home. Invent To Learn also lays out the case for learning-by-doing. Use that information to guide your communication with administrators, parents, and the community.

The following are but a few suggestions for seizing the moment and reinventing education after this crisis is resolved so we may all return to a new, better, normal.

Practice “Less us, more them”

Anytime a teacher feels the impulse to intervene in an educational transaction, it is worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking, “Is there less that I can do and more that the student(s) can do?” The more agency shifted to the student, the more they will learn.

One exercise you can practice teaching online, as well as face-to-face, is talk less. If you typically lecture for 40 minutes, try 20. If you talk for 20 minutes, try 10. If you talk for 10, try 5. In my experience, there is rarely an instance in which a minute or two of instruction is insufficient before asking students to do something. While teaching online, try not to present content, but rather stimulate discussion or organize activities to maximize student participation. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Remember, less is more

My colleague Brian Harvey once said, “The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.” This is wise advice during sudden shift to online teaching and the chaos caused by the interruption of the school year.

Focus on the big ideas. Make connections between topics and employ multiple skills simultaneously. Abandon the compulsion to “deliver” a morbidly obese curriculum. Simplify. Edit. Curate.

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

Learning adventures are a technique I became known for when I began teaching online in the 1990s. This process is described in the 2008 paper, Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments.

Inspire kids to read entire books

Since the bowdlerized and abridged basals are locked in school, encourage kids to luxuriate with real books! Imagine if kids had the freedom to select texts that interest them and to read them from cover-to-cover without a comprehension quiz or vocabulary lesson interrupting every paragraph! Suggest that kids post reviews on Amazon.com for an authentic audience rather than making a mobile or writing a five-paragraph essay. Use Amazon.com or Goodreads to find other books you might enjoy.

Tackle a new piece of software

Been meaning to learn Final Cut X, Lightroom, a new programming language, or any other piece of sophisticated software? Employ groups of kids to tackle the software alone or together and employ their knowledge once school returns. Let them share what they know and lead.

Contribute to something larger than yourself

This is the time for teachers to support kids in creating big creative projects. Write a newspaper, novel, poetry anthology, play, cookbook, or joke book. Make a movie and then make it better. Create a virtual museum. Share your work, engage in peer editing, and share to a potentially infinite audience.

Check out what Berklee College of Music students have already done!

Teach like you know better

Use this time to rev-up or revive sound pedagogical practices like genre study, author study, process writing, interdisciplinary projects and the other educative good stuff too often sacrificed due to a lack of sufficient time. You now have the time to teach well.

Take note of current events

Daily life offers a world of inspiration and learning invitations. Why not engage kids in developmentally appropriate current events or take advantage of opportunities like JSTOR being open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis? Here’s a possible student prompt.

“Go to JSTOR, figure out how it works, find an interesting article, and share what you learned with the class.”

Let Grow

Change the world by challenging students to learn something on their own by embracing the simple, yet profound, Let Grow school project. A simple assignment asks kids to do something on their own with their parent’s permission and share their experiences with their peers.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Every problem in education has been solved and every imaginable idea has been implemented somewhere. Teachers should use this time to read books about education written by experts and learn the lessons of the masters.

Take time to enjoy some culture

There is no excuse to miss out on all of the cultural activities being shared online from free Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre, Broadway shows, operas, living room concerts, piano practice with Chick Corea, and exciting multimedia collaborations. Many of these streams are archived on social media, YouTube, or the Web. Bring some peace, beauty, and serenity into your home.

The following are some links, albeit incomplete and subjective, to free streaming cultural events.

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

In A Personal Road to Reinventing Mathematics Education, I wrote about how I have been fortunate enough to know and spend time with some of the world’s most prominent mathematicians and that while not a single one of them ever made me feel stupid, plenty of math teachers did. Stephen Wolfram is arguably the world’s leading mathematician/scientist/computer scientist. Over the past few years, he has become interested in teachers, kids, and math education. Dr. Wolfram spoke at Constructing Modern Knowledge, runs an annual summer camp for high school mathematicians, and has made many of his company’s remarkable computational tools available for learners.

Acknowledging that many students are home do to the pandemic this week, Wolfram led a free online Ask Me Anything session about an array of math and science topics, ostensibly for kids, as well as a “follow-along” computation workshop. You, your children, or your students have unprecedented access to all sorts of expertise, just a click away! This is like Albert Einstein making house calls!

A bit of exploration will undoubtedly uncover experts in other disciplines sharing their knowledge and talents online as well.

Abandon hysterical internet policies

The immediate need for laptops, Internet access, student email, plus the expedient use of available technologies like YouTube, FaceTime, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom has instantly dispelled the hysterical and paranoid centralized approach to the Internet schools have labored under for the past twenty-five years. The Internet has never been dependent on the policies of your school or your paraprofessional IT staff to succeed. Perhaps we will learn what digital citizenship actually looks like after teachers and children are treated like modern citizens.

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

When I worked with Seymour Papert, he created a document titled, “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab.” This one sheet of paper challenges educators to create productive contexts for learning in the 21st Century. Can you aspire to make these recommendations a reality in your classroom(s)?

Do twenty things to do with a computer

In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. How does your school measure up a half-century later?

Program your own Gameboy

Yes, you read that correctly. Here is everything you need to know to write your own computer games, build an arcade, or program a handheld gaming device!

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

Upper elementary and middle school students could learn to program in Scratch and develop their reading fluency at the same time. Learn how in A Modest Proposal.

Share my sense of optimism

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis, I published, Time for Optimism, in which I shared reasons why progressive education is on the march and how we might teach accordingly. We can do this!

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

Prechewed Pencils

Today’s horrific health and economic crisis might have at least one educational benefit, students are “working” from home and like everywhere else in the past two generations, communication is largely via computer generated text, not manual handwriting.

Whenever I visit a school, I scan the environment, observe social interactions, and look for learning artifacts. Even while strolling around spectacular schools — the sort of institutions blessed with phenomenal facilities, grandiose grounds, well-stocked libraries, maker spaces, and performing arts centers — I sense reason for concern. The lower primary classrooms have examples, presumably of exemplary student work, adorning the corridor walls. Sadly, the displayed work fails to match the grandeur, quality, and expectations of the school. Por que?

Thanks to the technology of choice, the pencil, your average elementary school student will spend an inordinate amount of time filling a cleverly designed worksheet with two or three banal sentences. I truly lament the lost opportunities for children to create work commensurate with their creativity and intellect. The prophylactic barrier is the pencil.

How many learning disabilities are created by a six-year-old’s confusion between their ability to express one’s self and their physical prowess at etching letters with a primitive writing stick? The development of a child’s fine motor skills is much better suited to typing than handwriting. Few other intellectual pursuits require muscle development.

Word processing is the undisputed winner of the computer age. No serious writer under the age of a presidential candidate uses a writing stick for more than writing “not my fault” in Sharpie. Writers “write” on computers. Period. Full stop. Fin!

I harbor no doubt that the pencil has retarded literacy development. It spawned the five-paragraph essay, inauthentic “writing” assignments, and has made life unpleasant for teachers sifting through piles of student chicken scratch. The pencil has fundamentally limited the quality and volume of student writing. This is indisputable.

You learn to write by writing. When you waste several years teaching kids, not one, but two different styles of ancient stick scratching, you severely diminish opportunities for students to say something with coherence, persuasion, beauty, or personal voice.

Word processing makes it possible to write more, better, and quicker, while the editing process is continuous and fluid. You may still turn in X number of drafts to satisfy an assignment, but each of those drafts is the product of countless micro-drafts. Best of all, word processing eliminates another useless and ineffective subject of bygone eras, Spelling instruction! Bonus! #winning

Spare me the academic papers by tenure-track weenies at East Metuchen Community  College seeking to “prove” that handwriting instruction raises test scores or I will be forced to send you reams of scholarship on butter churning as an effective weight loss strategy or blood letting as an indicator of entrepreneurship.

I am sorry, but publishers of handwriting workbooks and providers of D’Nealian professional development may have to go and get themselves some of those clean coal jobs or find some other way to torture young people. The College Board may be hiring!

If you feel nostalgic about handwriting, offer a calligraphy elective. Now, your school will have an art class! The high-falutin handwritten International Baccalaureate a concern? Relegate penmanship to an 11th grade PE unit.

The only time I use a pen or pencil is when asked to autograph a copy of a book I composed on a computer. Banking is online, so no more check writing excuses. You can teach kids to sign their name on a greeting card for their great grandmother in a session or two and then say, “Aloha!” to Eberhard Faber. Spend the rest of elementary school how to think and engage in work that matters. Their lumbrical muscles will thank you and their intellectual development will no longer be limited by a Number 2 drawing stick.

Teachers, it’s time to say goodbye to your little friend… Pencils R.I.P


For those interested in “keyboarding instruction,” please read this literature review.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

“Prechewed Pencils” by Bernie Goldbach is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

TV and film writers are on strike for a “fair share” of the revenue from internet distribution of the programs and films they’ve written. But in a ironic twist on the relationship of written language to the internet, JK Rowling and Warner Brothers are suing tiny book publisher RDR books for turning what has been available free on the internet into a book. The key issue in the complaint they filed in New York court is that there’s a major difference between information available free online and the same information in a book sold for profit. Is it coincidence that the suit was filed on Halloween?

A middle school librarian in Grand Rapids Michigan has been running a popular website devoted to comment and criticism on Rowling’s phenomenal Harry Potter series. He and his contributors have created a virtual Harry Potter encyclopedia which provides serious literary criticism of Rowling’s work and easy access to information about the books. Even Rowling herself says that it has been a handy reference for her as she is writing and needs to check something out from a previous book.

The website has never taken any advertising unlike several other web sites devoted to the series. So the royalties the author would earn on the book would be the only compensation he would receive for several years of diligent scholarship. The book, The Harry Potter Lexicon, is based entirely – almost verbatim – on the website. So why is Warner Bros and Rowling seeking an injunction to prevent the book which is ready for release in English and several foreign editions from being published when they have actually encouraged the website. The Lexicon author is featured in an interview to be included in the next Harry Potter DVD by Warner Brothers and a timeline he created for the books will also be on the DVD.

No question has been raised about the Potter web sites that earn tens of thousands of dollars a month through selling advertising so its hard to support the argument in the claim that it’s that the book will be sold that makes the difference. The website has had 25 million hits so the information it provides has already been widely accessed.

What’s so different about buying a book to get the same information?

And isn’t it funny that so many folks have been predicting the death of reading books and this suit argues that a book is more of a threat to their literary empire than a website?

On the other hand maybe a book does have some strengths that a website doesn’t have:

  • It’s more permanent
  • It’s edited so that the information in it should be more reliable than the website
  • It’s portable and can be accessed anywhere including the bathroom, on a plane, in bed
  • It doesn’t require access to or use of an energy source

One would think that Rowling would realize that this book has the potential to become a text in literature courses which would enhance her reputation as a literary giant rather than just an author of kids books. Not to mention the future genrations of serious literature students who will be buying her books. Harry Potter could reach the stature of Huckleberry Finn in great literature.

Lawyers are predicting that, because of the murky questions around intellectual property in various media the case could reach the Supreme Court. But that would depend on whether David, the publisher, can sell enough books to acquire the funds to fight Goliath, Warner Brothers.

Chairman George Miller of the House of Representatives HELP Committee has promised that three F’s will guide changes in the reauthorization of NCLB, the 2001 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act including Reading First. The three F’s are fair, flexible, and finance.

Within the past two years the Inspector General of the Department of Education has issued a series of alarming reports on conflicts of interest and violations of the NCLB law that occurred during the implementation of Reading First by Department of Education staff and its consultants and contractors. In a subsequent Committee hearing several of these contractors and consultants admitted to making huge personal profits from requiring the use of tests and texts that they themselves had authored or otherwise profited from.

The perpetrators justified these conflicts of interest by citing the requirement in the Reading First law that state proposals must use materials and tests representing “Scientifically Based Reading Research.” A small group of consultants and contractors, mostly affiliated with the University of Oregon, was given the power to decide which tests and programs were and were not acceptable under SBRR. They concluded that only tests and materials that they themselves had produced met that criterion. Even if that were true their actions would have still been illegal since another provision of the law expressly prohibits the DOE from using NCLB to impose methods and curriculum on the states. And of course they should have reclused themselves from decisions from which they personally profited.

But their claim to a scientific base for their materials is not valid. In fact it is as if the astrologers had been put in charge of the space program. None of the specific programs anointed by the DOE as SBRR has any scientific research on its effectiveness. DIBELS, a test funded by the US government and now sold for profit .has been rejected by a wide range of psychometrists and test makers. The Inspector General’s reports cite this test specifically as one forced on states. An official of the Kentucky Department of Education testified at the committee hearing that their state proposal was turned down several times until they agreed to include DIBELS. Ironically, results on DIBELS are being used by Sec. Spellings to claim successes for Reading First which are spurious. Instructional materials published by Sopris West which were approved as scientific are not just poorly written: they are inane, racist, and sexist. Two programs pushed by the DOE staff and consultants are published by McGraw-Hill which includes several of the consultants and contractors as authors on the programs. A recommended program published by Scott, Foresman was developed by DOE consultants and contractors and SF used these same people to gain acceptance for the program in several states. All this is in the files of the House Committee.

Secretary Spellings has herself justified the strong arm approaches used by her staff on state negotiators by claiming that Reading First has been a success. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that bilingual fourth grade reading scores have been flat since a down and up ripple in the two years before NCLB took effect.

1999: 174
2000: 167
2001: 183
2002: 186
2003: 187

Since its inception Reading First has been used as a device for controlling reading curriculum and limiting use of materials not developed by those given the power to interpret the law. And it has had a devastating impact on teacher morale, forcing effective teachers who could not accept its narrow control out of the classroom in droves. This is not a simple “reading wars, phonics vs whole language” issue. Everyone from publishers of other phonics programs ( who filed the original complaints with the OIG) to traditional basal publishers, so-called balanced programs, and whole language programs have been excluded. In some cases DOE staff threatened specific school districts with loss of funds if they used Reading Recovery or Rigby, programs they had blacklisted. That’s not fair. Reading Recovery, a holistic remediation program, is actually the only program that has been certified by a government agency as having research support for its effectiveness.

To date no action by the DOE or Secretary Spellings has done anything to correct this narrow, unfair and inflexible application of the law.

To achieve fairness and flexibility the law must be rewritten to make it impossible for any narrow group to impose their own biases on states and LEAs. There must be a level playing field for all publishers and programs. The blacklists that were created by the DOE and its contractors on programs, tests and people must be abolished. Much more progress would be made from encouraging a wide range of approaches and then requiring them to provide unbiased research evidence that they are successful. In several cases contracts were given to groups to monitor their own programs under Secretary Spellings.( As documented in the OIG reports)

Specifically the following revisions need to be made in the Reading First law:

  • It should be stated up front that the law is not intended to impose tests, methods or materials on any states or LEAs. The phrase SBRR should be eliminated from the bill as having no common accepted meaning in the field of reading. While schools may be held responsible for achieving success in reading, the law should be interpreted flexibly to allow them to choose their own methods and materials. Specific definitions of reading, reading research, and reading instruction should be taken out of the law since they are scientific matters which are not susceptible to legal definition.
  • School districts should not be required to contract with outside agencies for tutoring services which often employ unqualified staff. Teacher education programs should be supported to produce the needed number of qualified teachers for all classrooms including those in rural and inner city areas traditionally unserved..
  • For Reading First to be fair and flexible the DOE should be required to renegotiate all state contracts under Reading First which were illegally negotiated. And the procedure for reviewing new proposals should be fair and flexible. A much broader range of experts in the field of reading should be involved in the review process. Conflict of interest policies should be much more fully spelled out. And there should be prosecution of those who made illegal profits from past enforcement.
  • The House Appropriations Committee has recommended that funds for Reading First should be dramatically reduced until there is evidence that the law has become fair and flexible. That’s essential to the law regaining the respect it has lost among the public and the educational community. Only when the law is made fair and flexible should it be fully funded.

Reading First can make an important difference in raising the literacy levels of those less well served by their schools.. But that requires positive, fair and flexible support of teachers and schools. The narrow punitive approach of the current law can only compound and obscure the real issues.

One anonymous teacher who is quoted in my book, claims that her district is not using DIBELS because administrators and teachers want to use it or because it gives helpful information, because it doesn’t, she claims. “We’re using it because Reading First requires it,” she says. “Some schools are posting fluency scores of children … and then the students have race cars, in the form of bulletin boards, where they are trying to race to the speed goal. On the phoneme segmentation part, some kindergarten classrooms have been known to drill and practice the segmentation while kids are in line waiting for the restroom.”

DIBELS is not just an early literacy test. Teachers are required to group learners and build instruction around the scores. They’re evaluated on the DIBELS scores their pupils achieve. Publishers are tailoring programs to DIBELS. And academic and life decisions for children, starting in kindergarten, are being made according to DIBELS scores.

I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Roland Good, a DIBELS developer, told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education Committee during a hearing last April that three million children are tested with DIBELS at least three times a year from kindergarten through third grade. New Mexico provides every teacher with a DIBELS Palm Pilot so the pupils’ scores can be sent directly to Oregon for processing.

Kentucky’s associate education commissioner testified at the hearing that the state’s Reading First proposal was rejected repeatedly until they agreed to use DIBELS. The DOE inspector general cited conflicts of interest by Good and his Oregon colleagues in promoting DIBELS.

Another teacher, quoted in my book, claims that while the DIBELS test is used throughout the school year, any child who receives the label “Needs Extensive Intervention” as a result of the first testing must be monitored with a “fluency passage” every other week.

No test of any kind for any purpose has ever had this kind of status. In my book, I analyzed each of the subtests in depth. Here are my conclusions:

•   DIBELS reduces reading to a few components that can be tested in one minute. Tests of naming letters or sounding out nonsense syllables are not tests of reading. Only the misnamed Reading Fluency test involves reading a meaningful text, and that is scored by the number of words read correctly in one minute.

•   DIBELS does not test what it says it tests. Each test reduces what it claims to test to an aspect tested in one minute.

•   What DIBELS does, it does poorly, even viewed from its own criteria. Items are poorly constructed and inaccuracies are common.

•   DIBELS cannot be scored consistently. The tester must time responses (three seconds on a stopwatch), mark a score sheet, and listen to the student, whose dialect may be different from the tester, all at the same time.

•   DIBELS does not test the reading quality. No test evaluates what the reader comprehends. Even the “retelling fluency test” is scored by counting the words used in a retelling.

•   The focus on improving performance on DIBELS is likely to contribute little or nothing to reading development and could actually interfere. It just has children do everything fast.

•   DIBELS misrepresents pupil abilities. Children who already comprehend print are undervalued, and those who race through each test with no comprehension are overrated.

•   DIBELS demeans teachers. It must be used invariantly. It leaves no place for teacher judgment or experience.

•   DIBELS is a set of silly little tests. It is so bad in so many ways that it could not pass review for adoption in any state or district without political coercion. Little can be learned about something as complicated as reading development in one-minute tests.

Pedagogy of the Absurd
I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Nothing better illustrates this than DIBELS. It never gets close to measuring what reading is really about-making sense of print. It is absurd that self-serving bureaucrats in Washington have forced it on millions of children. It is absurd that scores on these silly little tests are used to judge schools, teachers and children. It is absurd that use of DIBELS can label a child a failure the first week of kindergarten. And it is a tragedy that life decisions are being made for 5- and 6-year-olds on the basis of such absurd criteria.

Redundancy has something to be said for it. In language, redundancy is one thing that makes human communication possible.

But when the exact same phrase is used redundantly in the 670 pages of the NCLB law (strictly speaking the 2002 NCLB revision of the ESEA law) it would seem that there must be a compelling reason for such redundancy. The phrase “scientifically based research” occurs 120 times in the law. Most often it has an additional word and becomes: “scientifically based reading research” which in the enforcement of Reading First, the billion dollar year reading portion of NCLB becomes simply SBRR. 

But why was the phrase inserted redundantly at every point in NCLB where any determination was specified of what and who would be authorized under the law.. On the face, the phrase itself seems redundant. Isn’t research by definition scientific? Ah, but that’s the point!  The term “scientifically based reading research” implies that some reading research must be unscientific.

Sandy Kress who came with Bush from Texas is the one who made sure the redundant use of this phrase occurred as the law was written.  If there was a common agreement in the field of reading instruction on how to differentiate scientific from unscientific research- if there was at least a consensus among researchers-  then surely using the phrase once would have been enough.

The answer is that the phrase “Scientifically Based Reading Research” was put into NCLB over and over as a code phrase for a particular view of reading instruction advocated by a small group centered at the University of Oregon around  Distarr, a forty year old behavioral synthetic phonics reading program originally authored by Sigfried Engelmann. Under its current publisher McGraw Hill it became Direct Instruction Reading.  Douglas Carnine, a U of Oregon professor and Direct Instruction author, coined the phrase, Scientifically Based Reading Research,  first in the so-called “reading wars.”

Carnine now finds himself a trusted education adviser to the Bush administration. Before that, he advised California and Texas, under then-Gov. George W. Bush, on the restructuring of their state reading programs — both of which served as models for Reading First.

At Oregon, he directed the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (NCITE). His goal was not only to create a more welcome climate for reading science in academe, but to win the hearts and minds of publishers — in other words, to create a market for scientifically-based reading research. (Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks. 2005)

Carnine argued that theirs was the scientific alternative to whole language in the reading wars. By using this phrase redundantly throughout the text of the law it signaled precisely whose view of reading instruction the law was designed to mandate for every decision to be made in implementing Reading First.

And those put in charge by the Bush administration understood that the redundancy in the law gave them the green light to have it their way. He who hath the power to differentiate scientifically based reading research from unscientifically  based reading research is justified in deciding which text programs, which tests, which experts, which teacher education programs, which grant recipients, which publishers, which support servers are acceptable under Reading First and which are not. 

The reason for all this redundancy became apparent in the April 2007 hearings conducted by Rep. George Miller’s House Education committee. Those accused by the Inspector General of the Department of Education of flagrant conflicts of interest defended themselves by saying they were following the law’s mandate for SBRR in all their decisions. And in their view they were because they knew the intent of the law. (Brownstien and Hicks 2005) report:

“Our field is a lot like medicine and pharmaceuticals,” said Louisa Moats, the director of literacy professional development for Sopris West of Longmont, Colo. and the author of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), a widely-used program in Reading First schools. “There is a close relationship — sometimes too close — between the people who do research and the people who bring products to the market.”

But Moats said that while there needs to be “checks and balances,” it would be wrong to discourage researchers from developing products.

“What if these people weren’t doing anything commercial, then where would we be?” she asked. “We would be right back where we were 10 years ago, when all this good research was going on and no one ever used it.”

They were given the power to enforce the law by the Bush administration through Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings ( his white house controller and then successor), and Reid Lyon (Bush’s reading Guru). They were centered in special education at the University of Oregon. Oregon faculty involved include Douglas Carnine, Edward Kame’enui, Deborah Simmons, Roland Good and others . Sharon Vaughn in Texas, and Joseph TorgesEn in Florida, and Louisa Moats of Sopris West are also part of the group who profited from the shared power over what is and what isn’t scientific. Sopris West publishes the commercial version of DIBELS. Randy Best, a Texas entrepreneur, parlayed Voyager, using several of the above as authors, into a program he sold last year for almost $400 million dollars.  This group understood how the SBRR phrase is to be interpreted. It’s the view exemplified in Direct Instruction and Voyager. They had the power over Reading First and they needed no one outside their group to make  the decisions involved in implementing Reading First. This was their party and nobody else including other phonics advocates was invited.

The OIG’s first report comments on an internet message from the Reading First director…

They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out  of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the  front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags. 

The Reading First Director forwarded the above e-mail to Lyon and stated: 

Confidential FYI.  Pardon in-house language I use…with fellow team members  and friends.  Do you know—on the QT—if anyone has done any good review of  the Wright Group stuff, to date?  We have beaten Maine on Rigby and this is cut  from the same cloth.  We are proceeding, of course, but if you knew of a good  piece of work dissecting The Wright Group’s stuff, it could further strengthen our  hand.

Lyon responded that he would obtain this information and added, “I like your style.”  In  response, the Reading First Director stated, “Additional firepower…may help us make this a  one-punch fight.” (OIG 2006)

Ironically the OIG investigations were begun after complaints from excluded phonics advocates.

No procedures were set up in implementing Reading First to require publishers of reading programs and tests to offer research proof that their offerings were in fact proved effective through scientifically based research. The power group saw no conflicts of interest in pushing their own programs and tests since theirs were the only ones worthy of being considered as conforming to SBRR. And they were the only ones with the expertise necessary to determine SBRR. And it is true that others might not be relied on to make the decisions since their view of what is scientific has little support among reading educators and researchers.

There is however another provision of the NCLB law which only occurs once. It was inserted at the insistence of members of Congress concerned that the law not be used to usurp authority over  education from the states. It prohibits: “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system..” Nothing could be clearer than that about the intention of Congress. The act creating the Department of Education several years ago has a similar prohibition for the same reason.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration gave one man, Chris Daugherty, sole DOE authority for implementation of the billion dollar a year Reading First program with a single assistant.  That assured that their intentions in interpreting the law would be followed. He was well chosen. His prior job was running a Direct Instruction program in the Baltimore school system. His wife is an employee of Direct Instruction. Through him most of the work of Reading First was outsourced. Emails reviewed by the OIG showed that he regularly consulted the others in the power group to decide what did and didn’t conform to SBRR. He ignored the explicit instructions in the law in organizing the review process for state proposals under Reading First. Members of the power group were placed on review panels to assure that their view would dominate. Together they bullied state after state to assure conformity to their view of SBRR. Their emails make clear that this was deliberate and they believed that what they did was approved by the Bush administration. 

Sandy Kress who wrote the SBRR phrase into the law, became a paid consultant after he left the government,  he was the broker between publishers who wanted their materials approved and the DOE according to Title 1 Monitor (2005)

During these early days of the program, various department personnel met with representatives of the major publishing companies — and some of the smaller ones — to urge them to beef up their programs and to reflect a greater emphasis on SBRR. It was a clear echo of Carnine’s earlier work with NCITE. By all accounts, the meetings were informal and well-received.

One of those meetings was a lunch in Washington involving the department and representatives of Scott Foresman of Livonia, Mich., publishers of a major basal textbook. Accompanying Scott Foresman officials was Sandy Kress, a close presidential adviser and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, who had become a lobbyist for Pearson, Inc., Scott Foresman’s parent company. The meeting was unremarkable save for the appearance of two faces then-relatively unknown in the nation’s capital: Ed Kame’enui and Deborah Simmons, professors and longtime colleagues of Carnine at the University of Oregon. Along with Sharon Vaughn, a reading researcher at the University of Texas, the pair had just signed with Scott Foresman to produce a new basal, scheduled for release in 2007. ( Brownstein and Hicks, 2005)

Kame’enui and Simmons testified at the Congressional hearing that each had received $150,000 a year from Scott, Foresman for their work on the program. 

The OIG found, in its review of Reading First, that states were misled as to the requirements of the law and coerced into including approved programs such as Direct Instruction and tests such as DIBELS during the process of reviewing state proposals. Daugherty and his consultants assumed that they had a free hand in interpreting the law.

A contract went to Kame’enui and his colleagues at Oregon through a grant to the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL)  to review materials in terms of SBRR. They produced a list of favored programs and tests prominently featuring DIBELS produced with federal funding at the University of Oregon. It’s principal author is Roland Good. Though NIFL never gave approval to release the report under this contract, it was posted on the Oregon web site with Daugherty’s assent and frequently referred to in reviewing state proposals. 

The DOE contracted for a series of Reading Leadership Academies and required recipients of Reading First grants to attend. The OIG reported:

With regard to the RLAs, (Reading Leadership Academies)  we concluded that the Department did not have controls in place to ensure compliance with the Department of Education Organization Act (DEOA) and NCLB Act curriculum provisions.  Specifically, we found that: 1) the “Theory to Practice” sessions at the RLAs focused on a select number of reading programs; and 2) the RLA Handbook and Guidebook appeared to promote the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Assessment Test. (OIG 2007)

A contract went to RMC Research Corporation’s (RMC) to setup technical assistance centers to insure that states followed the law as their contracts indicated. Contracts for the technical assistance centers went to Kame’enui in Oregon, Vaughn in Texas and Torgeson in Florida with no consideration for conflicts of interest. The OIG in their investigation concluded:

With regard to RMC Research Corporation’s (RMC) technical proposal for the NCRFTA contract, we concluded that the Department did not adequately assess issues of bias and lack of objectivity when approving individuals to be technical assistance providers before and after the NCRFTA contract was awarded. (OIG2007)

The Department of Education has claimed that Reading First is successful and that it is due to the pedagogy it has imposed on the schools. There is considerable dispute from a wide range of reading authorities about these claims.  The results reported by the DOE rely to a considerable extent on DIBELS which tests for speed and accuracy on such things as nonsense word identification but not for the quality of reading comprehension. (http://dibels.uoregon.edu/) One factor that contributed to the conflicts of interest is that the view of reading instruction it imposed has little support among teachers and reading educators. 

But two things are clear about the implementation of Reading First regardless of the issue of the quality of the programs and tests it imposed:

  1. The prohibition in the law against the DOE interfering in curriculum was flagrantly and deliberately violated.
  2. The conflicts of interest of those involved in implementing Reading First resulted in huge personal gain for them and their publishers which they continue to receive.

What needs to be done. 

Secretary Spellings and her assistants have admitted that mistakes were made in the early days of Reading First implementation. But those “mistakes” are still yielding handsome profits to those who made them, not only in terms of royalties but in terms of on-going contracts they were illegally awarded.  Not only do those guilty of criminal acts need to be punished, but the results of their illegal acts need to be reversed. For example, contracts for the assistance centers need to be cancelled and the recipients required to refund the money illegally awarded to them. State contracts need to be renegotiated or they are likely to involve the DOE in endless law suits contesting their legality.

The guilt clearly goes beyond the one government employee forced to resign. Sec. Spellings should be asked to resign and the role she and her predecessor played in violation of the law needs to be investigated.

It is not sufficient to establish more stringent rules for the implementation of the Reading First law. to avoid the possibility of the same kind of illegal activity in the future. The law itself needs to be rewritten to remove every instance of the use of the phrase Scientifically Based Reading Research. Congress should make clear that it did not intend to impose a single one-size-fits all mandate or endorse a small number of commercial materials. 

The intentions of Reading First to improve the literacy of America’s young people are laudable. And federal support can make a major difference. But the law needs to be refocused as a positive, not punitive, collaboration between local, state, and federal authorities. And there needs to be a much wider involvement of professionals at all levels in planning and implementing the objectives of increased literacy.

References

  • Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks, Thompson Title 1 Monitor , August 2005            
  • Roland Good, Official DIBELS website  http://dibels.uoregon.edu/ 
  • U.S Department of Education.   Office of Inspector General.  The Reading First Program’s Grant Application Process  Final Inspection Report  ED-OIG/I13-F0017.  September 2006  Washington, D.C. 
  • U.S Department of Education Office of Inspector General. The Department’s Administration of Selected Aspects of the Reading First Program Final Audit Reported- OIG/A03G0006. February 2007.  Philadelphia, PA.

Recently my local newspaper reported the shocking fact that in a Tucson middle school, labeled as failing, half the students were “reading below grade level.” That would also mean that half are reading above grade level, a fact the article did not report.

“Grade level” is the term assigned to the score on a norm referenced test that the average pupil achieves. The test is “normed” by administering it to a sample of children in the range of grades it is intended to test. Grade level for each grade is the mean score of all pupils in that grade who took the test. By design, half the children will be above that mean and half will be below. Garrison Keillor has made the joke for years that in his mythical Lake Woebegone “all the children are above average”.

It’s bad enough that news reporters don’t understand the term “grade level.” But in the past few days two of our nation’s highest educational officials publicly misused the term “grade level.”

In a letter to the Denver Post, US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the following:

“Unrealistic.” “Not achievable.” These were words once used to label the academic prospects of disadvantaged and minority children. Now, according to a recent survey conducted by Sen. Ken Salazar, they’re being used to describe the goals of the No Child Left Behind act.

It’s time to bust this myth. No Child Left Behind calls on students to read and do math at grade level or better by 2014. It holds schools accountable for steady progress each year until they do. As a mom, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I believe most parents, whose views were severely under represented in the survey, would agree. They want their children to be taught to grade level now.

And her Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon made a similar misuse of “grade level” in an interview with the Washington Post.

Simon said in an interview that students learning English must be tested on grade-level material to determine whether they are making progress. He asked Virginia state Superintendent Billy K. Cannaday Jr. to ensure that local school districts comply.

“No Child Left Behind says all children will be able to read and do math at grade level,” Simon said. “The whole point of No Child Left Behind is to find out what they know and don’t know and target resources. . . . We want the law to be followed.”

NCLB requires states to use criterion referenced tests. Such a test is supposed to be based on what those tested should know or be able to do in the area tested. Arbitrary scores are given labels by those constructing the test to what they guess would be what those at different levels would achieve.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) they used the terms Basic, Proficient and Outstanding. They set the scores so that they could differentiate those who were simply adequate (basic) from those who were much more accomplished (proficient) and those few who truly excelled.(Outstanding) Both the terms and the scores are arbitrary.

The framers of the NCLB law picked up the term “proficient” and said that kids, schools and schools districts would be judged by the percent of those reaching the proficient score. By 2014 all students of all kinds in all schools must be “proficient” or the schools are failing.

Spellings says “ No Child Left Behind calls on students to read and do math at grade level or better by 2014. It holds schools accountable for steady progress each year until they do. “ Either she is showing basic ignorance of what she is talking about or she is deliberately intending to confuse the issue. If the law required grade level achievement for all students that would certainly be “not achievable” since it would require them to all be above average- a logical impossibility. But what the law really requires is that they must all achieve a score arbitrarily assigned to those who are far better than just adequate. That is certainly both unrealistic and not achievable. And many states have projected that by holding to that requirement virtually all their schools would be failing by 2014.

Simon adds to the confusion by saying the law requires “that students learning English must be tested on grade-level material.” This implies that the same “material” is appropriate for all students in a given grade regardless how well they control English or any other trait on which they vary. He is interpreting NCLB to mean that English language learners must be tested in English to show they “will be able to read and do math at grade level.” Again the law requires them to be “proficient” and says nothing about “grade level”. Ironically a student could be truly proficient in a home language and still be failing according to Simon’s interpretation of NCLB.

I’m inclined to believe that our government officials are not ignorant so I must conclude that they are deliberately misusing the term grade level to confuse the public.

In spite of the scandal in the administration of Reading First uncovered in the Inspector General’s report and in spite of the alarming number of schools throughout the country being falsely labeled as failing schools, NCLB was not a major issue in the mid-term elections.

Now, however, we have an opportunity to begin a nation-wide campaign to make the public and our elected officials aware of the deeper scandals involved in NCLB and particularly Reading First. We have an opportunity to build awareness of the need for drastic change in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to eliminate the punitive test driven changes of the NCLB law. ESEA needs to be returned to its original intention of supporting public education and making sure that it serves all American young people equally and fairly.

2007 is a key year. The first seven year cycle of NCLB ends and the law must be renewed by Congress for the following seven years. If NCLB continues as the law is currently written, by 2014 virtually every public school in the country will be labeled failing. That’s because the required AYP becomes increasingly unattainable. As currently written and enforced there are over 200 ways for a school or school district to fail.

Educators at all levels must take personal and collective actions to inform newly elected and reelected members of Congress of the need to save public education from NCLB.

District Administrators should invite newly elected and reelected Senators and Representatives to meet with them and to visit their schools so they can see first hand the damage being done by NCLB in its current punitive form. They should also invite the print and electronic media to these events.

We need to show them some of the things that NCLB has done to the students and teachers in their district and state.

Among the things they need to see:

  • Experienced and highly qualified teachers forced out of the schools or required to send letters to parents informing them that their children are not being taught by qualified teachers because of the way NCLB defines qualification.
  • Absurd reading tests and text programs teachers are forced to use against their professional judgement that are imposing a one size fits all approach on all pupils and hurting many of them.
  • High levels of anxiety among pupils, particularly the younger ones, from stress caused by high stakes timed tests. Parents should be invited to share their children’s reactions to the pressures NCLB is putting on them.
  • Low teacher morale which is driving many of the most dedicated teachers to leave teaching or take early retirement. Teachers should be invited to share their concerns for how NCLB constrains and limits their ability to serve their pupils as professionals.
  • English learners and handicapped children forced to meet the same AYP criteria and take the same tests as all other children. If one group fails or 95% a group is not tested the whole school is labeled as failing.
  • Limitations by NCLB on providing remedial help to students who need it within the district’s own resources while being forced to use Reading First money to contract with for profit companies who use unqualified and inexperienced staff.
  • The impact of the NCLB policy requiring the district to transfer pupils from “ failing” schools resulting in overcrowding on some schools and heavy unfunded costs to the district. Parents should be asked why they have been reluctant to ask for their children to be transferred to schools outside their neighborhood.

We need to show our elected law makers that far from eliminating the gap between the middle-class and the disadvantaged pupils in our schools, NCLB is disproportionately hurting the disadvantaged pupils. They are defeated by unachievable goals and driven out of high schools when they reach the legal leaving age.

We need to show our elected law makers the costs to our schools not only in the inadequate funding of NCLB mandates but in impoverishing the curriculum and focusing our classrooms away from the pursuit of knowledge and toward a narrow focus on improving test scores.

This is the year we can save our schools and public education from the disaster that is NCLB.

One of the most remarkable achievements of American democracy was its provision of free universal compulsory education for all its children and young people. No society had ever committed itself to universal education. The movement to get our children out of the fields and factories led every state by 1918 to set a minimum school leaving age ranging from 16 to 18. . That meant that publically supported high schools had to be available to all communities.

It also meant that schools had to develop ways of serving the full range of differences in language, culture, experiential background , values, goals and ability  among the children coming to our schools . In earlier times the goals of general education were little more than the minimal three r’s with secondary education only to prepare the elite for higher education. To serve all pupils well, new institutions with new curricula had to evolve: schools needed a broad and variable curriculum to serve the all of the nation’s youth including the waves of  young immigrants. 

Much thought went into this curriculum. John Dewey said we could no longer make the students adjust to the school; we had to make the school fit the learners. We needed to prepare all learners for full participation in a democratic society, and also to accept difference, to start where the learners were and carry them as far as they were capable of going. One answer was the comprehensive high school. The central idea was that a single school could serve everyone in a community by offering varied curricula with many choices and options. That was particularly important in small and medium sized towns that could only support a single high school; but it was also important in the large cities. By having all young people in the same school, students could learn to participate in a diverse society. Schools could serve the college bound but they could also provide interesting and challenging sequences for those who would enter the work force when they left school.

The civil rights period extended this concept to eliminate racially segregated schools. New  laws required inclusion of the full range of handicapped and special populations so that the schools were really serving all young people in the public schools of  the community.

It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well to keep virtually all young people in school, to educate them to a reasonable level, and to provide a unifying experience for new and native born citizens. 

Now, however, there are strong pressures on state and federal levels to move to a one size fits all narrow curriculum. Choices, even for those college bound, have been largely eliminated and every student is required to complete the courses formerly required for those seeking college admission. Advanced math and science courses are required for all that were designed originally for those planning to follow college majors in math and science. And in many states all students have to pass the same tests at the same level to even get a high school diploma.

Ironically, as other developed and developing nations are moving toward universal education and a comprehensive secondary curricula, we ‘re driving pupils out of schools that are no longer willing or able to adjust to their needs and goals. 

On the national level, the punitive No Child Left Behind law is requiring that schools not only narrow the curriculum but that all pupils reach the same high level of achievement previously only reached by the top 10-20 percent. Virtually every school and school district will be labeled as failing by 2014 according to several state studies because they can’t reach these impossible goals.

Our nation needs good mathematicians and scientists. But more than that it needs informed citizens with a broad education who can participate in a democratic society. In an increasingly diverse society we need schools that can adjust to differences among learners.  For that we need to bring back the comprehensive high school.