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.

The inspector General of the US Department of Education has documented flagrant conflicts of interest and illegal impositions of curriculum in negotiating the NCLB state contracts. Here are my views on what is needed to even partially undo the damage done.

Contracts and Sub-contracts with those guilty of conflicts of interest.

It’s not enough for Secretary Spellings to promise to not do it again

All contracts with faculty, employees and entities at the University of Oregon should be reviewed and cancelled if they involved conflicts of interest. Any products of those contracts should be withdrawn and recalled.

Contracts for Assistance Centers should be reviewed and cancelled if they involve conflicts of interest and all products of those conflicts should be withdrawn and recalled. All state and LEA contracts issued under advisement of those with conflicts of interest should also be cancelled and renegotiated.

State contracts in which implementers with conflicts of interest exerted undue influence or acted coercively should be cancelled and renegotiated. That essentially means all state contracts.

Indictments and repayments

The Justice department should be requested to investigate causes for indictments and recovery of illegally gained profits resulting from conflicts of interest by individuals and publishers. The following companies should be investigated: McGraw Hill, Pearson (Scott Foresman), Houghton Mifflin, Voyager, and Sopris West. Specific attention should be paid to DIBELS, a focus of several issues raised in the Office of Inspector General reports.

Disqualification

Persons and companies found guilty of conflicts of interest and illegal acts in implementing Reading First should be disqualified from further participation in any NCLB funding initiatives

Resignation

Margaret Spellings and any of her staff involved in illegal imposition of curriculum as prohibited in NCLB should be asked to resign. Actual crimes may have been committed under NCLB.

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.

Today’s parents of five year olds are hearing a new answer to the age old question, “What did you do in school today? “I got DIBELed.” Within a few days of entering kindergarten, hundreds of thousands of five year olds are given their first opportunity to taste failure in their ability to say the names of letters in three seconds, say the sound that a picture name begins with in three seconds, and sound out three letter words in three seconds. And if they can’t get enough letters named, initial sounds made, or words sounded in one minute in each DIBELS sub-test then they have failed and are thus in need of intensive instruction even though they just started kindergarten. From then on they will be DIBELed three times during each year through third grade and sometimes beyond. By mid-year in kindergarten the children also must sound out a page of nonsense syllables. 

DIBELS reduces reading to a set of one-minute tests of reading “skills.” Many five year olds are simply overwhelmed by being escorted to an unfamiliar place in the school where a stranger with a stop watch rushes them through a series of tasks and stops them before they have had any chance to figure out what is happening.  

DIBELS takes over the lives of primary children and determines their school future. It becomes the curriculum. In a half-day kindergarten five year olds will get little more than DIBELing in school. Ironically, there’s little time for reading and even less time for writing. And all over America children are being retained in Kindergarten or first grade on the basis of their DIBELS scores. Some teachers have a bulletin board with nonsense words for the children to practice reading nonsense. Children practice for DIBELS while waiting in line to use the toilet.  

With their commitment to testing what a child can do rapidly and accurately in one minute, DIBELS authors reduce reading to a series of tasks that measures something less than what the name of each implies. The tests are Letter Naming, Initial Sound, Phonemic Segmentation , Nonsense Words , Oral Reading. The last is the only test that has the child read a real passage. The score is the number of words read correctly in one minute. Children learn in repeated testing and practice to say as many words as they can quickly and not worry about the meaning. There is also a Retelling, added according to the DIBELS manual when teachers worried that the oral reading score didn’t show comprehension. The score is the number of words the child used in the retelling. In this test there is no concern for the quality of the retelling.

The authors also added an oral Word Use test that involves no reading..The child is asked to “use” a word. The score is the number of words used in using the word.  

The authors require what they call “fluency” in each sub-test. The child must be fast and accurate whether naming letters, abstracting initial sounds, breaking words into sounds, saying nonsense words, reading oral passages, retelling the text, or using words orally. It’s hard to see what how fast a child can name letters has to do with making sense of print.  

In none of the DIBELS one minute tests is there any measure of the quality of the reading: No score shows comprehension. 

To summarize: DIBELS is a set of silly little, one minute tests so poorly thought through and constructed that they would be unlikely to pass the review of any school, district or state committee. Education Week has said that there are widespread beliefs among local and state authorities that they could not receive No Child Left Behind funds unless they adopted DIBELS. (Education Week, Sept. 7, 2005.) 

No child should suffer what millions are suffering from DIBELS. And no parent or teacher should be party to DIBELing the enthusiasm for school out of children for the sake of the meaningless bench marks that are replacing learning to read in too many American schools.

Once a decade or so, the New York Times publishes a hysterical article about “the reading wars,” in which the argument for systematic phonics instruction is advanced. They just did it again in An Old and Contested Solution to Boost Reading Scores: Phonics. The article is a predictable mess.

The phonics phanatics are hard-core. One academic used to contact my former university and demand that I be terminated whenever I questioned the phonics gospel in my magazine column. That was in addition to sending scalding letters-to-the-editor.

In 2004, the entire editorial staff of the magazine I worked for was threatened with termination for questioning Reading First. Here’s another one I wrote in 2006.

To “commemorate” the latest discovery of the “reading wars”, I humbly suggest that journalists tackle the following questions.

Q1: Anyone remember when “whole language” was banned in California? Any journalist wish to follow-up on that legacy?

Q2: Why is “balance” virtuous? Can’t it be dangerous or wrong? In my experience, educational quests for balance result in the weeds killing the flowers. In education, “balance” can be not only simplistic, but cowardly and wrong. When schools seek “balance,” the weeds always kill the flowers.

Q3: Why does the defense of systematic phonics instruction remain a top priority of the religious right?

Q4: Why are the same people so often anti-science when it comes to issues like climate change or sexual orientation and yet cling to phonics instruction as scientifically proven?

Q5: Has there been any research or journalistic investigation (or even interview) about the evolution of Lucy Calkins’ work over time? I acknowledge her contributions, but have simple profound ideas become massive curriculum products? If so, what has been lost/gained?

Q6: Where is all of this “unbalanced” whole language influence emanating from? Please name the texts or teacher preparatory programs that have gone hog wild on non-phonics-based instruction. (Not excusing the batshit crazy, sloppy, silly, reading myths SOME teachers subscribe to.)

Q7: NAME A TIME OR PLACE IN THE POST-WAR (WW II) ERA WHERE PHONICS HAS NOT COMPLETELY DOMINATED READING INSTRUCTION. Doesn’t a “reading war” require actual combatants? One side has nuclear weapons and every White House, the other has Shel Siverstein.

Q8: How can you publish an article about the reading wars without any input from the seminal experts on the losing side? Where is the expertise of scholars such as, Frank Smith, Ken Goodman, Richard Allington, Herbert Kohl? I know you now how to reach Stephen Krashen. He writes letters-to-the-editor of the New York Times regularly.

Q9: How about writing an article in which lots and lots of experts do nothing but define “phonics,” “whole language,” “literacy,” “balanced literacy,” “reading,” and “instruction?”

Q10: If everyone learns to read by being taught a sequence of 43 phonemic sounds, how do you explain children reading in Israel, China, Japan, or other countries with non-phonemic languages. How can deaf people possibly learn to read without phonics>

I respectfully implore you to investigate the effects of an unconscionable lack of access to high-interest reading material in classrooms and school libraries in places like Los Angeles and Oakland. https://www.accessbooks.net/school-library-crisis.html

I’m a big fan of children’s book illustrator/author, Dav Pikley. So, when I came across a beginning reader by him called, “Big Dog and Little Dog,” I bought it for my three year-old grandson. The grandkids should love it.

The book is complex with a great deal of subtext.

Big Dog and Little Dog want food.

Here is some food for Big Dog.

Big Dog is happy.

Here is some food for Little Dog.

Little Dog is happy too.

Deep, I know!

After the dozen or so pages of the story, the book includes f#$cking comprehension questions. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, calls them “Bonus Skill Building Activities.” I am not going to destroy my grandson’s love of reading by giving him books with a stupid quiz at the back.

Want to know why Johnny can’t read?

Textbook publishers and the educators engaged in a faith-based relationship with them!

I am sure that if you asked the publisher why they felt compelled to ruin a book with assessment schlock, I bet they would say, “teachers want it.” Well, who cares? Any teacher incapable of engaging a child in a conversation about Big Dog and Little Dog should be servicing robot drink dispensers at McDonalds. Better yet, perhaps teachers should shut up altogether and just let kids enjoy reading a book for information or pleasure.

Accelerated Reader, comprehension questions every three paragraphs, and other cynical schemes designed to interrupt reading  for the purpose of ranking, sorting, or failing children have a prophylactic impact on reading far more destructive than playing Minecraft or binge-watching episodes of Wife Swap.

When I was a kid, once you could read, there was no longer a subject in your schedule called, “Reading.” Today, some kids receive reading instruction K-12. These are the very same kids who we are often made to believe are not good at reading. Perhaps adults need to stop ruining the reading experience and provide kids of all ages with access to high-interest reading material free of moronic “bonus skill building activities.”


If you wish to do something about childhood literacy, donate generously to my favorite charity, Access Books. They build and stock beautiful libraries in third world schools where children would not otherwise have access to books. Criminally, those schools are in California!


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 here.

Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


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 here.