In this SpeakOut post, Marion Brady interviews Susan Ohanian on the unintended consequences of the No Child Left Behind Legislation.
MARION: Susan, I taught in four different high schools—one, rural; one, small town; one, urban; and one on a university campus. They all served the general population in their immediate areas, so there were no cherry-picked students. None of the four high schools had even one reading teacher. That was then. This is now. The three high schools here in Florida with which I’m now most familiar have TEN reading teachers. Ten EACH! That’s big money. What’s going on here?
SUSAN: I was a reading teacher in five different urban schools-elementary, middle, and high school, and I admit to being stunned by the idea of ten reading teachers in a school. Surely this is the triumph of test prep. Since from the get-go the imposition of a national test has been the point of thuggery masquerading as school reform, I guess this is no surprise.
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MARION: You were THE teacher?
SUSAN: In a school of 1,500 middle schoolers, there were three of us. Special reading instruction for “those” kids was a band-aid approach for confronting the issue of the rigid curriculum we’ve faced for decades. Starting in kindergarten, schools are consumed by “getting ready for” the Carnegie units and Harvard. Another teacher and I pushed the administration into trying something different. We scrapped corrective reading and introduced Language Arts Tutorial. Listed as LAT on the report card, some parents expressed astonishment that their kids, who had always had a lot of trouble in school, were doing so well in Latin. I wrote a book about this: “Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum.”
MARION: Over the last 40 or so years, I’ve written a couple of million words about how that curriculum is wasting time and talent, but nothing important has changed.
SUSAN: No, you’re wrong. It’s gotten worse. The Common Core State (sic)* Standards are locking that creaky curriculum in rigid place, draining away any possibility of kid-friendly approaches.
MARION: Let’s talk more about that later. Right now, I’d like to know what explains all those new high school reading teachers. It’s true there are more non-native English speakers enrolled than when I was teaching, but from my observation, most of the kids stuck in reading classes know perfectly well how to read. In fact, some are honors students enrolled in advanced classes. They’re just failing the reading tests. Something’s wrong here.
SUSAN: Any high school that puts honors students into remedial reading because of failing state tests has made a hoax of reading help. Why don’t they call it what it is? Test prep.
Now that the news is in that over 70% of Vermont schools are failing to meet NCLB standards, I wonder if we will see that explosion is reading teachers that you report in Florida. When Vermont went after the NCLB money and was forced to administer DIBELS in all Title 1 schools, I suggested that the $700-$800 per child budgeted for the federal Reading First requirements could be much better spent by giving it directly to Title 1 families. What the families of children living in poverty really need is a living wage. But since schools can’t provide that, let’s redirect those federal dollars—giving families a stipend to buy books, subscribe to newspapers, attend concerts, visit museums, and participate in many of the other niceties which children in middle class families take for granted.
Since schools have proven themselves incapable of changing a moribund curriculum, let’s divert the extra funds earmarked for foisting “scientific reading” on children living in poverty. Instead of funding more middle class jobs (in this case, reading teachers), let’s scrap the billions going to Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other testing giants and give the money directly to families and see how that changes the reading scores.
*Orwellian. The fifty states didn’t have anything to do with developing the Common Core Standards. They were paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.