To many parents and teachers, one of the more unpleasant outcomes of the No Child Left Behind law -- whose noble mission of forcing schools to be accountable for the success of all demographic subgroups in schools -- has been the tendency in many districts to centrally plan and program curricular choices, with districts in NC taking the guidelines transmitted from the Department of Public Instruction and mapping them out into precise directions for teachers with little flexibility.
Durham's Results-Based Accountability report from June 2006 includes several examples of heavier central support for in-classroom activities as ways to meet a third-grade reading score benchmark:
- "Develop the Riverdeep instructional organizer for K-3 classroom teachers" (Riverdeep is a central repository where teachers maintain lesson plans -- and can receive and use exemplar lesson plans from other teachers, or the downtown office.)
- "Implement benchmark testing in third grade every 11 weeks to gauge student progress"
- "Curriculum alignment/ Standard Course of Study"
Now Durham Public Schools is, according to reports coming in from some upset parents, taking a next step on this path with the implementation of Reading Street, a standardized reading comprehension system from the educational industry titan Scott Foresman.
I've received or been copied on three separate, heartfelt complaints from parents in the days leading up to the new school year -- parents whose concerns have ranged from outrage over what they say will be a move away from "authentic literature" to those who've said teachers are hesitating to speak up about the changes for fear of their jobs.
It's an unusual level of concern I haven't seen since this spring's school budget debate. Below the jump I'm presenting the side of the issue presented by parents and teachers. School board members, in an email thread from one of the parents involved promised follow-up from DPS administrators; I'll be happy to share their perspective on the story when they have a perspective to share (as it must be noted that their perspectives are not well-represented in the story currently.)
One parent's plea over the program -- answered in turn by three members of the school board, one of whom (Leigh Bordley) sympathetically noted DPS' desire "to find the best balance possible that will serve all of our children in DPS" -- including the following concerns:
My two children ... are very excited to start school tomorrow. They love their school, their teachers and classmates. The kids are completely unaware that over the summer DPS has implemented a sweeping curriculum change for all elementary schools. Last year, in the forth grade at Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet School, one of the many well written, thought provoking books that my son's class read together, discussed and reviewed was ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY. This year, in lieu of authentic literature, they will be reading snippets of computer generated stories designed to teach something related to a specific bubble on a standardized test. In rolling this out swiftly across all schools the Magnet school system is completely undermined. Their individualized missions are essentially VOIDED.
This year, while cutting teaching, assistant and supplemental classroom positions, DPS has just spent MILLIONS of dollars in support of the BILLION dollar Scott-Foresman educational publishing industry. Our money has been spent on sets of highly scripted lessons with strict pacing plans. Our teachers are mandated to follow the one-size-fits-all formulas. There are two new full time "monitor" positions in our school to insure that the teachers are not straying from the script. This is on top of the human and monetary resources already devoted to our children spending a third of their school year taking standardized tests. How many high quality, educated, qualified, inspiring, caring teachers will we retain to teach under these unprofessional, demoralizing conditions? There is really no need for a qualified person to read a script. Think of the money that we will save on teacher salaries that can be shifted to the downtown executive branch.
Another parent at a different school independently contacted BCR to share their concern, based on an experience last year when a substitute teacher stepped in and used Reading Street while the regular classroom teacher was out for several weeks.
"It was horrible. It was multiple choice test prep instead of learning to read, understand, and critically analyze literature," this parent says.
Parents have also expressed concern that the Reading Street program will be implemented rigidly, with less curricular flexibility than schools enjoy today.
One tells BCR that teachers have been told -- besides the mandatory use of Reading Street -- that they won't be able to supplement its curriculum with supplemental reading from the schools' book rooms.
"Parents and the PTA have donated money to buy sets of chapter books from all levels so that reading groups can be based around excellent children's literature," she says. "The teachers have been told they can not use any of the books from the book room this year."
It's unclear whether Reading Street is a new acquisition or, as rumor has held at at least one school, that it's a package previously-bought by DPS and discovered to have been underutilized in a recent audit.
One question that's out there: just how much flexibility there really will be.
School board member Heidi Carter replied to the Club Blvd. parent's missive with a re-assurance that supplemental and augmenting curricular interests will be supported:
We expect teachers to intervene with students who are behind in reading skills in order to help accelerate their learning so they can catch up. We also expect teachers to supplement the universal curriculum with authentic literature and more in order to challenge high achieving students who demonstrate mastery of the essential skills. We expect our principals and central office administrators to support teachers in this difficult work, and we hope parents and the community will be our partners in achieving the school system's mission.
Yet a third parent who reached out to BCR -- who asked that their name, their school's name and any other identifying information be suppressed to avoid retribution towards teachers -- is hearing a different story.
When they were told about the new curriculum, they expressed their frustration and dissatisfaction. In doing so, they were told that if they didn't follow the curriculum, they would be fired. And, in an economic environment in which teachers are being laid off - with the supply of teachers greater than the demand - they're quite reasonably scared of being unemployed. They were also told that there will be random, unscheduled classroom visits by central office to ensure the teachers are following the curriculum as prescribed. They said their principal is holding the line, probably because [the principal] is under the same threat.
This parent also reported that teaching assistants will face a curtailed role in classroom support, with less flexibility in working one-on-one with students who are ready to move ahead to more challenging material.
The fear among some parents is that an increased standardization of curriculum will lead to a brain-drain of schools, with well-educated parents who overcome the (often unfair) stigma that surrounds DPS to pull their students out for charter or private schools -- and to the departure of DPS' best teachers to other districts.
Scott Foresman's literacy textbooks haven't lacked for controversy in other ways, though at levels of government much higher than DPS (and, thus, for which no aspersions should be cast upon the district.)
A 2007 report by the late Sen. Kennedy found "deep financial ties" between publisher Scott Foresman and the federal educational officials in the Bush administration who pressed states to buy the publisher's material for a federal reading effort. In September 2006, the federal official responsible for the Reading First program resigned after reports from the US Dept. of Education suggested "a lack of integrity and ethical values" in the program. (Learn more here and here.)
There are reports that this issue is likely to come up in a big (and very public) way at an upcoming school board meeting. More here at BCR as we know it.
Of course, the most intriguing endorsement of Reading Street may just come from this school teacher in another district, quoted on the ProTeacher community bulletin board:
When we did the Scott Foresman training, we were told to use the reading books for the selection tests. We are teaching the kids how to go back and find information. The only time they are on their own is when they do the unit or end of year tests. We don't help them with anything on those tests. They are responsible for it all. By teaching them how to look back and find answers, they are successful with the unit tests. When I did the end of the year test over the whole book, I only had one person who didn't pass. I didn't have a strong academic class either. They had just learned how to look back and find the info they needed. This is a skill that has to be taught, and those teachers that don't let them use their books for the selection tests are missing the boat.