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National Reading Panel Gives Poor School Kids the Shaft

Publication Date: 2003-02-24

Read this commentary, which first appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune on Feb. 23, 2003, and be proud you are a teacher. http://www.tribnet.com/opinion/story/2666172p-2707492c.html

I grew up in the '80s. I mention that because my generation, as with every other, has grown up with a certain set of that's-just-the-way-it-is norms that have shaped our collective perspective on life.

My grandparents' generation came of age believing that with enough hard work and sacrifice, good always triumphs. My mother's generation questioned authority, at least until they became the authority; and my generation, well, we were raised on Ronald Reagan's American dream: individualism and capitalism to the glorious end.

We have come of age with little more to choose from than the Reagan/Bush/Bush (throw in Clinton for that matter) philosophy: power and profits before all.

The just-the-way-it-is reality is that the more you have, the more you deserve, and the less you have, the more you probably owe it to someone else. Unprecedented wealth and extreme poverty have, in my day, become just another fact of American life.

As I began thinking about my own future, I turned to the one place that I felt released from the "rich get richer, poor get poorer" cynicism: education.

Public education seemed to be the one place where you could work hard and truly reap the benefits of your labor. For those of us living near the bottom of the heap, it was one of the only tickets up.

In my career as a teacher, I have chosen my positions purposefully. I have sought out classrooms in communities where there is little else to count on for mobility: no extravagant financial resources to fall back on, no rich and/or famous fathers to get you into college, no paid-off homes to inherit, no access to societal strings to pull in a crunch.

I wanted to be where I could build a resource for a child where no other existed; I wanted to encourage little thinkers who could recognize and use their own creativity and resourcefulness and confidence to make their lives into what they wanted them to be.

You have to know all this to understand why I haven't had a good night's sleep since early January.

That's when my school, with its high poverty rate and low standardized test scores, learned that we could apply for and receive almost $1 million over the next few years.

Sounds great? Our school district thinks so, even though there's a catch. The catch here is that we as a school would have had to adopt and purchase a curriculum from an approved list of materials.

These materials all reflect the findings of the National Reading Panel (they also, incidentally, reflect some big publishing company-donors to the G.W. Bush campaign) which spell out what reading instruction should look like, especially for poor children. Never mind that the NRP's ultimate conclusions and recommendations didn't much match their stated findings.

According to the National Reading Panel, the key to making sure no child gets "left behind" is to teach children all of the discrete skills involved in reading first, then give them opportunities to read for purpose and meaning.

Still sounds great - except for the fact that it takes children several years to learn all of those skills and thus several years before they get to try them out with real reading experiences.

This all translates into children spending the first few years of their school careers memorizing and reciting all the prerequisite skills for reading and not much time using reading for anything meaningful.

Even the biggest supporters of these reading programs concede that children have to go back years later and catch up with that other kind of important part of a reading education: understanding what you've read.

The premise behind all of this is that poor children generally start school with fewer of the experiences that promote reading success: less time on parents' laps reading books, fewer materials available to read and a lesser variety of outside-world experiences that contribute to a lens through which to understand what is read.

But instead of creating a classroom environment that provides more of those powerful experiences that contribute to reading success, the National Reading Panel's answer, by way of the state of Washington and the Tacoma School District (among many others), is to strip the classroom down to the basic units of reading, which are put together one by one until, poof, one day we have a reader.

Imagine if I tried teaching my 2-year-old to talk that way. Should I wait until he can enunciate all the letters before I tell him that I love him? Should I withhold the ice cream if he can't say the word properly? Should I hold off on asking him about his day until he knows all the parts of speech? Would I tell him that we don't get to read until he learns how to do it on his own?

We would never want that for our children. Those of us making these decisions would not accept an education for our children that was anything short of creative, challenging, rich, and dynamic. We know what children need to be successful readers. We know what society needs to contribute, and we know what schools need to contribute.

The kind of meaningless, disjointed, sterile education that we are choosing for poor children, other children, is not one that will ever give them access to broader opportunities. We will teach them to read, but we will not teach them to think, to imagine, to take risks.

It is a kind of intellectual disarming of certain groups of children that seems willful, and the government mandate with its millions of strings-attached dollars is nothing short of cruel.

The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. But in this day and age, even public education, the last bastion of equal opportunity, is succumbing to a similar stratification.

I fear the kinds of beliefs that this new generation will take for granted. What will be just-the-way-it-is for them? That poor kids and more affluent kids get different kinds of education? That kids who have less, deserve less?

To paraphrase children's advocate Jonathan Kozol, just how cold is America prepared to become?

Ohanian note: If you would like to send this remarkable school your congratulations--and a wonderful book as a token of your admiration for their courageous stand--write me and I'll give you information.

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