Reading For Profit: How the Bottom Line Leaves Kids Behind
reviewed by Kathryn M Hibbert
Reading For Profit: How the Bottom Line Leaves Kids Behind
Author(s): Bess Altwerger (Ed.)
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
Bess Altwerger has compiled a collection of thought provoking articles in this text in response to the passage of the 2001 U. S. No Child Left Behind legislation. The articles examine the social and historical contexts that have contributed to changes in reading instruction that many teachers and researchers consider alarming.
The degree of alarm and concern is evident in the use of extremist language woven throughout the text. For example, Altwerger’s passionate introduction to the text describes the changes in reading education as "cataclysmic," witnessed by educators with "both shock and awe," leaving many “in near paralysis as our school systems continue to loot our reading programs and curricula by order of state and federal law and then punish and demean us when their own mandates don’t meet their expectations for success” (p. 2). Steven Srauss’ contribution "Operation No Child Left Behind" draws significantly on this metaphor, with subheadings that include The Battle for the Classrooms, A Declaration of War on the Classroom, and Ending the Occupation. The use of such language illustrates the significant extent to which researchers from rival paradigms disagree with one another, and the extent to which the authors believe that reading instruction in America’s classrooms have come under attack.
The themes presented in the various chapters in the book are familiar ones. In Part 1, the authors consider the "business behind mandated reading programs." Edelsky and Bomer raise the very real concern many of us share when "instructional packages" or scripted instructional materials supplant rich literacy practices that deprive children of reading for meaning (see also Copenhaver & Carpenter, 2001). One chapter is devoted to systematically unraveling the “financial conflicts of interest that saturate educational research as it translates into educational mandates” (Garan, p. 23, see also Garan, 2004), and another examines the way schools become “conduits through which federal funds targeted for improved reading instruction are channeled to business” (Shannon & Edmondson, p. 50). Contributor Steven Strauss contends that it is “more accurate to regard NCLB as a workforce development bill [rather] than an education bill” (p. 39) as he examines the legislation in relation to class.
The second part of the book serves to demystify and debunk much of the "science" that numerous reading programs professed to be based on. Land and Moustafa examine the assumptions that scripted "scientific" programs can increase reading scores on high-stakes tests, and “compensate for a lack of teacher professional preparation” (p. 64) concluding that such programs are a “hindrance, not a help” (p. 75). Martens and Goodman continue this thread with an examination of decodable texts, noting that “decodable texts teach readers to focus on words and graphophonic cues and not trust what they know about language and the world” (p. 91). Meyers points out that although Dewey envisioned curriculum as encompassing "what happens in the classroom," corporate America has manufactured curricula based on a "one size fits all" mentality that ignores the diversity of our students and the professionalism of our teachers. Nancy Jordan furthers this notion as she examines the white androcentric nature of the "Business Roundtable" members behind the development, where “white male ideology is transmitted, reinforcing and socializing the other into the narrow roles for being the other in our society” (p. 126). Arya, Laster, and Jin examine the Open Court Program specifically and conclude that like other scripted programs, it can lead to demoralization and a deprofessionalization of teachers.
Dudley-Marling and Paugh discuss impoverished pedagogies so often assigned to our struggling readers that do not respect who they are as learners. Similarly, Wilson, Wiltz, and Lang’s contribution draws attention to the fact that so many of these programs are “designed to remediate deficits” (p. 172) leading teachers and support staff to pathologize students’ difficulties (Heydon & Iannacci, 2005).
Shelton’s article examines teachers’ responses in a climate of attack and criticism. Left feeling unsafe, and no longer confident in their practice, many resort to adopting mandated programs out of fear of public and political reprisal. One has to wonder if it is a strategic move, allowing business interest to go “beyond the immediacy of profit-making, to a more long-term goal of establishing and maintaining the social conditions for profit making” (Altwerger & Strauss, 2002, p. 275).
The book ends on an instructive note, first illustrating the dramatic efforts of a beginning teacher who sought to resist "high-stakes curriculum" and advocate more appropriate strategies for her culturally and linguistically diverse students (see Ruiz & Morales-Ellis, p. 199–215). In chapter 16, Richard Allington offers evidence-based practices sufficiently scrutinized in the research, but ignored because of “their lack of profit potential.” Karen Brown’s article. The Power of Literature Discussion, would also fall into this category. Finally, Yatvin presents us with a simplistic look at two teachers “not bound to commercial programs, not constrained by scripts, and not terrorized by tests” (p. 231) but focused instead on building programs that respond to the unique interests, needs, and dreams of the children in their classroom.
As a former classroom teacher and current language and literacy educator at the university level, I can strongly empathize with the authors’ words. My colleagues and I share the authors’ concerns with mandated programs that supplant teacher decision-making (Hibbert& Iannacci, 2005; Heydon, Hibbert, & Iannacci, 2004/2005; Hibbert, 2002). We note too that publishers have cast an even wider net in their efforts to provide not only commercial language programs, but also to capture a broader market under the guise of meeting the "professional development" needs of language teachers to time and cash-strapped boards of education (see for example, McGraw-Hill’s Breakthrough to Literacy)
Mindful of the work of Gill and Smith (2005) and Stephens (1998), I considered whether such a book might spark important discussions in the field of reading. Stephens asks teachers to recognize texts in which the authors depict worlds constructed from various perspectives. Gill and Smith argue that those various perspectives are critical to continue conversations in the field of reading instruction, compelling us to ask new and important questions.
I believe the contributors to Altwerger’s text raise very important issues that may cause teachers to pause and reflect on the "taken-for-granted." However, I remain concerned that for some the use of extreme militaristic language may limit discussions or lead readers to dismiss the authors’ perspectives, thereby preventing their collective voices from being heard. This led me to speculate about alternative purposes for the book. It is unlikely that this text will cause those in "opposing camps" (i.e., government, corporate America, or those with radically different paradigms in reading instruction) to reflect on their own positions or enter discussions that would serve to move the field toward a reconciliatory position on this topic.
Rather, I suspect that this book will stimulate important discussions among teachers, parents, and concerned members of the public. As such, I believe this book represents a call to action. The authors suggest that the NCLB legislation ambushed teachers, parents, and students. This book seeks to arm educators with both knowledge and the social and historical contexts that will inform their current actions and fuel discussions about alternative visions for reading education. It is written with passion, conviction, and dedication to reprofessionalizing teachers of reading. Throughout the book, the high level of frustration and anger is visible; frustration with the misleading or incomplete information released in government reports and anger with the extent to which the NCLB legislation (and influences of corporate America) have virtually usurped much of teachers’ decision-making authority in their classrooms. Although I am saddened to see the appropriation of extreme military language to make an argument in a text dealing with reading instruction, I am convinced that in the current climate, such language may be one of the necessary rules of engagement.
Altwerger B., & Strauss, S. (2002). The business behind testing. Language Arts, 79, 256–263.
Copenhaver, J. F., & Carpenter, M. (2001). Running out of time: Rushed read-alouds in a primary classroom. Language Arts, 79(2), 148–159.
Garan, E.M. (2004). In defense of our children: When politics, profit and education collide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gill, S. R., & Smith, K. (2005). Necessary and irreconcilable differences: Paradigms within the field of reading. Language Arts, 82(3), 214–221.
Heydon, R., Hibbert, K., & Iannacci, L. (2004/2005). Strategies to support balanced literacy approaches in pre and in-service teacher education. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy, 48(4), 2–9.
Heydon, R., & Iannacci, L. (2005). Biomedical approaches to literacy: Two curriculum teachers challenge the treatment of dis/ability in contemporary early literacy education. Language & Literacy, 7(2). [Online]. Available September 8, 2005, http://www.langandlit.ualberta.ca/current.html.
Hibbert, K., & Iannacci, L. (2005). From dissemination to discernment: The commodification of literacy Instruction and the fostering of "good teacher consumerism," Reading Teacher. 58(8), 2–13.
Hibbert, K. (2002). Don't steal the struggle! The commercialization of literacy and its impact on teachers. Talking Points, 13(2), 2–6.
Stephens, D. (1998). Introduction: Literacy education as a political act. In C. Weaver (Ed.), Practicing what we know: Informed reading instruction. Urbana, Ill: National Council of Teachers of English.
Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 806-810
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12187, Date Accessed: 11/24/2006 7:33:42 PM
Kathryn M Hibbert
Teachers College Record
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES