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NCLB Outrages

New reading plan faulted

Some fear curriculum imposed by Williams deprives grade school teachers of flexibility.

Some? What are the others doing? Are they in a coma?

Why doesn't the reporter name the reading program? Harcourt. Harcourt. Harcourt.

Some consider Harcourt a little bit less offensive than Open Court, but when used as it is in Buffalo, it's just as bad: Everybody on the same page at the same minute.

Note the description by the Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.: We're moving on scientifically based research. We're not going to rely on creativity to support these children. We're not looking for [teachers] to do their own thing." They are looking for teachers who read the script as directed. And the union finds this acceptable.

Teachers in Buffalo have been deeply unhappy with the reading series, which is not named in the article, but they have been reluctant to talk about this because they have been told by associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction that they will lose their jobs if they don't comply with the program. Their union has told them they have no legal recourse. Nine heroic Buffalo teachers got up the nerve to talk to a reporter, and four were willing to be named. The other five feared retaliation.

By Peter Simon

Buffalo School Superintendent James Williams stands fast on a new uniform guide to teaching reading in grade schools.

The reading curriculum that will largely define the success or failure of Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams' bold reform plan is drawing sharp criticism from some teachers.

They say the program is so scripted it requires teachers to read verbatim instructions from a workbook. It also instructs them how to structure each class period from minute to minute, and dictates how many days are to be spent on a particular story or subject.

If the program works as designed, teachers at all 40 city elementary schools will be teaching the same lesson, the same way, on the same day.

That has some teachers bristling.

"Not all children are coming to us in nice little six-day packages," said Sue Travis, a teacher at Lorraine Academy School 72. "You have to give teachers some leeway. That has been taken away from us. It's almost like they want little robots in front of the room."

Donna Dickey, a first-grade teacher at Olmsted School 64, described the curriculum as "a cookie-cutter program" that makes it nearly impossible to help children far below grade level catch up, or to offer enrichment to high-performing students who could benefit from it.

Travis and Dickey were among nine teachers - four willing to speak on the record - who met with a reporter recently to raise deep concerns about the program. The other five teachers voiced similar criticisms but were not willing to be quoted by name, saying they feared retaliation.

Williams, in a separate interview, said the highly structured program has worked well elsewhere and will raise dismal test scores here.

"I'm bringing research to Buffalo, New York, and we're going to do things a different way," he said. "The previous way we did it is not working. We have to teach these kids how to read."

The scripted nature of the reading program assures continuity of instruction throughout the district and allows for close monitoring of both student progress and teacher effectiveness, Williams said.

"We are very directed," he said. "This is what you teach. We're not just operating on our opinions any more."

The new method, generically called "direct instruction," has caught on in recent years, not only in English, but in math as well.

"In other districts and other places, you will find similar models, but probably not as scripted as the one in Buffalo," said Margaret Jones-Carey, associate superintendent for instruction at Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

She said a highly defined curriculum can provide continuity for students who move from school to school within a city, but will get maximum results only if it's followed consistently, is designed with a clear goal in mind and includes an accurate way of tracking pupil performance.

"It may make a lot of sense in an urban environment," Jones-Carey said.

A similar system for math instruction in Lancaster raised student test scores and assured consistency in teaching methods from building to building and classroom to classroom, said Superintendent Thomas Markle.

"The scope and sequence of the curriculum is pretty prescribed," he said. "If this is the third week in November, we should know within a couple days where you are in the curriculum."

But Markle said the system builds in "a lot of flexibility for teachers" and is not as scripted as Buffalo's reading program appears to be.

In Buffalo, teachers said the curriculum is choking creativity. Travis said a recent lesson built around a fictional account of World War II was flowing nicely, and she wanted to build on a positive, inquisitive classroom mood.

"I piqued their interest, but you know what?" she said. "We had to move on to the next story. There are no more teachable moments in the Buffalo Public Schools. We don't have time to be creative."

The program was designed without substantial teacher involvement, critics charge.

"These decisions are all made by nonclassroom teachers with no teacher input," said Carolyn Flynn, a second-grade teacher at Olmsted 64. "Why are we being treated like we don't know anything and don't know what the students need?"

Teachers fear that scores on assessment tests could rise, even as students become less creative and inquisitive.

"No one has the answers to any of our questions," said Marta Gentile, a fourth-grade teacher at Early Childhood Center School 61. " "Let's get the scores up' is the only thing anyone cares about."

There is sufficient room for teachers to make instructional decisions, but only within the prescribed curriculum, said Folasade Oladele, Buffalo's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"We move on data," she said. "We're moving on scientifically based research. We're not going to rely on creativity to support these children. We're not looking for [teachers] to do their own thing."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

— Peter Simon
Buffalo News


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