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A ROADBLOCK in Vermont's Design for Education

Susan Notes:

Although this document details the Vermont State Department of Education's servile application for a Reading First grant, it echoes what all the money-grubbing state ed departments did. We at VSSE hope this documentation of our experience will be useful to others.

A copy of this document, which includes the Vermont Design for Education, is available for $5 from
Box 26
Charlotte, VT 05445

by Susan Ohanian

Examination of two Vermont State Department of Education documents designed to establish policy about how teachers teach, how children learn, and how communities participate) in forming education goals in Vermont raises questions about who's in charge--and to whom the Vermont State Department of Education is accountable. At the same time that the U. S. Department of Education Inspector General exposes shocking improprieties in the federal Reading First program's grant application process, here in Vermont we must ask if the State Department of Education still exists as an independent entity or if it has become merely a lapdog of various corporate-politico interests.

A backward glance to 1969, when the Vermont State Department of Education issued a remarkable document, The Vermont Design for Education, is useful in revealing just how radical the current State Department edicts are when it comes to teaching reading.

A New Design
The Vermont Design for Education, issued by the Office of the Commissioner, State Department of Education in 1968, is a remarkable document, calling on Vermont values and strengths in setting the course of education of Vermont children. From the opening sentence we see an optimisitic, student-centered vision of what education is, where it comes from, and who it's for.

Education in Vermont, if it is to move forward, must have a goal toward which to move, a basic philosophy which combines the best which is known about learning, children development, and human relations with the unique and general needs and desires of Vermont communities. It is entirely possible to discuss goals and ideals in terms of more and better classrooms, expanded library facilities, health services, audio, visual equipment, and such.

The Vermont Design for Education takes the position that, although these are certainly justifiable concerns, an educational philosophy should center around and focus upon the individual, his learning process, and his relationship and interaction with the teacher.

The document then lists seventeen premises which "constitute a goal, an ideal, a student-centered philosophy for the process of education in Vermont."

A Different Imperative: Learning the Code
Thirty-five years later, the Vermont State Department of Education compiled a grant proposal (Number 84.357 in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance) seeking Reading First money distributed under No Child Left Behind guidelines. The audience was a controversial committee at the U. S. Department of Education and implementation of the plan it contains is mandatory.

The U. S. Department of Education defines Reading First as a program that "focuses on putting proven methods of early reading instruction in classrooms. Through Reading First, states and districts receive money to apply "scientifically based reading research" [sic]--and the proven instructional and assessment tools consistent with this research--to ensure that all children learn to read well by the end of third grade." Right from the get-go, Vermont's Reading First Grant Proposal reflects the expectations--and the language--and the corporate imperative--of the U. S. Department of Education:

Vermont's Reading First program focuses on putting proven methods of early reading instruction in classrooms. Through Reading First, the Vermont Department of Education (VT DOE) and participating supervisory districts (LEAs) and schools will receive support to apply scientifically based reading research--and proven instructional and assessment tools consistent with this research--to ensure that all children learn to read well by the end of third grade. The Reading First program will provide the necessary assistance to Vermont DOE and LEAS to establish research-based, comprehensive reading programs for students in kindergarten through third grade. Funds will also support a significant increase in professional development to ensure that all teachers have the skills they need to teach these reading programs effectively.

This is standard political spin control transferred to education policy: lay claim to code words that define the territory, squash all discussion about pedagogy, philosophy, and practice. These words are repeated so often they
become a mantra signaling Washington D. C. control:
  • proven methods

  • scientifically based reading research

  • proven instructional and assessment tools

  • research-based, comprehensive reading programs ensure that all teachers have the skills to teach these reading programs preparing
    teachers to screen, identify and eliminate reading barriers

  • The punchline driving all components of Vermont's 195-page grant application appears in the second paragraph: Only programs fully aligned with scientifically based reading research (SBRR) will be eligible for funding through Reading First. As it happens, only a specially screened and vetted Federal committee gets to define "science" and to decide whose research counts. Although newspaper headlines and editorials have documented the travesties
    of the Federal definitions of science in biology, stem cell research, and the environment, causing scholars to dismiss the term White House science as an oxymoron, the fact that the federal claim to the science of reading is similarly suspect has escaped the notice of most mainstream media. Any claim to the science of reading would be a joke if it didn't have such tragic consequences for
    children. Newton's famous force = mass x acceleration is science; testing children
    on such nonsense words as yiz, zum, vep as a vehicle for teaching reading is, at best, opinion and at worst, dogma. It is not science.

    We can hope that the Final Inspection Report of The Reading First Program's Grant Application Process by the U. S. Department of Education
    Inspector General1 may at least raise questions about the skill drill imperative gobbling up school time. Certainly the report provides insight into the peculiar federal slant on SBRR, though memos describing the "scientific review"
    required IG deletion of X-rated expletives. Here the Reading first director describes the process:

    Beat the (expletive deleted) out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and whole language apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the (expletive deleted) out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.

    Witness our federal tax dollars at work.
    Adamant and implacable in their call for a peculiar assumption about reading instruction, the U. S. Department of Education offers a particularized form of faith-based reading, casting out dissenters as heretics and pariahs.
    And in the name of securing federal funds, the Vermont Department of Education parrots this politically-imposed definition of reading. Certainly, proven methods is a hotly contested term, but the definition presented to Vermont educators allows no wiggle room.

    That the reading definition is very particular is evidenced in the fact that a large percentage of members of the Reading First panel of experts who pass out edicts on reading definitions and materials received their degrees in psychology,
    with emphasis in learning disabilities. Their work includes the study of the brain of dead dyslexics, comparison of Chinese and English word identification processes, and the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the influence of sex hormones on cognitive development during puberty. Let Vermonters decide which category suits their children.

    Addressing the annual meeting of the Education Writer's Association in June 2006, in a talk titled "Reading First, Science Last," Robert Slavin, Co-Director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University and Chairman of the Success for All Foundation, pointed out that states' grants for Reading First dollars look
    amazingly familiar: They use the same charts and the same consultants; they promise to use the same reading programs. Slavin points out that Rhode Island, to name one, had to revise its proposal six times. "Not until they settled on this [federal] list, and forbade their districts to choose anything else, did their federal reviewers finally accept their proposal." Vermont grant writers at the State Department of Education were much quicker at toeing the line.

    Mom, Apple Pie, and Rigor
    Perhaps we can take small comfort that rigor doesn't rear its ugly head until page 3 in the Vermont application: provide rigorous expectations for reading instruction throughout the grant sites and across the state. The education-industrial complex loves rigor. In 1999, when Edward Rust, Jr., chief executive officer of State Farm Insurance Company, addressed the U. S. House of Representatives, saying that "the federal government has a role in helping states develop and maintain rigorous academic standards," he brought the weight of his chairmanship of the National Alliance of Business and the Education Task Force for The Business Roundtable, not to mention board positions at McGraw-Hill, Achieve, Inc., and the Business-Higher Education Forum.

    Six years later, speaking at the National Governors Association education summit, Bill Gates identified a new set of 3 Rs--the first one being Rigor. In announcing a $42 million initiative to prepare all students for success, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation trumpeted: Leaders Call for Equity, Rigor in the
    American High School.
    And when money talks, politicos legislate.

    The President's 774-page budget bill calls for the federal government to
    rate the academic rigor of the nation's 18,000 high schools.

    Republicans and Democrats vie for whose education platform is more rigorous: Mom, apple pie, and rigor.

    People who have faith in such politico-corporate flotsam would do well to consider the definition of rigor:

    Rigor: Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment.
    A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship.
    A harsh or cruel act.
    Physiology: A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.
    Syn: Stiffness, rigidness; inflexibility; severity; austerity; sternness; harshness; strictness; exactness.
    --The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition. 2000

    It seems fair to ask if anybody at 120 State Street in Montpelier asked Vermonters how much rigor they want for their kindergartners, who, thanks to the edicts of Reading First, now inhabit very rigorous intensive skill drill zones, which impose repetitive drill on youngsters, greatly restricting the time available for exposure to beautiful books, to art and music, to recess.

    Looking at Language
    Throughout their texts, the contrast in language and expectation between the Vermont State Departments of Education in 1968 and 2003 is telling.

    Combines the best of what is known about learning, citing educational philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Piaget

    Emphasizes each child's unique way of learning

    De-emphasizes rote learning

    Emphasizes flexibility

    Calls for learning experiences geared to individual needs rather than group norms

    Involves entire local community in setting standards

    Stresses student development of a personal philosophy

    Believes students can learn from each other

    Encourages students to question authority

    Implementation is voluntary

    Document length: 25 pages (including student art work) for all curriculum

    Requires use of "proven methods" promulgated by boosters of "scientifically based reading research"

    Emphasizes procedures for all children

    Emphasizes close monitoring of scripted, systematic, explicit instruction

    Demands rigorous expectations

    Insists on data based decision making

    Uses experts identified by the U. S. Department of Education

    Stresses automatic word identification skills

    Insists on prescribed, scripted instruction

    Emphasizes right answers

    Implementation is required

    Length: 196 pages for K-3 reading curriculum

    In his 1971 letter companying the fifth edition of the Vermont Design, Education Commissioner Joseph H. Oakey emphasized that

    [T]he local district. . . is being placed in the position of creating its own design for education. The local district design can be that of the Vermont Design but it can also be of its own choosing, subject to the approval of the State Department of Education. The Department is
    making its total resources plus those of a mutually agreed upon consultant available to the local community. The local design committee will include representatives from all segments of the local society.

    Contrast the tone of this 2003 letter from the U. S. Department of Education Expert Review Team Report explaining why Vermont's first application for a Reading First grant was not accepted.
  • The proposal does not clearly demonstrate the application of scientifically based reading research to the selection of instructional program and materials. The review team expressed concern that some items in the Vermont Criteria for Evaluating Programs and Materials in Early
    Reading (Appendix A) could result in the selection of programs and materials that are not aligned with scientifically based reading research. For example, explicit instruction is suggested for children reading below grade level. This is a strategy that should be used for all students.

  • The State's definition of subgrant eligibility includes criteria in addition to the statutory guidelines. Only the criteria outlined in the program legislation may be used to establish eligibility.

  • The review team did not find the Vermont Criteria for Evaluating Programs and Materials to ensure that participating schools and districts would select and implement scientifically based instructional materials.

  • The proposal does not appear to ensure that teachers in participating schools will be required to participate in professional development activities.

  • The review team did not find the proposal to demonstrate that all activities will operate in a coherent and seamless fashion.

  • Surely the question for Vermonters who care about the purposes of public education must be: Who's in charge? Who gets to decide which materials and procedures are offered to first graders? Who aligns what? Who gets to decide what is important for a specific six-year-old on a given day?

    Historically, Vermonters themselves decided. The commissioner and the state board of education acted after consulting with people across the state.

    They had faith that the teachers would do their best for the children in their care. But now a well-kept secret is that the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities (1996), standards on which Vermonters reached consensus in meetings across the state, have been changed without so much as an Excuse me, Mabel. Now, in the name of federal science, a single instructional strategy to be imposed on all children has been shipped out from the U. S. Department of Education.

    Thirty-five years ago, Commissioner Joseph H. Oakey put the emphasis in community, and the people who developed the Vermont Framework of
    Standards and Learning Opportunities (1996) continued in this tradition, actively seeking the advice and consent of Vermonters. The many ordinary citizens who had a part in producing the Vermont Framework will be surprised to learn how easily bureaucrats, seemingly answerable to no one, removed such important pedagogical concepts as multi-grade standards--to be
    replaced by grade-specific injunctions.

    An appalling mea culpa comes early in Vermont's Reading First grant application. Worried about how the grant approvers in Washington D. C. might view Vermont's tree- hugging, book-loving reputation, the grant writers ask forgiveness for decades of past practices and proclaim that they have seen
    the light:

    Gaps Over the past few decades, Vermont has been perceived as a "whole language state." While this is certainly not a universal characteristic of schools within the state, Vermont has been slow to integrate standards that specifically address phonemic awareness and phonics. The current revision of the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities2 is a departure from this trend, and will provide the state's schools and teachers with better guidance for teaching reading at all grade levels--particularly early reading (k-3).

    The question here is not phonics or no phonics, which is a straw man battle set up to distract and obfuscate. The question is Who's in charge? Who decides that Vermont's Framework was improperly designed? Who decides Vermont's literacy standards need to be grade-level specific and that they should impose a regimented notion of literacy? Specifically, who wrote the current revision (and with the advice and consent of whom)? Who gets to define "better guidance?"

    Second question: Why have Vermont professional organizations been silent about this usurpation of their rich education culture? Where is the outrage? Where are the marches on the offices of the State Department of Education?

    Hello Washington D. C. Science [sic], Good-bye Vermont Framework
    To get federal money, the Vermont State Department of Education cheerfully discarded the multi-grade standards developed by teams of educators, consultants, and parents.

    Grade-specific teaching and learning expectations are critical to the success of any reading program. Currently, Vermont's standards are listed in clusters for K-4, 5-8, and 9-12, with no grade-specific expectations. Plans are in place to develop grade-specific expectations
    linked to the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities. These expectations will be extremely helpful to LEAs developing curriculum and programs, and will be available to them by the end of 2003. [See note 1]

    The grade-level expectations for K-3 will specify skills for each grade level and each essential component of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension.
    These grade-level expectations will also assist universities and colleges as they revise pre- service teacher education programs.

    Clearly, many Vermont educators once disputed the assertion that "grade-specific teaching and learning expectations are critical to the success of any reading program" when they adopted Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities in grade clusters. But now, functionaries in Washington, D. C. snap their fingers and Vermont State Department of
    Education camp followers snap to attention, so that even the Vermont Framework is up for sale. Are the people at the Vermont State Department of Education lying when they now say that grade- level expectations specifying individual skills are essential? Of course not. In the world of NCLB spin, there is no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration. John Adams put it this way: "The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing." In Vermont, power has usurped the freedom of community
    conversation and consensus.

    In its application for a Reading First grant, the Vermont State Department of Education acknowledges that "Vermont has one of the highest community participation rates in the nation. Accompanying this civic pride and community service is a long-held tradition of local independence in education." [Emphasis added] But seven pages later (on p. 10) the writers toss out education traditions such as local selection of outcome assessments.

    The Vermont REA (Reading Excellence Act) program lacked a systematic approach to training for reading coaches, and the implementation of some REA programs suffered because of it. Although we honored the local selection of outcome assessments in REA, we will not provide this option in Reading First. Schools will still have some flexibility in selecting diagnostic assessments--but screening, progress monitoring and outcomes assessments will be prescribed for all Reading First schools. Such assessments must be uniform in order to ensure that students are appropriately identified for extra help and that SBRR programs are achieving desired results.

    So what do we have here?
    a) ideologues
    b) consultants on the make
    c) bureaucratic wimps who do what they're told
    d) other __________________

    This is not a quarrel about one reading method over another or even about multi-grade or single -grade standards, issues that should be decided
    locally. This is a quarrel about Who decides? Who sets standards and practices and curricula and assessments for six-year-old Jane Doe in Jericho? Does her teacher decide? District committees and the board of education? Montpelier? Ideologues in Washington D. C.? Or the Business Roundtable?

    Here's how the Vermont application for Reading First grant moneys lays out the decision-making process.

    Local selection of instructional programs and materials will be subject to review using the document Vermont Criteria for Evaluating
    Instructional Programs and Materials in Reading,
    which is based on the Vermont Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities, the second edition of the Consumer's Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading
    (Simmons and Kame'enui, 2003), and, to a lesser extent, the review criteria of other states (See Appendix A). The use of these evaluation criteria will ensure that all core, supplemental, and intervention reading programs and materials align with SBRR and Vermont's
    Standards (see Part I, D. 4 & 5).

    The Vermont functionaries didn't invent this process. Handlers at state departments of ed across the country watched each other's grants carefully, adjusting their own according to who was getting a nod from Washington D. C. and who wasn't. National press accounts indicate that inclusion of the Consumer's Guide to Evaluating a Core Reading Program, developed by partisans of scientific reading at the University of Oregon, was critical to a state grant getting the federal stamp of approval. Education Week, hardly a vehicle for criticizing standards, noticed what it took to get a grant accepted.3

    One of the most remarkable elements of Reading First is its promotion of a limited number of professional development models for schools
    across the country. In most initial state Reading First applications, states proposed to use reading experts from their local universities. These were almost invariably rejected. Regardless of the qualifications of their state experts, states were routinely cautioned that "degrees do not equal expertise in SBRR." Reviewer comments uniformly questioned
    the qualifications of anyone other than a set of "national experts." In practice, our reviews of state Reading First proposals, federal reviews of those proposals, correspondence from state Reading First directors, and invoices for payment, make it clear that states primarily
    used three professional development providers: Louisa Moats and her LETRS program, published by Sopris West; Edward Kame'enui and Deborah Simmons and their Institutes on Beginning Reading; and Sharon Vaughn and adaptations of her Texas Reading Academies.

    Writing in the Thompson Title 1 Monitor, Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks observe that "It was roughly ten years ago that forces in research, policy and trade converged to form what would ultimately become Reading First."
    Brownstein and Hicks' two blockbuster reports4 detail the relationship between research, connections, and commerce in Reading First as well as the loss of local control over educational policy. The very titles of these reports--When Research Goes to Market, Is It a Good Thing for Education? and Reading First
    Under Fire: IG Targets Conflicts of Interest, Limits on Local Control
    --alert the reader
    that a ReadingGate was in the making, complete with conspiracy and cover-ups and then lies to cover up the conspiracy and cover ups.

    Not surprisingly, Vermont functionaries cast the issue in more high-sounding terms.

    Vermont's approved Reading First application enables the state to receive $2.2 million for the first year of a multi-year federal grant to
    improve early elementary instruction and student achievement in reading. Under the Reading First program, the state could receive a total of more than $14 million over six years to support implementation of comprehensive, high-quality, research-based reading programs to ensure that all kindergarten through grade-three (K-3) students are reading at or above grade level. The state will invest the bulk of funds in competitive subgrants to eligible supervisory unions/districts that demonstrate intense need-- as defined by high-poverty and low-student achievement in early reading--and a readiness for change.

    Ah, what a phrase: readiness for change. How clever this is: educators and parents in Vermont who dare to stand up and denounce Reading First rules and regimens will be labeled as old stick-in-the-muds, not showing necessary
    readiness for change. This grant is competitive; there will be winners and losers among grant seekers. Only people capable of the kind of change mandated by the federal government need apply. Never mind that this federal version of change denotes an ability to abandon a rich cultural and pedagogical heritage; it's the ability to roll over and play dead.

    Principals come under special scrutiny in Vermont's Reading First grant.

    In Vermont's Reading First schools, instructional leadership will involve more than knowledge of the five elements of reading.
    Principals will be expected to know the details of scientifically based reading programs (the five elements, core reading programs, proven
    instructional strategies, classroom management and grouping practices, valid and reliable assessment, and proven safety nets) and best
    practices for facilitating school improvement efforts.

    One can wonder if the grant writers ever watched a good principal at work. Writing in the Journal of Staff Development,5 Kent Peterson observes that "A principal's day is built on fragments of tasks and decisions," with hundreds of brief tasks each day, sometimes 50 to 60 separate interactions in an hour.

    During one morning hour, for example, there could be an uncovered classroom, a broken arm, a scuffle, a request from the central office for data, and a myriad of requests for information from parents, students, and teachers. Short tasks require different skills and knowledge than longer ones. The principal must analyze,
    assess, and develop solutions or strategies quickly with little time to consider alternatives. Rapid problem identification and solving is the norm.

    Most would agree that good principals are instructional leaders. That means they recognize, inspire, and support good teaching. That does not mean they have to know minute details of so-called "scientifically based
    reading programs." Good principals rely on and have faith in good teachers.

    DIBELS Rules
    All schools receiving Reading First grants must use the same assessments. DIBELS [Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills] rules. Developed at the Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement, University of Oregon, one of the highly controversial elements of this assessment device is the speed reading of nonsense words. And to make sure children do well on the assessment, they are drilled in DIBELS material, even getting it as homework. Instead of being advised to read aloud to their kindergartners, parents are asked to drill them in letter naming fluency and phonemic segmentation. Children in affluent schools get rich literature; children of poverty get DIBELS.

    Here's a typical DIBELS assessment. Try reading this list aloud. How many nonsense "words" can you read in one minute? Ask your significant
    other, your neighbor, and your butcher, baker, and candlestick maker to read it aloud while you time them. Listen to their outrage, and think about the children, who are taught only to obey.

    y i z
    w a n
    z u m
    v e p
    And so on. Youngsters are scored on how many of these nonsense "words" they can read in one minute. And thusly, the Vermont State Department of Education follows the federal imperative, offering proof to children that reading, when
    it's not a bore, is a torture. And it makes no sense.

    In documenting the outrageous cronyism and commercial connections involved in Reading First grant acceptance, Brownstein and Hicks show the
    importance given to DIBELS. After having their Reading First grant denied for the third time, Kentucky officials were strongly urged by Reading First consultants to drop the assessment they were using, Pearson's Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), and choose the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). Unknown to Kentucky officials at that time, one of the Reading First consultants worked as a trainer for DIBELS. Kentucky officials say that Chris Doherty, then-Director of the $4.8 billion "Reading First" program at the US Department of Education, told them to use DIBELS or they'd get no federal funding.

    Doherty told Brownstein and Hicks this never happened, but The Final Inspection Report from the U. S. Department of Education Inspector General confirms it did. Take another look at that e-mail from Doherty to a Department of Education staffer who was reviewing some reading programs Doherty didn't like. (The IG removed expletives.)

    "Beat the (expletive) out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and whole language apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR, never have been and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the (expletive) out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.'

    And these are the folk who claim to be scientific in their approach.

    Speaking Out
    The Vermont Society for the Study of Education didn't need an Inspector General report to know that something was wrong with DIBELS. VSSE is at
    the national forefront in fighting unilateral imposition of DIBELS assessment. We have established a national clearinghouse on DIBELS,6 offering research, case studies, parent and teacher anecdotes and outrages. VSSE published the first critical look at DIBELS: Examining DIBELS: What it is and What it Does. The book's editor and main contributor is Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus from the Department of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona. Expertly evoking the DIBELS landscape, Goodman sees DIBELS as
    the "pedagogy of the absurd."

    Teachers are speaking out. Writing in the Tacoma News-Tribune,7 veteran kindergarten-first grade combination teacher Farin Houk-Cerna described DIBELS craziness.

    "How many phonemes (sounds) can they segment in one minute? OK, when I say 'man' you say /m/ /a/ /n/. Easy! Just make sure that if I say 'trick', you don't say /tr/ /ick/ - that's too many sounds all mushed up together. That might work for real reading, but it won't keep you out of the at risk category.

    "How many nonsense words can my kindergartners read in one minute? My five-year-olds -- all but two of whom speak another language at home -- those kindergartners? Aren't they all nonsense
    words to them? We go through the list: vaj, ov, sim, lut, and my personal favorite, fek. The kids look puzzled. One says, 'If you switch
    these two letters and you put a j at the beginning you'll have 'jump' teacher!" Sorry, honey, that's wrong and you've used up your time
    trying to make some sense of these words. Off to the at risk group you go!"

    And what does it mean to be "at risk?" It means that children drill and drill until they can recite 54 alphabet letters in 60 seconds. It means they drill and drill on decoding nonsense words. It means their parents are urged to drill them at home. And improved performance on subsequent DIBELS tests is viewed as progress. As Houk-Cerna notes, "If the parents didn't have to work 3 jobs in order to keep their spot in a rundown, cramped public housing unit, they could spend more time talking, playing, and reading with their children."

    Parents are speaking out too. Lisa Laser's son had a wonderful kindergarten experience in Portland, but thirteen days after he started first grade in a new school in rural Oregon, the school cautioned that her son should repeat
    kindergarten because of his poor showing on DIBELS. She observes, "Our son is a very thoughtful and cautious boy, so 'careful and deliberative' is exactly how he would approach a test. He is not one to be rushed, whether
    it's getting his shoes on or painting a picture." Or naming alphabet letters. As she recounts in Examining DIBELS: What it is and What it does, "We had not planned to home- school our children but after a brief period at the local school, we felt homeschooling was our best option or we risked crushing the spirit of
    our son, Ellis. We are fortunate to spend our days dancing in the living room, watching the family of hawks, reading wonderful books, building forts, studying cheetahs and never ever practicing nonsense words."8

    Fast Curriculum
    Oregon parent Lisa Laser observes that she was surprised but not at first alarmed to hear from her son's first grade teacher that all incoming students knew how to read. "My son, Ellis, does not know how to read, nor do we support
    a teaching philosophy that would make this a de facto mandate for entering or even finishing first grade." This is a remarkable stand in a nation where skill-drill centers are now opening for three-year-olds whose parents are frantic
    to make sure they get a leg up in the competitive rat race. In a fast food nation, Reading First is pushing a Fast Skill Curriculum: Speed counts; deliberation fails. . . and repeats kindergarten.

    Everybody should sit down and read Maurice Holt's "It's Time to Start the Slow School Movement," Phi Delta Kappan, December 2002.9

    [I]n 1986, a McDonald's hamburger franchise opened its doors in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Carlo Petrini--then a journalist for a
    weekly magazine--made a joke that turned into a movement: "We said, there's fast food, so why not slow food?"
    . . . As the movement has grown, its main concerns have emerged: it is, "above all, a movement for cultural dignity," it is "a battle
    against a way of life based solely on speed and convenience," and it seeks to save "the cultural inheritance of humanity."

    Similarly the developmental rights of school- children to savor learning are at stake in the current speed-up of curriculum. Holt argues:

    The form of schooling espoused under the banner of standards demonstrates the same deterministic thinking that governs the production of fast food. What is sought is a conception of educational practice that can be defined in terms of content and sequence and assessed in terms of agreed-upon ends capable of numerical expression. The engagement between teacher and learner should be as predictable as possible, and variation between one teacher and another
    can be offset by scripting the learning encounter and tightening the form of assessment. If the purpose of schooling is to deliver the
    knowledge and skills that business needs, this approach cuts costs, standardizes resources, and reduces teacher training to a school-based process.

    Samuel Freedman's late August 2006 "On Educa- tion" column in The New York Times seemed to embrace this mechanized, streamlined, fast food notion of education when it dismissed the idea of developmentally appropriate practice as so much "fashionable folderol."10 Maybe Freedman should talk to parents like Lisa Laser, parents who favor a slow curriculum over the fastskill

    Scrambling to get Federal dollars, the Vermont State Department of Education has brought fast-skill reading curriculum to our state. It is past time for all Vermonters to take another look at the slow, careful respect for cultural
    dignity represented by Vermont's Design for Education, where the focus is child centered rather than numbers centered.

    Consider this: A Steinway grand has more than 12,000 parts, and a third grader's brain has about 100 billion neurons; but it's the Steinway that's acknowledged as unique, differing not only from all other piano brands but from all other Steinways. In a New York Times article celebrating the Steinway, James Barron says, "Perhaps it is the wood. No matter how carefully Steinway selects or prepares each batch, some trees get more sunlight than others in the forest, and some get more water. Certain piano technicians say uncontrollable factors make the difference." Uncontrollable factors. These days, piano makers may talk about uncontrollable factors, but no teacher or principal had better try it. With test-score numbers passing for accountability, "No Excuses" is the mantra for schools. Children are described as future competitors in the Global
    Economy who must get a leg up in pre-K or be squashed.

    Ask any teacher and she will tell you how dif- ferent is each third grader in her classroom. But the corporate-politico-media alliance that has culminated in Vermont's Reading First grant abandons teacher judgments as "anecdotal,"
    putting all their eggs in the data crunching basket. The result is a Wal-Martized education. A third grader might as well be in Tucson or Boise or Modesto or Wichita or Muncie as in Jericho. With the corporate politicos in charge, it no longer matters. Send in the scripts. And teachers fear if they try veering from that script, they're dead meat.

    Where the Money Goes
    On page one of their Grant Proposal, the Vermont Department of Education (VT DOE) declares that it "will make awards that are of sufficient
    size and scope to enable supervisory districts and schools to improve reading instruction." The VT DOE estimates this to be $700 to $800 per child. As is typical when a government insti- tution finds that poverty is a problem, money
    to solve the problem goes to middle class people supplying the services and goods perceived to be needed by the poor. Monies don't go to the poor. Just "services." It would be of considerable interest to watch the reading scores of
    children living in poverty if their families received a living wage and had the funds to buy books, subscribe to newspapers, attend concerts, visit museums, and participate in many of the other niceties which children in middle class
    families are able to take for granted.

    Or maybe they'd have to use it to pay the skyrocketing increase in home heating oil. But surely living in a cold house isn't good for a child's education. In the first chapter of Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform To Close the Black-White Achievement Gap noted economist Richard
    Rothstein documents living conditions that lead to the lower achievement levels of poor students:
  • A greater incidence of vision problems

  • A greater incidence of hearing problems

  • A greater incidence of untreated cavities (and hence toothaches)

  • A greater incidence of lead dust exposure, which harms cognitive functioning and behavior

  • A great incidence of iron deficiency anemia

  • Treating these problems is likely to be of much more benefit to student success in school than changing multi-grade standards and drilling children in nonsense words. But such a treatment requires a huge shift in attention. By design of the Business Roundtable plan11 of the late 1980's which preceded it, No Child Left Behind insists that the achievement gap is the fault of inadequate teachers and schools that need to be held in thrall by a system of rewards and punishments. To suggest that the achievement gap might be the result of the lack of a living wage, the lack of universal health care, and the
    lack of adequate living conditions, incon- veniently shifts the blame elsewhere.

    Over three years, Vermont received $6,994,673 in Reading First grant money. According to Reading First guidelines, the state may reserve up to
    20% of their funds for professional development, technical assistance, and planning, admini- strative and reporting activities. All those middle class people benefiting from federal assistance. According to federal statistics, Reading First grants are currently benefiting more than 100,000 teachers and 1.5 million
    students. (Their emphasis.) Clearly, a lot lies on the definition of benefit. But even so, this is only part of the story. There is also the hierarchy that supports the complex Reading First bureaucracy. Take Wisconsin: For its
    Reading First staff, it lists a director, a coordinator, a library media consultant,
    two monitoring consultants, an assessment consultant, a program assistant, and 3 technical advisors. Again, it's the middle classes that benefit economically, not the poor.

    Who Gets to Choose?
    Page 44 of Vermont's application for a Reading First grant declares:

    One of the most essential elements of quality Reading First Subgrant will be the imple- mentation of a core reading program. Simmons and
    Kameenui define "core" reading programs as "the primary instructional tool that teachers use to teach children to learn to read and ensure they reach reading levels that meet or exceed grade- level expectations . . . Local selection of core reading programs will be subject to review using the "Vermont Criteria for Evaluating Instructional Programs and Materials in Reading".

    The Vermont criteria are based on the work of Deborah Simmons and Edward Kameenui. As various journalistic reports have documented, no
    Reading First grant was accepted until the petitioners included this criteria. According to his profile at the University of Oregon, Edward Kameenui directs or co-directs four of the eight federal and state research and state training grants. The results are very narrow limits on what "science" means and what reading instruction is permitted. Vermont gets these rules from the U. S. Department of Education and passes them on to districts applying for grants,
    promising the feds that: "Each application will be evaluated by a minimum of three outside readers, two of whom will have expertise in scientifically based (sic) reading research and one of whom will have expertise in effective school reform models. The readers will be trained in using the Reading First application-
    scoring rubric. . . .

    Professional development providers must meet specific selection criteria, including Knowledge of the current Vermont educational context. . . .12 No dissenting voices need apply. Knowledge that does not fit in the plan cooked up by the U. S. Department of Education is not allowed. Eight pages of specific teacher skills are listed.

    While a striking feature about the Vermont Design for Education is the stress on
    voluntary participation, Vermont's Reading First grant application stresses plans to assure fidelity to federally approved reading programs, instructional practices and assessments.13 Where the tenets of the Design for Education were established through conversations with Vermont communities, the writing team for Vermont's Reading First application consulted with the
    Reading Leadership Academy in Washington, D. C. and the staff at RMC Research Corporation (with offices in Portsmouth, Denver, Arlington, and
    Portland, OR).

    According to documents obtained by People for the American Way, the U. S. Department of Education paid Ketchum, a public relations firm and subsidiary of media giant Omnicom, to produce fake news reports to promote NCLB. Ketchum also "benchmarked" media coverage of NCLB for the Department of Education. Stories were rated on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 100
    being an "ideal media mention"). Not sur- prisingly, an op ed by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige received the highest marks. A Vermont educator came in at the low end. Kenneth Remsen, then-principal at the Underhill School in Jericho, wrote a clever parable for the Burlington Free Press, "In Vermont, No Cow Left Behind," which caught fire on the Internet.14 It was rated -70 (that's
    minus 70) by Ketchum. ("Some farmers may be upset that I proclaim to know what is best for these cows but I certainly consider myself capable of making these recommendations. I grew up next to a farm and I drink milk.")

    Teachers See NCLB as Negative
    Working with Dana Rapp, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, VSSE conducted a survey to examine teachers' attitudes about how NCLB affects their work. The survey found that 80 percent of teachers
    don't think that students' needs are reflected in NCLB requirements. Additionally, 83 percent say that NCLB has a negative effect on education, with 44 percent characterizing it as a "very negative" effect. These negative
    effects have driven a kindergarten teacher in southern Vermont from the classroom. "I have elected to take a break from NCLB and its heinous demands on my Kindergarten students." She has asked for a year's leave of absence, citing NCLB assessments as one of the more compelling reasons. "I cannot bear to implement all the assessments, etc. at the expense of what my students need most desperately: time to PLAY and EXPLORE." Those words do not appear
    in the Vermont application for a Reading First grant.

    Respected researcher and recipient of the VSSE John Dewey Award, Gerald Bracey, calls NCLB "a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is
    the public school system." Senator James Jeffords sees NCLB as "a back door to anything that will let the private sector take over public education." Nationwide, ten Senators voted against No Child Left Behind. Two of them
    were from Vermont. We were three-for-three, with Congressman Sanders also voting "Nay,"

    Richard Cate, the Vermont commissioner of education, refuses to get riled over the legislation, advising everybody to relax. "We're going to work our way through it," he assured those attending Vermont-NEA's "Defending
    Vermont Public Schools" conference.15 Cate reassured parents at Bellows Falls High School, insisting that regardless of what national reports say, NCLB will not have a negative impact on Vermont schools. Cate thinks the feds will have to change. "They are redefining what 2014 means. I wouldn't worry about it."16

    One is reminded of Herbert Hoover's famous remark, "With impressive proof on all sides of magnificent progress, no one can rightly deny the fundamental correctness of our economic system." He said this in 1928.

    Doug Christensen, Nebraska education commissioner, has become a national hero by showing another way. He is fighting the federal one-size-fits-all template, announcing, "I don't give a damn what No Child Left Behind says. I think education is far too complex to be reduced to a single score. We decided we were going to take No Child Left Behind and integrate it into our plan, not the other way around. If it's bad for kids, we're not going to do it."17 Christen- sen has also pointed out that "The Constitution of this country says education is a state matter, that it's our job, and I cannot in good conscience stand up in front of anyone in this state and say we need to do something because the federal government says we do."

    In his ruling of the 2002 case of Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Judge Damon J. Keth, Senior Judge for the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, stated, "Democracies die behind closed doors." It is time to open the
    doors on the Vermont State Education Department's dealings with the federal
    1 September 2006. http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0017.pdf
    2 http://www.state.vt.us/educ/new/html/pgm_curriculum/literacy.html#ge
    3 Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, "Reading Programs Bear Similarities Across the States," Education Week. Feb. 4, 2004.
    4 Andrew Brownstein and Travis Hicks, "Special Report: Reading First Under Fire: IG Targets Conflicts of Interest, Limits on Local Control," Thompson Title 1 Monitor, August 2005.
    5 By Kent D. Peterson, "The Roar of Complexity," Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2001 (Vol.
    22, No. 1) http://www.nsdc.org/library/publications/jsd/peterson221.cfm
    6 http://www.vsse.net/dibels
    7 http://susanohanian.org/show_nclb_atrocities.html?id=1638
    8 Ken Goodman, Ed. Examining DIBELS: What it is and What it does. Brandon, VT: VSSE. 2006. p.
    9 http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0212hol.htm
    10 Samuel Freedman, "Upon Further Reflection, a Few Random Thoughts," New York Times, Aug. 30, 2006.
    11 See Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian, Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public
    Schools? Heinemann 2004.
    12 Vermont's Reading First Grant Proposal, p. 78
    13 Ibid. p. 92
    14 Kenneth Remsen, "In Vermont, No Cow Left Behind," Burlington Free Press, Sept. 2003
    15 Vt NEA, Vol 70, No. 8, March 2004
    16 Howard Weiss-Tisman, "State Commissioner: NCLB won't harm Vt. schools," Brattleboro
    Reformer, November 8, 2005.
    17 Tracy Dell'Angela, "Nebraska shuns state tests," Chicago Tribune,

    — Susan Ohanian
    Vermont Society for the Study of Education


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