Friday, May 11, 2007

Of handcuffs and whips

Paige Parker at the O has a good piece this morning on how middle income parents may begin a flight from the Portland Public School System due to the rigidity of the school's Reading First Program.

Reading First is a federal government program which gives schools a big pile of cash in exchange for following a regimented reading program. The program includes very specific curriculum requirements (not surprisingly tied to a publishing house with deep financial ties to the Bush Administration). Oversight of the program is tight--with schools being required to adhere to a strict schedule. From the O:

Two hours of morning reading. An additional 40 minutes for strugglers. Writing practice. A quick lunch and recess, then silent reading. Thirty minutes of health, science or social studies; 30 minutes of math; 40 minutes to play with puzzles, art or computers. They get a weekly music lesson, gym class and library period.

The program apparently works for reading. Students who have historically struggled with reading test scores are seeing great gains in their scoring. Kids are exiting kindergarten already reading.

So what's the beef? Why are parents wanting to yank their kids from schools that are showing such success in reading?

Elementary and middle school parents who've applied for transfers outside their neighborhoods learned this week whether their child landed a spot. Several say drills, skimpy art and music programs and overscheduled school days influenced their transfer requests

In other words--they don't want their kids handcuffed to a desk all day being whipped with worksheet drills and basal readers that include boring-as-all-hell fiction stories. And that's exactly what Reading First is about.

My neighbor teaches second grade in a nearby district where Reading First is in the building. She says that the school was promised that there would be reading material for students across the curriculum--so that during the two hours of regimented reading time students would be reading about science and social studies and health, for example--but that hasn't come to pass. The school has been required to use Hought and Mifflin basal readers that offer stupid and boring fiction stories. And if teachers don't stick exactly to the Reading First plan--the school will be in danger of losing the money from the feds.

We're now experimenting with a Bush Adminstration program (which as a stand alone description should give every American pause) which appears to offer kickbacks to folks who force schools to use materials from certain publishing houses--in an attempt to ensure every kid can read--but have virtually no time for mathematics, science, language, social studies or art. And do we really need our students marching out of kindergarten as readers? These are FIVE AND SIX YEAR OLDS, for crying out loud. Is our value system so f'd up that we need people who are barely out of potty training doing basal worksheets and word list drills?

And do we honestly want children leaving elementary school having spent their entire school career to date having barely scratched the surface when it comes to science, math, history, social studies and art?

For children who are struggling with reading and whose parents are unable or unwilling to offer the needed support--perhaps Reading First might be appropriate on a limited basis, but only if big changes are made when it comes to the basal/fiction curricula used for the program. But for students who can't and shouldn't be handcuffed to their desk churning out worksheets and drills--its wrecking them.

No wonder these families want out.