Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chutzpah (revised )

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s plan to take control of teacher education by rating colleges of education unacceptable and then dictating who, how, and what they can teach  in order to become acceptable may be the greatest act of Chutzpah the world has yet know.

Chutzpah is of course the Yiddish for_ how  you say in English- “the nerve” doesn’t quite carry the force of chutzpah -and no, congresswoman- hutz not chutz.

NCTQ  created by Checker Finn’s Thomas Fordham Institute (a right wing think tank) has undertaken to create an "alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations (Unions? Professional Associations?) which is more chutzpah because::One- those groups haven’t had much of a voice and two- NCTQ is itself only the voice of its parent organization. Who exactly does this misbegotten offspring speak for?

And their goal is true chutzpah- nothing less than to change the structure and regulation of teacher education.

Let’s go back a bit for some background on this attempt to control teacher education. Beginning about 1978 a grass roots movement began among teachers, first in Canada and then in a few states. The Canadians began calling it whole language as a contrast to the part language of tests and text books coming across their border. Canadian teachers are relatively well paid and well educated. Their unions do staff development and get involved in curriculum not just working conditions and pay.

By the mid-nineties the whole language movement was starting to get serious.   Enough so that text book publishers began to use real literature and some whole language teachers were moving into middle management in school districts. Educators from New Zealand and Australia were bringing their applications to American teachers.

Starting after the 1996  US election something new happened. War was declared. I don’t mean two sides declared war. I mean suddenly the press was full of something called “The reading Wars.”  And whole language was proclaimed (by who knows? Could it have the Thomas B Fordham Foundation) one side and  phonics its challenger. My personal connection began with an article in Harpers attacking me.

Then I got a call from a Toronto reporter about a science conference in Seattle where a small study in a suburb of Houston was being presented which showed that phonics worked and whole language didn’t? Would I like to comment? Huh? What was going on? Well that study I was to learn was never completed – they got kicked out of the district. It was never peer reviewed but it gained much media attention and it was proclaimed proof of phonics over whole language. And that was an indication of how this strange war was fought.

In California a crisis in reading was declared and whole language was accused of being the cause and a little old lady in tennis shoes somehow got the power to call people into her garage to examine the proposals for state funding for signs of whole language. (I kid you not- Her name was Marian Joseph – could I make that up?)

In Texas saving his state’s children from whole language was part of the George Bush (the younger) move from the governorship of Texas to the White House.

 How wide was the influence if whole language at its peak? Well one little book of mine (What’s whole in whole language) sold a lot of copies. And whole language conferences were getting thousands of teachers. Academic publishers were selling more individual copies of books to teachers than class room orders. And the sale of children’s literature and young adult books was booming. As my Aussie friends put it, it’s the tall poppies that get cut down and whole language was the tall poppy. Hey, I was getting calls from national media regularly back in the late “90s. I even had a chapter in a book about the Bush (2) White House devoted to me based on a phone interview I’d long forgotten. Gertrude Stein was wrong; it does matter what they say about you.
When the Elementary and Secondary education act was reinvented as No Child Left Behind a central component was Reading First which mandated that henceforth all schools that wanted federal money (in other words all schools) had to change the way they taught reading to be based on Scientifically Based Reading Research. That’s a clever phrase because it implies that there is some reading research which is not scientifically based. In Reading First a rather obscure and extreme version of phonics was proclaimed scientific and – the tall poppy- whole language thus become unscientific.

This scientific method was claimed to be scientific because it was claimed to be conformed to the recommendations of the National Reading Panel (under the guidance of Reid Lyon, President Bush’s Reading guru.) And under no circumstances was any trace of that abomination- whole language to be permitted to enter into the reading insruction . In fact Reading First was more easily defined as anti-whole language.

Then in 2000 the war was declared over as mysteriously as it was declared. The National Reading Panel has reviewed the research literature all the way from A to B and proclaimed its decision. Direct instruction phonics was anointed scientific and given the force of law. And the only true believers, principally at the University of Oregon, were essentially put in charge of NCLB funding. And of course in reviewing state proposals they insisted only their books and tests be included.

No one approach to teaching reading had ever been given the force of law before. And it remained ever so until this13th year of NCLB even after the Inspector General charged massive conflicts of interest He recommended the department of Justice investigate. Congress got mad and defunded reading first. But the mandates stayed in the law even after the evaluation commissioned by the DOE found it had failed to improve reading comprehension.

After Obama was elected he didn’t want  to rehash old stuff.   NCLB and Reading First have been carried forward in limbo since Congess has yet to determine its future. And so states are still mandated to teach  the scientifically and legally established method.

Thirteen years after the reading wars were declared over we have a clearly failed  program.  Hundreds of schools have been closed. Whole city systems of education have collapsed. And there is no evidence that the promise that all students would be reading proficiently has been achieved. In fact the situation is far worse than it was when this absurdity began. And surely they can’t still blame whole language?

I just attended the Whole Language Umbrella’s  national conference on Long Island and there were less than 200 there. Really good people, though a number had taken early retirement. There are a few schools out there still carrying themselves whole language, quietly. And there are a whole lot of aging teachers who quietly keep on keeping on.

Now when this all began remember it was needed because that awful whole language was in wide use and was keeping kids from learning to read.

And so here is the ultimate Chutzpah – the reason for this colossal failure was that teacher educators where really PUSHING WHOLE LANGUAGE. Those incompetent teacher educators are more concerned with “issues of race, class, language and culture” and they think their job is to prepare teachersfor each candidate to develop his or her own unique philosophy of teaching, no matter how thin the ground is underneath” rather than to ‘train’ them.’But now these and many other questions are largely settled. Leaving the practice of teaching up to individual discretion denies novices access to what is actually known about how children learn best.” What is actually known about how children learn best is when they have a knowledgeable teacher who is a professional “kid-watcher”and can tailor instruction to the learner.

After all  that, NCTQ still has the chutzpah to blame their lack of success on whole language. Here’s what they say:
“Nowhere has this approach proved more damaging than in the coursework elementary teacher candidates must take in reading instruction. It is commonly assumed that teacher educators choose to train candidates in “whole language” methods rather than scientifically-based reading instruction.  Actually, little such training occurs, as whole language is not an instructional method that a teacher might be trained to apply, but merely a theory (flawed at that) based on the premise that learning to read is a “natural” process. The whole-language approach tracks nicely with a philosophy of teacher education in which technical training is disparaged.”(NCTQ p 93)

NCTQ spent  a few years on trial runs and now they are ready for their main event  And what an event. They have bullied teacher education programs to send their course syllabi to their reviewers. And with a little resistance many public programs had to comply (a Missouri Judge just ruled the President of the University of Missouri was right in saying they were not being sent because they are the intellectual property of their writers.)

NCTQ raters took special interest in the syllabi used in beginning reading courses and the text books their student were required  to read. And guess what? They hired Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats as consultants. And on their advice they found five true elements of reading as determined by  the National Reading panel( as interpreted by these consultants) could be used to rate reading courses on whether they taught (correctly) the five truths about reading. They were fair. Programs got 20% for each one. And then Louisa Moats was kind enough to recommend three highly qualified associates of hers to do the ratings.  One of them has been in charge of delivering EGRA the knock off of DIBELS to Liberia. Of course any mention of whole language was an automatic disqualifier.

The raters went to work rating the books the course syllabi required- what a mess and almost none were using books written by the real authorities.(Guess who?) Imagine over 60 of the book authors were members of the Reading Hall of Fame and only a few of them had written acceptable books.
And of course the raters found that although phonics gets the most time in the reading syllabi they looked at – it isn’t the right phonics .

Despite having inflicted untold harm on schools, teachers and a generation of American children the same discredited “scientific reading program” would be the only training students preparing to be teachers would get if NCTQ has its way.

What chutzpah!

It’s taken me a while to figure out though, why they still are blaming ’whole language’ for the failure of their own program. It’s because no one could teach reading through the absurd decodable books they mandated and the DIBLES test which makes school failures out of five year olds their first week of kindergarten. Everybody smuggled in a few good kids books, let the kids write in journals, or recognized when a kid in their class was being mislabeled by the DIBELS nonsense test. To those who chose to control what teachers could teach this was a lack of fidelity to the program and due to their whole language teacher education programs.

The answer to this Chutzpah is to realize that it is really them against us. They are the advocates of “true  scientifically based anti whole language.” And we are the researchers who built a base of knowledge, the teacher educators who have devoted their lives to preparing professional teachers, and the courageous teachers who have taught the researchers and teacher educators as they were being taught. And of course the children who would be deprived of their right to literacy and learning if those who seek to “ regulate” teacher education and deprofessionalize teachers are successful. 

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