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Volume I, Number 5, May, 2003

Dictating Policy and Programs at Home

How ironic that we have an Education Czar in Washington violating decades of state and local control of education just as we profess to introduce democracy to Iraq. The imposition of specific "Washington approved" phonics programs and reading programs under the guise of "pseudo science" is an ominous erosion of basic freedoms. Next they will be telling us what science and history to teach or imposing their religious preferences on us! Big Brother/Sister evidently knows best.

School districts in New York were given very strong messages back in July of 2002, that receipt of federal funds under NCLB/ESEA would depend upon their adopting reading programs that met Washington's definition of scientifically based.

"Phonics Pitch Irks Teachers" (The Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2003)
The Bush administration is making a concerted effort to promote the teaching of phonics in America's classrooms, and in the process, some educators charge, advancing specific commercial reading products.
Some educators began complaining about the implementation of Reading First when the Department of Education held spring academies for educators to explain the program.

Participants said examples of successful materials presented were drawn from Open Court and Direct Instruction. Materials distributed included two lists of programs, rated for different levels of effectiveness; Open Court topped both lists. And many presenters were authors of Direct Instruction materials.

New York City made the mistake of picking the "wrong" phonics program for its schools and was sternly warned by federal authorities that they were likely to lose federal funding.

Educators across the land should read this development as an ominous erosion of basic freedoms.

"Bush Adviser Casts Doubt on the Benefits of Phonics Program" - By Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2003.
Dr. Patricia Cunningham, one of the program's authors, said studies showed little difference between phonics programs, and that what was important was doing phonics instruction systematically as part of a broader program.
But Louisa Moats, who advises states on applications for federal reading instruction funds, predicted that Month by Month would not pass muster. "It's just not in line with what we know works," she said.

After weeks of hanging touch, New York City announced it was caving in under the federal pressure (New York Times, April 5, 2003) and adding the phonics program being forced by the feds on many states and districts across the land - the Voyager Expanded Learning program that was announced to New York school officials in July of 2002 as their main choice. "More Intensive Reading Program Is Added for Struggling Pupils," Abby Goodnough, April 5, 2003.

Autocracy, Misinformation and Intimidation

This is no way to operate schools in a democratic society. We are seeing threat, intimidation and punishment wielded as basic tools of governance to force local and state compliance with federal mandates. We are seeing administrative rules and regulations used to extend the impact of ESEA/NCLB/Helter-Skelter beyond the letter and spirit of the law. We are facing artificially narrowed program choices by virtue of misconstrued research findings (see April article, "Fuzzy Math, Fuzzy Reading and Fuzzy Science"). When educators question the wisdom or effectiveness of such change strategies, they are labelled as apologists for a failing system or as practicing the soft bigotry of low expectations.

What we are seeing is top down, autocratic, old-fashioned corporate style management imposing a factory approach to schooling and education. Modern companies recognize the value of engaging front line workers in shaping the strategies to meet customer needs. This Education Department dictates, directs and demands. It listens poorly.

Convinced of its own "Texas miracle," this Ed Department evangelizes and seeks to impose its model on the entire nation, even though many question the authenticity of the original miracle1.

Educators, parents and community members who value policy-making rooted in local and state wisdom need to take political action to end the domination and dictation flowing down from the Beltway.

This is no way to operate schools in a democratic society.

1. For thorough review of criticism of the so-called miracle, see Gerald Bracey's October, 2000, Kappan article - "The 10th Bracey Report On the Condition of Public Education."

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.