Fighting for Electives

Lessons in Change

By Melissa Bollow Tempel

Illustrator: Rob Dunlavey

Illustration: Rob Dunlavey

It was the first day of middle school for my 6th-grade homeroom students. I tentatively passed out their schedules. It took only a few moments before the questions started coming: “What is READ180?” “Why don’t I have gym?” “When do we have art?” My students looked to me for answers that I was hesitant to give.

“READ 180 is a special class to help you read better,” I responded. “As soon as your reading improves, you can test out of READ 180. I know it’s not fair you don’t have gym or art, and I don’t like it either.” I told them that I was going to do everything I could to make sure they were given a chance to take electives during the year.

When I was in middle school, we had two different elective classes each day that I enjoyed very much. Cooking, sewing, art, music, gym, computer lab, wood shop, performance arts, and your choice of a foreign language were not just options, but requirements. By the time I finished middle school I knew how to type with my fingers correctly placed on the keyboard, bake a cake, use a power saw, sew a patchwork pillowcase, and make glass jewelry. I also knew, through experience, that I could not sing and didn’t want to be in the high school marching band. I got a jump start in foreign language that eventually allowed me to test into fourth-semester college Spanish. It angered me to know that those classes still existed in the suburbs, where my stepdaughter was attending middle school, but that, under the best of circumstances, the electives for students at my urban Milwaukee school were reduced to art, gym, and computers. Now most of my homeroom students had none of these. They had READ 180.

My students were enrolled in READ 180 because, based on No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the state of Wisconsin had labeled our school a Level Five School in Need of Improvement (SIFI)—aka “A school with really, really bad test scores for many years in a row.” READ 180 is just one of many boxed reading intervention programs popping up all over the United States and being used by districts to meet the requirements of NCLB at a huge cost to students. The Milwaukee Public School District calls it “a research-based reading intervention program focusing specifically on students determined to be nonproficient.” The Scholastic READ 180 website describes the program as a 90-minute class composed of four parts: 20 minutes of whole group direct instruction, 20 minutes of small group direct instruction, 20 minutes of instructional software, 20 minutes of modeled and independent reading, and a 10-minute “wrap-up.” Every 12 weeks the students take a computerized READ 180 assessment; if the results show they are reading on grade level, they are supposed to be exited from the program. I can’t say I’ve researched READ 180 enough to evaluate its efficacy, but I can say from experience that scripted reading programs, especially direct instruction based programs, do not stimulate higher level thinking or critical thinking skills in students.

This was my first year teaching 6th-grade English and language arts and my eighth year teaching overall. My students were all first-generation Mexican and Puerto Rican English language learners (ELL) and, thanks to our district’s bilingual maintenance model, they were literate in both English and Spanish.

During teacher organization days at the beginning of the school year, I was horrified when I realized that my students would have only one class in addition to their basic academics, and that class was READ 180. They would go from first-block literacy to second-block READ 180, then lunch for 20 minutes, silent reading for 20 minutes, third-block science/social studies, and fourth-block math. Our school didn’t have a playground or outside area; our district has a strict “no recess” policy for middle and high school students. And, even more infuriatingly, READ 180 students would not be excused from the class to go on field trips.

No Respect for Teacher Input

Administrators told me that the decision about which students would participate in READ 180 was non-negotiable. The main criterion was scoring below “proficient” on the state standardized test, the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Evaluation (WKCE), administered the previous fall—10 months earlier! As their teacher, I was never asked for writing samples, class work, individual reading assessments, or my professional opinion of their reading levels. To add insult to injury, some of my READ 180 students were reading at or above grade level.

I was frustrated and didn’t know where to turn. I cautiously approached a teacher I respected and asked, “Does this mean students don’t get any electives?” “Yes,” she said. “It’s terrible, but they have to learn how to read.” As a new faculty member, I didn’t know who might be willing to fight this with me, and I started to feel isolated.

After seven weeks of school, the READ 180 teacher voiced concern that her students still weren’t able to access the instructional software component of the program due to a licensing glitch. I emailed school board members my concerns about READ 180, and one encouraged me to voice my frustrations at a school board meeting that focused on “Innovations and School Reform.”

I was nervous as I spoke into the microphone, knowing that my voice would be broadcast live over public radio. “My students have been in class for seven weeks without the computers working. So they have been doing a program where the kids are having reading instead of [electives] and they are not able to use the program the way it’s supposed to be used.” I went on to talk more about the injustice to my students: “It is unreasonable for us as a school and as a district to ask students to sit all day without having a break.”

The next morning when I arrived at school, the READ 180 teacher ran up to thank me, saying her software licensing problems had been fixed. For a moment I felt that what I’d said the night before had been effective, but the principal was quick to tell me that I had nothing to do with it. In fact, incorrect information about what I had said at the school board meeting quickly spread throughout the school. As a result, teachers blamed me for strict new policies introduced to our school in the following weeks. For example, a special education teacher informed me that the principal announced a “no field trip” policy for the whole school because I spoke out. I began to feel criminalized and backed into a corner.

Bewildered, I went to a meeting of the Educators’ Network for Social Justice, one place where I knew I’d be supported. A friend who is a retired teacher and principal gave me some sound advice. He told me to look for an ally at my school—someone I could talk to, someone who might help me start to build a network of like-minded faculty to work together on problems. I quickly realized that one of the assistant principals could be this person for me. Quite often I’d walk into his office and we’d chat about our frustrations. Having him there to listen and encourage me, even when his hands were tied and he couldn’t help, got me through the year.

Since my students were not getting any arts or physical activity within their school day, I needed to decide: Do I make my students “work harder” so that they can pass out of READ 180, or do I try to incorporate more arts and movement in my class? I tried to do both by coming up with activities that would integrate classes like gym and art while still teaching reading skills. One day I arranged for us to go to the gym. On one side of the gym I put a set of flashcards with our vocabulary words, and on the other side I put the definitions. We got into teams and ran relay races. Each time runners reached the other side of the gym, they grabbed a vocabulary word and brought it back to the rest of the team, who tried to match the word to its definition. Then we grabbed major events from the story we’d read that week, and the relay teams put the events in chronological order. My students loved these games and begged me to take them to the gym again, but it was often unavailable.

When my students started the second quarter, I was shocked to learn that five additional students had been removed from their electives and placed in READ 180. Three were my highest readers. I will never forget the eyes of those students as they looked at me that morning after receiving their schedules.

I was beyond angry. After I took the students to READ 180 class, I marched around the building, looking for someone—anyone—who would also see the injustice that I saw and help me fix it. I could hardly breathe, and I’m sure others could see the steam coming out of my ears. I was directed to the principal, who told me to talk to the SIFI supervisor, who sent me to another assistant principal. No one wanted to stand up for what was right and challenge the district. I could not believe that a school would allow this. This was my lowest point in dealing with READ 180. I felt that the students had lost faith in me, because what I had naively promised—that with hard work they’d get out of READ 180—was turned on its head when students saw the “smart kids” put into the program.

Lessons Learned

Looking back, I can see the broader forces affecting teachers at my school and the mistakes I made in my efforts to defend the students. The stakes at my school were so high (improve test scores, or the district will close the school) that administrators clamped down and took power away from teachers, completely ignoring any criticism or questioning of their programs. When I criticized what was going on, I was seen as attacking the plan to save the school. The teachers wanted to shake the school’s bad reputation, and the administration argued that the only way to do this was through “drill and kill” for better standardized test scores. Over the course of the year, I learned that many teachers had left in the past five years. Those remaining had been defeated many times, even in carefully picked battles. Most had decided to focus on what they had a measure of control over: their classrooms.

As an advocate for my students, I wanted to snap my fingers and have a new and improved schedule for the whole school that included electives. In retrospect, I could have done many things differently. I learned that there is a line of command in schools, and skipping ahead to the school board meeting before approaching the faculty was self-defeating. As a new teacher, it’s important to have patience and allow for time to assess your environment, remembering that sometimes change can’t be rushed. It’s also important to have allies and to approach the administration as a team. Later in the year, I realized that if I had sought out teachers with seniority and status in the school, they might have helped me get what I wanted.

Through the year I talked with other teachers who were shocked at school policies, including READ 180. Taking time to seek out and form a group of allies would have been much more effective than going at it alone. We could have organized to speak collectively at staff meetings and with the administration. I also might have been able to mobilize parents by talking with them about their rights and the programs being pushed on their children.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to claim victory against READ 180. Although a few students did test out, many remained for the duration of the school year. One of my brightest students tested proficient on the WKCE but for some reason (maybe a program flaw regarding ELL students), at the end of the year she had still not tested out of READ 180.

It was a tough, discouraging year. I learned that the imposition of a standardized learning program for students leads to attempts to standardize teachers, too—and to repress those who challenge the new system. Now, more than ever, I see the need for educators to join together to rethink what we are being told and to focus collectively on fighting policies that are not right for our students.