Reading First, Libraries Last

Scripted programs undermine teaching and children's love of books

By Rachel Cloues

Illustrator: Alain Pilon

Illustration: Alain Pilon

When I was student teaching in Denver nine years ago, in the pre-No Child Left Behind years, I visited a talented bilingual literacy teacher at a low-income public school. The teacher and her students inspired me, but what I most remember is the school’s library. As I walked through the front door, right in front of me — in fact, spilling out into the hallway — was the entrance to a beautiful space full of books and plants, tanks of tropical fish, and cozy, pillow-filled spaces to read (including an old English phone booth). I was drawn in. Natural light filtered in through open windows, and lamps and tiny lights strung around the room cast a warm, welcoming glow. Bright kites hung from the rafters over the shelves of science books; near the fairy tales, a potted tree arched over a puppet theater, next to it a row of pillows and a basket of puppets. All of the bookshelves were child-sized, arranged to create intimate spaces for browsing or reading. Interesting objects, like rocks and bones, graced the tops of the bookshelves alongside carefully selected books highlighting each genre. If I was this captivated by the library, what must it be like for the students at this school?

I wandered through this lovely library, enchanted, and noticed it was full of children — some with teachers, others clearly on their own — all engaged in reading, browsing the shelves, and checking out books. When I spoke with the librarian, I learned he had a previous career as a costume designer in New York. His artistic expression and enthusiasm for stories were gloriously married in this wonderful space. The children, he explained, loved being in the library, and they often spent their lunch recess there. The classroom teacher with whom I spent the day confirmed this: the children at their school loved to read. They also performed well on state reading exams.

I have always carried the memory of that day tucked carefully away, to remind me of the potential of a school library. Stephen Krashen, the preeminent scholar of second language acquisition, has researched and written about the correlation between communities’ access to books and the reading proficiency levels of children in schools. In a 2002 Phi Delta Kappan article, Krashen explains, “Research on the impact of libraries over the last decade has shown that better school libraries — those with more books and better staffing — are associated with greater literacy development.” I think now of the Denver school I visited and hope that library is still open, and that the librarian has managed to keep his job. In these bleak NCLB days of regimented, scripted reading programs and financially drained school districts, I am deeply worried about the future of elementary school libraries.

Reading First, the NCLB initiative that ostensibly aims to ensure that all children will read by the end of 3rd grade, certainly does not support the library at my own school in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, Reading First provides schools with money to improve K-3 classroom reading instruction — but only through approved “scientific research and standards-based” language arts programs. Reading First grants were awarded to schools that applied. Districts around the country identified schools at risk of not making federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and asked these schools to apply for the funds. Some schools democratically voted to seek and then accept the Reading First money; others were forced to accept Reading First by concerned administrators.

When I arrived to teach three years ago at one of San Francisco’s so-called “Dream Schools,” I noticed a sign on the front of the school boldly proclaiming College Preparatory School, but once inside, I couldn’t find the library. Finally, someone unlocked the door for me, and I discovered a small, book-filled space, cluttered and neglected. There was no librarian, nor any system to check books in or out. In fact, the shelves of picture books had been pushed against the wall to make space for parent meetings, groups of children taking tests, or after-school classes. Last year, a voter-approved measure, Proposition H, paid for us to have a librarian one day each week, but it was nearly impossible to check out books because the computer was always broken. Happily, this year we have an enthusiastic new librarian for half of every week, and he is reviving the library space and beginning to teach the children some library skills. For most of this year he used his personal laptop to check out books, but he recently acquired a donated desktop computer.

‘We Do HM’

SFUSD strongly advised the “underperforming” schools (read: schools with high numbers of low-income students and English language learners) to accept Reading First money. As a result, my school uses Houghton Mifflin Reading. So much does the Houghton Mifflin reading program influence and define language arts instruction in the district, that I frequently hear teachers and administrators — and sometimes even students — use the terms “Houghton Mifflin” or “HM” as synonyms for the word reading. One might hear a teacher say, for example, “We do HM from 8 to 10 a.m. on Mondays.”

Like other scripted reading programs, Houghton Mifflin Reading is textbook- and workbook-oriented, with some leveled supplemental books, the “HM Leveled Readers.” A Houghton Mifflin representative told me that teachers are not supposed to use any other children’s books at all in their classrooms, only those provided by the program. This may explain, in part, why checking out books from the school library had fallen by the wayside when Houghton Mifflin Reading was adopted by my school, though my principal told me that San Francisco’s school libraries have been in a state of neglect for many years. The amount of direct language arts instruction required by Reading First schools is 150 minutes per day for grades 1-3, so if a teacher follows the daily plan exactly, there is no time for other reading-related activities such as a trip to the school library, independent reading, read-aloud, or literature circles. Of course, some teachers work these into the school day anyhow, but often at the expense of other important curricular areas like physical education, nutrition and health, social studies, or science. Always there are the looming tests (every six weeks), or visits from the “Walkthrough Team,” a group of district administrators who check each classroom to see whether the teacher has the requisite Houghton Mifflin materials displayed on the classroom wall.

Much of the Reading First rhetoric, such as “Scientifically Based Reading Instruction,” is familiar to teachers; the 2000 National Reading Panel (NRP) Report is the foundation of Reading First and is full of such zealous phrases. It’s an unbalanced and incomplete work, however, and misleading in facts and figures. Dr. Joanne Yatvin, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and the only member of the panel with a career in elementary schools, wrote a minority view expressing her concern about the potential use of the panel’s results. She concluded, “I ask Congress not to take actions that will promote one philosophical view of reading or constrain future research in the field on the basis of the panel’s limited and narrow set of findings.” (The entire minority view can be found at publications/nrp/upload/minorityView.pdf.) In her thorough evaluation, Yatvin interprets some of the report’s inflated rhetoric and exposes the inadequacy of the NRP findings as a scientific base for reading instruction. Additionally, she points out that the NRP did not recommend any commercial programs or disqualify other approaches to teaching reading, such as using methods of whole language. Despite Yatvin’s critique, President Bush and Congress hailed the NRP report. Houghton Mifflin, along with a few other big textbook publishers, aggressively appropriated much of the convincing terminology from the report and seduced struggling school districts to adopt its curriculum as part of the Reading First grant. When I attended the “Houghton Mifflin Institute,” a five-day professional development training for educators new to Houghton Mifflin Reading, the trainer handed me a copy of the NRP report. When I asked about Yatvin’s minority view, missing from the copy, I was given a blank stare in return.

I am not opposed to professional development opportunities for teachers, but I found the “Institute” to be contrived and patronizing. I had been told to register for the annual summer training when I arrived to teach in California, though I later learned that districts cannot require teachers to attend because they are paid a stipend in lieu of their regular salary. The “Institute” felt like a dumbed-down seminar showcasing glossy textbooks and fat, workbook-inspired binders. Along with hundreds of other Bay Area elementary teachers, I sat through grade-level specific classes led by “experts” who refused to acknowledge any critical discussion about the teaching of reading (and there was quite a lot!). My particular trainer even told me point blank that she was not allowed to answer questions that deviated from her script. We read articles jigsaw-style on one day; my group was assigned Remarks by Secretary Paige to the Commonwealth Club of California. This included such banal comments as, “No doubt about it, teaching is hard work. Even our First Lady, Mrs. Bush, struggled when she was a young teacher.” At the end of the article, Houghton Mifflin summarized the main point they hoped we would glean from Mr. Paige’s speech: “In other words: 4 out of 5 students are being taught by a teacher who is pessimistic about their future.” Really?

This Houghton Mifflin training program provided little inspiration for teachers. In fact, it was insulting. I walked away from those five days horrified at the blatant attempt to indoctrinate teachers into the HM world. There was a not-so-hidden curriculum to teach me not to think about what I teach. After spending almost three years with this reading program, I am now convinced that the same agenda exists for my students. As scripted, Houghton Mifflin Reading does not challenge children to think or read critically. For example, one 4th-grade-level story is a biography of Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan; not surprisingly, the story presents a conservative and one-sided perspective of the Cuban Revolution, and of Cuba in general. Houghton Mifflin Reading is also weak on the teaching of writing, and it is not appropriate for English language learners (who comprise 100 percent of my class). The program includes books of worksheets to use with English learners but my students need full-length picture books and easier chapter books to engage them in reading. Even the easiest “Leveled Readers” are too hard for many of them to read. The skills tests, used to measure students’ progress in language arts regardless of their level of English, involve multistep directions that are difficult for even the most language-proficient students. I’ve found that Houghton Mifflin Reading can be a good tool for some aspects of teaching reading, but used exclusively it is not comprehensive and it is nowhere near engaging enough for my students. This, of course, is the flaw of a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

Book by Book

Instead of following the script, I attempt to make my reading and writing instruction comprehensive in other ways. I try to adhere to the specific grammar skills outlined in each theme, but I replace the textbook stories with actual picture books checked out from the public library. I read the books to my students in their entirety and when the children re-read the excerpted versions in their textbooks, they astutely notice that the stories make less sense, aren’t as interesting, and are missing important illustrations. Chris Van Allsburg’s richly illustrated books are a good example; his drawings are crucial for understanding the mysterious undertones of the text. I also bring in other books, lots of them — stories, poetry, and articles that I know my students will relate to and want to discuss. Skipping around in the anthology sometimes allows the HM stories to be more relevant to students’ lives. So, logically, we might read the wildfire story in the fall when wildfires are burning all over California or the story about visiting a library before we actually take a field trip to the public library.

Most importantly, I teach students how to recognize books that are the right level for them, and I make time every day for them to read their own selections. Each week we visit our school library so that the students can choose books to take home and read with their families. They are learning to be responsible for what they borrow. Together, we also set up a classroom library, get to know all kinds of fiction and nonfiction texts, and discuss genres and how they often overlap. We visit the public library and apply for library cards. I try to connect reading and the importance of libraries at all levels: classroom, school, public, university, and others. I want my students to understand that public libraries, the physical expression of our intellectual commons, are essential for an educated society and for a democracy.

When schools implement programs like Houghton Mifflin Reading to the exclusion of all other methods of instruction, as Reading First mandates, it threatens the profession of teaching, and the education of our society. Privatizing knowledge shuts down the mechanisms for critical thinking. The ability of students to select their own books, for example, is a powerful expression of their learning and their autonomy. In scripted programs children do not choose what they read, nor do they learn how to select reading material that suits and interests them. Students are disempowered in educating themselves and teachers are disempowered to make professional judgments about what might best help their students learn. In a school dominated by Houghton Mifflin, the library is at risk of becoming superfluous.

I am reminded of a revealing comment from a 4th-grade student I taught last year. Javier, a bright, quiet student who loves books, was listening to me read My Name Is Maria Isabel, by Alma Flor Ada. We got to a part in the story where the main character happily talks of spending her lunchtime recess reading in the school library. Javier mumbled wryly, “Yeah, this book’s totally fiction.”

Like public schools, public libraries are threatened by budget cuts and privatization all over the country. Each day on my way to work I try to remind myself that everything we do in school says something about the society we live in. The existence and maintenance of school and public libraries in our communities says much about the kind of society we want to live in — a society where reading is a powerful and accessible path to learning for all people, where books are a key part of the pursuit of happiness.

Rachel Cloues (cl… teaches 4th/5th grade in San Francisco. Her most recent Rethinking Schools article was “Polar Bears on Mission Street,” in the Winter 2007-08 issue