Rethinking the Basal Reader

The first editorial published by Rethinking Schools speaks across the years to provide perspective on today’s push for standardization.

Following are excerpts from the first editorial published by Rethinking Schools, in the fall of 1986. The editorial was in response to the then-dominant use of basal readers. Following significant organizing, the Milwaukee Public Schools later allowed several different approaches to reading instruction. In the last several years, however, the pendelum has swung back toward a fascination with narrowly interpreted, phonics-based programs that leave little room for teacher input or for differences in learning styles.

The dominance of the basal in Milwaukee and other big city school systems is symptomatic of a disturbing trend within public education the growing infatuation with commercially produced educational programs which claim to provide all the materials and managerial advice needed for achieving almost automatic success in a given subject.

The basal systems offer administrators and teachers that peculiarly American seduction the promise of an elaborate management system so cleverly designed that it’s bound to succeed if methodically and rigidly implemented. In the context of education, such systems reduce teachers to combination clerk/drill sergeants. Good teaching has always demanded artistry, imagination, shrewd judgment. But the opportunities to exercise these skills are cut off when the content, sequence, and pacing of the curriculum are dictated by a single textbook company and principals anxious to keep all classes advancing in lockstep formation. Teachers don’t even determine what concepts and comprehension questions to present; it all comes out of the book.

Such systems offer textbook companies the obvious reward of large and long-term profits which flow from school systems that have been hooked. Administrators gain a somewhat more subtle benefit – the illusion that they have solved a problem by finding the right piece of technology.


Teachers and students, however, do not benefit at all. Some teachers probably appreciate the conveniences of such systems the ready-made lesson plans and tests, the ease with which new students can be plugged into appropriate workbooks and groups. But these conveniences exact a heavy price. They deprive teachers of the chance to truly exercise their craft. Inevitably, their skills atrophy. Lively discussions about matters which the teacher and students care about are crowded out by more ritualistic and mechanical activities answering the skill check and comprehension questions, vocabulary drills, and work on isolated skills. Students experience reading as a drab prelude to equally drab paper and pencil activities. They come to view books as a source of boredom, rather than as a source of discovery and stimulation.

The attraction of basal programs springs, in part, from a valid desire for a clear set of educational goals which are taught and tested throughout the entire school system and which are pursued by means of a logical progression of material through advancing grade levels. Yet, rather than helping teachers experiment with and reflect upon different ways of teaching, “systems management” administrators become more concerned with pressuring teachers to stick to rigid schedules and keep their paperwork in order. In Milwaukee’s public elementary schools, this approach has encouraged administrators to deprive teachers of the independence and time they need to teach creatively. It reflects a basic mistrust of the abilities of teachers; in the name of accountability, teachers are being prevented from doing their jobs well.


Many MPS elementary teachers find the time and energy to go beyond the standardized curriculum. Unfortunately, they receive little praise for their efforts and often have to strain to teach creatively within the constraints of a rigidly uncreative system. The structure of the school system gives teachers little opportunity to collectively reflect upon and attempt to resolve common problems.

The only realistic way for MPS elementary teachers to regain the independence they need to teach well is to organize around classroom issues. A good starting point would be a serious effort to question the current MPS basal program. We have an obligation to our students and ourselves to challenge instructional approaches which do not work well. It is high time for the basal system to be arraigned before the court of sound educational practices, with parents, students, and teachers occupying prominent places in the jurors’ box.