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Editorial: A Time for Change

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Vol. 22, No. 3

"Rewriting the Script"

  • Beyond NCLB
  • The Power of Words
  • Teaching in Dystopia
  • Reading First, Libraries Last
  • The Scripted Prescription
  • Bogus Claims About Reading First
  • Think Less Benchmarks
  • Textbook Scripts, Student Lives
    A Time For Change

    Bonfire of the Disney Princesses

    Underfunded Schools Cut Past Tense from Language Programs

    TV Selfishness and Violence Explode During 'War On Terror'

    Queer Matters

    Feeding Two Birds With One Hand

    Building Teacher Solidarity




  • Radio Free Oaxaca

    Short Stuff

    Good Stuff


  • Spring 2008

      Illustration: Randall Enos

    By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

    Throughout this presidential primary season, the word that everyone seems to embrace is change. Before he abandoned his quest for the presidency, even that Republican chameleon, Mitt Romney, had declared "change" as his campaign theme.

    Of course, the change that we all eagerly await is the one that begins with the moving van in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But beyond the departure of the Decider in Chief, the nature of the change to come is still up for grabs.

    Because of this intersection of political transition and popular discontent, we believe that this is no time to be timid when we imagine changes in the educational landscape. As Monty Neill of FairTest points out in an essay in this issue, up until now, most civil rights and educational equity organizations sought changes "within the NCLB framework of standards, tests, and consequences." And these organizations used a language that focused on attacking the "achievement gap," a term that Neill argues may unintentionally conflate quality education with test scores. Neill urges us to think outside the NCLB box, to be audacious, to search for new language and demands that more adequately reflect what we want rather than merely what we think we can get.

    Taken together, the essays in our "Rewriting the Script" section (pp. 14-40) offer a devastating portrait of the sorry state of teaching and learning that NCLB has wrought. In "Teaching in Dystopia," Wayne Au argues that our students are being "tested to death," and the curriculum deformed by the test-score chase, especially in schools with large numbers of low-income and students of color. Other articles in this special section richly illustrate Au's damning observations.

    In "The Scripted Prescription: A Cure for Childhood," Peter Campbell tells of taking his 4-year-old daughter to meet her pre-school teacher, who promptly gave her a test that she failed. We couldn't make up a story that more vividly exposes the idiocy of this test-obsessed era. Welcome to school in 2008.

    San Francisco elementary teacher Rachel Cloues laments the impact in her school of Reading First — an NCLB-related program that promises "scientifically based" methods to get all children to pass reading tests by the end of 3rd grade. Cloues describes how her school's scripted Houghton-Mifflin adoption has perverted the meaning of reading, drained children's love of books, and eroded the school's library program. In a revealing sign of these privatized times, in many schools, HM is now a synonym for reading; children don't read, they "do HM."

    Halfway across the country, Milwaukee 3rd-grade teacher Amy Gutowski is dismayed by how her school district forces children to take tests that "make reading seem awful and tedious." Gutowski reports that the tests are distributed to teachers by her school's "literacy coach," a term increasingly ripe for a doublespeak award.

    And researcher Stephen Krashen shows how the administration's claims for its NCLB and Reading First successes are as phony as that Mission Accomplished banner that Bush posed under, so many lies ago.

    Much of this bad news is, at least in part, fallout from No Child Left Behind. But in each of these articles and others included in this section, there is also the hope borne of defiance, of teachers subverting the script. For example, Cloues assigns whole books instead of the Houghton Mifflin digests, encourages students to discuss what the HM versions leave out, and brings in additional books that connect to her students' lives. Gutowski testifies at school board meetings, speaks up at staff meetings, and doesn't hesitate to criticize the standardized tests she hands her students. And Jana Dean — assigned by her district a scripted Prentice Hall text, Connected Mathematics — follows the book's concept sequencing, but instead of studying fictitious peanut butter prices, asks students, "Is interest fair?" and compares payday, auto, and student loan rates. Her math students examine life expectancy in the United States and other countries, as well as other social and environmental justice themes. Dean attempts to push beyond the script "to open [students'] eyes to the world and to each other."

    In "The Power of Words," Linda Christensen exposes how U.S. school districts too often cloak a top-down, standardized curricular agenda in a rhetoric of equity and justice. But more than merely exposing this duplicity, Christensen highlights organizing in Portland, Ore., where teacher activism directly opposed school district authorities' ersatz equity initiatives.

    Together, the articles in this section express outrage at how the standards-tests-punishment trinity has led public schools even further from their democratic promise and turned them into profit machines for multinational publishing corporations and other private interests. And they are a testament to the resistance and search for alternatives that has been building throughout these hard times.

    We're inspired by educators' classroom efforts to teach a socially relevant curriculum grounded in students' lives — despite the enormous obstacles thrown up by NCLB, and states' standardize-and-test tendencies that NCLB has done so much to reinforce. But, ultimately, we cannot lesson-plan and teach our way out of this predicament. NCLB was a political construction and its reorientation or replacement will similarly occur in the political arena. Educators of conscience need to make common cause with parents, students, and community activists to begin to demand new legislation that abandons NCLB's standards-tests-punish-and-privatize dogma. Together we need to imagine a system of federal support and incentives that helps us confront historic race and class inequities, and helps schools contribute to building a more equal and just society.

    Spring 2008