August 27, 2015
Stay with me. In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories center on two teachers–one white, one a teacher of color–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended. The teacher of color does not feel comfortable using her real name. Instead, I refer to her as Roxanne Berger.
Read Part One: Outsider’s imprint here.
Read Part Two: Why teachers of color leave here.
Context and background
The sole Asian character in all 54 books. No Latino students were featured, as far as I know.
Emerging details show that, in July, Minneapolis school board members approved the district’s contract with the Utah-based company Reading Horizons. The contract is worth $1.2 million and is coated in promises that must have been tough to refuse, for a district desperate to close the “achievement gap,” boost test scores, and set all students on a path to success.
If, the contract approval document declares, MPS buys the million dollar program, and if MPS teachers implement the Reading Horizons curriculum with “fidelity,” then this will happen:
All MPS students will demonstrate higher levels of reading skill in grades K-3. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color will narrow across all grades. MCA reading scores in grades 3-10 will increase over time, presuming implementation of the Reading Horizons program with fidelity.
But it turns out that Reading Horizons has an overtly religious public profile, and, another reader has pointed out, many of the company’s board of directors (all white men) appear to have connections with Mormon-based Brigham Young University.
Most troubling, however, has been the news that the classroom books Reading Horizons had prepared–and attempted to make “diverse,” at MPS’s request–were deeply offensive, and loaded with racist, sexist, narrow images and stories. (Please refer to Part One and Two above for further details about this.)
Teachers also report that the training itself was problematic, as it was led by a Reading Horizons employee who has asked not to be named. Her company profile, however, includes language that might raise some red flags, including these statements:
Now that I am a Reading Horizons trainer, it has become my mission to help transform teachers into reading specialists. I give them the tools to “save” the students I couldn’t.
Roxanne Berger, the teacher of color who asked not to be publicly named, wrote down nearly everything this employee said during the two-day, early August training session she attended. Here is some of what she shared with the teachers, according to Berger’s notes:
“I have a passion for poverty culture”
“They say you can’t stay in high poverty spaces for more than 5 years or else you’ll burn out. Well I’ll tell you what, I stayed for 7 years.”
“I was ready to quit. My empathy for people in poverty started to decline.”
All kings are white men. There is one prince and one princess who are not white.
Read the company’s July 23, 2015 press release, announcing its new contract with MPS.
Part Three: Money for what?
As the Reading Horizons training scandal broke in early August, emails sent among Minneapolis staffers reveal efforts to try to explain why the district entered into a contract with Reading Horizons in the first place.
It is clear that a continuous lack of adequate classroom resources factored into the decision.
Teachers and staff report choosing Reading Horizons because at least the curriculum did come with some companion books for kids. Other programs were only technology based, which did not seem appropriate. Plus, the emails say, district teachers have been repeatedly asking for money to build up their classroom libraries, only to be told no.
In fact, one teacher has said–behind the scenes–that this is the third time in 10 years that MPS teachers have had a district-selected early literacy curriculum pushed on them, without adequate companion books for classroom use.
And so going with Reading Horizons seemed like a good option because it would bring books into the classroom, even if they are a little “problematic.”
MPS communications associate Dirk Tedmon further defended the contract with Reading Horizons, from a different angle, by minimizing the “Little Books” and highlighting the quality of the company’s work.
“The Reading Horizons training was very expensive and very thorough,” Tedmon explained, and about much more than the accompanying set of books for children to read. “They are even called ‘Little Books’ because they are such a little part of the training,” he asserted.
The contract with Reading Horizons which is, again, worth $1.2 million, includes follow-up coaching services–to be done from afar, as the company is based in Salt Lake City and its trainers are not local.
Six-year-old Lucy, who lives somewhere in Africa, is “lazy.”
But, given what she has seen so far, Berger is not seeing the value: “It baffles my mind to think of the money the Minneapolis Public Schools spent on this.”
Especially when, many teachers say, the district’s Teaching and Learning department has been decimated by recent layoffs, not to mention an abrupt 2011 reshuffling that saw nearly all department staff “released” from their positions.
Former Teach for America member Mike Lynch then came from a job with McKinsey and Company (global business consultants) to head up MPS’s new “Teaching and Learning” department. His primary job was to oversee the implementation of a more explicit teaching program called “Focused Instruction.”
Lynch is now gone, and the future doesn’t look bright for Focused Instruction, either. Some teachers are reporting that, when they try to access Focused Instruction online, they are being met with a big STOP sign, cautioning them that Focused Instruction is not adequately aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
Hence, the need to purchase a new early literacy curriculum arose.
So scripted “even a janitor” could use it
Mandy Perna, an Armatage Montessori teacher who attended the training with Berger, also noted that the Reading Horizons approach–beyond the offensive “Little Books”–struck her as odd: “The company’s ‘Implementation Coach’ kept emphasizing how scripted their curriculum is, saying things like, ‘isn’t it so great? It’s so scripted even a janitor could use it!”
Berger, too, found the scripted nature of Reading Horizons’ work “a little excessive.” It’s built around a carefully sequenced method of teaching, where students would be given concrete lessons in decoding and reading, and then be given a “Little Book” to read that would match their own reading level.
And those reading levels are to be determined by a computerized diagnostic test for the 5, 6, and 7 year olds in the district. Berger says a Reading Horizon rep told teachers that she herself had taken the test, and that it took her 45 minutes to complete it.
“I wonder how long it would take my kids to finish it, then” Berger wondered incredulously.
All of this is taking place within a national push for teachers to be held accountable for the test scores of their students, with an additional emphasis on controlling what happens in the classroom. Teaching explicit, sequenced lessons might have some value, especially for new teachers, says Perna, but it doesn’t reflect what she does in the classroom.
“Reading Horizons seems like a one size fits all approach, and I wonder about the kids who don’t need these lessons. I have first graders who are reading Harry Potter books. Will there be behavior problems, if they are supposed to sit through this?”
Continued pressure from teachers
By August 12, district employee Amy Jones had sent a more thorough email to K-2 teachers, giving them explicit instructions for how to return the offending “Little Books” so that Reading Horizons can redesign them.
Noting that the Minneapolis Public Schools “will be seeking teacher input on the redesign,” Jones’s email makes it clear that, at this point, the district has no intention to cut ties with Reading Horizons. Instead, the email indicates that the books will be revised, with staff input, for use during the 2016-2017 school year, with no indication of what books teachers will be using this year.
But Berger is left with more questions than answers. She says she was told that the other reading curriculum vendors were “worse” than Reading Horizons. “Am I supposed to feel better about this?” she asked. “Do we continue to settle because it’s our ‘best option’?”
“Who looked at the books? Who was given a choice about this? If the problem will be blamed on Reading Horizons, then we should sever our relationship with them.”
The story is still evolving. Please stay tuned for MPS’s recent response to this story, as well as further input from teachers.