August 26, 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.
Background and further details: Reading Horizons cashes in on the “achievement gap”
The teachers attended a two-day training in early August, sponsored by the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and hosted by a Utah-based company called Reading Horizons. The training was intended to get teachers up to speed on the new, Common Core-ready early literacy curriculum that MPS purchased from Reading Horizons for the district’s K-2 teachers.
But many teachers reported feeling angry and deeply offended not only by the shockingly dated, racist, and problematic early reader books that were created and distributed by Reading Horizons, but also by the training itself.
Yesterday, I reported that the contract Reading Horizons has with MPS is worth around $500,000. (I have requested a copy of the contract–which is a matter of public record–but have yet to receive it). However, last night on Facebook, a reader shared a district document that shows the contract is actually worth an incredible $1.2 million, paid for with referendum funds.
The “Deliverables” promised by Reading Horizons are telling (spelling error/typo is not mine):
All MPS studenst 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.
If MPS implements the Reading Horizons program–at a cost of 1.2 million dollars–then test scores will increase. Quite a sales tactic, no?
Also, it is interesting to see that Reading Horizons is promising to “narrow” the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color–with the help of “Little Reader” books that have struck teachers and the general public as incredibly racist, sexist, and oppressive. Also, the books seem to have a colonizing, missionary vibe to them, which may be no accident, given Reading Horizons public profile (read on for more details).
Read Part One: Outsider’s imprint here.
Part Two: Why teachers of color leave
Roxanne Berger–the teacher of color who did not want her real name used–says she walked out of the training after explaining how cutting and awful the Little Books seemed, only to collapse in the hallway, under the weight of the books and the lack of support she felt from her peers.
Mandy Perna (this is her real name) is a first and second grade teacher at Armatage Montessori School in southwest Minneapolis and was seated with Berger at the Reading Horizons training. While Berger says she felt alone in her visceral reaction to the Reading Horizon books, Perna says many teachers immediately found the Little Books problematic, but didn’t speak up right away.
Partly, Perna says, this was because a Minneapolis Public Schools employee–whose name she is not sure of–defended the books during the training, saying they were designed to make decoding words easier for kids.
Later, however, both Perna and Berger say they, along with other teachers, fired off emails to the district, only to be met with a gruff response.
“We were told, curtly, that if we didn’t like the books, we certainly didn’t have to use them,” says Perna.
An email from MPS that was sent to all teachers on Sunday, August 9th confirms this. The email was sent on behalf of Amy Jones, Director of Elementary Education for the district, and offers a terse look at the Reading Horizons uproar:
From: Amy Jones
Sent: Sunday, August 09, 2015 7:10 PM
To: (name removed for privacy)
Subject: Reading Horizons little books
We have identified some issues with a small number of books from the Reading Horizons Little Books library.
We will collect the books from you and return them to Reading Horizons for redesign. We will be in touch with exact titles and the process for you to follow.
When the redesign is complete the books will be distributed to you. We are working closely with Reading Horizons on this resolution.
Please keep in mind you can teach the program without all the little books so implementation can move forward as planned.
We appreciate your feedback and concerns and thank you for your patience.
“The feeling we got,” says Perna, “was that they don’t really care.”
The issue also raised the alarm of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Lynn Nordgren, who sent an email to teachers outlining the union’s response:
From: on behalf of Lynn Nordgren
Sent: Saturday, August 08, 2015 2:55 PM
To: All MPS teachers
Subject: New K-2 Reading Horizons books
It has come to MFT’s attention that there are issues with new K-2 reading books. This summer, teachers who attended staff development on the new reading program found some pictures and stories in the books to be historically/socially/racially inaccurate and/or inappropriate. Once I learned about this, I immediately contacted the Superintendent as well as the Chief Academic Officer, and the heads of MPS Staff Development, Teaching and Learning, Office of Equity and Diversity, and several other departments. The CAO assured me they are looking into it and speaking with the company as well.
Still, says Berger, teachers were told by the district to “assume best intentions” on the part of Reading Horizons and the reading curriculum they created.
District Response: “It is not our place to judge them”
Gail Plewacki is the Minneapolis Public Schools new Communications Director, and in a phone conversation, she, along with new Communications Associate Dirk Tedmon, confirmed that Reading Horizons would be given a chance to redo the books.
“They are accessory books that come along with the curriculum, and we understand there are some issues with the books,” Plewacki said. “We are working with the publisher to revise the materials.”
Plewacki downplayed the books, and said a team that included up to 60 teachers had selected Reading Horizons because they are “known for their accomplishments in literacy.”
“They have a strong core program in places like Louisiana and Tennessee,” Plewacki said.
But a look at the company’s website reveals another thorny issue: there appears to be a strong religious aspect to Reading Horizons’ public profile. A section called “Core Values” squarely puts “Faith,” and a Christian faith, at the center of Reading Horizons’ work, with a tagline that states, “We believe in a higher purpose to life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives.”
When asked whether or not it was appropriate for a public school district to be purchasing products from an overtly religious company, Tedmon seemed surprised: “It’s not our place to judge them, as long as they don’t disseminate the values through their products.”
And, Plewacki insisted, “the books are being revised, and they are a very, very small part of the whole program.”
Berger, however, is not satisfied with this line of reasoning. Not only does she believe that the choice of Reading Horizons’ curriculum is an “example of how and why lies, stereotypes, and oppressive ideologies are continued,” but it touches something deeper for her.
“This whole situation is an example of why students and teachers of color leave education, or feel unsuccessful and un-represented.The fact that the issue is being minimized/diminished affirms that this is not a safe space for us.”
Read Part 3: “So scripted even a janitor could teach it” here
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