September 10, 2015
Background: If you are new to the Reading Horizons/Minneapolis Public Schools debacle, or would like a review, please start with my first post on this topic, Phonics or indoctrination?
In the wake of the September 8 Minneapolis school board meeting, a Salt Lake City newspaper has picked up the Reading Horizons story, bringing new heat–and new information–to this explosive topic.
During the school board meeting, board members grappled with whether or not to cut ties with Reading Horizons, now or in the near future, and risk losing the $1.2 million dollars already sent to the company. At the board meeting, interim superintendent Michael Goar admitted this contract with the Utah-based provider of reading curriculum and software had been “rushed”, and referred to it as “not a standard contract.”
Goar partially blamed the situation on staffing “shifts,” or the layoffs that have been a key tenet of his leadership thus far. He also said that some of the people responsible for bringing on Reading Horizons no longer work for MPS, meaning there are few who can further explain this decision.
The Reading Horizons contract (you can find it here), unfortunately, appears to be nothing more than a purchase agreement, with no protections built in for the Minneapolis Public Schools, should the goods and services they purchased be deemed–as they have been by many–unworthy of district use.
In the middle of the board’s September 8 discussion, Reading Horizons suddenly issued a carefully worded, lawsuit-proof statement to the board, in which they take “full responsibility for our role in the issue.” Which issue? Whose issue? This is never made clear.
Instead, the statement says Reading Horizons only recently became aware of the “issue,” and since then has been working “around the clock” to rectify the unnamed problem, which centers around the “Little Books” they provide to school districts.
But the Salt Lake Tribune article makes it clear that Reading Horizons believes the “problem” resides with MPS, and not with their products. Reporter Rachel Piper got the low-down by interviewing Reading Horizons employee, Laura Axtell:
Reading Horizons’ implementation coordinator Laura Axtell said the focus on these titles — there are 54 in the “Little Books” series — ignores the context of how they’re intended to be used. “Lazy Lucy,” for example, takes place in the safari unit, she said.
“But if people perceive that they’re culturally insensitive, then they’re a distraction to reading success.”
Axtell said the company, based in North Salt Lake, has been working with the district “around the clock” to make things right in Minneapolis and everywhere the books are being used.
Though “Lazy Lucy” never made it into Minneapolis classrooms, the series has been available for three or four years, Axtell said. She said she couldn’t say whether the books are used in any Utah schools.
Here are two important takeaways from this article:
- Reading Horizons prioritizes decoding words–or learning how the English language works–above what the language is saying. This is the “value neutral” stance that some within MPS have also adopted as they express support for sticking with Reading Horizons. (To which school board member Tracine Asberry declared at the September 8 board meeting: “Children decode pictures, too.”)
- The “Little Books” series were not specifically created for MPS, as some within the district have said. Instead, they have been in use–and, presumably, available for review by any district employee–for years now.
Then there is the matter of how to “fix” this situation, and who should be paying for the fix. In the article, Axtell has this to say:
“The thing that has become very apparent is that we need diversity,” Axtell added. Although the Little Books look like storybooks, she said, they were produced by a small team with a specific technical focus: making sure each word could be “decoded” for pronunciation and comprehension with the tools taught in the wider lesson.
More people will be reviewing material going forward, she said, both inside the company and outside it, including teachers and parents.
“Our goal is to affirm cultural competency and equity,” Axtell said.
So, it seems the Minneapolis Public Schools chose to give a significant contract to a company that is lacking in diversity.
And now, the district is, essentially, paying Reading Horizons to learn how to be more “culturally competent.”
At the board meeting, the 45 minute public comment period–which MPS has not videotaped since 2010–was partially shut down by board chair Jenny Arneson, who became flustered when northside resident and public personality Al Flowers insisted on being allowed to address the board. (Flowers challenged MPS’s apparent policy of requiring people to sign up to speak ahead of time, online. On Tuesday, Minneapolis resident Shaun Walsh spoke out strongly against Reading Horizons; then, a string of three MPS reading specialists addressed the board in favor of Reading Horizons’ phonics curriculum.)
Arneson’s actions prompted Minneapolis parent and business owner Chaun Webster–who has been vocal about his opposition to Reading Horizons–to stand up and chastise the board, saying, “I did not come here, as a parent, to have you all walk out on me.”
The meeting resumed and lasted 5 more hours, finally ending at 11 p.m. It was not until the very end that the public could, again, weigh in on the Reading Horizons deal. By then, only a handful of MPS employees and a smattering of citizens were left in the board room.
Overall, the mood was that of frustration and exhaustion. Board members Don Samuels and Josh Reimnitz seemed most in favor of sticking by Reading Horizons and giving them a chance to mend their ways. Samuels said MPS has an opportunity to “create transformation around educational materials,” by requiring Reading Horizons to “change all the old white guys” on their board, among other things.
Reimnitz praised Reading Horizons for “removing offensive content” from their materials, saying he would be open to working with them again because they have a “great curriculum” and seem willing to change.
Board members Siad Ali, Rebecca Gagnon, Kim Ellison, and Nelson Inz seemed far less supportive of Reading Horizons, with Tracine Asberry most explicitly decrying not only the company’s performance, but also MPS’s decision to partner with them in the first place. Student board member Noah Branch also spoke out against Reading Horizons, saying he found it “breathtaking that we are not cutting the contract right away.”
Asberry counteracted the positive reviews MPS employees, such as Amy Jones, director of elementary education, and some board members were giving to Reading Horizons, saying the literacy needs of MPS students are now being used as an excuse to keep doing business with the company.
“There is no silver bullet,” Asberry reminded the board. We are being told, she said, that “Reading Horizons will, all of a sudden, help our kids with literacy.” But, she emphasized, “I believe kids can learn to read and decode, and have a sense of their beauty.”
At last, Chaun Webster got the chance to address the board, expressing disgust and dismay with MPS and their treatment of those who are unwilling to overlook Reading Horizons’ deficits.
“We are not going away,” he told the board and interim superintendent Goar. “Our kids and students are still impacted by this.”
Piper’s Salt Lake Tribune article includes a full reprint of a September 9 resolution regarding Reading Horizons, which she attributes to the Minneapolis Public Schools. I can’t find this document on the district’s website, however, so I am not certain that it is a finalized statement. However, it appears that MPS is calling on Reading Horizons to “apologize” at the next school board meeting.
MPS also wants some money back, which may be tough to procure, given the non-standard purchase agreement/contract the district signed, as well as the fact that these Reading Horizons products have apparently been available and in use for years, implying that a diligent employee or two could have viewed the materials before signing on the dotted line.
Board member Carla Bates even wondered aloud whether or not MPS had been the victim of a bait and switch move by Reading Horizons, as teachers and MPS administrators are saying that no one saw the offending Little Books until after the contract was signed.
Perhaps no one will ever know exactly how MPS agreed to part with such a large sum of a money, in exchange for a phonics curriculum and a public relations disaster.
As for Reading Horizons, this whole episode, or “issue,” has prompted at least one immediate change for them: their website no longer prominently displays “Faith” as the company’s number one “Core Value.”
A screenshot taken on September 9, 2015 provides a pre-edited look at the page:
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