Tag Archives: Reading Horizons

Education 2015: The Force Awakens

December 30, 2015

Like many people, I went to the new Star Wars movie recently, thanks to the generosity of a visiting family member. Unlike many people, however, I went with my whole family, including my 6-year-old.

The 6-year-old was not into it, at all. “This is boring,” she called out loudly at one point, followed by repeated loud whispering: “When will this be over?”

So, I didn’t make it through the whole movie. She and I headed out, crawling one last time over the unforgiving legs of the devoted Star Wars fans in our row. My mumbled “sorry” to those who have been waiting since 1977 to see this film was cold comfort, I’m sure.

But I did see enough of the film to understand that the force–of resistance, of good–has been awakened. In case there is anyone who has yet to see the film, I won’t go much further. Anyway, this is all just an excuse for me to mention my favorite player in the whole Star Wars deal: Joseph Campbell.

Campbell was a brilliant guy who liked to focus on how connected we all are, through stories, archetypes, and the hero’s journey, which can belong to anyone. (George Lucas used Campbell’s great book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to give shape to the original Star Wars story.)

Back to education in 2015. Here are a few of the signs of life–or, the force, if you will–that struck me most this year: 

  • The people, united, pushed Reading Horizons out of the Minneapolis Public Schools. A couple of brave Minneapolis teachers, willing to speak up against what they knew was wrong (canned phonics materials bolstered by hideously offensive classroom readers), galvanized a forceful public movement. 
  • The petition to restart Minneapolis’s superintendent search. This petition–started by community folks–gathered over 1,000 signatures rapidly. The search has not been restarted (yet?), but it seems the petition–done the weekend before the school board voted on a superintendent candidate–may have helped block controversial interim superintendent Michael Goar from getting the permanent job.
  • A quiet December 4 press release announced that Minneapolis’s Green Central Elementary School has received a full-service community school grant from the state. This means the school can do an extended survey of its community to find out what services people need and want in order to make Green Central a strong, successful community asset (and not a dismal test prep factory). Full-service schools are centered on “wrap-around services” that seek to serve the whole child. Here’s an example, from Brooklyn Center, MN.
  • Minneapolis’s North High School Polars football team made it to state. This is the school administrators tried to shut down in 2010, in a “Disinvestment 101” exercise. North isn’t out of the woods yet,  and won’t be, as long as market-based reforms (who benefits most from competition? autonomy? standardized tests?) continue to dominate public education policy. Reminder: As I discovered in 2015, North’s success isn’t all about sports.
  • On a personal level, I have to give huge 2015 props to Minneapolis South High School teachers. When my oldest kid, a junior at South, turned to me recently and said, “Mom, what reparations do you think the Dakota should get?,” I knew she was in the right place. Her English class has been working on a unit about the Dakota in Minnesota, which is nothing like the British Lit I yawned my way through as a high school student (never fear: I came to appreciate it later, sort of). And then there are those hot like wasabi math teachers at South, adeptly tackling the “when will we ever use this?!” question….

I could go on, but I won’t, fearing you may be tempted to shout, “This is boring!” 

Quickly, here is a list of some of my favorite non-Minneapolis education stories from 2015:

  • Chicago’s Dyett High hunger strikers. Hard to call this a favorite, since people were literally starving themselves for local control of their school, which remains unresolved, but I have deep love for Jitu Brown and his crew.
  • Dale Rusakoff’s book, The Prize. If you want an excellent look at the forces–good and bad–
    Image result for nikole hannah-jones

    NY Times reporter Hannah-Jones

    that shape education politics and reform today, read Rusakoff’s account of MarkZuckerberg’s money drop on the Newark Public Schools. Painfully real.

  • Ira Glass’s “This American Story” portrait of reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’s work covering education and that forgotten but successful gap-closing strategy: Integration. Really, listen to this!

Joseph Campbell was right: the hero does have a thousand faces. Can’t wait to see what that looks like in 2016.

Thank you so much to those of you who have donated so generously to this blog in 2015. I am very grateful for your support, and appreciate every little bit that comes my way!


Minneapolis Public Schools: All Reading Horizons Materials Will Be Pulled

October 21, 2015

In the wake of continued public protest, the Minneapolis Public Schools has definitively pulled all Reading Horizons materials from the district’s K-2 classrooms.

District communications staff sent out a press release this afternoon, announcing the decision.

While still championing the need for “foundational skills,” the announcement also seems to acknowledge a frequently voiced demand for more authentic, meaningful community engagement:

In the coming weeks, a Request for Proposal will be completed and the district will begin soliciting proposals for a new fundamental skills curriculum. Community members, parents and teachers will be integral in the selection of a new curriculum, and more details on process changes will be released in the coming weeks.

When and how this will happen is yet to be determined.

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Reading Horizons in Minneapolis: Full Implementation Ahead, Despite School Board Action

October 20, 2015


That is the word reverberating through text messages, emails, and Facebook posts today, among those closely following the trajectory of Reading Horizons’ troubling spin through the Minneapolis Public Schools.

After months of teacher and community-led protest, the Minneapolis school board voted, on October 13, to cancel the district’s deal with Reading Horizons, purveyor of a shocking set of “Little Books,” and a phonics curriculum some find invaluable.

On October 20, just one week after watching Reading Horizons get shot down by school board members, Minneapolis Public Schools’ Director of Elementary Education, Amy Jones, sent this message to the district’s elementary ed literacy specialists:

Good morning,

We are moving forward with Reading Horizons implementation this year while we start the search for another foundational skills program. It is in the best interest of our students and at the direction of Interim Superintendent Goar that we continue with full implementation.

Every K-2 classroom teacher, plus gr 3 classroom teachers in priority sites should already be providing Reading Horizons instruction for 20-30 minutes daily as part of the literacy block. 

Please check in with K-2 (3 priority) teachers to see what type of support they need in their implementation.

Given the Board’s resolution from Oct. 13 there will be a few changes as we move through this year.

#1 We will not be working with the RH implementation coaches in the future as we have discontinued our contract. However, we will continue to provide coaching through our literacy specialists and elementary T&L team. If you have implementation questions or require support, please reach out to them.

#2 We will be moving forward with a Reading A-Z subscription for each site which can be used for decodable texts aligned to Reading Horizons. Information on how to order the books from the copy center will be shared with literacy specialists. 

#3 We will not be utilizing the online RH software.

#4 We will be replacing the white board markers, which were found to be defective. New sets will be sent out mid-November.

We will also talk about this in on Friday at PD, but feel free to send me any questions and I will do my best to answer them.

Thank you for your work and patience.

Amy Jones

Director of Elementary Education

Teaching and Learning Dept.


Minneapolis Public Schools


Was the board’s 7-2 vote to cancel the Reading Horizons contract a mere formality, and not a directive? Several board members–in particular Nelson Inz, who wrote the resolution that was passed, Siad Ali, Rebecca Gagnon, and Tracine Asberry–seemed to agree with the hoards of protesters that filled the meeting room that doing business with Reading Horizons actually was not in the “best interests of our students.” 

Jones’ email is actually the third admin-level message to come out since the board’s decision.

The first came from Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president, Lynn Nordgren, on Wednesday, October 14–just after the board meeting. Here is a condensed version of Nordgren’s lengthy email:

Dear Colleagues,

While it is critical that we have high quality materials for teaching reading, and while there are those who are finding great results with Reading Horizons, we feel we must recommend that further business with Reading Horizons must be stopped. The moral high road has to come first in light of what families and community have expressed and because we cannot continue to marginalize those who have been marginalized throughout time – even if the materials have been “cleansed”. Our equity policy must be honored – we must walk our talk. However, we do not want to leave teachers high and dry. They have been without good materials/resources for too long. Therefore, this is the series of steps we believe the district should take:

1. Stop doing any further business with Reading Horizons. If possible, get a refund.
2. Allow teachers to choose to continue to use RH until a new literacy program is adopted. RH should not be mandatory, however. It should be a professional decision to use or not.
3. Immediately begin a transparent, thorough, and inclusive process for selecting a new literacy program. Use available research about which reading/literacy programs are deemed the best.
Vet every option deeply with the many teachers who will be using the new materials. Include community and parents throughout the process. Adopt a process that can be used for all materials, curriculum, and assessments now and in the future.
4. Ensure all classrooms have adequate materials/resources – no matter what the subject area. Ensure teachers have adequate time to plan the next day’s work with students. It does not matter how good the curriculum is if teachers do not have time to plan engaging lessons and gather needed resources.
5. Apologize and move forward knowing this will not ever happen again.

We understand some of you will not agree with these recommendations. It really came down to being able to move past the controversy and do the right thing ethically but also ensure you have what you need to be successful with students. In the end, it is up to school district leadership to determine the next steps following what happened at the school board on Tuesday night.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. Once again, you have shown how incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and caring you are. I am honored to be your president.


Lynn Nordgren
MFT 59

Nordgren’s email clearly leaves the door open for Reading Horizons to be used, but says it should not be mandatory.

Then, Goar sent a message to staff on Monday, October 19. While Goar’s email indicates a desire to push for more “foundational literacy skills,” it doesn’t say Reading Horizons will continue to be “fully implemented,” against the wishes of the school board and all of those who organized against the district’s relationship with the company:

Sent: Monday, October 19, 2015 11:25 AM
Subject: Update regarding contract with Reading Horizons

Dear Principals and Teachers,

At the October 13th meeting, the Board of Education passed a resolution terminating the district’s contract with Reading Horizons, a vendor of literacy curricula. As you know, supplemental materials provided with a foundational skills curriculum we purchased proved to contain offensive and racist stereotypes and were returned.

At the meeting, I acknowledged it was a failure of people and process that brought us to this point. I take full responsibility for these failures and I sincerely apologize for the pain and challenges that have resulted.  I am committed to fixing the way we select and purchase curriculum so this never happens again. Now it’s time to look to the future and determine next steps.

My priority going forward is to have as little impact as possible on our students’ learning. I know you all share my concern for the reading challenges too many of our children face. We need to have a transition strategy to avoid leaving classrooms without essential fundamental reading skills tools. Children need strong reading skills to be college and career ready.

The Board of Education decided that the contractual relationship with Reading Horizons needed to end based on policy violations during the selection of the curriculum. I fully respect this decision and will direct the selection of a replacement curriculum utilizing a vigorous process that will thoroughly evaluate effectiveness, cultural appropriateness and will include input from our community.  

In the meantime, we will continue to utilize the foundational skills to support our core literacy curriculum, Good Habits, Great Readers. We will keep everyone posted on the search for a replacement curriculum. We will find and approve a replacement as quickly as possible while ensuring the integrity of the process.

Thank you for your patience as we go through this transition, and for your commitment to the students of MPS.

Thank you.

Michael Goar

Interim Superintendent

What happened, then, between October 19 and October 20 that caused MPS to again try to insist that all K-2 (and 3, in high priority schools) teachers use Reading Horizons’ materials, for the same amount of time and in the same manner? (This is an odd move for a district that keeps touting “autonomy” as one of its key gap-closing strategies.)

And just who is in charge here?

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Reading Horizons may go down on policy violations

October 13, 2015

Push has finally come to shove, and tonight, at the regularly scheduled Minneapolis school board meeting, a resolution regarding Reading Horizons will be presented to the public.

This is monumental. I don’t know exactly what the resolutions will say, but my guess is Reading Horizons will be shown the door, even though the Minneapolis Public Schools has already spent over $1 million on the Utah company. 

I have heard that Reading Horizons’ CEO was scheduled to appear at tonight’s board meeting, with the intention that he would apologize to Minneapolis employees and families, over the offensive and utterly confounding “Little Books” his company packaged up and sold to MPS.

Now, ominously, sources say the CEO will be at the meeting, but will not be publicly addressing anyone. 

If Reading Horizons gets sent back to Salt Lake City, it won’t be because of “Lazy Lucy” or the company’s apparent belief that Christopher Columbus discovered America, although that is reason enough in the eyes of many who’ve been tracking this story.

Instead, it will most likely be because MPS employees appear to have violated numerous policies regarding the Reading Horizons deal.

Here are two of the most obvious potential violations, committed in what MPS officials have described as a rush to provide explicit phonics instruction to every K-2 student in the district:

1304 Equity and Diversity

I. Purpose: “Every student deserves a respectful learning environment in which their

racial and ethnic diversity is valued and contributes to successful academic outcomes.

Minneapolis Public Schools is committed to identifying and correcting practices and

policies that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all forms…”

“Adult behaviors must not contribute to achievement gaps or create barriers to success.”

II. Definitions: “”Institutional racism” means the collective failure of a public or private

organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of

their race, color, culture or ethnic origin which can be seen or detected in practices,

processes, systems, attitudes and behavior. It looks beyond individual acts of prejudice

to the systemic biases that may be built into institutions. These systemic biases

discriminate against and disadvantage people of color through unwitting prejudice,

ignorance, thoughtlessness or racial stereotyping.”

III. G. “The District shall promote the diversification of its vendor and supplier corps in

accordance with law and district policy.”

IV. I. “MPS Board of Directors, Superintendent and employees will work with students

and families to identify barriers to achievement and opportunities for academic success”

And this one:

3300 A Purchasing Principles and Responsibilities 
II. A. 6. All purchases of good [sic] and services shall consider the advantage of 
improving the district’s ability to do business with diverse vendors or providers, and the 
ability to engage the Minneapolis community in doing business with the district. Diversity 
of subcontractors and suppliers shall be considered under this value as well. 
IV. A. All employees of the District charged with making purchases of goods and services 
on behalf of the District shall follow the district procedures, and all applicable law and 
district policies for such purchases. Willful failure to do so may result in disciplinary action up
to and including termination of employment.

Here is, perhaps, further evidence of a purchasing policy violation. A Minneapolis parent requested a copy of the “Exhibit A” addendum to the purchase agreement between MPS and Reading Horizons. Emails between the parent and the district’s data request office indicate that district employees initially could not locate Exhibit A in their system, but eventually found it.

The document raised new alarm bells with the parent who requested it, for two reasons:  1) it was not signed by a Minneapolis employee, and 2) it looks like MPS has committed to a five-year deal with Reading Horizons, worth what appears to be $2.3 million, overall.

These two policies, alone, would seem to provide enough ammunition for school board members looking for a  clean way out of the Reading Horizons disaster.

Meanwhile, district officials keep insisting that, despite the horrible upset Reading Horizons has caused for many community members, the company’s phonics curriculum is as good as gold, and too important to scrap. 

Who will win out, the community or district officials? Tonight’s board meeting should provide an answer to this.

Reading Horizons and the Minnesota Humanities Center: A tale of two reform models

October 7, 2015

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Public Schools entered into a purchase agreement (contract would not be the right word) with Utah-based phonics and software producer Reading Horizons. 

All hell then broke loose, for reasons I have been documenting on this blog since August. One of those key reasons–beyond the racist, sexist, classist, etc., materials Reading Horizons provided–was the fact that “Faith” is listed as the number one “Core Value” of the for-profit company’s employees:

We believe in a higher purpose to life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives.

Meanwhile, a few years ago, in a parallel universe that I definitely want to learn more about, the Omaha Public Schools entered into a long-term relationship with the non-profit Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC). They are still working together today.

Both school districts–Omaha and Minneapolis–have been seeking change, reform, and better outcomes for students, families, and staff, and both have had to grapple with potentially flood-inducing waves of changein terms of who they serve and how they serve them.

Parallel universes!

Both have been faced with a pressing choice: drown, or learn a new way to swim.

Here’s a study in contrasts: to survive, the Minneapolis Public Schools, has, among other things, chosen to do business with Reading Horizons, a company that many in the community have objected to–mightily.

The Omaha schools, on the other hand, appear to be putting the community at the forefront of their reform efforts, under the guidance of the MHC.

I find this fascinating, and worth watching. 

First, another similarity: both Reading Horizons and the MHC have a list of “Core Values” on their respective websites. Both put these values–either directly or obliquely–at the center of what they do.

Reading Horizons’ Core Values are personal, supposedly, and intended as a reflection of who their employees are. But faith, honesty, service, and so on, are also identified on the website as the “core values that best represent our company.”. Reading Horizons is not trying to hide–anymore, I guess–that they are a Christian company (with a seemingly strong connection to the Mormon church, but that’s for another blog post, or book).

Question: Do Reading Horizons’ Core Values have anything to do with the “promise” (and sales pitch) the company made to the Minneapolis Public Schools?  Here is that promise:

All MPS studenst (sic) 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.

The goal is to get more Minneapolis kids reading at grade level. That’s an admirable and essential goal. And, the promise is that a product will get us there. The product comes first, then the practice (“with fidelity”), then the boost in reading scores and literacy rates. 

In contrast, the MHC’s Core Values are not personal, nor product based, but rather a short list for how the group approaches reform, as part of its overall “Education Strategy.” From the MHC webpage:

The Minnesota Humanities Center practices a relationship-based approach to engagement and achievement. The Strategy is about restoring relationships: to ourselves, to our students, to each other, to our communities, and to the places we live and work. By embracing and including the Absent Narratives that make up each of us and our communities, we can close the relationship gap of human understanding and empathy between us.

The Education Strategy is experienced through four core values:

  • Build and strengthen relationships;
  • Recognize the power of story and the danger of absence;
  • Learn from and with multiple voices; and
  • Amplify community solutions for change.

Ah! In the eyes of the MHC, what ails our public education system is not an achievement gap, but rather a “relationship gap.”

Think about the “achievement gap” in Minneapolis, and then consider MHC’s fourth core value:

“…the solutions to entrenched problems are in the community”

So…MHC seems to be saying this: solutions to entrenched problems cannot be purchased, nor do they come with a fidelity-based guarantee. Solutions must be discovered within, from the “multiple voices” in the community.

On Friday, October 2, I attended St. Paul-based Parents United’s annual Leadership Summit. Two presenters led the day–Kent Pekel, of the Search Institute, which studies how relationships impact learning, and MHC staff. Both Pekel and the MHC folks, led by CEO and President David O’Fallon, knocked the cynical socks off many of us in the audience, including several Minneapolis parents and community members. 

Fresh in many of our minds was the tension currently hanging over the Minneapolis Public Schools, with one school board meeting shut down (September 29), and the next one (October 13) facing a likely challenge as well, thanks to the district’s continued defense of its relationship with–not the public it serves–but Reading Horizons, the company it has paid to fix our gaps.

No one that I know wants the Minneapolis Public Schools destroyed (I did not say no one, I said no one I know). Most people want the district to survive and thrive, for the benefit not just of their own kids, but for the city as a whole. 

So, what if, in this moment of crisis, the Minneapolis schools did not push the community away, but instead asked to partner with them on identifying our “relationship gaps”? Could this be a way forward, for a district that seems to be struggling to provide both meaningful leadership and sustainable reform?

Shandi DiCosimo

Here’s how the MHC has been operating in Omaha, according to presenters O’Fallon, Rose McGee, and Shandi DiCosimo:

Rose McGee

  • The “single story” creates stereotypes, and robs people of dignity. It also emphasizes how we are different. The “achievement gap” is one example of a single story; it can come across as hollow, and an absence.
  • Instead, let people tell their own stories–of survival and success.
  • Be mindful of this: The only thing that sustains reform is when there is a belief in it, and when communities get to make it their own. It has to come from within.
  • Create story circles, where principals, teachers, and parents can talk, listen, and share stories. People can grow and become more respectful of one another’s voices.
  • Appreciate and value what happens outside of school. Understand where students live. Go on an “Immersion” field trip to the various communities in the city, with eyes wide open. Let parents share stories and bring content into the schools.
  • Recognize the human hunger for “place.” Understand that the question, “where do I belong?,” is central to the human experience.
  • Emphasize engagement over curriculum.
  • Operate on a “developmental evaluation” model, where it is known that the unexpected will happen, and adjustments (in approach) will need to be made.
  • Think about this: new narratives, a new vision, and a new story about education can take us forward.

Photo: Minnesota Humanities Center

And, my favorite lesson the MHC staff has learned in Omaha: Give students voice and power. To illustrate this, O’Fallon shared the story of an “alternative” high school within Omaha, which had become the dumping ground for all of the kids no one knew how to deal with. When MHC came in, with their “Absent Narratives” framework, they put the students to work.

The students–who said they had never before been asked for their perspective–ended up writing a handbook for first-year teachers, to give them tips on how to reach them. The handbook became so popular that it is now shared across the Omaha district, and the students have been asked to lead staff development workshops, too.

The answers lie within the community, not without.

What will happen next, between the Minneapolis schools and those who are asking for the district to sever its relationship with Reading Horizons? 

I don’t know. But, since this whole storm broke over the city, more than one person has sent me the link to Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her 2009 talk, Adichie describes how “impressionable and vulnerable we are, in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

At Friday’s Leadership Summit, O’Fallon also shared Adichie’s Ted Talk. It’s worth watching, and, perhaps, applying to what confronts us now, in Minneapolis.

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Reading Horizons protesters shut down Minneapolis school board meeting

September 30, 2015

Think the Reading Horizons “issue” is over for the Minneapolis Public Schools?

The protest shut down the Minneapolis school board meeting

Not quite.

A loosely knit group of around 25 protesters–armed with a game show script, homemade signs, and a band of colorful ribbons gathered by Million Artist Movement reps–brought down the September 29 Minneapolis school board meeting. 

On a sheet plastered with images from the “Little Books” Reading Horizons initially sold to the Minneapolis Public Schools, the protesters called for “Change Now!” and demanded the district end its relationship with Reading Horizons. The sheet also called for interim superintendent Michael Goar to publicly apologize, and stated that Goar–or someone–should be fired over the district’s business deal with Utah-based Reading Horizons.

After first gathering in the light filled space outside the Davis Center board room, the group trooped into the official meeting room, chanting, “Whose tax dollars? Our tax dollars!” and “Whose children? Our children!”


Getting ready to march in

The protesters then took over the board meeting (which was a business meeting where a key levy vote had to be made) and began rattling off questions in mock game show format.

First up was this: What is the gender and race of all members of the Reading Horizons board? 

The answer? All white males.

Another question: Is there any independent research that shows that Reading Horizons is a successful program? 

Answer: No! The research that proves Reading Horizons works was made by…Reading Horizons!

The board quickly voted to adjourn the meeting and retreat, with District 6 representative Tracine Asberry choosing to remain seated. Board members Rebecca Gagnon and Nelson Inz filtered in and out of the board room as well, with Inz eventually sitting down with the protesters to listen to their demands and concerns. (Goar also returned to sit on the edge of the protesters for a few moments, but made no public comment.)

804 signatures

A reference to a letter sent by protesters Shana Dickson, David Boehnke, and Chaun Webster. Click to access it.

As the board members shuffled out of the room, a stunned hush fell over the meeting room, with Minneapolis Public Schools staff members–some of them clearly outraged, and some of them intrigued–lingering on the fringes of the protest circle.

What happened next probably won’t make it to the evening news, but it should: the protesters sat together, introduced themselves, and explained why they were there.

One woman said her white children, who attend school in Minneapolis, have had “every privilege box checked” so far. They need anti-racist classroom books and curriculum as much as anyone else, she stated.

A current Minneapolis teacher was also there, and said she had just come from a Reading Horizons training session, where K-2 teachers were being shown how to use the company’s phonics curriculum. The teacher said she was not impressed with the training, and described another problem: some teachers at the training had to be called back to their classrooms, as MPS lacks enough subs to cover so many teacher absences at once.

Here is a snapshot of what the protesters were discussing (Including arts educator Barbara Cox’s input);

Further video from the disrupted board meeting shows why the Reading Horizons story has not just blown away with the reassurance that the offending books have been removed (and the accompanying consolation that no children were exposed to them):

The evening ended with board members pushing through their required levy vote, amid a screeching sound system and the further shouts of protesters:

The protesters dissipated long after the board members did, with promises to return for the next regularly scheduled board meeting on October 13.

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Upset? Reading Horizons wants to meet with you

September 21, 2015

Reading Horizons redux: What’s happening now with the Minneapolis Public Schools’ controversial dealings with Utah-based Reading Horizons? Read on. If you would like to start at the beginning of this story, here is a link to the first blog post I wrote about it: Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards

Shaun Walsh was the first person to speak out at the September 8 Minneapolis school board meeting. Walsh used her three minutes of public comment time–which the district does not record–to assail the Minneapolis Public Schools’ problematic $1.2 million deal with the Reading Horizons company.Image result for can we just be friends

Now, Reading Horizons would like to meet with her, to clear the air.

At the board meeting, which Reading Horizons officials apparently wanted to attend, until Minneapolis interim superintendent Michael Goar’s office told them not to, the school board voted to sternly chastise Reading Horizons, but also to continue working with the company (perhaps because the district will lose the $1.2 million it has already spent on this).

That night, the degree of forgiveness some board members and district officials were willing to grant Reading Horizons led one parent in attendance to ask–in frustration–whether Reading Horizons was being treated like a person and not a for-profit company. Also, board member Tracine Asberry wondered aloud why the same level of forgiveness and consideration was not being shown to district staff and families who were upset over the Reading Horizons deal.

The forgiveness has continued since then, with Minneapolis officials busily trying to arrange meetings with disgruntled community members, on Reading Horizons’ behalf.

Here is the email Walsh received from school board administrator Jesse Winkler, on September 17:

Dear Community Member,

Reading Horizons has requested to speak individually with community members who spoke at our last Board of Education Meeting.  They would like to offer you the opportunity to hear directly from someone on the Reading Horizons team.  Please let us know by 5:00 p.m. Monday, September 21st if you would like us to share your contact information with a member of the Reading Horizons team.

Interim superintendent Michael Goar; photo from StarTribune

Jesse Winkler | Jesse.Winkler@mpls.k12.mn.us

Administrator to the Board of Education 

Walsh responded to district officials and board members on September 18, letting them know that a meeting with a Reading Horizons team member is not what she is looking for. Here is her email, which I have edited for length:

Jesse, Superintendent Goar, and members of the Board, 

While I appreciate that Reading Horizons has made a commitment to improving their curriculum, my central issue is not with Reading Horizons and I have no interest in taking time from my family or my job to meet with them.

…my issue is not with Reading Horizons – my issue is with Minneapolis Public Schools and the Board.  Not only did MPS invest 1.2 million dollars without adequately vetting the material or company, but MPS spent tax payer dollars without a contract to protect those dollars.  MPS administration are the ones who did not stop or interrupt a training when offensive things were being implied about MPS students.  MPS administration did not disrupt when the books were initially passed out.  The Superintendent’s initial response was the books are only a small part of the whole.  A significant number of Board members expressed that either this was the right company to keep working with or that now MPS is in a position to help heal this company and improve resources for other districts.  MPS administration sent the email to teachers informing them that you will be moving forward with Reading Horizons.  And now, MPS is using more resources to have various staff meet with Reading Horizons.

…My issue is with MPS because you are ignoring community members, a portion of your board, your student representative to the Board, and I believe your own ethical compass….

As I said in my comment at the Board meeting–I am asking you to walk away from this contract. Not doing so is clearly telling the community that you will give our money to a company that produces racist materials. Now, you are wasting even more of our money by spending staff hours working with this company to improve their work. Like only having a purchase agreement, this is horrible business practice, they owe us money and should be paying us to consult with them.

I would like to close my long-winded email with two main points:

1) You put a student representative on the Board for a reason. You should be listening to him.

2) You should not be contacting us on behalf of Reading Horizons. You have missed the message. You should be contacting us because you, MPS, wants to meet with concerned citizens/educators/business owners/parents who are taking their time and energy and would like to help you do better. Please review the letter written by Shana Dickson, Chaun Webster, and David Boehnke and signed by many, many community members for the full message.

Shaun Walsh

Image result for noah branch

Noah Branch; photo from Kare 11

Parent, community member, youth worker

In her email, Walsh sings the praises of student board representative Noah Branch, who clearly asks why the district would even consider keeping Reading Horizons around. A video of the September 8 board meeting can be found here. 

A further, lingering issue here is that there is no publicly available copy of a current organizational chart for the Minneapolis Public Schools. For months, a notice on the district’s website has said the org chart is “currently being revised.” The problem? Who is responsible for what in the district? Who initially pushed the Reading Horizons contract through?

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Mary Turck on Reading Horizons: A self-proclaimed success?

The following post was written by blogger Mary Turck, former editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Mary has delved into another key aspect of the spiraling Reading Horizons’ “issue” by tackling the claim that “research” proves the company’s products are superior.

Read her post here, and then go check out her blog:

Reading Horizons “proves” that Reading Horizons works (and I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you)

Page from one of the now-withdrawn Reading Horizons


(The following content was written by Mary Turck)

The million dollar boondoggle that is Minneapolis Public Schools contract with Utah-based Reading Horizons continues. Now MPS wants Reading Horizons to rewrite its offensive and racist “Little Books.” MPS insists that “research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes around the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours.” Where is the research that MPS relied on? Does it exist? And if it doesn’t, what is explanation for a $1.2 million contract?

Sarah Lahm started telling the Reading Horizons story in August: A corporate contractor got more than a million dollars from Minneapolis Public Schools and delivered offensive teacher training and racist books. Her exposé on Bright Lights, Small City has been picked up nationwide, including a September 11 article in the Washington Post.

Sarah Lahm quotes MPS Communications Director Gale Piewacki as explaining that a team including dozens of teachers chose Reading Horizons because they are “known for their accomplishments in literacy.” Reading Horizons itself claims:

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.

Following Sarah Lahm’s excellent coverage of the Reading Horizons scandal, I kept coming up with a question she also raised: Where is the research to back up the claim that Reading Horizons can raise all student achievement and drastically reduce the achievement gaps?

Using both academic databases and Google’s search engine, I came up with two academic papers that considered Reading Horizons in Missouri and a bunch of “research” that came from Reading Horizons. The Reading Horizons page does not identify independent, outside research. If such research exists, why isn’t it identified?

One of the two academic papers considers the achievement of ten students, three of whom used Reading Horizons — and concludes that Reading Horizons “could in fact help,” but recommends further study. The other, a doctoral dissertation that has a more credible design, focuses on eighth graders and finds “mixed” results.

The “research” showing success for Reading Horizons came from Reading Horizons itself — which collected and reported the data on its own performance in seven schools, using different measures for each school. Most of the seven schools were in small towns, with only one in a large city. The number of students and the length of time they used the program varied from five students using the program for five years to 1,748 students using the program for four months. Only one school was specifically identified as “ethnically diverse,” which probably means that the others were not.

The “research report” on elementary schools using Reading Horizons did not identify actual locations or dates of use. Here’s a summary of the elementary schools and students featured in the Reading Horizons “research:”

Iron Springs – school in a city of 27,500 people
Using Reading Horizons: 365 students
39.2 percent free or reduced lunch

Seattle Hill – school in a city of 72,307 people
Using Reading Horizons: “unknown” number of K-2 students
12 percent free or reduced lunch

Hale Elementary School in a city of 2.78 million people
“ethnically diverse”
Using Reading Horizons: “unknown” number of first grade students in two classrooms for one year
66 percent free or reduced lunch

Case Avenue Elementary School in a city of 13,909 people
“linguistically diverse”
Using Reading Horizons: 5 students for five years
46 percent free or reduced lunch

Princeton School District in a city of 1,202 people
Using Reading Horizons: 5 special education students for one year
49 percent free or reduced lunch

Huntington Elementary School in a city of 2,150 people
Using Reading Horizons: 21 students for three months and 42 students for two years
51 percent free or reduced lunch

Webster Schools in a city of 13,523 people
Using Reading Horizons: 10 or 12 schools with 1,748 students for four months
50 percent free or reduced lunch

By way of comparison, here are some numbers describing Minneapolis Public Schools, from the district website:

  • Minneapolis Public School District has 35,356 students
  • 65 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch
  • 37 percent are African-American, 33 percent White American, 19 percent Hispanic American, 7 percent Asian American, 4 percent American Indian, 0.1 percent Pacific Islander
  • 24 or 33 percent of students are English Language Learners (both numbers appear on the page)

MPS has stumbled from program to program, changing rules and curriculum and tests repeatedly. The Reading Horizons fiasco, with the racist, sexist, historically inaccurate books provided by the company, is the latest stumble, and it’s a giant one. Now the district insists that it must continue the $1.2 million contract because of Reading Horizons’ record of success. What is that record? Where is the research that they claim to rely on? And if that research doesn’t exist, what is the explanation for entering into that contract in the first place?

Reading Horizons story picked up by Utah newspaper: “Lazy Lucy” is not new to MPS

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.

Reading Horizons 9.8 Statement

Reading Horizons statement; click for a better view

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: Image result for reading horizons lazy lucy

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.” 

Chaun Webster and his wife, Verna Wong in a City Pages photo

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.”

Tracine Asberry

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:

RH Faith Cache

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Doctor to Minneapolis Public Schools: Divest from Reading Horizons

September 8, 2015

Background: 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 initially centered on two teachers–one white (Mandy Perna), one a teacher of color (Shana Dickson)–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended, put on by the Utah-based company, Reading Horizons. Now, the posts have expanded to include the community’s response to Reading Horizons, and especially to the racist, sexist emerging reader books the company created for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Please refer to previous posts for further details and pictures.

To date, around 700 concerned parents, staff, students, education professionals, and citizens have signed a letter, crafted by Minneapolis teachers Shana Dickson and David Boehnke, along with artist Chaun Webster, demanding that the Minneapolis school district cancel its $1.2 million contract with Reading Horizons and focus instead on strengthening connections with local communities and sources of knowledge.

On September 8, supporters of this letter are being asked to rally at the first school board meeting of the new school year, starting at 5:30 at the district’s Davis Center headquarters.

Here is the story of one parent volunteer who is asking MPS to use this moment of unrest as an opportunity to “work collectively” with the people it serves. 

Happy Reynolds is a Minneapolis primary care doctor with two young kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Reynolds is white; her kids are not.

Happy Reynolds

As a parent, Reynolds has spent hours volunteering in her daughters’ classrooms; last year, she taught a class of 3rd graders the anatomical structure of the eye, because a Somali student expressed interest in becoming a doctor someday.

Now, Reynolds has been tracking the school district’s contract with Reading Horizons, and she has a direct message for MPS:

Divest now, and cancel the Reading Horizons contract.

Although Reynolds has sympathy for the MPS employees who brought Reading Horizons into the district, saying she doesn’t think they are “bad people,” she is also not content to accept MPS’s move to return the offending “Little Books” to Reading Horizons for redesign.

Reynolds says she spoke with Amy Jones, MPS’s director of elementary education, last week, and was told that the offending books are but a “small part” of Reading Horizons’ otherwise strong phonics program.

Kenyans can run

Sample Reading Horizons Little Book

But Reynolds is not satisfied with this. “They sent us crazy, racist materials,” she says definitively, calling the whole deal “poisoned fruit.” 

“If the KKK had a great literature program, would we buy it?” Reynolds wondered, calling the whole episode part of a bigger issue: “If we continue to pay a company with these skills, we are condoning this.”

Reynolds guesses that those responsible for the Reading Horizons contract “probably fell for a big sales pitch, and got sold a bill of goods.” And she knows that cancelling a big contract like this will not happen easily:  “Sometimes, an attachment to a decision or the work and planning put into it makes it hard to turn back.”

Beyond the overt racism, Reynolds also points out–as others have–that Reading Horizons seems to have clear connections to the Mormon church. “I read through their whole website, and faith is their number one tenet.” Sensing a “proselytizing” vibe, Reynolds insists that, as a public school district, MPS must be “secular.”

Reynolds lives in Phillips, one of the Minneapolis’s most underserved neighborhoods. So, when she contemplates a main justification–low reading scores– for overlooking Reading Horizon’s trouble spots, she is not satisfied.

“What I see in my neighborhood is parents working all night, cleaning offices, etc. Their kids want to read and be read to, but the families need more support. What they have is unmet needs.”

Focusing only on low test scores is akin to the pressures Reynolds sees doctors facing: “Primary care is dying because, like the public school system, the metrics we are being judged by don’t reflect the reality people are living under.”

As an example, Reynolds says doctors can be “paid by how well someone controls their diabetes,” which does not address the fact that some patients have zero access to a refrigerator or a place to safely get out and walk.

Therefore, Reynolds wants solutions to the Reading Horizons debacle, and does not want to simply heap more blame on administrators.

“What most patients want is a physician who listens to them, and knows their hopes and fears. And 90 percent of diagnoses are made by patients telling their stories. We could do this in public schools. We could say to parents, ‘Your child is not performing well. What do you see is the problem?'”

Reynolds would love to see this issue become a “transformative moment” for MPS, where the district reaches out to staff, parents, and the community and says:

“We are in this fight together, and we are going to come together as a community.”

Among Reynolds’ suggestions for how to move forward:Image result for housing code violations

  • Use money–like the $1.2 million promised to Reading Horizons–to lower class sizes, provide extra support, and tailor interventions to individual student needs
  • Coordinate better to support our most struggling neighborhoods; ask them what they need
  • Example: partner with Children’s Hospitals for training MPS staff about how to handle kids and families facing post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Give down payments on houses to teachers who live and work in high poverty areas. If they stay 10-15 years, then forgive their mortgages
  • Tackle housing code violations; help parents who must work 2 or 3 jobs just to survive
  • Tap in to the incredible wealth of native educators and scholars in our community, and the huge amount of intelligentsia among the African-American community
  • Explore using a literacy program that collects cultural folktales, as from Somali and Hmong cultures, and uses them in the classroom. Everybody could learn together.
  • Partner with the public library system. Get every kid a library card.
  • Do not spend a whole year on test prep; test-taking skills can be taught in one week, if necessary. Understand that focusing on boosting test scores is the same as treating symptoms, and not the disease.

While Reynolds wants MPS to cancel this contract and move forward, positively, she is also ultimately supportive of the district, saying, “We have some pretty damn amazing teachers.”

The question, now, according to Reynolds, is this:

“Do we have the strength of character, as a city, as a school district, to stand up, ask for forgiveness, say ‘we heard you,’ and cancel the contract?”

If you appreciate this type of in-depth, independent, journalism, then please consider donating to keep this blog rolling! Your support is crucial and much appreciated. Many thanks to those of you who have already contributed.