Controversies within the Minneapolis Public School System sometimes appear to be a dime a dozen. Many are not really controversies at all; they are differences of opinion made to be controversies because political axes are in need of sharpening. The most recent controversy, “Lazy Lucy,” involves the introduction of some readable text of questionable nature for first through third grade emerging readers.
On its face, the controversy involves the district spending 1.2 million dollars on an early literacy curriculum which is accompanied by short, decodable stories that students can easily read. The “Lazy Lucy” story features Lucy, an African girl, who is too lazy to keep her hut clean. Then there is “Nieko, the Hunting Girl” in which an American Indian girl, with her father, stalks a wooly mammoth. There is also one about Kenya, where people run really fast. It’s not a stretch to see why minority communities might question the subject matter, and it leaves one scratching one’s head as to how the decision was made to choose the curriculum. Was there a committee charged with reviewing several curricula and making a recommendation as to which to purchase? Did a heterogeneous group of teachers and administrators comprise that committee? Or did a single individual make the decision to make the purchase? Were there any checks and balances in place to ensure that the decision to purchase the curriculum was a good one?
If we peel back the skin of the onion a little further, we see that the controversy involves more than just choosing a curriculum containing stories that might be racist at worst or insensitive at best. The curriculum decision also reflects the deep disagreement that exists within the district as to how reading should be taught. The reading controversy has existed in the ten plus years I have been at Groves Academy, and I am sure it existed long before I arrived. A controversy that has been brewing nationally for the past forty to fifty years, it pits whole language advocates versus “phonics fanatics.”
Unfortunately, over the years the reading wars’ pendulum has swung back and forth within the district as it has throughout the country. When I first arrived at Groves Academy in 2005, it was quite clear that the district was following the whole language protocol. There were leveled readers in the classroom, and students practiced daily guided reading with their teachers. There was very little explicit reading instruction happening. Instead, the belief was that if you exposed kids to great literature and gave them a little push, they would begin reading when they were ready, when their brains were mature enough. Not surprisingly, many students didn’t score well on national reading tests, and a significant achievement gap between white middle class students and African American students continued to grow.
A few years after I arrived, the district changed the reading curriculum, presumably due to low test scores. The district moved to supplement their whole language reading curriculum with some phonics instruction found in the workbook, Words Their Way. The change was made late in the spring of 2009, and with teachers leaving for the summer, district administrators were scrambling to figure out how adequate professional development could take place. After speaking with a few Minneapolis public school teachers the following fall, it was apparent that adequate professional development had not taken place.
When a school district does not thoroughly vet a reading curriculum, it inevitably will make a poor decision. There is a lot of money to be made in education, and publishers attract attention and boost sales with slick marketing campaigns. There doesn’t have to be much, if any, substance behind the marketing. In fact, there are phonics reading curricula in the marketplace that are just as poorly anchored as whole language curricula. Bad phonics curricula only serves whole language advocates as they can accurately exclaim, “See, I told you phonics doesn’t work!” The pendulum then shifts back to whole language. This is the story of the reading wars over the last forty to fifty years. People get on their soapboxes, and children are harmed.
In truth, a good reading program for emerging and struggling readers does contain more phonics with explicit instruction than it does whole language. In truth, controlled, decodable readers, like “Lazy Lucy,” which students can read easily, are more appropriate for these readers than is good, non-controlled literature with which young readers are forced to guess at a word’s identity. But phonics alone is not enough. Teachers need to be prepared to teach deep-level phonics, not just symbol-sound correspondences. They also need to be well versed in phonology, morphology, vocabulary development, orthography, semantics, and syntax. Teachers need to know more than just believing that reading comes naturally when the brain has developed and a good book is placed in front of their students.
On the surface, the latest Minneapolis Public School District controversy may be about race and insensitivity, but it’s really about much more. It’s about how kids best learn to read.
John Alexander, Head of School