Saturday, April 10, 2010

In mourning for reading and writing...

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is proposing to de-fund two of my favorite government programs - Reading is Fundamental and the National Writing Project.

Both programs discussed in this New York Times article have been constants in my adult life.
Both are examples of how a small amount of funding can energize and reform teaching, learning, and literacy by engaging volunteers and professionals at the grass roots level.
Both are examples of how the "big stick" of government endorsement can assist and support local initiatives.

I am distressed.

I voted for Obama but have been warily watching Duncan. This alarming recommendation favors the creeping corporatism celebrated by certain reformers. (Read Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System for a full account of the dangers to our children from this kind of 'group think.')
Duncan is proposing that literacy decisions be made state-by-state.

That means that two national networks supporting literacy based on good pedagogy will be dismantled and every state will be left wide open to bidding from lots of "Literacy Experts."

Money currently spent at the local level on projects will have to be diverted to hiring grant writers who must elbow their way between corporate outsiders to gain the ear of decision makers in all fifty states.
Corporate-style consultants generally spend huge amounts money advertising pre-packaged "programs" that make big promises, but may have little to no buy-in by the teachers who implement them.
It will be hard for these two networks of teachers and volunteers to compete with BIG MONEY.

In addition, NWP and RIF will essentially be five yards behind the starting line when the next "race" to literacy begins. Both will have to establish grant writers and glitzy marketing packages to compete with what big players already have in place. It won't be a fair fight.

Generally, corporate-supported programs are presented and sold to districts but provide little to no follow up support.
Both NWP and RIF engage their participants in longitudinal development and change.
Both RIF and NWP develop and sustain the teachers and volunteers in the program, creating systemic, cultural change through a network that extends over years of development.

Currently, most of RIF money is spent on books. EVERY child gets free books. Text-deprived homes are no longer suffer the same huge disadvantage from text-rich homes. The change is immediate and goes directly to the heart of one problem in literacy -- access.

In NWP, teachers are trained, do the consultancy work (at a fraction of what outside 'experts' charge), own and study their classroom work, and continue to be lifelong students of pedagogy. School buildings grow in-house literacy experts who model and spread strong classroom instruction throughout the system and remain in the building as an ongoing resource and model of professional engagement.

I've seen the inside of both of these literacy projects. They aren't flashy, but that is exactly the point. Money is spent where it is needed, not on glitz, advertising, grant writers, or big promises.

Fortunate to be able to stay home when my children were small, I spent volunteer hours working on behalf of the children of my small city.
As RIF volunteers, our team created school-wide literacy programs. We supported teachers by providing field trips, speakers, and annual reading-themed projects. Three times a year we celebrated reading by letting every student shop for a book of their own. All of the children looked forward to RIF days.
Once, we hosted Laura Robb in celebration of a project anniversary at the school. The former first lady of Virginia is the daughter of Lyndon Johnson. Her mother created Reading is Fundamental when "Lady Bird" served as First Lady.
All the money in our budget was spent on books. The work was handed off from one volunteer group to the next making it possible to provide a steady stream of free reading material for over 25 years.

When I returned to teaching I sought the notebook I kept from the National Writing Project course taken before I left. This single course, led by classroom teachers, impacted my teaching more than any other professional development program.
I never looked for a pre-packaged binder from an outside consultant.

The two projects are more than the sum of their parts.

Teachers get more done with less than any corporate entity. (We've been doing it our entire careers.) Money spent on NWP courses and workshops lives on in the professional network that exists for years beyond the initial training and contact with NWP.
Volunteers in RIF spend countless hours that never show up on the books and pass their knowledge and expertise on to the next cadre ready to step into volunteer slots.

The government support means that funding goes directly where it is needed - not to administrative work that weakens the stream of resources to our children.

We cannot let these two go without a fight.

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