A call for slow schools... Rethinking public education in the Green Mountains

This call to Vermonters to take back their schools appeared in Vermont Commons, April 4, 2007.

Concerned citizens in every state should take a look at what the Feds are doing to their schools and join the fight to end NCLB. Childhood is at stake, and so is teacher professionalism.

“Education in Vermont, if it is to move forward, must have a goal toward which to move, a basic philosophy which combines the best which is known about learning, children, development, and human relations with the unique and general needs and desires of Vermont communities.”— Vermont Department of Education, 1968

Reading, writing and federalizing “science”

When federal functionaries sermonize on the science of the matter, whether it’s stem cell research, global warming, or how to teach reading, we know we’re in trouble. Although the phrase “scientifically based research” appeared more than 100 times in the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) enacted in 2001 and now up for reauthorization, recent revelations from the U. S. Education Department’s own Inspector General confirm what plenty of educators have known all along: Federal reading policy has more to do with friends in high places than with science (the century-long legacy of a teaching/learning research).

Take the emphasis on DIBELS. (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, which is forced on schools receiving money from the part of NCLB known as Reading First. According to Vermont DOE estimates, Reading First will cost Vermonters $700 to $800 per child, money that goes for mandated curriculum and the required paperwork and bean counting required by Washington.(1) For this investment, DIBELS mania transfers child-friendly Vermont kindergartens into high-pressure skill zones, asking: How many nonsense words like these can a five-year-old can read in one minute?

y i z * w a n * z o c * f u l * m i k

z u m * n u f * k u n * r u v * f o d

v e p * i j * op * j u j * s u g

Speed rules.

The child who stops to ponder a weird letter combination will fail. Of course, young children who start kindergarten unable to read on the first day are frustrated, but children who enjoy reading in K-3 are also stumped. They wonder why the teacher gives them words that make no sense; they wonder why speed is so important. With this emphasis on delivering responses at a breakneck pace, children who are careful and deliberate in their work are at a severe disadvantage.

P. David Pearson, dean of the College of Education, University of California, Berkeley, states unequivocally, “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards.” As Ken Goodman observes in “Examining DIBELS: What it Is and What it Does,” a landmark publication of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, “DIBELS is not just an early literacy test ... Teachers are required to group learners and build instruction around the scores.”

In September 2006, a scathing report from the U. S. Inspector General (which can be found at the website for the OIG—Office of the Inspector General) revealed just how corrupt this federal science is. Here’s part of a memo from the Reading First chief describing his agency’s “scientific review” of competing, established reading programs:

“Beat the (expletive deleted) our of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and whole language apologist scrutiny. Hit them over and over with definitive evidence that they are not SBRR (the Fed’s version of the science of teaching reading), never have been, and never will be. They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the (expletive deleted) out of them in front of all the other would be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.”

McFaculty perfecting the passive worker

In our fast food nation, NCLB pushes a Fast Skills Curriculum. Pre-schoolers are now given skill workups so they’ll be ready for the rigors of kindergarten. Children in grades K-3 who fail the speed tests are pulled out of the classroom — away from real literature and language experiences — for DIBELS “interventions,” skill drill to boost their scores on future DIBELS assessments. This assault on childhood occurs at schools with a high percentage of children receiving subsidized lunches. Children in more affluent schools, untouched by NCLB, still listen to stories read aloud, sing songs, and paint pictures. Children in NCLB schools get DIBELs homework.

Worse, NCLB destroys something fundamental about childhood, which should be a time of curiosity, discovery, and optimism, joy, and grace. Under NCLB, children become products to be tested, managed, and sorted — like slabs of meat. Under NCLB, answers are much more important than questions. Under NCLB, in the name of rigor and raising the bar, young children are made to feel inadequate. Telling primary graders that they’re failing, that they’re not good enough, is part of the corporate-politico plan to create a scared and compliant workforce for the Global Economy. Tell kids often enough that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and that they don’t measure up, and they will start to believe it. Pound this message home and our children will grow up to be adults who never knew about education for the common good, education for democracy. Such institutional abuse casts a long, dark shadow over a child’s lifetime.

NCLB propagandists such as the Business Roundtable say the skills bar must be raised so children of poverty can be workers in the Global Economy, able to compete for high-paying jobs. This lie blames schools for something beyond their control. Moreover, the high-paying jobs aren’t there. Take a look at job projections over the next 10 years: The mass of new jobs will be in the service industry, where lots of bodies are needed to work for minimum wage. The shame here is not that people work in the service industry. The shame is that these jobs don’t pay a living wage. The shame is that corporate chiefs receiving obscenely fat paychecks would rather make jobs more productive (read “robotic”) or outsource old, less-efficient jobs than create new ones. And then shift the blame to the schools.

At the same time the federal government boasts of making sure all teachers are highly qualified, it McDonaldizes the profession, reducing teachers to assembly line readers of scripts shipped in from corporate conglomerates. When U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proclaims that “The No Child Left Behind Act has brought out the best in our teachers,” we can only remember the old Arab curse, “May the fleas of 1000 camels infest your armpits.”

The Feds’ friends and foes in Vermont

Despite the fact that Vermont’s three elected Congressional representatives voted against NCLB in 2001, the law passed and in April 2003, the Vermont State Department of Education applied for federal dollars to spread Reading First across the state. The defining commitment of Vermont’s 195-page grant application appears in the second paragraph: Only programs fully aligned with scientifically based reading research (SBRR) will be eligible for funding through Reading First.

With that, Vermont joined subservient states in parroting the language, methods, and procedures demanded by the U. S. Department of Education. Meanwhile, teacher unions and many professional organizations remain strangely silent on the NCLB two-pronged assault on teacher professionalism and on childhood. The National Education Association, for one, insists that, with more money, NCLB can be fixed. Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, echo this view. Both joined hands with George Bush to pass NCLB; both are committed to renewing it. NCLB shows us that when Republicans and Democrats agree, children will be hurt. And teacher professionalism destroyed.

In contrast, at the national forefront in fighting unilateral imposition of DIBELS assessments, the Vermont Society for the Study of Education (VSSE) has established an Internet national clearinghouse on DIBELS, offering research, case studies, parent and teacher anecdotes. VSSE takes the position that pouring more money into a law that harms teachers and children is worse than foolish; it’s wrong. No amount of money can fix NCLB.

In January 2007, VSSE affiliated with Educator Roundtable, whose Petition to dismantle NCLB refutes the money argument and offers instead a 16-point rationale for ending a bad law.

A truly Vermont plan

With a state education budget of $1.3 billion (for 93,000 students attending 311 schools), one might wonder why we’re worrying about $800/child for NCLB, but the question is critical. In an independent Vermont, local communities, not Washington politicos, would choose how to spend such money. They might opt for an increase in library funds or concert tickets; they might put dental clinics in schools and eliminate lead dust exposure. They might decide families needed that money to buy winter fuel.

Instead of grinding our very future down into passive submission, Vermonters can shun federal money and return to our roots. A good place to start is the Vermont Design for Education,(2) issued by the Office of the Commissioner, State Department of Education in 1968. Rooted in community conversations about local schools, the Design offers an optimistic, student-centered vision of what education is and who it’s for: “Education in Vermont, if it is to move forward, must have a goal toward which to move, a basic philosophy which combines the best which is known about learning, children, development, and human relations with the unique and general needs and desires of Vermont communities.”

Take a look at the contrast in language and expectation between a Vermont State Department of Education answerable to the people of Vermont and one following federal dictates.(3)

1968 Vermont Design for Education

• Combines the best of what is known about learning, citing educational philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Piaget

• Emphasizes each child’s unique way of learning

• De-emphasizes rote learning

• Emphasizes flexibility

• Calls for learning experiences geared to individual needs rather than group norms

• Involves entire local community in setting standards

2003 Reading First application

• Requires use of “proven methods” promulgated by boosters of “scientifically based reading research”

• Emphasizes “required procedures” for “all children”

• Emphasizes “close monitoring” of “scripted, systematic, explicit instruction”

• Demands “rigorous expectations”

• Insists on “data based decision making”

• Uses “experts” identified by the U. S. Department of Education

After the Vermont Design was made public, 30,000 teachers from around the world applied for jobs. In contrast, when VSSE Senior Fellow Dana Rapp conducted a survey of Vermont teachers’ attitudes, 83 percent replied that NCLB has a negative effect on learning.

As recess and naptime in Vermont are consigned to the dustbin so kids will have more time for federalized reading, we should consider small, sovereign Finland. The Finns maintain that young children learn to love learning through play. Their children don’t start school until they are seven, and even then, every 45 minutes of instructional time is followed by 15 minutes of play. The Finnish government imposes no curriculum or methodology on teachers; curriculum and methodology are localized to each school. The international test is the only standardized test Finnish schoolchildren take. The Finnish children score highest in the world on literacy and science tests.

Vermonters have a clear choice. In an independent Vermont republic, we can take back our schools, making sure they are rooted in community values and focused on individual needs, rather than watching our children be digested by a fast-food uniformity. We can choose to give our kindergartners time to smell spring flowers and watch caterpillars.

In his ruling of the 2002 case of Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Judge Damon J. Keth, Senior Judge for the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, stated, “Democracies die behind closed doors.” It is time to open the doors on the Vermont State Education Department’s dealings with the federal government and demand a return to the heritage we value. Taking back our schools from the federal government is the first important step in taking back our Republic. 


1. Research by William Mathis, Superintendent of Schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, VSSE Senior Fellow and consultant for the Rural School and Community Trust, shows that School data processing staff has increased 126 percent since 2003


3 Susan Ohanian. “A Roadblock in Vermont’s Design for Education.” Vermont Society for the Study of Education. 2007. 


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