Resentment is clear as educators convene

The Education Beat

Conference: Reading teachers meeting in Baltimore have plenty to say about those who question their professionalism.

November 18, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE NATION'S reading teachers feel put upon.

President Bush wants - and both houses of Congress have approved - annual testing in reading of every child in grades three through eight. Some states are testing veteran classroom teachers. Maryland demands that elementary teachers take four college courses in reading. Other states are following suit.

Worse, the teachers are being ordered to teach phonics.

Resentment over all of this is easy to discern at the Baltimore Convention Center and downtown hotels, as 6,000 members of the National Council of Teachers of English gather for their 91st convention.

Speakers and panelists decrying what the teachers see as an attack on their professionalism are sprinkled throughout the NCTE's six-day agenda, which reaches its midpoint this morning with the presidential speech of Leila Christenbury, of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

"We in teaching have continued to lose control of the public agenda," Christenbury says in prepared remarks, "and find, to our dismay, that while every politician and bureaucrat puts education on the agenda, top of the list, first in rank, teachers are rarely consulted about what happens with that education agenda. Policy is drafted, money is appropriated and at the end of the process we are told what to do within our classrooms."

At an early session Thursday, Susan M. Pitcher and Caryn C. Terwilliger, of Pennsylvania State University, put the blame on what they called "neo-liberal politics," an unholy alliance of big business and big-spending federal bureaucrats who have created an artificial crisis in education.

Among recipients of federal funds for tightly prescribed reading programs, Pitcher said, are so-called "whole school reform models" like Towson-based Success for All.

"I'd like to spend my time on literary engagement rather than preparing [children] to take a test," said Pitcher, a reading specialist.

Phonics, the teaching of letters (and groups of letters) and the sounds they make, comes in for a thorough drubbing throughout the convention. An entire session is devoted to criticism of the May 2000 report of the congressionally appointed National Reading Panel, which endorsed systematic phonics, particularly for struggling early readers. Joanne Yatvin, an Oregon educator who wrote the panel's only dissenting opinion, is featured.

One panel, "Phonics Exposed: Understanding and Resisting Systematic Direct Intense Phonics Instruction," studies the "impact of a commercial phonics program on the lives of a teacher and her students in a first-grade classroom - a place many advocates of such programs forgot to look."

Why should we care about any of this? Because the NCTE is as close to the establishment as you're going to find in American education, and the views expressed by its members - and through its publications and convention workshops - are important.

You can sympathize with the teachers who resent being told what to teach. They say it's the equivalent of the government telling physicians what pills to prescribe. There's also ample proof that across the country teachers are taking valuable instruction time to prepare students to pass high-stakes tests like the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

But in the 350-page agenda of the nation's largest organization of English teachers is very little about the structure of the language they teach, and you wonder why.

A brief look at some of the other topics

Here are some of the other reading-related sessions English teachers are attending this weekend:

"Exploring the Identity of Biracial Culture Through Literature"; "Teach Reading? But I'm an English Teacher"; "Teaching Bible Narratives in Public Schools."

Also: "Using Children's Literature to Teach Peacemaking Skills"; "Responding to Homophobic Student Writing"; "Exploring Issues of Identity Through Children's and Young Adult Literature"; "Lit on the Net: Bringing Together Books, Students and Authors."

And: "Opening Session of the Day of Whole Language - The Push of the Pendulum: the Struggle Over Literacy and Democracy"; "Gender Justice and the Body: Critical Conversations Among Multi-Age Reading Partners"; "Change My Life Forever: Chinese Immigrant Children's Literacy in and Beyond the Classroom"; "Disruptive Texts, Sexualities and Classrooms: The Novels of Carole Maso."

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