Resisting Reading First: Another Title I Teacher’s Story
Sarah Wagner is a reading instructor who worked as a Title I teacher and Reading First coordinator in her district. My deepest thanks to her for sharing her story, and for standing up for the best interests of children.
My mother was a teacher, her mother was a teacher, and my father served on the local school board for 28 years. So growing up, a typical discussion at our dinner table was teacher salary schedule increments. I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything besides a teacher. I graduated from college and got my first job in 1972. I have worked in every grade K-12, and I have served on the local school board. I stayed home with my four daughters for a few years, and I was very involved in their education. I have a Master’s degree in Elementary Education and a reading teacher license in my state.
In 2004, I took a job as a Title I teacher in a district that was implementing Reading First. I was not part of writing the grant, so I came in with no preconceived ideas. However, I was in on the ground floor of implementation. I spent two years at this building and then went to another building in the district to be a Reading First Coordinator.
I first began to question the effectiveness of the program as we realized that students were not progressing, despite our hard work and adherence to the grant. I saw teachers losing their confidence, because they could tell it wasn’t working. A real tipping point for me was three years into the grant, when we were suddenly told that writing could not be part of the reading block. None of us had ever heard this before, and we were stunned. I tried to placate the teachers with the explanation given in Understanding and Implementing Reading First Initiatives. But “we didn’t have time to get to it” didn’t set well with the teachers, or with me.
In 2006, our state coordinator quit for no apparent reason. We liked her, and were very sad to see her go. Shortly thereafter, the Chris Doherty scandal broke. I was suspicious that these two events were connected. I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read books like Elaine Garan’s Resisting Reading Mandates and In Defense of Our Children, Susan Ohanian’s What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?, Gerald Cole’s Reading the Naked Truth, and Frank Smith’s Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices. Our state reading association did an excellent job at bringing in speakers on the subject of Reading First. I heard Richard Allington, Joanne Yatvin, and Elaine Garan. In January 2008, I attended Elaine Garan’s presentation at our reading association convention and felt I now knew enough to start asking some pointed questions of the Reading First people. I had come to the conclusion that the research was faulty, this grant was put together in haste, and more than anything else, it was a way for Bush’s cronies to get rich.
For me, it had become a question of integrity. I was a reading professional, and I had passed on faulty research to teachers who had passed it on to their students. I felt responsible to try to fix the damage that had been done. If we knew the research was faulty, let’s fix it. I had this notion that I was working in a profession that thrived on the exchange of ideas and the willingness to say, “This isn’t working, what should we do instead?”
During a break at a state meeting in March, I asked one of the two state monitors (who had no experience in education) why, if we knew the research was faulty, would we continue without fixing it? His reply was that we knew this would be political from the beginning. He never denied that the research was faulty, but his loyalty was to the grant, not the students, not the teachers. So I asked the second state monitor (who had no experience in education) if it bothered him that the research was faulty. His reply was that research was like religion; you either believed it or you didn’t. And if you didn’t like the pastor at your church, you change churches. He did not deny that the research was faulty, but his loyalty was to the grant, not the students, not the teachers. At this point, I was deciding if I could in good conscience continue working in Reading First.
Well, when I returned to school I found out that decision had been made for me. Those two monitors had told my principal that I had to go because I would undermine the grant. I was shocked. I had done nothing wrong. I thought those people owed ME an explanation. They were the ones who came into my profession, with their shoddy research and their attitude that teachers didn’t know how to teach reading and needed to be monitored by people who had no experience in education. I felt like Joanna in “The Stepford Wives”. I had discovered the truth and I had to be eliminated. I fought hard to keep my position. The union rep told me to walk away, the lawyer I hired told me I had no First Amendment rights, and the district superintendent told me he agreed with me, but “they” held the purse strings.
Not one of these people mentioned the students.
By June, I had accepted that I lost, and in August I resigned. The financial toll has been big, but the emotional toll has been bigger. It hurts when you no longer “fit’ in your chosen profession.