Reading & Literacy

NCTE’s Stance on Reading Bill Sparks Controversy Within Ranks

By Elizabeth Rich — November 25, 2009 4 min read
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There’s debate brewing within the National Council of Teachers of English over the organization’s support of the “LEARN Act,” the proposed reading legislation that would replace three federal programs including Reading First.

I returned this week from NCTE’s annual convention in Philadelphia, where LEARN was a hot topic of conversation, along with giving teachers and students the power to lead instruction. There was a 400-page program, and more than 6,000 educators in attendance.

Teachers repeatedly expressed their dislike for standardized assessments and instructional scripts, and the subject of phonics elicited groans. Of the pending reading legislation and the reauthorization of ESEA, some educators I spoke to worried aloud if the Obama administration would live up to its promise of education reform. Would instruction look any different from what they feel they’ve already endured under the Bush administration? (See Mary Ann Zehr’s recent article on NCLB’s lack in reading gains.)

NCTE’s own position on the legislation was published on its Ning two days before the convention started. Signed by Executive Director Kent Williamson and Barbara Cambridge, the director of NCTE’s Washington office, it elicited a swift and harsh response from some.

I caught up with Rick Meyer (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque), Ken and Yetta Goodman (University of Arizona) and Bess Altwerger (Towson University) following their session “Reviving Reading in a Post-NCLB World.” Brian Cambourne, Australian literacy researcher, later joined us. They are some of the most outspoken about the proposed reading legislation, but not the only ones.

The educators form a group called Center for Language and Thinking, and are longtime advocates of whole language. For those who know them, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that they have a host of concerns about the Obama administration’s education agenda, including the LEARN Act.

They see the administration as disregarding the need for a complex and nuanced education system that should accommodate all learners, one that gives teachers room to teach. They don’t see enough attention being paid to 21st-century skills or new literacies. They are concerned with what they perceive to be punitive and standardized assessments, narrowly devised curriculum standards, the state of professional development, the control over teachers and students, and the corporate CEO model for school management. “It is not knowledge-based,” said Meyer. “It’s old wine in new bottles.”

I later caught up with Kent Williamson to get his sense of where the administration is headed on reform and the reaction to NCTE’s collaboration on the reading bill. (Comments on NCTE’s Ning with regard to its position on LEARN suggest that the organization sold its soul to the devil in exchange for a seat at the table.)

Williamson expressed concern over some of the same issues that the Center for Language and Thinking group discussed, but he says he is more optimistic. Williamson defended the bill’s position on reading, particularly the criticism that it is Reading First in sheep’s clothing. On the Ning, he and Cambridge wrote, “Features and methods mentioned within the legislation are defined and contextualized in a different way than in Reading First.” In person, he told me that he is concerned about “the reading-panel formula of the 1990s that has been shoehorned into this bill.” He said, “All I can say is that there are attempts to broaden that out.”

“It’s in process. It’s a negotiation. I don’t want to impugn anyone’s motives for disagreeing with us, for holding us to definitions of reading that are partially featured in that bill,” he said. But he added, “Most people know that NCTE wants profound change.”

Following the convention, I reached Barbara Cambridge by phone from her D.C. office. Like Williamson, she sees the legislation in a positive light with greater agency for teachers, a deeper discussion of professional development and the instructional role of literacy coaches, the inclusion of adolescent literacy and developmental learning, and the focus on aligning reading with writing.

Cambridge believes the pushback on NCTE’s position and role in the legislation is from a small group of people. She said NCTE has received more than 2,000 letters of support for the bill from its members, as well as the American Library Assocation. Of the opposition, Cambridge said, “I don’t discount what they say in terms of their worry. If you look at the definition of reading, that’s what makes people worry. What people are not concentrating on is the stem that leads up to it—how it is developmentally appropriate.”

A final note:

One of the teachers who has recently joined the national conversation on reading and student agency is Texas teacher Donalyn Miller, whose blog I shared from NCTE. Miller’s book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, published in March by Education Week Press and Jossey-Bass, has created quite a buzz. Brian Cambourne told me he is using the book in his ed classes, and several teachers and presenters said it’s been life-changing to read it. Miller was fan-swarmed on more than one occasion at the convention. She has become something of a rock star in our stable of writers and bloggers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.