In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit, and Education
Reviewed by Gary Ratner
Teachers College Record, Columbia University
May 3, 2005
Elaine Garan's In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit
and Education Collide is a little book that packs a wallop.
Garan perceives that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB or the Act)
and the states' high-stakes testing movement are severely damaging
public school teachers and students, but that many parents and teachers
"have no idea" of their impact (p. 149). Garan, an education
professor and teacher of reading, seeks to remedy that lack of information.
Her book, written in an engaging, conversational style, combines
a provocative critique with an impassioned call for teachers and
parents to challenge the premises of certain recently enacted school
After briefly summarizing several major elements of the Act, including
standards, testing, accountability and sanctions, Garan explores
a number of topics in more detail. For example, she notes that high-stakes
testing prevented almost one quarter of Florida's third graders
from being promoted to fourth grade in 2003 (p. 44) and resulted
in the "pushing out" of more than 160,000 children from
New York City schools between 1998 and 2001 (p. 53). She describes
the differences between the teacher-centered and the student-centered
approaches to teaching - emphasizing that the former teaches "skills
first" and relies heavily on memorization and worksheets, while
the latter puts "meaning first" and gets students actively
involved in reading books and working together on projects. And
she argues that NCLB constitutes an inexcusable federal interference
with the American tradition of local control of education.
But her central charge seems to be that NCLB represents a corporate
takeover of public schools, fueled by opportunity for profits and
apparent conflicts of interest, especially among certain education
researchers. As Garan puts it, although she doesn't oppose school
reform, she is "opposed to
ploys to destroy the public
schools and the credibility of teachers in the name of school
reform by Wizards hiding behind the curtain of research that cloaks
their own political or even financial interests" (p. 11).
Although Garan suggests that the entire Act is motivated by a desire
to replace public education with "privatized schools run by
businesses" (p. 144), the evidence she cites relates almost
entirely to NCLB's "Reading First" program. Reading First
is a competitive grant program to "ensure that every student
can read at grade level or above [by] the end of grade 3" (NCLB
Sect.1201(1)). Any "instructional materials" purchased
with program funds must be "based on scientifically based reading
research" (NCLB Sect. 1202(b)(7)(iii)). Such materials are
expected "to implement methods that have proven to prevent
or remediate reading failure within a State" (NCLB Sect. 1201(4)).
State applications for purchases of reading materials under the
program may be approved only after a federal peer review panel has
determined whether the specific reading programs proposed for purchase
meet the "scientific research" and other statutory requirements
(NCLB Sect. 1203(b)(4)(B)(E)(c)(1)(2)(C)).
Although the "scientific research" requirement may be
reasonable on its face, Garan argues that the government is abusive
in its administration of the requirement. Instead of the government's
consistently applying the same objective standard of scientific
research, she asserts, "there is no set standard
definition of science now amounts to this: 'If we [government
officials] approve it, it's scientific. If we don't, it's not"
(p. 45). Instead of the government's fairly evaluating all reading
programs submitted to it, Garan indicates that it has approved a
limited number of particular commercial reading programs. (These
include McGraw-Hill's Open Court Reading and Houghton Mifflin's
reading program.) In one instance of what Garan views as administrative
abuse, the President's reading adviser made a public recommendation
against use of a different commercial program (not among the ones
the government has approved), and other government reading advisers
pressured New York City not to seek funding for purchasing it, even
though it is, according to Garan, both "scientific" and
much less expensive than the ones the government has approved (pp.
Moreover, Garan says, the Government has approved certain commercial
reading programs notwithstanding that the seminal report of the
congressionally created National Reading Panel (NRP) found that
they do not significantly improve children's reading. Indeed, the
NRP report found that use of the Open Court Reading program in first
grade actually resulted in children's loss of reading skills "in
every skill that was tested", including, most importantly,
comprehension and spelling (pp. 87-88). Despite this finding, Garan
notes, "Open Court is the hands-down favorite with the Reading
First panels of experts" (p. 81).
Even worse, the NRP "summary booklet" that "forms
the basis of current [NCLB] legislation and mandates" (p. 97)
misrepresents what the full report found. Whereas the report itself
explicitly found that " 'systematic phonics instruction failed
to exert a significant impact on the reading performance [of the
students assessed] in 2nd through 6th grade' (NRP report 2-88)"
(p. 94), the summary booklet asserts that the report "'revealed
that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits
for students in kindergarten through sixth grade
97). Even though the NRP was informed that its summary booklet contained
this serious misrepresentation, the panel continued to publish it
for years on its Web site without change.
As to alleged conflicts of interest, Garan's principal argument
seems to be that many of the preparers of the NRP report and the
summary booklet were not independent analysts but had a personal
investment in what these documents would conclude. For example,
NRP adviser Barbara Foorman had authored four of the studies she
was responsible for reviewing, and three more had been written by
coauthors of her own "profitable commercial program" (p.
102). In addition, "[t]he NRP summary (inaccurately reporting
the findings) was written in part by Widmeyer-Baker, the
public relations firm that Open Court's publisher, McGraw-Hill,
pays to promote its products" (p. 99).
As noted earlier, Garan emphasizes that the full NRP report found
that phonics instruction did not significantly improve, and in some
instances retarded, acquisition of reading skills. She also points
out that the NRP "did not recommend any commercial reading
program, but it actually warned against the boring skill and drill
of scripted programs and called for balanced reading" (p. 90).
Assuming that these statements are accurate, even if there were
conflicts of interest among NRP participants, it's not apparent
that they impaired the objectivity or validity of the report itself.
The charge that the summary booklet grossly misrepresented the
full report's findings as to the effectiveness of "systematic
phonics instruction" is more persuasive and very serious. Assuming,
as Garan says, that this booklet "forms the basis of current
legislation and mandates" (p. 97) its assertion that the
NRP report found that "systematic phonics instruction produces
significant benefits for students" seems to be the central
"scientific" justification for the government's insisting
that states and localities adopt such reading programs as part of
Reading First. Yet that assertion is contradicted by the very language
of the report that such instruction "failed to exert a significant
reading performance." Without the genuine
support of NRP's meta-analysis, what legitimate basis does NCLB
have for requiring states to adopt commercial reading programs to
qualify for receiving federal reading funds?
Beyond challenging the justification for insisting on the use of
commercial reading programs, Garan argues that the use of "scripted"
programs causes severe injuries to teaching, learning and opportunities
for social advancement. Since instructors of scripted programs are
not intended or expected to be able to meet individual students'
unique learning needs, but only to implement a pre-set script, there
is no need to prepare teachers of such programs to use diverse pedagogical
methods. In this respect, Garan observes, NCLB is "redefining
what it means to be a teacher" (p. 145). Further, Garan asserts,
scripted programs provide a low-level curriculum teaching low-level
In conclusion, Garan has performed a valuable service by challenging
the purported "scientific basis" for the commercial reading
programs that the Government requires states and localities to adopt
to receive funding under NCLB's Reading First initiative. And she
is right to urge parents and teachers to learn more about the new
NCLB "reforms," to organize, and to advocate at the state
and local levels against "corporate takeovers" of public
education and "deskilling of teachers" (p. 150).
Even more significantly for the purposes of NCLB, although Garan
focuses her scientific basis critique on Reading First, I believe
that its rationale applies more widely. Just as she has highlighted
the lack of a scientific basis for the government's demanding the
use of commercial reading programs, I feel there is no scientific
basis for NCLB's demanding "Adequate Yearly Progress"
so that all students are brought to mandated standards of proficiency
by 2014 (NCLB, Sect. 1111(b)(2)). Nor is there a scientific basis
for NCLB's requiring that failing schools seek to correct their
deficiencies by adopting and implementing strategic plans (NCLB,
Sect. 1116(b)(3)(A)(i)). In fact, "meta-analytic studies [have]
roundly confirmed the failure of [the strategic planning] approach"
(Schmoker, 2004, p.426).
Indeed, to have a chance of substantially accomplishing NCLB's
important goal of bringing virtually all students to academic proficiency,
NCLB's entire remedial scheme needs to be restructured. As the National
School Boards Association, National Education Association, National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of United
Latin American Citizens, National Urban League, Children's Defense
Fund and more than 20 other national organizations have recently
stated: "Overall, the law's emphasis needs to shift from
applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states
and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that
improve student achievement." (Joint Organizational Statement,
I believe that this will require providing a challenging curriculum,
effective teaching, and family or surrogate support for high achievement
for virtually all public school students who do not already receive
them. To do this will chiefly necessitate systemic improvements
in administrator and teacher preparation, peer collaboration, mentoring
and professional development, as well as enhancing of families'
parenting skills and adult literacy or, where this is impracticable,
providing other adult support for students' learning outside the
regular school day. Addressing the defects in Reading First is a
step in the right direction.
Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act,
October 21, 2004. Retrieved April 19, 2005, from www.citizenseffectiveschools.org.
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1201(1), 20 USC 6361(1),
115 Stat. 1535 (2002).
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1201(4), 20 USC 6361(4),
115 Stat 1535 (2002).
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1202(b)(7)(iii), 20
USC 6362(b)(7)(iii), 115 Stat 1538 (2002).
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1203(b)(4)(B)(E)(c)(1)(2)(C),
20 USC 6363(b)(4)(B)(E)(c)(1)(2)(C), 115 Stat. 1543-1545 (2002).
Schmoker, M. (2004.) Tipping point: From feckless reform to substantive
instructional improvement. Phi Delta Kappan, (February), 426.
Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107
Number 11, 2005, p.- http://www.tcrecord.org
ID Number: 11835, Date Accessed 5/25/2005
About the Author
Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc.
GARY M. RATNER is Executive Director of Citizens for Effective Schools,
a national school reform advocacy organization committed to the
goal of raising virtually all public school students to academic
competence. He is a principal drafter of the "Joint Organizational
Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, October 21, 2004"
and the principal drafter of the October 15, 2003 Open Letter to
President Bush and Congress calling for reframing NCLB. He is a
public interest lawyer, former senior executive of the U.S. Department
of Health, Education and Welfare and the U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development, and a graduate of Harvard Law School. His
article, "Why the 'No Child Left Behind Act' Needs to be Restructured
to Accomplish Its Goals and How To Do It" is to be published
in May 2005 in the Education Symposium issue of the University of
the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law Law Review.