Katherine Crawford-Garrett, a professor of literacy at the University of New Mexico, found out recently just how powerful the National Council on Teacher Quality is. As a professor in a university, she thought she was free to assign the books of her own choosing. that’s academic freedom, right? As she describes below, she was recently summoned to the dean’s office to hear a critique about her reading list. How dare she assign books that were not approved by NCTQ? When I read her account, I was reminded of a speech I gave last spring to the AACTE (American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education). I described the NCTQ ranking system, in which the scores of teacher-preparation institutions were based on a review of course catalogues and reading lists. The highest rankings went to the institutions that taught phonics and that had courses to prepare teachers for the Common Core. I advised those present tat they should review their course catalogues and insert those two phrases generously throughout their offerings: “Common Core” and “phonics.” Voila! Their rankings will automatically rise.

Professor Crawford-Garrett writes:

“Last year, I published a book about Teach for America corps members attempting to work for social change in the midst of an autocratic school reform environment. A primary theme of the book concerns the ways in which these young teachers, widely recruited for the intellectual and problem-solving capacities, were subsequently treated as automatons required to read scripts, enforce draconian disciplinary systems and deliver instruction without ever questioning whether it was working and, if so, for whom. I sympathized with these tensions but my role as an instructor at a prestigious university precluded me from experiencing any true sense of empathy. From my privileged position in higher education, I could plan engaging curriculum, select texts that I found salient and compelling and pose questions or suggest inquiries that pushed students’ understandings in new directions.

“I was immune. I was protected. In the world of public schooling, academia seemed the last stronghold of creativity and freedom.

“On a recent afternoon, I was summoned to the dean’s office of my college (situated within a large public university in the Southwest) and asked to account for a reading syllabus I had created. Our university is in the midst of being evaluated by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the highly suspect political organization widely known for having an agenda aimed at dismantling colleges of education nationwide.

My syllabus was deemed unacceptable for a number of reasons. 1) I did not explicitly mention the words “fluency” or “vocabulary” 2) I did not have my students take a final exam and 3) I did not use a textbook listed on the NCTQ “approved” book list. During the meeting I was told to “fix” my syllabus and to add one of the textbooks NCTQ deems appropriate. These books have titles like “Assessing and Correcting Reading and Writing Difficulties” and “Teaching Struggling and At-Risk Readers: A Direct Instruction Approach” which suggest that teaching someone to read is simply a matter of “remediating” her/his deficiencies with neutral, skills-based instruction. Not surprisingly, this mirrors the approach to reading instruction currently at place in schools across the U.S., which remains highly unsuccessful in producing literate students capable of participating in a democratic society.

“None of the books on diversity, social justice or even writing instruction were marked as relevant. Nor were any of the books written by the most prominent scholars in the field of literacy including Peter Johnston, Richard Allington or JoBeth Allen. The book I currently use in my course entitled “Reading to Live: Teaching Reading for Today’s World” by Lorraine Wilson is listed as “not acceptable” even as a supplemental text. And while it provides a useful framework for thinking about literacy instruction, countless instructional strategies for early reading, and a focus on making-meaning, I may have to remove it from syllabus in order to receive “points” from NCTQ.

“This is what teaching and teacher education is becoming: a system that demands compliance and obedience at the expense of rigor and creativity. Unfortunately, my college has not followed other public institutions like the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the University of Indiana in taking a stand against NCTQ’s sham of an evaluation. In fact, when a colleague of mine attempted to initiate a discussion about our college’s willing participation with NCTQ, she was censured for using our faculty listserv inappropriately and informed that we could use it only to communicate about logistics.

“What logistics could be more critical than the fate of our college?

“In attempting to be a truly reflective practitioner open to considering alternative perspectives, I dedicated some time to exploring NCTQ’s website and, in particular, the sample reading syllabi posted as “exemplars.” One of the examples, which came from Gordon College, focused entirely on phonics and phonemic awareness, provided no framework for defining literacy, did not touch on issues of diversity and did not include any engagement with children’s literature. These are the kinds of approaches to teacher education that reduce teaching to a technical skill and undermine autonomy and professionalism. Moreover, while NCTQ docked my syllabus for not mentioning vocabulary or fluency (which affected the score of our entire institution), their sample syllabus did not mention these terms either.

“While I would never claim to be a perfect instructor, I am a professional with nearly 10 years of experience teaching literacy to students in Boston and Washington, DC. The majority of students in my 4th and 5th grade classroom struggled with some aspect of reading. Many had been identified as needing special education services. About half of my students were English Language Learners and recent immigrants fleeing civil unrest in places like El Salvador and Sierra Leone. Some of my students were non-readers when they arrived in my classroom, having aptly “faked” it through other grades. Others hated to read and saw no use value for their lives. Through meaningful instruction on compelling topics relevant to my lived experiences like the legacy of the civil rights Movement in Washington, DC and the types of pollution affecting our local watershed, every student in my class made significant gains in reading. Moreover, every year our classroom became a community of readers. I watched students share books, discuss literature in sophisticated and nuanced ways, and request to stay in for recess to savor the last few pages of a favorite novel.

“Since finishing my doctoral degree in literacy, I have taught reading and writing methods courses at three institutions. Interestingly, most of my undergraduate students came of age during No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and many of them admit to hating reading (or at the very least, tolerating it), even as they prepare to become teachers. Many do not consider themselves to be capable readers. Thus, part of my course inevitably hinges upon showing them that reading instruction can be substantially different than what they experienced as students. Thus, children’s literature figures prominently into my instruction as does authentic inquiry, curriculum planning and other experiences aimed at revealing the relevance of literacy to our daily lives.
My students are often surprised when we begin my course reading an excerpt by Paulo Freire (NCTQ didn’t even bother to include his book on their list). They expect a course, perhaps, that conceives of literacy as a “thing” that can be neutrally passed from one person to another. But by the end of the semester, they get it: Literacy is contextual, cultural and political. It has everything to do with power. If it didn’t, NCTQ wouldn’t bother creating a list of what we can and cannot read.

“These are dark times indeed.”