I dedicate this blog post to the insightful and brilliantly researched and articulated chapter by Ricardo Rosa, Joao Rosa, and Thad Lavallee entitled “Performance Contracting and Supplemental Education Services: Other Altars of Neoliberal Language Deception and Citizen Salvation,” in the book Capitalism’s Educational Catastrophe and the Advancing Endgame Revolt! by Ricardo Rosa and Joao Rosa (2015).
I also dedicate this post to the faces and personas of the five precious elementary school students I had the privilege to work with in the winter/spring of 2012. Their plight will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Here is the well-evidenced claim by the chapters’ authors about Supplemental Education Services (SES) as inextricably linked with the neoliberal aims of the corporatist elite:
“Theoretically, we situate our analysis against the grain of the current hegemonic model of democracy, which we find to be intensely individualistic and market driven. We enter these texts to map out the interaction between policy, everyday life, and structures of power. We claim throughout that SES is detrimental to the ascendancy of democratic and vibrant public schools, as it further exacerbates institutionalized structural inequalities, and it limits social change by attempting to manufacture passive atomistic individuals.” (p 61)
They explain that “Supplemental Education Services (SES) refers to a contractual relationship between private tutoring companies and the state, facilitated by Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Its official purpose is to discipline schools that are not able to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals for 3 or more years. School systems are required to use their Title I funds to compensate these companies, most of which are private and some faith-based.” (p 61) [I’m aware that NCLB has now been superseded by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which I refer to as the Everything $till $tinks Act, but I firmly believe that the damage done under NCLB is continuing and even intensifying under ESSA.]
Shortly before retiring from the RI School for the Deaf in 2011, I was speaking with one of the directors of the school. I think I must have said something about being interested in doing after-school tutoring after retiring. I was told that the tutors probably would have to come from outside entities, implying that the [certified and experienced] actual teachers of the students could not be trusted to teach in the after-school program, despite the fact that private companies would not be required to provide tutors who have any certification at all.
As it happened, the next fall I applied to work for one of the SES entities at a Providence elementary school. I was not actually certified to teach children who do not have an educationally significant hearing loss, but I felt confident that my many years of teaching struggling readers at the RI School for the Deaf would be an acceptable background to tutor elementary students. I was suspicious of the materials that the tutors would be required to use, but I was also curious to experience one of these programs from the inside. Tragically, my experience corroborated my suspicions, and exemplifies the harm to vulnerable students that the authors describe in their book.
Shockingly, the authors explain that the earliest incarnation of SES, the Texarkana contract of 1969, was accomplished thanks to the efforts of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney! This type of enterprise, termed “private performance contractors (tutoring companies),” (p 63) was done in an attempt to “protect neoliberal interests by creating a back-door privatization of the multi-billion-dollar public education sector.” (p 64) “The primary objective [of the Texarkana contract] was to test performance. … The problem, of course, was that these tests were the sole criterion for contract reimbursement (Stake, 1971) and therefore functioned to solidify the power of standardized testing and the teaching of decontextualized discreet skills.” (p 66)
Fast forward to my tutoring experience in 2012.
In May of 2012 I sent the following letter to then RI Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist, with cc: to Paula Shannon, Teaching and Learning, Providence Public Schools; Mary Ann Snider, Educator Excellence and Instructional Effectiveness, RIDE; and David Sienko, Student, Community and Academic Supports, RIDE. I got no response from any of them.
Dear Commissioner Gist,
I recently retired from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, having taught there since 1985 with a focus on English Language Arts and reading comprehension. This spring I have had the opportunity to work with a group of students at xxxx Elementary School as an after-school reading tutor with the VIPS/Inspiring Minds program. I truly enjoyed teaching my students, and hope that the work we did together will help them as they continue on their academic paths. I decided to write to you because I have some serious concerns about the nature of the materials that the teachers in this program are required to use. I found the CARS/STARS curriculum to be anything but inspiring for young minds. From my long experience teaching reading comprehension to deaf and hard of hearing students, and from my current experience working with these students, I believe that short reading passages with no context are not the best way to engage readers or to provide them with the practice necessary to think deeply about what an author is trying to convey.
Of more concern to me is the STARS program’s heavy reliance on the multiple-choice format, both with the practice work and with the pre- and post- tests. These are some objections I have to this approach:
- Continued practice with this format induces some students to try to figure out the answers without even reading the text thoroughly, as if choosing the correct answer were the goal of reading.
- By not asking them open-ended questions, the children are not given the opportunity to try to figure out answers on their own. Except for the ease of scoring of the tests, I see little value in repeated practice with the multiple-choice format.
- As a highly literate, experienced teacher of English, I found some of the answer choices on the tests ambiguous. A child who actually understood the text might mark an answer that is reasonable but be scored as wrong.
- Students whose first language is not English, as was the case with most of my students, may not have the linguistic sophistication to distinguish between answers that are only subtly different. I believe this accounts for some of the errors ELL students make.
- Two other sources of errors on the tests are lack of vocabulary recognition and passage fatigue. By passage fatigue I mean the lack of self-confidence to continue independently with a page-long, closely spaced passage, and then to refer back to it strategically to decide on answers. I realize that the practice provided throughout the program is supposed to prepare students for this independent task, but unfortunately I was not able to overcome this difficulty with my group.
- Another factor reducing the chances of students’ success on the post-test is the difference between their reading level and their grade level. Due to their grade level, several students had to be tested at reading levels considerably higher than their independent reading level, as well as the level of the instructional materials. It is unclear to me how they are expected to apply strategies they have practiced to text that is beyond their ability to read.
The point of learning to read is to have the skill and confidence to seek out texts for pure enjoyment and for enriched knowledge of the world. I do not believe that compartmentalized programs such as the STARS program provide a process engaging enough for young children to succeed at this goal. Struggling readers in particular need a program targeted to their experience, their interests, and their particular difficulties with word recognition and reading comprehension, all of which are not addressed in a one-size-fits-all program. All in all I feel that if elementary age students are asked to spend time in an after-school program, they would be better served by doing supervised physical activity to relieve stress levels, such as yoga, or creative activities such as art, poetry, drama, and dance.
This quote from Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by Linda Perlstein (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007, page 76) seems apropos:
“Today, the norm in American elementary school classrooms is to parse a text using comprehension strategies, such as summarizing and predicting the events of a passage, without equally emphasizing the value of the content. Such an approach implies, according to the education theorist E. D. Hirsch, Jr., that reading is ‘just a set of maneuvers that can be transferred,’ as if students were learning to type. This emphasis of structure over substance, he writes, is fundamentally anti-intellectual and shortchanges children from acquiring the actual knowledge they need to truly understand what they read. In a classroom that focuses primarily on sounding out words and comprehension strategies, it can seem like reading is more of a basic arithmetic problem instead of a starting point for exploration or thought.”
In February of 2013, I wrote the following:
In light of all that has transpired with Race to the Top, the waivers from NCLB, tying teacher evaluations to students’ scores on standardized tests, and the Common Core State (sic) Standards, I am even more disturbed and concerned than I was at the time I sent this letter. The practice of urging children to attend an after-school program, which is touted to their families as a means to improve their academic skills, but in reality is focused on improving their scores on standardized tests of dubious quality and value, in utter disregard for the children’s needs for meaningful engagement with print-based materials, is unconscionable. Of the five children in my class last year, one was so distressed by the format of the pre-test on the first day that he literally would not make a mark on the paper. When I read with him to encourage him to participate, he inadvertently let slip hints that he could indeed read the passages, but the score of 0 on the pre-test in no way revealed what he actually could do as a reader. Throughout the days and weeks of the program, he was withdrawn and disengaged, only showing sparks of interest when I brought in beautifully illustrated books or poems to supplement the required materials. I’ll never forget his plaintive question: “Why I have to take reading program? I can read.” Why indeed.
Another student in my group dutifully plodded through the entire pre-test without a break. She appeared to be wholly absorbed in the task, and doing her best. When grading her pre-test later, I was dismayed to find that she had gotten almost all of the answers wrong. This student was given the pre-test and post-test at her grade level, as was required by the program, though the instructional materials were one grade level below her grade in school. When working with her during the program sessions, it quickly became obvious that she could not read English print at all. She barely could read individual question words, let alone passages, questions, and answer choices at any grade level. When I questioned the head of the after-school program about this, I was told that we were not there to teach reading comprehension, but to teach strategies (such as main idea, cause and effect, compare and contrast, etc.), so it shouldn’t matter the grade level of the materials! I was so concerned about this student and what would become of her as she progressed through the grades without being able to read, I called the school to volunteer to work with her one-on-one. I described the situation to the school receptionist, who assured me that she would inform the principal. I never heard back.
Something is very wrong with a system that rides roughshod over the very real needs of vulnerable students and their families while claiming that “it’s all about the children.”
As the authors assert, when extolling these “free” services to the parents of vulnerable students, the parents are never informed that their children are being deprived of an engaging and meaningful curriculum on the altar of test prep and private profits at public expense.