Tuesday, December 22, 2009

NCTE Discussion on Support of LEARN Act

If you are a part of the NCTE Ning, you've probably been following the conversation around NCTE's support of the LEARN Act. It is quite the lively discussion and if you haven't followed the discussions, there is lots of important information being shared. Here is an intro from the NCTE site:

Senator Patty Murray (WA) has introduced the LEARN Act along with cosponsors Sherrod Brown (OH) and Al Franken (MN). This legislation--S. 2740, Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation--is a comprehensive, pre- K--grade 12 bill that features writing and reading and offers alignment from early childhood across all grade levels with support for state literacy plans and money to districts for their self-defined needs.

The Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, which was recently introduced into the House and Senate, is a comprehensive literacy bill promoting reading and writing across the K-12 levels and in all disciplines. NCTE participated in a coalition of six literacy organizations to write The LEARN Act. The coalition includes the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Reading Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Middle School Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

If you haven't kept up, here are some key posts to catch you up a bit:
-Kent Williamson's Post: The LEARN Act and NCTE from November 17

As I said, the discussion on the NCTE NING is definitely a lively one. Some people believe we shouldn't even be at the table--that the LEARN Act goes against too much of what we believe and that it is just an extended NCLB. Language like "systematic, direct and explicit" has come to mean things that many believe that NCTE, as a professional organization, shouldn't be supporting. Others seem to believe that it is time for NCTE to have a voice nationally and that when groups come together, we have influence and agreement but we will also have compromise.

Here is part of Kylene Beers' response about NCTE's role in the LEARN Act--the part of her response that really helped me make sense of this issue:

Listen long enough—and be willing to listen to those with divergent opinions—and you’ll see that NCTE, as I’ve written before, offers each a place and a space in which to come together and share thoughts.

That range of opinions, though, must cohere when NCTE policy is formed. There are two democratic processes that guide Council policy making. Either a majority of the elected Executive Committee members can establish policy, or a resolution that is passed by a majority of members attending the annual business meeting establishes policy. To guide the Council in establishing priorities for changing governmental policy affecting literacy education, the NCTE governmental relations subcommittee creates a legislative platform that is voted on by the Executive Committee. That platform guides the advocacy work of the Council. Some of that advocacy work takes place when members from across the nation gather in Washington DC to visit Congress and discuss issues important to NCTE. And some of that advocacy work takes place when we are asked to contribute to national issues regarding literacy.

Would the LEARN Act as it is today be the legislation that NCTE, working in isolation, would have crafted? No. But an equally important question to ask is if the LEARN Act as you see it today would be the legislation that it is if NCTE had walked away or chosen never to have offered its input. Again, the answer is a resounding no.

This LEARN Act discussion reminds me of the importance of getting involved. What I learned is that it is important, as an educator, to begin to build relationships with the people in Ohio who represent me. In my role as Elementary Section chair a few years ago, I was also part of the Executive Committee. What an amazing group of brilliant people that group is. I was lucky to work with them for a few years. One of the experiences that really stayed with me from my work on the EC was the first time I participated in Advocacy Day. NCTE Advocacy Day is an annual event in D.C. where NCTE members hear about new legislation, learn about NCTE positions, and spend time talking to Congressmen and Senators about issues that are important to NCTE.
After visiting D.C. and being part of the day, I tend to agree with Carol Jago's NING comment, "Maybe I'm a cock-eyed optimist, but I do believe legislators care about what teachers think. They may not always make ultimate decisions based on our views and experience, but I need to continue to trust in the integrity of the democratic process - as witnessed by this free and frank exchange of views among professionals".

I realized through Advocacy Day that it is not about visiting Washington D.C. once when an important bill is out there. Instead, it is about building long-term relationships with the people who represent us--having conversations with them about issues around literacy and education. It is a long process, building relationships, but at this time in education, we can't afford not to have a voice.

One of the most important things that I think NCTE has done in the last few years is to bring voices together. Because of NCTE's Annual Conventions over the past two years, I have been able to learn from people who are experts in the area of 21st Century Learning and Technology. My personal learning network has expanded beyond the members of NCTE. There are many examples over the past several years in which NCTE has brought voices together in a way that help us all learn and understand. NCTE's involvement in the LEARN Act seems to be doing the same thing.

Some have questioned the role of a professional organization. It seems that supporting teachers in doing the right thing is key--helping us grow as professionals. But, I think it is also important that NCTE be involved politically for many reasons. Being involved and having a voice in what happens is key to supporting members. First of all, I trust NCTE and the leaders we've voted in to make the right decisions about how and when to be involved. And I trust that they have stayed more current on the issues than I have. So, when I read the things happening in education, I pay attention to what NCTE has to say as I form my own thinking. Do I agree with all that NCTE says? Of course not. But I know that we are all working for the same things so I am looking for the big picture implications. I want my professional organization to have a voice and to help me understand the things happening that will impact education. I want my professional organization to be part of these discussions.

But, equally important, this conversation reminds me that I cannot count on NCTE to do all of the advocacy work for me. I need to continue to build relationships and have conversations with those in government who represent me. One of the posts on the NCTE Ning that struck me as hugely important was the one by Stephen Krashen "Discussion of LEARN Act with Senator Murray's Staff Member".

In this post, Krashen shares his conversation with the Senator's staff, sharing his concerns about the LEARN Act. To me, this is what it is all about. We all want the same big picture things for our students and for our schools. The key is to pay attention and to be involved. Krashen scheduled an appointment to discuss the concerns he had. ALA's response to the LEARN Act was also an important piece to my own thinking. ALA wrote a letter in support of the Act but also used the opportunity to advocate for things that were important to the organization. Even though the Act was not one that ALA would have written, it is one they can support for several reasons. Although Krashen adamantly disagrees with the LEARN Act and ALA supports it, both took the time to advocate for the things they felt were important connected to the Act.

When NCTE asks for our support, that doesn't mean that we give it blindly. It means that those we've elected to NCTE have put in time to work toward the things we believe as an organization. Being part of a professional organization doesn't mean that we agree with everything that the leaders say. Instead, for me, it means that we are working toward the same vision. We may disagree about the ways to get there but it is the ideals and visions of NCTE that are important to me.

For me, this discussion has helped me realize that I need to give more time to advocacy work--to keeping up with what is going on legislatively with things like the LEARN Act. I need to make time to meet with the people who represent me and to begin to build stronger relationships with them. Because NCTE keeps me informed, I think it is my responsibility to take what I learn from NCTE, to process, listen, discuss and act.

I have always believed that we all have different roles to play in the conversations around teaching and learning. I think that is why I have followed this conversation on the NCTE Ning so closely. There are those of us who are in schools every day who understand first-hand, what is being asked of students and teachers. There are those of us who do the research and share their findings so that we can better meet the needs of students. There are those of us who fight for an ideal vision and those who work to move things step-by-step. The thing I have learned in the last 20+ years in public education is that all of the roles are important. I have learned from every single comment that I have read about this issue. And I have rethought my own beliefs over and over again. None of us can be successful without the voices of each other. It is both our collective voice and our individual voices that will make the difference.


  1. Thank you, Franki for bringing all of this to my attention. I am not part of that Ning, so I appreciate all your links. I will be reading into this further.

  2. "Just as Krashen did, ALA wrote a letter in support of the Act but also used the opportunity to advocate for things that were important to the organization."

    No, I did NOT write a letter in support of the LEARN Act. I think the LEARN Act is more than a disaster.
    - It clearly and explicitly supports a skill-building approach to all of language arts. LEARN's prescription for K-3 is identical to what we got from Reading First, which failed every empirical test. The requirements for 4-12 extend the same skill-building philosophy to the rest of language arts.
    - It opens the door to still more testing and more kinds of testing, adding require diagnostic and formative testing (formative testing used to refer only to teacher created tests. The term has been hijacked by publishers, and is now widely used for commercial tests that prepare students for standardized tests.)
    - It fails to deal with the real problems in education. There is no mention of dealing with poverty, or even the one aspect of poverty we can easily deal with – lack of access to books for children of poverty.
    The NCTE should NOT have supported it. In this case, the NCTE was not knowledgeable about the issues and has ignored the input from those who are knowledgeable.
    Please read what I have posted on NCTE Nings, as well as what others have posted (Susan Ohanian, Yetta Goodman, Joanne Yatvin, Joe Lucido, and many others).

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  4. Stephen,
    Sorry--I did not mean to imply that you wrote a letter. Rereading, my sentence was a bit awkward but I meant that you met with Senator Murray's office to advocate for the things you wanted. I have kept up with the Ning and do know that you don't support the bill. The post connects to several Ning of the comments both for and against the Act. I am hoping others go back to the NIng conversation from this post here. I think going in and meeting and advocating for what you do want is key to this and other issues. I reworked the sentence so that it reads more clearly. Thanks for pointing it out.

  5. Stephen,

    I'm a member of NCTE. The members of NCTE elect officials to analyze and make judgments in our name about legislation. NCTE's elected officials go through a pretty rigorous process in being nominated and voted in by their membership, and I don't know how anyone can say objectively they aren't knowledgeable about the issues, especially when you look at the resumes of those who serve. The same is true for the elected officials and staff at the other organizations involved in crafting the LEARN Act.

    Intelligent, well-read, and thoughtful professionals can disagree on the LEARN act, without resorting to calling the other side ignorant. As Franki writes, advocacy is about long-term relations and collaboration. As Kylene writes, any collaboration is going to involve some compromise. Flame throwing doesn't get any of us anywhere, especially when we can only move forward with respectful debate and lots of listening.

    Franki's goal here is to open the door to respectful, generous, and open debate about the LEARN Act. Hyperbole like calling the act "more than a disaster" and all caps to show you do NOT agree with something slams the door shut to that kind of dialogue. Really, what does that phrase "more than a disaster" even mean?

    We are all guests here of Mary Lee and Franki, and their hundreds of daily visitors have come to expect rousing but always respectful discussions. I have read much of your writing; I expect better from you.

    Brenda Power

  6. If you find my behavior objectionable, I can promise you that you will be even more disappointed in the future.

    If the LEARN Act is passed, it will be horrible. It will cause decades of suffering for millions of children. It is horrible. It imposes a skill-building approach on all children in America BY LAW, de facto outlaws all other approaches, and opens the door to even more testing.

    Reading First failed every test, and it is now declared the winner and the philosophy is expanded to the entire curriculum.

    I wish I could find a more polite way of saying this. I hope you will read the LEARN Act itself, NCTE's statements, and the NING discussions.

    Knowledgeable?: NCTE ignored or was ignorant of the work of some of its most distinguished members. Decades of research and work, now for nothing. We are in danger of loosing the biggest battle in the history of education.

  7. I really can't believe the hyperbole here. As a guest of Franki and Mary Lee on their blog, I returned to Franki's original post, encouraging everyone to read the actual bill and discussions around it. I read the bill at this link - it includes the Senate version of the bill, as well as NCTE's statement on it:


    What I thought about as I read was the hundreds of classrooms I've visited over the years, including Franki Sibberson's. This bill highlights almost all the elements noted in the research as essential for quality instruction, including much of the practice I've seen in some wonderful classrooms.

    I've also visited some pretty awful classrooms with rote teaching and learning, and it seems to me those teachers would be in violation of many of the tenets of this bill which advocates thoughtful, research-based, and flexible instruction.

    It was most healthy for me to get away from the hyperbole and outright viciousness of some of the words being slung about LEARN on the web, and read the actual text of the bill. Don't take my word for it or anyone else's - read the bill.

    One other thing I found helpful - I couldn't find much to criticize beyond the few phrases critics have tagged as worrisome (like "explicit" and "direct" instruction). I did a word cloud of the purposes of the bill to see if I was underestimating their presence, or the critics were overestimating the amount of objectionable content. Here is a word cloud of the actual language from the Senate Bill on the purposes of the legislation:


    Here is a word cloud from the actual language in the Senate Bill on the definitions in the legislation:


    Judge for yourself what's emphasized and what isn't in the bill.

    I've now read all the conversations on the NCTE highlighted by Franki in her post. It's pretty astonishing for me to see the gap between what the bill says and advocates for, and the phrases critics have cherry-picked to condemn the bill with the most emotional hyperbole imaginable. In the process, they are insulting and denigrating the intelligence and motivation of their colleagues in literacy education in a pretty vile manner. Read for yourself; decide for yourself.


  8. LEARN is very clear: It calls for direct instruction all the way, for everything. "Explicit, direct, systematic" are technical terms that have only one meaning in the profession: skill-building. We can't make them mean anything else.

    An article in the IRA publication, Reading World, stated that LEARN was an expansion of Early Reading First, Reading First, and Striving Readers. All three are very skill-oriented. None of the three mentions books, libraries, reading, or literature study the way most of us think of it.

  9. "Most of us"? What organization or group are you speaking for? If this is your opinion, fine. But don't claim to speak for "most" literacy educators. NCTE has the right to speak for its membership. If members disagree, they can speak out and/or leave the group. I love a healthy debate that's fair. We have elected members of that group to represent us.

    If you are an elected official of a literacy organization, I stand corrected - just let me know what that group might be.

    Don't assume the majority of literacy educators share your point of view - I certainly don't. You have pulled one phrase out of the bill and claim all who read the bill and work in good faith would agree with you that it represents the main contribution of the bill. I have read the bill a few times and I don't agree. I think you are misrepresenting what is in it, but I trust anyone reading this will read the bill and come to their own conclusions. We can go round and round, but my stance is still that good people can disagree without calling each other ignorant or marginalizing those who disagree by saying they aren't part of whatever "most of us" group you claim to represent.

    I repeat yet again - we are both guests here on Franki and Mary Lee's blog. I doubt even they would write "most of us" and claim to speak for a majority of their readers, let alone literacy educators in general. Peace,


  10. Here is what I meant:
    LEARN presents these requirements as the foundation for language arts in 4-12: : " … direct and explicit instruction that builds academic vocabulary and strategies and knowledge of text structure for reading different kinds of texts within and across core academic subjects."
    There is no mention of literature as discussion of great ideas and as enjoyment of great stories. Based on what happened with Reading First, it is safe to predict that there will be no room for anything else in 4-12 if LEARN passes.


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