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  • The (former) President's Reading Lesson

    President Obama's health-care initiative may be visionary, but his apparent faith in the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" program, with its emphasis on standardized testing, prompts me to reprise this 2004 essay that first appeared in Education Week. Maybe the Department of Education can become visionary too, rethinking NCLB and its massive testing program so that no one really is left behind.

    The President's Reading Lesson

    One scene in Michael Moore's 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" keeps playing in my head: George Bush placidly following along as second-graders from Florida read a story called "The Pet Goat." Off camera, in New York and Washington, planes are crashing into buildings. "The Pet Goat" is far from riveting, yet it keeps the president in his seat as the most devastating terrorist attack in the nation's history unfolds.

    George Bush went to the Emma E. Booker School in Sarasota on Sept. 11, 2001, to publicize his "No Child Left Behind" education initiative, the one that's supposed to turn around American schools. The official video of the president's class visit, available online, begins with the teacher directing her class to read a list of vocabulary words from a chart. Then White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card comes in and whispers to Mr. Bush that the second plane has hit the towers. The tape runs another five minutes and eight seconds, though given the context it seems to last forever.

    Chief of Staff Andrew Card tells Pres. Bush that the second plane has hit the tower, and the nation is under attack

    White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card tells the president that the second plane has hit the tower.

    When I saw Moore's film, I was appalled that the president stayed in the classroom and didn't react to the emergency. He just watched as the students droned on about a girl and her goat. When I saw the internet video, I was appalled as well at the mindless drill that passes for reading instruction in too many American schools. I saw not a class embracing the written word, exploring it and turning it inside out, but a class that's learned to follow orders, to chant a story as if it were a list of words on a chart and not connected prose. I saw a class of children being left behind.

    In 1985 the Commission on Reading called for America to become a nation of readers, a goal we have failed to meet. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts warned that fewer than half of all Americans over eighteen read any literature at all. The president's reading lesson shows why: reading in this school has become a group exercise, like jumping jacks, not an individual intellectual struggle where readers are rewarded by discovering, questioning, and ultimately making, their own meaning.

    "The Pet Goat" is a selection in a popular "direct instruction" textbook. The direct instruction reading method claims to be teacher-proof and promises to raise student test scores, especially among at-risk students. Everything about the method is explicit, nothing is left to chance. Teachers follow scripted lessons, telling students, who do everything in unison, when to take out their books, when to start reading, when to touch specific words, when to repeat, when to stop, and when to put their books away. Instead of thinking for themselves and learning through trial and error, students parrot packaged answers to pre-selected questions. There's less chance for teachers or students to fail this way, but there's also less opportunity for them to excel. Direct instruction is the reading equivalent of school uniforms, and it makes literature as exciting as a pressed white shirt.

    While George Bush observes the recitation, the teacher, mechanically following the lesson plan that comes with the story, beats time on the desk to mark each word. If one student reads to a different drummer, the teacher orders a do-over. Once in a while, as they read, the teacher barks out, "Good job." It's in the script. When the class ignores a comma, she directs the students to place their fingers on the comma and tell what it signals. The children respond, "The comma says, 'Slow down.'" Then, when instructed, they repeat the sentence, slowing just the slightest bit after the comma as the beat goes on.

    Pres. Bush looks on as the children are put through their paces

    The teacher shouts staccato commands like a drill sergeant and sets the reading tempo by beating a baton (red circle) against the desktop, as Pres. George W. Bush looks on.

    Chanting a text in unison won't turn these children into readers. Neither will the stories they are given to read. The plot of "The Pet Goat" is straightforward, moralistic and about as compelling as "See Spot run." There are four characters: a girl; a goat; a father, who wants to get rid of the goat because it eats everything in sight; and a villain called the "car robber."

    Direct instruction asks students to read only words they've already been introduced to in their vocabulary lessons. There are no proper names on the second-grade vocabulary list, so no character has a name. They are simply the girl, the dad, the goat. Stories with nameless characters sound strange enough, but a story with a car robber sounds stranger still. The class has surely heard of car thieves and even carjackers, but there are no thieves and jackers on their word list. However, there are robbers. In fact, robbers knocked over a store in an earlier lesson, so the antagonist in this story has to be called, not a car thief, but a "car robber." The students know that "car thief" is idiomatic English and "car robber" is not, but the book says "car robber," so it must be correct.

    Text from

    The typography may appear strange, with accent marks and variable letter sizing, but the words are supposed to be familiar. Students already met the word 'robber' in an earlier story. But since they hadn't yet encountered the word 'thief,' the Direct Instruction method requires that the normal expression 'car thief' has to become 'car robber,' which is not idiomatic English.

    "The Pet Goat" ends as the robber prepares to steal the family car. The dénouement must wait for the next lesson, but it's not hard to guess what will happen: goat gets robber; girl keeps goat. When the students finish reading, and they've put their books under their chairs, President Bush, who is in no hurry to leave the room, banters with the teacher, asks a few questions, and compliments the class. He gives no indication that anything is wrong, not with the lesson, not with the nation.

    What's wrong with the lesson sheds light on what's wrong with the nation: these students are being shortchanged. They regularly demand more of themselves and of one another, linguistically, than their reading curriculum, with its controlled vocabulary and awkwardly simple sentences, demands of them. But all they have to do to meet the school's low expectations is to follow the five-minute script. Reading takes a lot more time than that.

    To become competent readers, students need real stories in ordinary English with real action, comedy and tragedy, stories that raise difficult questions, questions which the teacher might not anticipate, questions which students can't answer in unison. Characters with real names would be a start, not to mention normal typography. When these students have to wrest meaning from an unfamiliar passage, something a nation of readers must do every day, I'm afraid that they will respond like George Bush did that day.

    Although he could follow a story about a girl and her goat, the president had trouble figuring out that one plane hitting a tower that had been a terrorist target once before might be an accident, but two planes definitely signaled an attack. September 11th presented George Bush with a real-world reading test, but like the second graders in that Florida classroom, instead of accepting the challenge to interpret the unexpected, the president seemed content to follow the script laid out for him. He stayed in his seat and looked around with a dreamy, slightly bored expression, a docile student waiting for instructions. He seemed the kind of at-risk reader who will be left behind because he hasn't been able to do what all readers must do: read, and think, for themselves.

    Image from

    Spoiler alert: The children at Emma Booker School had to wait to learn the all too predictable outcome, shown above, of "The Pet Goat."


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