Mpls. schools chief sorry for ‘insensitive’ literacy training books

The Minneapolis Public School interim superintendent has apologized for optional materials used at a recent early literacy training program that reinforced some cultural and racial stereotypes.

“Due to staffing shifts and the desire to get a program in place for the new school year, the books were not comprehensively vetted,” said Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, according to the Star Tribune. “We now know this was a mistake. We regret that this happened. We will do better.”

But some teachers felt uneasy to step forward to call out the problem, which was publicly revealed by Bright Light Small City, a blog written by freelance journalist Sarah Lahm that focuses on education in Minneapolis.

In a series of posts this week, Lahm said she’d been contacted by two teachers — one white teacher, and one teacher of color — who were involved in an early literacy training program.

The teacher of color, reportedly a northside teacher, didn’t want her real name used, Lahm said.

“Roxanne” does not feel comfortable going public for this story. She says that, in just under five years on the job, she has already spoken out about the entrenched racism and “white savior” climate she sees at her workplace. She feels she is on thin ice with the district and some of her coworkers.

She wants to lie low and teach but can’t stop herself from speaking out about a district-sponsored training she attended on August 5th and 6th of this year.

The training did not go well.

It was put on by a Utah-based company called Reading Horizons. Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Public Schools entered into a contract with Reading Horizons, said to be worth $500,000, to purchase a phonics curriculum and ongoing coaching services, intended for the city’s K-2 teachers.

The teacher walked out after two days, Lahm reported, raising objections to a school official.

The teacher said she alerted school district authorities but what she claimed was racially insensitive comments by a trainer, but she said nothing was done before the second day of the teacher training.

School officials, however, say concerns were addressed the next day but they have not been able to determine whether the teacher’s characterization of the trainer’s comments are accurate.

“The feeling we got was that they don’t really care,” said Mandy Perna, the other teacher who contacted Lahm.

“This whole situation is an example of why students and teachers of color leave education, or feel unsuccessful and un-represented.The fact that the issue is being minimized/diminished affirms that this is not a safe space for us,” the teacher of color said.

But MPS officials said their concerns were addressed and the offending material was removed from the program. No students, they said, ever saw the optional material.

Here’s the response Goar gave to the Minneapolis Board of Education as posted on Facebook:

I have become aware that there is great concern among some parents and other stakeholders in the Minneapolis Public School district about an early childhood literacy curriculum MPS is launching this school year. I’d like to take this opportunity to address these concerns and share in the outrage of our diverse communities.

In July, the Minneapolis Board of Education approved a contract for a literacy curriculum and related support. This program has the potential to help our kids become stronger readers, and kids who read grow up to succeed.

The contract included the curriculum, excellent coaching and training support and optional, supplemental materials. Among those materials is what is called the Little Book library.

Due to staffing shifts and the desire to get a program in place for the new school year, the books were not comprehensively vetted. We now know this was a mistake. We regret that this happened. We will do better.

During an early training session it became apparent that some of the books contained culturally insensitive and unacceptable material. As soon as we became aware of the issue, we were thoroughly incensed and immediately took action. It is not acceptable that in 2015 reading materials for children would contain language and imagery that perpetuate stereotypes that are hurtful and insulting.

The books were instantly collected from the teachers and will be returned to the publisher. In addition, we received a guarantee from Reading Horizons that they will revise the books to our satisfaction before they would be utilized in the literacy curriculum.

No children were ever exposed to the books, and only a small number of teachers were. But again, we took immediate action when we became aware of what was clearly painfully offensive material.

It was MPS, and our teachers, who recognized culturally insensitive content in the supplemental books. This shows the professional development work the district is doing on cultural competency is working.

For the time being, we continue working with Reading Horizons to revise the books, and teachers will be central in that conversation. These revisions won’t just be for Minneapolis, but for districts across the country, which means we are having a national impact.

Here is an important consideration. Reading Horizons works. Research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes across the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours.

But we are as concerned about the culturally inappropriate material as everyone else and we quickly addressed and removed the materials, as we should have. We will continue to explore options regarding this issue.

Let me say again, kids who read grow up to succeed, and early literacy is key to the future of our kids. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have further questions or concerns.

David Branch, a former principal in the Minneapolis Public School system, called on the district to terminate its contract with the company.

“How can MPS justify continuing to work with a company that clearly has no understanding of #RacialEquityInEducation?” he posted in a Facebook response to Goar. “How can MPS justify entering into an agreement with a company that has no clue about the racial, socio-economic, and gender diversity that we have in MPS. A diversity that is represented in our school board members, families, teachers, administrators, and students?”

MPS officials said they have worked with Reading Horizons to change the offending material in the program, which they stress was optional, but they insisted the core mission of the program should stay because it helps kids improve reading skills.

  • BReynolds33

    Quick question…

    Why does the school district need a phonics program? Do they not have books and teachers? Is that not a phonics program?

  • Nick K

    “Here is an important consideration. Reading Horizons works. Research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes across the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours.” So what is going on in these other places? Did no one notice the books / attitudes in wherever this was successful?

    • lindblomeagles

      Apparently not Nick. All reviews are positive. It is touted as a very effective tool for struggling readers. Maybe that was the only thing evaluators sought (its effectiveness with struggling readers) when they analyzed Reading Horizons.

      • kellybarnhill

        I keep hearing people saying “all reviews are positive” without actually linking to those reviews – nor do those statements seem to understand the difference between a “review” and actual, verified research. My kid’s charter school used Reading Horizons for three years and saw their reading scores tank (specifically, the scores of the fourth graders who started the program in first grade). I’ve heard Mr. Goar refer to the good experiences in places like Louisiana (not a state known for excellence in education, btw), but I’ve never seen links to the data – particularly data that is analyzed by experts in education. “Positive reviews online”? Please. We need more than that.

  • lindblomeagles

    The page above is disturbing, to say the least. The information provided by the anonymous teacher of color, if true, are equally disturbing. That said, it looks like Reading Horizons is free of negative reviews, and was supported by MPS because of its reputation in turning around reading success.

    • lisamgs

      Reviews are one thing, but who conducted the research that Goar cites? Was it an independent, external evaluation specifically looking at RH’s materials or something paid for and done BY Reading Horizons.

      • lindblomeagles

        Great question. The whole thing is weird. One would think the page above alone should have raised some questions within Reading Horizons. And yet positive information about RH is all on the web.

        • Jack

          Is RH paying someone to remove negative reviews? Just asking.

          • Veronica

            Maybe they pay to clean up the bad reviews.

  • Susan WB

    As both a literacy practitioner and a parent of a 2nd grader in Minneapolis, I think I have a unique perspective on this issue. I’m appalled by the cultural incompetence displayed by the curriculum writers who made those “Little Books.” However, I am also familiar with the Reading Horizons program through my professional work and I don’t think it’s all awful like that. Mainly, Reading Horizons is a software and curriculum package that delivers comprehensive phonics instruction. I know practitioners who use Reading Horizons and they are very positive about it. Of course, concepts like how to sound out digraphs like “sh” and use the silent -e rule and content of that type is not particularly culturally bound. It’s pretty neutral stuff. So that core content is probably fine. It’s the print materials (and apparently, their culturally incompetent out-of-state trainer) where the problem lies. Most of the dollars spent on Reading Horizons are probably for the software licenses and curriculum guides for phonics instruction, and may do some real good in a district that has struggled to develop strong readers.

    However, beyond that it truly saddens me that we have, locally, very good literacy practitioners who could have written much better, culturally appropriate texts for young readers, but big purchasing entities like MPS never seem to want to look close to home. We don’t need to spend huge amounts of money in Utah on books like these! Where I work, I have a colleague who is originally from Somalia who specializes in early literacy and parent education. We have culturally competent curriculum writers. We know Minneapolis and its diverse populations, because we work with them too. If they had contracted with my organization, right here in the Twin Cities, they could have gotten better books, at a better price, and supported a local non-profit organization that cares about their kids and their communities.

    And on a final note, in my own work, I provide training on educational technology, and when I read the original blog post I could hardly believe it. This trainer was very far from the high bar of professionalism I am expected to meet in my work. I am disgusted on behalf of professional development trainers everywhere. We expect better than that in Minnesota.

  • crystals

    I’m a bit surprised at how Michael Goar’s statement seems to lay a chunk of the responsibility at the feet of the school board. Yes, they approved the contract (as they are required to do for any of this size/dollar amount) this summer, so he’s able to do so, but…I have questions.
    1) The role of the board really isn’t to examine curriculum at this level of depth. That’s the responsibility of district staff, and they recommend these decisions to the board. My hunch – which I’m guessing someone is looking into – is that the contract wasn’t ever discussed by the board but was in the consent agenda that’s passed in one fell swoop.
    2) He’s an interim superintendent looking to get hired by this same school board for the permanent gig. This probably isn’t the approach I would have taken were I in his shoes.

    Maybe I’m too in the weeds on this but it surprised me. Kudos to the blogger for writing about this initially – it will be interesting to see who else gives her credit for it. (In the original Strib story, it appears they did not.)

    And +1 to everything Susan WB said.

    • CompTech

      If it was passed in a consent agenda, good luck ever finding out the details. Consent agendas are designed to hide the actual decision making process. They are used extensively in my school district and one never knows what is going on. This entire story reeks of decision-making that was top down without adequate teacher and community review and input. The new normal in education is to choose programs on the basis of a sales pitch and promised quick results. This program may or may not work, but the content should by no means ever be written and published by a Christian publisher.

  • kellybarnhill

    My problem with this program is not only the total insensitivity and poor quality of the texts (and, as someone who works in publishing, and who has worked before in educational publishing, these are astonishingly bad. There is no excuse for this kind of low quality, poor writing, and tone-deaf racism. None at all), but the insensitivity of the “trainers”. Referring to schools that serve children in poverty as “poverty schools” – and encouraging teachers to limit their service with those children? What on earth??? Additionally, per the company’s own sales pitches, I feel the mission of the company is explicitly disrespectful to teachers. Their sales pitch says, “So scripted even a janitor could teach it!” Why would they have so little regard to the nuanced training of a qualified teacher, and their ability to provide reflective, specific and carefully planned instruction to each individual kid. Scripted teaching is not teaching. Teachers teach, not lousy, overpriced curriculum companies from Utah, for god’s sake.

    • Wanna

      Who approved such madness? Wow… 2015 mindset and how we think CCSS is best represented… Clean house and start over Minneapolis taxpayers. This is another clear example of how taxpayer dollars are mismanaged and squandered. In the end, the students suffer and the response to such foolishness is a posted statement which sounds like…”Oops”!