Citizens for Effective Schools

In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit, and Education Collide

Reviewed by Gary Ratner
Teachers College Record, Columbia University
May 3, 2005

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Elaine Garan's In Defense of Our Children: When Politics, Profit and Education Collide is a little book that packs a wallop. Garan perceives that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB or the Act) and the states' high-stakes testing movement are severely damaging public school teachers and students, but that many parents and teachers "have no idea" of their impact (p. 149). Garan, an education professor and teacher of reading, seeks to remedy that lack of information. Her book, written in an engaging, conversational style, combines a provocative critique with an impassioned call for teachers and parents to challenge the premises of certain recently enacted school "reforms."

After briefly summarizing several major elements of the Act, including standards, testing, accountability and sanctions, Garan explores a number of topics in more detail. For example, she notes that high-stakes testing prevented almost one quarter of Florida's third graders from being promoted to fourth grade in 2003 (p. 44) and resulted in the "pushing out" of more than 160,000 children from New York City schools between 1998 and 2001 (p. 53). She describes the differences between the teacher-centered and the student-centered approaches to teaching - emphasizing that the former teaches "skills first" and relies heavily on memorization and worksheets, while the latter puts "meaning first" and gets students actively involved in reading books and working together on projects. And she argues that NCLB constitutes an inexcusable federal interference with the American tradition of local control of education.

But her central charge seems to be that NCLB represents a corporate takeover of public schools, fueled by opportunity for profits and apparent conflicts of interest, especially among certain education researchers. As Garan puts it, although she doesn't oppose school reform, she is "opposed to … ploys to destroy the public schools and the credibility of teachers in the name of school reform by Wizards hiding behind the curtain of research that cloaks their own political or even financial interests" (p. 11).

Although Garan suggests that the entire Act is motivated by a desire to replace public education with "privatized schools run by businesses" (p. 144), the evidence she cites relates almost entirely to NCLB's "Reading First" program. Reading First is a competitive grant program to "ensure that every student can read at grade level or above [by] the end of grade 3" (NCLB Sect.1201(1)). Any "instructional materials" purchased with program funds must be "based on scientifically based reading research" (NCLB Sect. 1202(b)(7)(iii)). Such materials are expected "to implement methods that have proven to prevent or remediate reading failure within a State" (NCLB Sect. 1201(4)). State applications for purchases of reading materials under the program may be approved only after a federal peer review panel has determined whether the specific reading programs proposed for purchase meet the "scientific research" and other statutory requirements (NCLB Sect. 1203(b)(4)(B)(E)(c)(1)(2)(C)).

Although the "scientific research" requirement may be reasonable on its face, Garan argues that the government is abusive in its administration of the requirement. Instead of the government's consistently applying the same objective standard of scientific research, she asserts, "there is no set standard…. The definition of science now amounts to this: 'If we [government officials] approve it, it's scientific. If we don't, it's not" (p. 45). Instead of the government's fairly evaluating all reading programs submitted to it, Garan indicates that it has approved a limited number of particular commercial reading programs. (These include McGraw-Hill's Open Court Reading and Houghton Mifflin's reading program.) In one instance of what Garan views as administrative abuse, the President's reading adviser made a public recommendation against use of a different commercial program (not among the ones the government has approved), and other government reading advisers pressured New York City not to seek funding for purchasing it, even though it is, according to Garan, both "scientific" and much less expensive than the ones the government has approved (pp. 45, 81-82).

Moreover, Garan says, the Government has approved certain commercial reading programs notwithstanding that the seminal report of the congressionally created National Reading Panel (NRP) found that they do not significantly improve children's reading. Indeed, the NRP report found that use of the Open Court Reading program in first grade actually resulted in children's loss of reading skills "in every skill that was tested", including, most importantly, comprehension and spelling (pp. 87-88). Despite this finding, Garan notes, "Open Court is the hands-down favorite with the Reading First panels of experts" (p. 81).

Even worse, the NRP "summary booklet" that "forms the basis of current [NCLB] legislation and mandates" (p. 97) misrepresents what the full report found. Whereas the report itself explicitly found that " 'systematic phonics instruction failed to exert a significant impact on the reading performance [of the students assessed] in 2nd through 6th grade' (NRP report 2-88)" (p. 94), the summary booklet asserts that the report "'revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade…'" (p. 97). Even though the NRP was informed that its summary booklet contained this serious misrepresentation, the panel continued to publish it for years on its Web site without change.

As to alleged conflicts of interest, Garan's principal argument seems to be that many of the preparers of the NRP report and the summary booklet were not independent analysts but had a personal investment in what these documents would conclude. For example, NRP adviser Barbara Foorman had authored four of the studies she was responsible for reviewing, and three more had been written by coauthors of her own "profitable commercial program" (p. 102). In addition, "[t]he NRP summary (inaccurately reporting the findings) was written in part by Widmeyer-Baker, the public relations firm that Open Court's publisher, McGraw-Hill, pays to promote its products" (p. 99).

As noted earlier, Garan emphasizes that the full NRP report found that phonics instruction did not significantly improve, and in some instances retarded, acquisition of reading skills. She also points out that the NRP "did not recommend any commercial reading program, but it actually warned against the boring skill and drill of scripted programs and called for balanced reading" (p. 90). Assuming that these statements are accurate, even if there were conflicts of interest among NRP participants, it's not apparent that they impaired the objectivity or validity of the report itself.

The charge that the summary booklet grossly misrepresented the full report's findings as to the effectiveness of "systematic phonics instruction" is more persuasive and very serious. Assuming, as Garan says, that this booklet "forms the basis of current legislation and mandates" (p. 97) its assertion that the NRP report found that "systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students" seems to be the central "scientific" justification for the government's insisting that states and localities adopt such reading programs as part of Reading First. Yet that assertion is contradicted by the very language of the report that such instruction "failed to exert a significant impact on … reading performance." Without the genuine support of NRP's meta-analysis, what legitimate basis does NCLB have for requiring states to adopt commercial reading programs to qualify for receiving federal reading funds?

Beyond challenging the justification for insisting on the use of commercial reading programs, Garan argues that the use of "scripted" programs causes severe injuries to teaching, learning and opportunities for social advancement. Since instructors of scripted programs are not intended or expected to be able to meet individual students' unique learning needs, but only to implement a pre-set script, there is no need to prepare teachers of such programs to use diverse pedagogical methods. In this respect, Garan observes, NCLB is "redefining what it means to be a teacher" (p. 145). Further, Garan asserts, scripted programs provide a low-level curriculum teaching low-level thinking skills.

In conclusion, Garan has performed a valuable service by challenging the purported "scientific basis" for the commercial reading programs that the Government requires states and localities to adopt to receive funding under NCLB's Reading First initiative. And she is right to urge parents and teachers to learn more about the new NCLB "reforms," to organize, and to advocate at the state and local levels against "corporate takeovers" of public education and "deskilling of teachers" (p. 150).

Even more significantly for the purposes of NCLB, although Garan focuses her scientific basis critique on Reading First, I believe that its rationale applies more widely. Just as she has highlighted the lack of a scientific basis for the government's demanding the use of commercial reading programs, I feel there is no scientific basis for NCLB's demanding "Adequate Yearly Progress" so that all students are brought to mandated standards of proficiency by 2014 (NCLB, Sect. 1111(b)(2)). Nor is there a scientific basis for NCLB's requiring that failing schools seek to correct their deficiencies by adopting and implementing strategic plans (NCLB, Sect. 1116(b)(3)(A)(i)). In fact, "meta-analytic studies [have] roundly confirmed the failure of [the strategic planning] approach" (Schmoker, 2004, p.426).

Indeed, to have a chance of substantially accomplishing NCLB's important goal of bringing virtually all students to academic proficiency, NCLB's entire remedial scheme needs to be restructured. As the National School Boards Association, National Education Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Urban League, Children's Defense Fund and more than 20 other national organizations have recently stated: "Overall, the law's emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement." (Joint Organizational Statement, 2004)

I believe that this will require providing a challenging curriculum, effective teaching, and family or surrogate support for high achievement for virtually all public school students who do not already receive them. To do this will chiefly necessitate systemic improvements in administrator and teacher preparation, peer collaboration, mentoring and professional development, as well as enhancing of families' parenting skills and adult literacy or, where this is impracticable, providing other adult support for students' learning outside the regular school day. Addressing the defects in Reading First is a step in the right direction.


Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, October 21, 2004. Retrieved April 19, 2005, from

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1201(1), 20 USC 6361(1), 115 Stat. 1535 (2002).

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1201(4), 20 USC 6361(4), 115 Stat 1535 (2002).

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1202(b)(7)(iii), 20 USC 6362(b)(7)(iii), 115 Stat 1538 (2002).

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB Act), Sect. 1203(b)(4)(B)(E)(c)(1)(2)(C), 20 USC 6363(b)(4)(B)(E)(c)(1)(2)(C), 115 Stat. 1543-1545 (2002).

Schmoker, M. (2004.) Tipping point: From feckless reform to substantive instructional improvement. Phi Delta Kappan, (February), 426.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p.- ID Number: 11835, Date Accessed 5/25/2005

About the Author

Gary Ratner
Citizens for Effective Schools, Inc.
GARY M. RATNER is Executive Director of Citizens for Effective Schools, a national school reform advocacy organization committed to the goal of raising virtually all public school students to academic competence. He is a principal drafter of the "Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, October 21, 2004" and the principal drafter of the October 15, 2003 Open Letter to President Bush and Congress calling for reframing NCLB. He is a public interest lawyer, former senior executive of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a graduate of Harvard Law School. His article, "Why the 'No Child Left Behind Act' Needs to be Restructured to Accomplish Its Goals and How To Do It" is to be published in May 2005 in the Education Symposium issue of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law Law Review.

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