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The Rockford Reading Disaster

    Media and reporters:
    If you are considering a report on the Rockford situation, please write to us and we will get you in touch with persons very familiar with this story.

Reading to the Rescue! -- The Rockford Success Story

  • Project PRIDE Assessments and the Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy (ISEL) by William Bursuck, Professor, Department of Teacher Education and Director, Project PRIDE, Northern Illinois University.

  • NIU Reading Project Flourishes In Rockford Schools by Mark McGowan, Northern Today, Northern Illinois University, November 5, 2001.
    "More than 300 kindergartners and first-graders in three Rockford inner-city schools are participating in 'Project Pride,' an NIU-operated project to improve reading ability. ...
          'Our school systems don't have a great track record of catching kids up once they're behind,' said Bill Bursuck, a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning who, along with Dennis Munk, also from Teaching and Learning, co-directs the project, one of only three in the country funded in 1999.
          'We're trying to prevent problems before they occur through early identification and continuum of support based on need. A kid in middle school or high school who can't read is dead in the water,' he added. 'The goal of any reading program is that kids will read silently and comprehend. Accurate and fluent word reading, for these at-risk kids, is one of the key component.' ...
          Project Coordinator Mary Damer, also from the Department of Teaching and Learning, is in the Rockford schools daily. Damer tests the children to learn how they are progressing and what problems they still have.
          'The test scores are very promising. These children have so much potential,' Damer said. 'This is truly a university and school district cooperative partnership. We are there. We are part of their lives. They are part of our lives.'"

  • Lewis Lemon 3rd-Graders Ranked No. 2 in Rockford Tests
    Math and Reading Scores of Black Students at the School Surpass Those of Whites Statewide

    by Carrie Watters, Rockford Register Star, December 14, 2003.

    "Nearly eight in 10 children who enter Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy in prim blue uniforms are black. All but 15 percent of the school's 412 pupils are poor. Don't dare tell these children that, statistically speaking, they should be struggling in school. Lewis Lemon's third-grade students ranked No. 2 out of 35 Rockford elementary schools that administered the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in reading and math. ... At Lewis Lemon ... black third-graders outperformed white counterparts in reading and math in last spring's tests; 97 percent of black students met state standards, compared with 92.3 percent of white students. And 95.3 percent of students classified as poor met math standards. Compare that to scores around the district: 41.1 percent of black third-graders, compared to 73.7 percent of whites, met state math standards. And 51.9 percent of poor students met third-grade math standards against 74.9 percent of their peers who aren't poor."

The Empire Strikes Back

  • Approach to Reading Argued
    by Carrie Watters, Rockford Register Star, January 16, 2005


      Lewis Lemon Principal Tiffany Parker was relieved of instructional duties last week for not implementing an approach to reading that new administrators ushered in this school year. Parker's removal was the flash point in a brewing battle over how children are taught to read, one of the most critical skills and also one of the most emotional parts of teaching. Parents gathered at the school on Thursday to strategize how to protect a reading program they say works. "If the mountain needs to be moved, move it. But if it's working, keep it," said parent Tamara Watkins. Lewis Lemon's third-grade students did move a mountain of statistics that show a national scourge: minority and poor students persistently performing below their classmates. The west-side students, 80 percent black and nearly as many poor, came in second in the district behind King gifted students on the state reading test in 2003.
      Lewis Lemon, along with Nelson and Kishwaukee -- three of the district's most impoverished elementary schools -- began its academic climb in 2001. ... By 2003, third grade reading scores were up dramatically.

  • Which Reading Program Is Right?
    by Laura Gibbs, WIFR Channel 23, Rockford

  • January 21, 2005:
    This Rockford situation continues to deteriorate quickly with the poor principal skewered and roasted. When she went to conduct a PTO meeting last night, the superintendent and curriculum director were already there to run the meeting (and present misinformation about why their balanced literacy "innovations" were a change in the right direction).
         When we wonder why teachers and principals keep quiet when parents try to bring about change, we only have to think about what Ms. Parker is going through. The system is as nasty to renegades as it is to outspoken parents.
         The good news is that the NY papers picked up on this story ...

  • A Lesson From The Heartland
    by Andrew Wolf, NEW YORK SUN, January 21, 2005.

    "Since we're here in New York, you're probably asking why we should care. However, there is good reason for us to look at Rockford: The events there are pertinent to our children and our schools. Ms. Parker, who will now shuffle papers, was not demoted because she is incompetent, nor as the unfortunate result of an incident that she might have mishandled. Nor was she disciplined because the school's reading scores went down. In fact, under her leadership, the school's scores improved dramatically. So why did the district administration abruptly take her out of the instructional loop? The answer is that Ms. Parker put the children of her school ahead of pedagogical theology. ...
         This is an example of the pervasiveness of the true monopoly in public education. Far more powerful than the teachers unions or the bureaucrats is the university-institutional complex, the schools of education and nonprofit foundations. They dictate the instructional methodology even when their strategies defy logic. ...
         Research demonstrates that Ms. Parker is right and the administration is wrong. But when we allow ideology to trump science, the best principals and teachers inevitably join the students as victims."

  • Comment from Beth Norman, January 21, 2005:
    "I just don't understand why the kids are not being put first. It is a problem not just with the administrators but with families also. Why aren't more parents up in arms? Why are so many experts in this field ignored in Illinois? I feel just terrible for Ms. Parker."

  • Comment from Bruno Behrend, host, WIND Radio, January 21, 2005:
    "This is a horrible situation. What can people like us do to support the 'good guys' in these fights. Isn't there an action network, e-mail list, or something of the sort. If not, can't we help to create one? Had I known about this meeting, I might have been able to go. (There must be at least 5 of me in Rockford!) Further, doesn't this principal understand politics? Does anybody? We can't be 'policy wonks' alone. We must be activists. These people are destroying generations of minds. It is time to stop being polite."

  • Messing With Success
    by Joanne Jacobs, January 23, 2005.

    "Third graders at a mostly black, mostly poor school in Rockford, Illinois aced the state reading tests, coming in second behind a school for gifted students, a few years after their school adopted scripted, teacher-directed instruction in phonics in the early grades.

  • Comment from Phillip E. Paeltz, Headmaster and CEO, Governor French Academy, Belleville, IL, January 25, 2005:
    "The Rockford School District is behaving in a normal public school manner. It is embracing 'the solution of the moment.' It is following one of the diagnostic prognostications that college professors emit like radiowave messages from deep space, prognostications that are built on research studies that have used graduate students as subjects rather than six-year-old children.
         Nearly everyone involved in our state-sponsored education has forgotten the basic principles: 1. Language starts with sounds, 2. Language is then codified by means of structure and grammar, 3. Structure and grammar lead to literary forms.
         Students whose study is aligned to this progression can learn. Students whose study has been forced by 'experts' to start on the third stage of the basic principles are victims of educational malpractice.
         There is little hope that these state-sponsored schools will recognize their errors. Such introspection requires honesty. There is precious little of that."

  • The Inevitable Happens in Rockford, January 25, 2005
    "We found out the sad news last night that Tiffany Parker, the principal in Rockford who stuck her neck out for intensive phonics was told to pack up her office by the next day and report to her new job as the assistant principal at the most challenging middle school in the city. ... In three years, one will look at the test results of the city's highest achieving minority, high poverty school and see a steady pattern of decline when it takes it place with all of the other failing city high poverty schools."

  • Debate Lingers on Teaching Reading: Philosophies On Instruction Go National As Lewis Lemon's Principal Gets Demoted
    by Carrie Watters, Rockford Register Star, January 30, 2005

  • A Fight Over Reading Instruction in a District Weary of Change
    by Samuel G. Freedman, NEW YORK TIMES, February 2, 2005.

    "One of the only bright spots [in Rockford] appeared to be the Lewis Lemon elementary school. With a student body that was 80 percent nonwhite and 85 percent poor, the school recorded some of highest scores in Rockford on statewide tests. On a reading test, Lemon's third graders trailed only those from a school for the gifted. Lemon's principal, Tiffany Parker, had accomplished all this by embracing a method of teaching reading known as 'direct instruction.' ... In the last several months, however, Ms. Parker and Lewis Lemon have collided with [the new superintendent] ... Instead of serving as beacons for what is possible, the school and its principal have been portrayed as impediments to progress. The superintendent recently transferred Ms. Parker to a middle school, and has begun phasing out direct instruction in favor of an approach known as balanced literacy. ... 'I'm shocked,' [parent] Ericton Lewis said. 'It's like now all these kids are going to be lost. I can't understand why they would take a program that was working and get rid of it. Why fix something if it ain't broke?'"

  • What keeps getting obfuscated (despite repeated emphasis from those concerned) is that the fifth graders at Lewis Lemon only had Direct Instruction for one full year before they took the test. Before that they had two or three years of Open Court taught as whole language by teachers who had never had formal training in teaching phonics. Before that they had straight Whole Language. They were so far behind at the beginning of last year that had had to start in Direct Instruction Corrective Reading, which is an intensive intent to try and develop decoding skills of older learners as quickly as possible. This principal knew they were that far behind which is why she started Direct Instruction. She didn't want to do as the others had and be glad that the younger ones were better prepared and resigned about the older students.
    When these fifth graders were in kindergarten the teachers spent the year on "food alphabet," eating their way through the alphabet with incidental learning of sounds. Open Court, Houghton Mifflin, and Harcourt can easily be converted to whole language programs if 3-cueing strategy, sounds with schwas, and no added practice on key skills accompany them. This situation showed that only too well.

  • The Rockford Files
    by Chuck Muth, Brushfire Alert, February 8, 2005

  • Educrats Leave Black Kids Illiterate
    by Onkar Ghate,, February 8, 2005.

    "The educational tragedy in Rockford, Illinois, now making national headlines, echoes a larger tragedy. ... In discarding success, Rockford is following the demands of the still-dominant voices in the nation's schools of education. ... What our schools need is not 'moderation,' but phonics instruction. We would consider it child abuse to add contaminated food to a child's diet for the sake of 'balance.' We should consider it the same when educators add whole language to reading instruction."

  • Poor Leadership in School Systems
    by Dave Shearon

  • Comments [excerpted] from Bruno Behrend, host, WIND Radio, February 11, 2005:
    The Rockford story needs to get out ... the world NEEDs the [principal Tiffany] Parker's ... I also hope that the reporters on this list are starting to see the true nature of the "governmental/education complex". At the very least, the old "Military/Industrial Complex" gave us the infrastructure to defend a nation. The "governmental/education complex" isn't serving the country. We don't ask that you "take our side." We just ask that you report the truth. This isn't just happening in Rockford. It is happening everywhere.

  • The Rockford massacre is rerun in Chicago!
    City Schools To Ax Scripted Reading Program Despite Gains
    by Kate N. Grossman, Education Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times February 21, 2005
    Excerpts: "The Woodlawn Community School boosted reading scores by 20 percentage points in one year after rededicating itself to a controversial, scripted reading program called Direct Instruction, the principal proudly explained. Now, the board says DI must go. ... It can be repetitive, teachers admit, but it works. 'By the end of the year they are reading, much more than with any other program I've used in 30 plus years,' [teacher Althelia] Strong said. ... DI proponents think DI died for one reason: Several top board officials just don't like it. ... Ben Ditkowsky, a former DI coach [said,] 'There is a tendency for people to focus on the teacher being creative and on feel-good activities that seem to ought to work rather than determining what really works.'"

  • Rockford Principal Gets Smeared!

  • Not only is the Rockford school district committed to failure in its grade schools, but it will evidently fight to keep kids from getting a second chance in high school (if that means they would have to give up absolute control)!
         The Illinois Network of Charter Schools filed an amicus curiae brief in the State Supreme Court earlier this month in support of Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc. (CCS). CCS is a charter school applicant in Rockford that wants to open a high school combining academic instruction with on-the-job training for students who are "at risk" of dropping out of high school. The Rockford school district has twice rejected CCS' application, stating the charter school would be a financial drain on the school district. It's an age-old argument with no merit. Providing public school options is not a financial burden for the community -- but sending high school dropouts out into the world unprepared for the workforce certainly is. It's time for Rockford to rally behind its kids and say yes to new public schools that will provide them the help they need to succeed.

  • Rockford school board elections:
    Rockford has a seven-person school board, with three seats up for election April 2005. Incumbents Mike Williams and Jay Nellis are in uncontested races. One seat is being contested, between incumbent Nancy Kalchbrenner and challengers Barb Dent and Mark Thompson. The first public forum will be held March 1st.

  • Rockford Parents Want to Keep Successful Reading Program
    by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, March 2005.

    "The parent organization of the Lewis Lemon public school in Rockford, Illinois is asking the local school board not to drop a three-year-old reading program that has raised the school's test scores well above the district average. The school's student body is 80 percent minority, and almost 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
         'We believe that changing the reading program will harm our students and that this is a social justice issue that requires all of us to rise up and speak out,' wrote 10 parents from the school's executive Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) board in a letter to the Rockford Register Star that was not printed. 'Our children deserve instruction that has been proven to work with African-American students. Not only is there research to support it, but we've seen it with our own eyes with Lewis Lemon's test scores.'"
         NOTE: This article includes several helpful charts reporting on Lewis Lemon's successes.

  • Demoted principal sues school chief
    Tiffany Parker says she was demoted for whistle-blowing
    by Carrie Watters, Rockford Register Star, March 15, 2005.
    Excerpts: "A Rockford ex-principal is suing Superintendent Dennis Thompson, charging she was demoted for blowing the whistle on changes in the reading program at Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy that may violate federal grants. Attorneys for Tiffany Parker filed eight counts against Thompson in U.S. District Court on Thursday. Two counts relate to state and federal protection for whistle-blowers. She also charges that Thompson placed her in a false light before the public and denied her freedom of speech and due process."

  • Phonics was such an anathema to this superintendent that he reports the district had already decided to turn its back on pursuing money for next year that would have benefited the children. Now the district has lost even more and all in the name of pursuing whole language/balanced literacy, a reading approach that research shows especially doesn't benefit students in poverty (as well as others):

  • Rockford Schools Lose Reading Aid by Carrie Watters, Rockford Register Star, April 5, 2005. Excerpts: "Rockford is one of only two Illinois school districts to lose federal money earmarked for improving reading. The reason: Superintendent Dennis Thompson turned away monitors who came in February to see whether the money was being spent correctly. The cost: At least $681,000. ... The schools will lose literacy coaches, training for teachers and money to buy reading materials. Thompson said the money was paying for programs that are out of step with the reading approach he wants used, called 'balanced literacy.' ... The shift to balanced literacy has not been without controversy. Former Lewis Lemon Principal Tiffany Parker resisted the move away from 'direct instruction,' a scripted phonics program that Parker said led her school's third-grade students to some of the district's top test scores in 2003.

Other Views of Rockford

  • Chronicles of the Rockford Rockheads: The incomparable Dr. Martin Kozloff, a.k.a. Professor Plum, recaps the Rockford reading massacre. The opening gives a flavor: "As far as serious science is concerned, whole language (aka balanced literacy) is as dead as a slab of hallibut. However, fudge-brained whole language cultists (necrophiliacs )keep the corpse standing through periodic voodoo-like rituals, called conferences. Rockford, Illinois, is a case in point. Despite (maybe because of) the effectiveness of direct instruction reading programs in schools 'serving' disadvantaged kids, the new Rockhead superintendent and his director of reading decided to get rid of DI and replace it with whole language. This is akin to someone replacing an effective life preserver with a slice of cheese. It makes no sense unless you're nuts."

    Realtors to the Rescue -- Almost
    In August 2006, the Rockford Area Association of Realtors recognized that having better schools improves property values, and backed that up with a $30,000 grant! And how are the Rockford Realtors planning to spend their money?
             By funding efforts to bring charter schools to Rockford? Nope.
             Giving seed money to schools adopting rigorous phonics and math programs? No again.
             Lobbying for a school choice pilot program, as has been so successful in Milwaukee? Uh-uh.
             Starting a full investigation into the Rockford Reading Disaster? No-sir-ee.
    So, how do the Rockford Realtors think they can help education? By giving the whole $30,000 to a political group working for a tax-hike referendum to raise more money for the same old failed bureaucracy!

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