Playing the School Game without Sacrificing our Star Players

By Mary Howard

I always feel like I should start with a warning when I’m about to launch into a long angst-filled passionate pondering-rant – so consider yourself warned. These wonderings on paper are entirely selfish on my part as it’s my form of therapy and much cheaper than the real deal. I’ve talked about this topic on many occasions, but it seems to warrant repeated discussion since it’s having an increasingly negative impact on this profession.

Over the past year, as I have worked in schools from one side of the country to the other I have personally witnessed the tragic recipients of poor decision-making by those who don’t even seem aware of the negative impact they’re putting into motion. What motivates me to keep writing about this is that the situation is growing worse and it’s not an issue in one school one district or one state but many schools, districts and states. In fact, it’s become so pervasive that it is impacting educators everywhere and my view from outside-in as a literacy consultant allows me to witness the sad aftermath of these failed efforts.

Before I begin, I want to share the brilliant words of someone I have admired for many years since the immense wisdom of others inspires and fuels me when my energy and patience wanes. Here, Billie Askew reflects on Marie Clay’s work:
“When teachers address individual differences, children will take different paths to similar outcomes. Rather than a map of sequence through which children should pass, the crucial factor is the body of knowledge in the heads of teachers that guides their interactions with students.”Billie J. Askew, 2012 (page 18)

Well folks those waters have reached a level of “turbulence” the likes of which we have never seen in education. Actually, that’s not entirely true since scripted programs were a thing even when I began teaching in 1972. But then that sad little history doesn’t hold a candle to the situation we now face since it was long before we knew better. That’s what makes the professional crossroads we find ourselves standing before so scary. Now we know better but we’re doing it anyway. I find it alarming that in spite of the gift of decades of rich research support that goes against the grain of these highly scripted one-size-fits-all programs, we still can’t seem to let go. Our renewed obsession with programs

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.23.04 AM
Peter Forster on Unsplash

is at a staggering all-time financial high (millions when it’s district wide) with epic proportions of stupidity that seems to be growing as I type these words. I use the word stupidity because I see no intelligent decision-making in blindly trusting companies led by snake oil salesmen as we are slowly sacrificing the literacy lives of children and the professional lives of teachers. Quite frankly, I am increasingly frustrated by the impact I see in our schools as we leave our most dedicated teachers helplessly littered across a tragic trail of forced rigid compliance where professional judgement has no place. It seems as if schools want these teachers to forget everything they know about good teaching and instead trust someone to take the lead who doesn’t know their children, and in many cases doesn’t even have a foundation of literacy knowledge. There is no professional wisdom in making our teachers the sacrificial lamb of others.

Every day there a new “magic bullet program” that has somehow made its way into our schools. I can’t open my computer without seeing or hearing about a new one and my inbox is full of the name of programs shared by frustrated educators who want to put the brakes on this travesty of awful. I think that at least in part this highly suspect STUFF is feeding our deep love of glowing adjectives, phrases or descriptors that accompany the program and give us a false sense of hope with words like:

empowered, student-centered, standards based, formative assessment, kids at the center, holistic, learner friendly, research based, best practices, high-quality, authentic, rigorous, gradual release of responsibility model, integrated, balanced approach, workshop model, responsive, scaffolded differentiation, forward-thinking, framework, foundational, comprehensive, aligned, challenging, meaningful, purposeful

Who could argue with those pretty awesome terms, right? Yet, when those terms are attached to these rigid programs, they transform into shallow promises that demean the instructional process and elevate the underlying financial agenda that motivated them in the first place. These awesome words are used to spout marketing claims in showy websites with colorful slideshow presentations by nicely dressed people with a dramatic flair. How could we possibly resist the emotional battle cry of “We can save you’? Couple that with a website filled with really awesome quotes we love and photos of awesome smiling children who went from sad passive tormented to joyful engaged successful because someone had the wisdom to buy this awesome program. Oh, and you’ve got to love the awesome sad-to-happy teachers standing beside newly happy children celebrating this magical transformation with an all-is-right-with-my-teaching-world smile brought to you by this totally awesome company. If you detect a facetious tone in my words, you would be accurate.

But the scariest part of all is not the clever marketing frenzy filled with empty promises since legally they have the right to spread one-size-fits-all lies. My growing sense of utter frustration is not that these things are out there. No, I’m astonished, confounded confused and a little depressed that we’re buying their brazen dribble (metaphorically and literally). How is it that we are allowing ourselves to be duped into reaching for the checkbook without even thinking about the long-term implications? Do we even care about the impact it’s having on teachers and kids? And I’m not talking about teachers who are begging for those boxes in the first place, since complacency and lack of professional ownership is a whole other issue. I’m also not talking about new teachers who need a resource, although I’d argue that an awful resource is an ill-conceived Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.25.27 AMprofessional model. I’m talking about teachers who are begging NOT to have those boxes or at the very least to have the right to use them as a resource or even (shock warning) not use them at all. Do you know how many brilliant, amazing and dedicated teachers we have in this country? Well I do but clearly those who are force feeding them boxed programs and then tethering them to someone else’s agenda surely don’t. And again, I’m well aware that there are teachers who either don’t want to do the work or truly need a reference to support their efforts. But why are we punishing every teacher by pushing these programs on those who don’t need a teacher’s guide to tell them what to say and do? I hate to tell you this astonishing news, but many teachers know what to say and do and they can do it far better than these boxes ever could. The box obviously doesn’t know the research that we hold dear and knowing this would make us walk the other way. Worse, the box doesn’t know the kids the iffy box is purportedly for. Teaching without agenda-driven research or knowledge of children isn’t teaching at all. And following a script is as far removed from student-learning teaching as one can get.

For the past year (well actually, for decades, but it’s worse now) I go into districts all over the country where I am personally witnessing the frustration and unhappiness that is putting the very professionalism of our teachers at stake. I sadly watching as teacher agency is being ripped from the hands of those who stand helplessly in the wake of irresponsible mandates. Yes, I go to schools who are now suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse in the aftermath of the failure of these quick fixes. I could have told you that would happen if you’d asked. I can’t help but wonder why we don’t adopt a Buyer Beware mentality before we write that check in the first place? And even if we didn’t, why are we more worried about the loss of money when we abandon these failed experiments than we are about the loss of professionalism. “But we spent a lot of money on this” isn’t an excuse, but a reminder that we should be more careful about the money we spend in the first place. I mean really, are we that desperate for fast results and so deluded into thinking that there’s such a thing as fast results? Do we truly have so little faith in our teachers? Are we that unwilling to admit that we’re wrong and do whatever it takes to right that wrong?

Adding to my sense of astonished, confounded confused and a little depressed state over the massive dollars we have squandered is that we could have spent those dollars in ways that would be worthy of our teachers and kids and actually have a positive impact. Just imagine the high-quality books, literacy coaches and ongoing professional learning that would have been possible with that money. I’m sorry, folks, but we don’t have a money issue; we have a common-sense issue and it’s hurting our schools and demeaning this profession. We are reducing the work that I have spent nearly five decades engaged in to understand to something that requires literally no thinking. In fact, much of it requires us to abandon everything that we’ve spent our careers reading, thinking, pondering, growing, and researching in the name of kids. In the process, we’re turning this profession into a grab and go mentality. To make matters worse, we are putting texts in front of kids that are robbing them of the joy that should accompany the learning process and cheating teachers of the immense joy that comes from responsive teaching with kids (not boxes) at the center of those efforts. At what point did we alleviate our commitment to teachers and children and hand it over to publishers?

So, what do we do? Well, for starters, we recognize that we are being duped before they have a chance to dupe us. We quit foolishly writing checks just because we believe in the educational version of the tooth fairy. We invite teachers to the thinking and discussion table and stop disrespecting them as incapable decision-makers. We opt to trust professional knowledge grounded in years of growing understanding over shallow marketing ploys. We refuse to get stuck in the muck and mire of the marketing mess surrounding us and look in the professional mirror. We insist on making professional learning a priority and stop allowing any teacher to opt for thoughtless teaching over professional wisdom. We support the knowledge-fueled efforts of teachers across the learning year and engage them in real conversations about their student-centered work. We question every penny we spend before we even think about spending it. We take the checkbook away from those who don’t know the first thing about literacy research. We make professional reading and learning the heartbeat of our schools and make room in every single day to celebrate it in the company of others. We look beyond glowing adjectives of marketeers and see the business at work;  we refuse to fill their pockets at the expense of our values. We stand up. We speak up. We rise up.
The stakes are high, folks, because we are holding the professional lives of our teachers and the learning lives of our children in our hands. I see what happens when we refuse to do these things and I can’t help but wonder why we all don’t all see what’s happening right in front of our eyes. I believe our silence is destroying, not lifting up this profession. We are relegating kids to mind numbing scripted cookie-cutter programs and then sending kids who need the most off to the fix-it-room to undo the damage of those mind numbing scripted cookie-cutter programs. We are trading children with teachers who don’t even know or care about them rather than taking responsibility for them ourselves. We are relinquishing responsibility for intervention from the classroom teacher and sending them to scripted intervention prison with little chance of escape. We are allowing levels, tests scores and labels to define our kids (and our teachers) and then relegating children to the book bins that fit the label we ask them to wear across their foreheads. We are celebrating rising scores of stupid tests based on stupid programs that are always going to rise when you pay homage to stupid and then test stupid. What exactly are we celebrating when this is a pure and simple sellout?
And for the record, I’m not just talking about basal programs. I’m talking about programs like Accelerated Reader and the old wine in new bottle clones that are reducing our readers to meaningless numbers more relevant than the hearts and minds of readers free to choose what they read. I’m talking about Teachers Pay Teachers scripts that are turning beautiful books into mindless activities with 100+ pages riddles with a task master mentality. I’m talking about the myriad of ‘cutesy’ that we bring into our teaching that usurp the time that could be spent in far more purposeful ways. It’s not just the foolish expenditure of dollars that is harming us all, but an even more foolish and dangerous expenditure of TIME. We need to value every second we are blessed to have children in our care. These things do not honor children – they honor THINGS.
SO let me repeat Billie Askew’s brilliant message once again:

“…Rather than a map of sequence through which children should pass, the crucial factor is the body of knowledge in the heads of teachers that guides their interactions with students.”

Thanks to the plethora of marketing ploys and snake oil salesmen desperate for our money, we are so busy filling our schools with programs, packages, quick fixes and magic bullets that we forgot to ‘fill the heads of our teachers with the body of knowledge’ that would make those programs null and void and help us realize just how stupid many of their suggestions are. We are mandating teachers to do the bidding of the program rather than to draw from their knowledge in true responsive teaching that is impossible within a dictatorial process. Calling the program “research-based” or any other lovely descriptor does NOT make it so. It just makes both of us look foolish; marketers for creating these programs and educational suckers for investing in them. We aren’t just wasting our money. We are telling teachers that their knowledge is irrelevant. Here’s a thought: if you want to pollute your school with one-size-fits-all garbage, fire all the teachers who could actually make a difference and hire a school full of non-educators who don’t know diddly-doo-doo about effective student-centered teaching. Because the results would be the same but at least we wouldn’t be hurting educators who are wise enough to know that. Or better yet, quit searching for instructional nirvana and turn your attention to the only nirvana I know – teachers who know kids and literacy. I’d put my money on them any day.
I see teachers trying to play the program game and either deluding themselves into thinking they’re doing the right thing or drowning, trying to find the teacher they want to be. Why would we ever put teachers in a position where they must choose between their dedication to professional ownership and other-driven obligatory compliance? For that matter, why would we even think that other-driven obligatory compliance is a worthy goal? If schools and districts want to waste money on these programs, I can’t stop them, but please don’t take teachers down with you who actually know what they’re doing and want to do it. Give them the option to put the program aside. Don’t ask our star players (knowledgeable teachers) to choose between the rules of the game and the deep-rooted commitment to their beliefs and values that were the guiding force of their efforts long before marketing came along. And for heaven’s sake, stop subjecting our youngest players (our kids) to curriculum that treats them as if they are one-size-fits-all when nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t force feed our children too-hard joyless texts they couldn’t care anything about. Because if I feel like vomiting when I read these contrived fake texts riddled with a marketing agenda, then why would you think that kids wouldn’t feel the same? We are beating the joyful learning that our children and teachers deserve to death with a stick and I fear we may never again resurrect the sense of excitement that comes from meaningful, purposeful, relevant, responsive teaching in the hands of a teacher who knows literacy research and kids and wants to do the right thing in their honor. Boxes aren’t the right thing my friends – filling our teachers heads with knowledge and hearts with our faith in them is.

Can someone please explain this to me because I’m baffled and exhausted watching the impact these programs are having on our schools, our teachers, and our kids? And frankly, I’m not sure this profession can withstand another year of the tragic aftermath of program-fueled professional sameness.

Dr. Mary Howard is the author of several books and co-host of the Good 2 Great (#G2Great) weekly Twitter chat. Find her on Twitter at @DrMaryHoward.


Billie J. Askew (Fall 2012). A Standard Boat in Turbulent Waters. Journal of Reading Recovery, 12 (1), page 17- 25)

Author: CCIRAblog

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2 thoughts on “Playing the School Game without Sacrificing our Star Players”

  1. Thank you for this outstanding article! I completely agree that teachers are the last ones to be consulted on what’s best for students, when they are the ones who know EXACTLY what their students need.


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