Monday, November 13, 2006

Open Court

An article written by Paul Beston and published this weekend in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye because it featured a company called Open Court in Peru Illinois. Founded in 1962 by friends of mine, Blouke Carus and his wife Marianne and a small band of dedicated educational theorists and consultants, they created innovative materials with the goal of educating the American masses as rigorously as the elites of Europe. The vision of Open Court was to break down “the false dichotomy between rationalist’s emphasis on skills (particularly phonics) and the progressive insight that different children learned differently, the company managed to attract opposition from both sides. But the most vigorous objections came from the progressive advocates of Whole Language. This theory rejected specific skill instruction in favor of “meaningful contexts” for reading. Some of its practitoners believed that reading could be learned as easily as talking: others feared that a systematic focus on skills was akin to cultural and economic oppression. Open Court argued that depriving children of such skills was the true act of oppression in a society where the boundaries of opportunity were drawn mostly by ignorance.

There is a book on the subject titled “Let’s Kill Dick and Jane” by Harold Henderson. Henderson says it was the anti-intellectual rigidity of the educational establishment which continually resisted the research-based methods that Open Court employed. The effectiveness of Open Court’s pedagogy, to the extent that it was measured, indicated that Blouke and Marianne Carus knew what they were doing. The overt resistance of professional educators lessened somewhat over time, only to take on more subtle forms. Even when the educational system seemed to respond to cries for reform, as in California in the 1980’s – where Open Court materials were found to be the only one’s that met the state’s promising new standards – bureaucracy and the status quo untimely prevailed.

But the question of what might have been lingers. For all the challenges the company faced, perhaps the most insurmountable was securing the commitment of the teachers: they were often too deeply attached to their established routines, which were less demanding than was Open Court was asking of them.

Their resistance, Mr. Henderson stresses, was caused more by inertia than ideology: They (the teacher) have all the spirit and excitement of baked halibut. Contrast this dull conformity with the passion of Open Court who states “that if you teach a child to read, you never have to do another right thing in your life.”

And there in lies the fundamental dilemma. In the U.S. such dedication is more typically associated with those who work in business of the more lucrative professions. Despite decades of reforms, an unanswered question hangs over the education debate: how to find enough spirited and gifted, people to do vital work that does not pay especially well (better than some think with all the benefits) and has none of the glamour bestowed by success in the private sector.

The American education culture, Mr. Henderson concludes, “can assume a veneer of progressivism or traditionalism as the times dictate, but its routines lie deeper than ideology. Many can testify to the truth of those words."

Open Court was eventually worn down and was sold to McGraw-Hill in 1996 which has doubled the sales of its materials. But the phrase “See a good idea. See it run into trouble” is well described in the book “Let’s Kill Dick and Jane”.

Much of this article can be attributed to Mr. Paul Beston, a writer living in Beacon, N.Y.

Today I and 19 others were invited to a parochial school to be interviewed by kids asking us what they needed to do to be successes as the group of us was described. They did the questioning but when it was my turn, I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Then I asked them if they liked to read. The lead boy said he loved to read and wanted to become “an engineer”. I suspect his enthusiasm and love of reading will take him most anywhere he wants to go and be what he eventually decided he will be. The 2nd boy said he wanted to be a veterinarian and I asked him what he thought a veterinarian did. He answered that they worked with animals and sometimes they had to kill the animals that were in too bad of a shape to heal. I told him that doctors had to be good readers to read medical journals to make decisions like that and that he would have to be familiar with all the diseases related to animals and to be able to find and read the information required.. He agreed he had better learn to like reading. The third boy said he hated reading and had no idea what he wanted to do. He did agree that in order to someday make a living and possible support a family that he would need to develop some skills and maybe he had better learn to like reading as the lack of the ability to read would most likely be an obstacle to prevent him from succeeding.

There is something wrong with a system of which approximately only 50% of the kids really like to read. Part of the problem is described in this article and in the book. I suggest all in education and parents, whose kids are having trouble reading, take the time to read or visit a language class to see how and what the teachers are teaching your kids.

I look forward to be invited back to be “interviewed” by more kids in grade school. Kids can learn from volunteers with enthusiasm who are also willing to listen and share.

I have been invited by three schools to be a reader. I’ll soon be taking them up on this offer. I have done so at Northmoor; a school with an enthusiastic principal, Nicole Wood and with many excitement creating teachers like Michelle Kneer and Tracey Kupper.

I have written at least a dozen blogs covering many aspects of education and what needs to be done to increase the many successes that come from the private and public school systems in our county. You may benefit to scroll back to many of them including “School Daze” or “In Defense of Elitism”. (4/25/05)

I am a strong supporter of competition to the union dominated public school system and still remain a strong supporter of WELL RUN public schools. Well run schools with strong and knowledgeable boards, hire the best teachers available, the best administrators and promote the best principals and fire the poor teachers before they become entrenched in tenure.


Anonymous said...

I can fully agree with the premise that enthusiatic, dedicated teachers that want to see children learn to read are a real boon to society. But (there's always a "but") where is the parent--why do we always assume the schools are the only source of
"education" for the child. Parents should be reading to their children at a very early age--well before they eve cross a schoolhouse threshold. Parents should be the ones to instill a love of books and reading in their children--parents who are avid readers themselves can easily pass along the love of reading just by example. Of course, good reading skills are a great objective for our schools--but let's not overlook the parent's role. .. .

Merle Widmer said...

I've never overlooked the parents responsibility. Unfortunatly many of the (parents) have. Suggest people reading me who have logged on my site recently, go back into my archives and read the dozen or so articles I have written about our schools systems and solutions to some of the problems; many solutions being executed under severe conditions right here in #150.

Norma said...

There are some people, who, no matter how good the teachers, or how helpful and strong the parent, will never enjoy reading. I raised one.