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The 'Lazy Lucy' controversy is about more than some really terrible books

Reading Horizons' Discovery Little Books
Courtesy of Reading Horizons
A selection of Reading Horizons' Discovery Little Books shown on their website.

Have you been paying attention to the scandal about the “Little Books” whipping through Minneapolis Public Schools?

Seems the district spent $1.2 million on an early literacy curriculum that included gems like “Lazy Lucy,” about an African girl who struggles to keep her hut clean and “Nieko, the Hunting Girl,” in which an American Indian and her father stalk a wooly mammoth. Then there's the volume about Kenya, where people “are able to run very fast.”

All are illustrated with crude, grossly unfortunate cartoons — by a textbook publisher whose executives’ internet "core values" statements until this week extolled the religious beliefs they bring to their work.

It’s a guano-show of the first order. And every time MPS leaders touch it, another layer of the onion falls away revealing fresh indignities.

To wit: Wednesday morning, while the community was trying to recover from a nearly seven-hour school board meeting the night before that was — shades of angry eras past — brought to a complete standstill by the legendarily loud and profane community activist Al Flowers, the Salt Lake City Tribune weighed in

Among the debates that kept the board in session until well past 11:00 p.m. was whether the book controversy — revealed in late August in the blog brightlightssmallcity.com — might serve as an object lesson for the Utah-based publisher, which MPS brass insisted was in overdrive trying to clean up its act.

Yet in taking note of the controversy, the Salt Lake City paper quoted a representative of the curriculum vendor who managed to suggest the issue was people’s perceptions. “Reading Horizons' implementation coordinator Laura Axtell said the focus on these titles — there are 54 in the ‘Little Books’ series — ignores the context of how they're intended to be used,” the paper reported. “‘Lazy Lucy,’ for example, takes place in the safari unit, she said.”

Oh well, then: the safari unit. That changes everything. Maybe Lucy is too lazy to clean her hut because a safari where, fast runner or not, hunting for an animal that’s long extinct must just go on and on.

How many people had to not find those stories objectionable between conceptualization and publication? Reading Horizons told the Salt Lake City paper they were focused on making the words decodable. 

I have some observations about this chapter, beyond that it is possible to decode words that affirm children’s identities.

The battle below the surface

First and foremost, this is the most inflammatory skirmish in a proxy war that’s being waged about the strategic direction the district needs to take. 

The battle simmering below the surface concerns whether Interim Superintendent Michael Goar will be made permanent and whether MPS, as a hidebound bureaucracy, can be led through dramatic change.

In July 2014, the Boston-based District Management Council delivered a blistering audit of MPS’ special ed services that said that the district was failing miserably at the very basic task of failing to teach all of its K-3 students, learning disordered or not, to read. 

Less than one-fourth of black, Latino and American Indian students can read — a number that hasn’t ticked up in meaningful terms in the decade since reform became the clarion call.

Amid this all it’s been widely acknowledged that the district’s reading curriculum lacks basic and vitally needed elements. Incredible though it sounds, that has not been in dispute.

(Believe it or not, there is a raging controversy in education circles about how to teach reading, with many traditionally trained elementary teachers — who are generalists, let’s recall — learning and practicing some version of “whole language,” a theory that exposing kids to great works will propel them to literacy. Schools that get outsized gains with kids who do not come to school flush with the enriching experiences that prepare a child for kindergarten add more, however. I have been to conferences and other events where “whole language” advocates pound on this “direct instruction” and I am here to tell you it’s Huns and Goths.)

Alas, the audit was tendered onto a district in total chaos. Failed efforts to convince staff that big changes in teaching practice would make a crucial difference were stacked up like so much cordwood. Promising initiatives bubbled up only to languish in the central office. 

Reorganizing HQ and trimming the equivalent of 180 jobs was the first order of business for interim Superintendent Michael Goar when he took the reins in February of this year. 

In the spring, the district asked 60 teachers to preview several early literacy curricula, including Reading Horizons — sans the “Little Books.” The group chose the curriculum. Several showed up at the Tuesday meeting to say it was working and, provided the offensive parts are shipped back to Utah, should be kept. 

Doubtless it was the job of someone to actually review every page of the new material. MPS leaders haven’t named names, but have said that the staffing shift was one reason the vetting wasn’t thorough. 

If you read through the comments on the MPS Facebook page and elsewhere, though, it’s clear that in addition to outrage over “Lazy Lucy” there is festering anger over the reorganization, and even over the very notion that a better approach to literacy is needed.

Goar has recently described MPS administrators as resistant to change. They feel free to ignore his strategies because they believe—and not without reason—they will outlast him.

What will Goar do?

In terms of getting a curriculum purchased, delivered and dissected, a spring-to-fall timeline is audacious. When the “Little Books” showed up at a training where teachers objected, there were just three weeks until the start of school.

Whereas school board meetings used to feature board members fighting, albeit in code, about the teachers contract, now they feature board members fighting in code about Goar. And Tuesday’s was a barn-burner in that regard. 

Several board members wanted Reading Horizons gone altogether. Others expressed concerns about another year — and another cohort of kids — without a sound reading curriculum. 

So, you’re Michael Goar. What do you do? Quit explaining and eat the $1.2 million? Would this be interpreted as a bold and meaningful decision to stand with students and teachers who deserve better than “Lazy Lucy”? Or would it be seen as backtracking by a cornered leader? 

Could you somehow find the magic elixir that would make Reading Horizons, minus the “Little Books,” palatable? Would you trust your resistant staff will campaign for the effectiveness of the approach?

Either way, you can bet your bottom dollar this is not the last we've heard about this.

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Comments (26)

Another Question

Perhaps I'm naive about how these things work, but couldn't MPS have hired some of its own teachers--you know, the people who actually work with the kids in the District--or retired teachers to develop a reading curriculum (let me hasten to say I would not suggest they do this as a part of their regular job, but would be something they would be compensated for separately)? I would hazard a guess that the price could have been less than $1.2 million.

I suspect that the reason this was not considered is that we are making a religion out of privatization, and have concluded that the private sector must necessarily do a better job than any old public (sneer!) school teachers could do. With money for well-intentioned projects floating around, it is inevitable that there will be marginal operators doing whatever they can to get their share.

MDE reading statistics

Just as an aside, Minnesota Department of Education statistics do not say that less than 25% of black students can read. They say that less than one fourth of black students can read at the proficiency cutoff score. That's not a small difference. Also, MDE combines as black all students who are black whether they are native English speakers or not. So for example if a District has 1000 students who are in the ELL program for one year, they are required to take the MCA-III reading test, which is designed for native speakers. Six thousand black Minneapolis students took the MCA-III last year and 21 percent of them scored proficient. That's 12 percentage points lower than the state average.

1369 of the students called black by MDE are actually English Language learners who happen to be black. They scored (not surprisingly) below 10 percent of the students proficient. But Minnesota averages their scores into the African American scores which depresses the overall comparison. ELL students, by national consensus, should not be aggregated with non ELL students; nor should they be even taking the same tests. We should be measuring their performance with the Access test, which measures progress towards fluency. In two years, the percentage of ELL black students taking the MCA - IIII reading in Minneapolis increased by 30 percent. Their proficiency rate dropped from 13 percent to 9 percent, and that could well be because the number of first year readers taking the test is higher.

So now, as you are making these comparisons, basically you are using the garbage statistics that the State produces. In Minnesota, we aggregate all black students, whether they can barely speak English or they are native speakers, and pretend that these statistics mean something. Also, the state aggregates special education students into the statistics and FreeReduced Lunch students. Both groups have proficiency rates, white and black, 20 to 30 percentage points lower, and so if the subject group has way more of these students, or a growing percentage, use of these statistics for comparison is total garbage.

Good points

Heaven forbid the media make this kind of analysis. I want to know what's going on. If these stats are part of the story, lazy reporting isn't acceptable. If, however, it's about brain dead adults who bought something they didn't bother to look at because 'Murica, then the stats are just a talking point that the reporter wants to cite for personal reasons.

Cogent comments from Jerry

Cogent comments from Jerry Von Korff. I do feel there are plenty of qualified local people to write stories to accompany this curriculum and also that the failure to sample and examine the company's stories cannot be explained away so easily. Having said that, this may well be a powerful approach to reading instruction and is being so recommended. We probably shouldn't throw out the baby with the muddy bath water at this point.

Not babies in bath water

The key in the precious comment is "may well be." There has bee a curious lack of research cited to support this program.

Also, the fact of the matter is that by using a curriculum from this company, we are basically satin that ends justify the means - we can pay a ton of cash to a company that produces racists, sexist, and classist materials in the pursuit of student achievement. We at MPS are better than that.

I'm not part of the "we at

I'm not part of the "we at MPS" but a Minneapolis taxpayer. I find it outrageous that administrators at MPS didn't read the full set of materials before opting to "buy" this private company's reading materials. Why weren't all those in the line of responsibility for this fired for incompetency or malfeasance?

Does anyone think that in the private business world a mistake of this order would not lead to firing?

It sounds like two issues are

It sounds like two issues are being jumbled together -- political wrangling within the district (especially regarding the position of superintendent) and the many questions surrounding the purchase of a reading program that includes terrible content. I would like to know more about Michael Goar's position on the important social and instructional issues surrounding the Minneapolis Public Schools so that I can form a well-reasoned opinion as to whether I would like him to continue in this position, long term. Also, as a former MPS employee (teacher) and a community member, I see the current trend toward short-term superintendents as extremely detrimental to the district. It's true, those who have no interest in modernizing their methods are not going to change when they know the "new guy" will be out in a matter of months, or even in a year or two. Now, about those books... It is difficult to find early reading materials that have any sort of solid research (not in-house "studies") verifying their efficacy. I checked the "What Works" Clearinghouse and was dismayed by how little information was available. We need better ways to vet materials. (Does the district look for quality research on the curricula they evaluate? Do they consult with other districts that have used the materials under review? Do they look to districts or schools that are successfully teaching all children to read?) The Reading Horizon materials never should have been purchased without thorough review of ALL components and ALL aspects of the product. Minneapolis should never purchase materials that fail to include all people or that fail to treat all people respectfully in text, pictures, interactives, etc. I find it difficult to believe that the rest of the Reading Horizons curriculum is "just fine" when their Little Books were so objectionable. The district needs to cut ties with Reading Horizons, get as much of a refund as possible, and go in a different direction FAST. (What about the "runner-up" curriculum in the review process? Is it a viable option? Can it be re-reviewed quickly and efficiently?) Good teachers can certainly write some curriculum -- good teachers do it all the time for their personal use with their students. But it takes very different skills to develop a complete, multi-grade curriculum with excellent curriculum materials than to teach said curriculum. Great teachers do not necessarily make good curriculum developers any more than great curriculum developers would make good teachers.

Yeah, something has failed

"the district was failing miserably at the very basic task of failing to teach all of its K-3 students"...

And MPS is not the only one neglecting to review its work.

If Minneapolis, where else?

Well, this says a lot about what slips through when and if a school board and its attendant committees; when adults, teachers, board members make grossly unacceptable bad decisions... even if the prime decision makers of this literacy-challenged and constitutionally challenged group ignored or were carelessly ignorant on the issue of separation of church and state...yes, this is pretty scary and questions and possibly downsizes the credibility of school board decision makers everywhere?

The only actions that should follow is an investigation of this book publisher and how many contracts have they implemented in other public school systems; by bypassing constitutional law that supports the separation of church and state?

This is no 'small potato'...a bushel will kill us; the constitutional credibility of equal justice, equal educational opportunity free of patronizing bias and ignorance those cheap, foul and illiterate 'books' support...patronizing a portion of our citizens in the process...

The Think System

Remember that old musical "The Music Man", when Harold Hill would go from town to town, selling his newfangled, ultra-modern method of teaching kids music and would make the leaders of the town go all starry-eyed with pretty sales pitches, all while draining their purses dry? In all honesty, I think that's what happened here. It used to be that most school curricula was published and produced by University presses, tied to the research being done in their schools of education. That doesn't happen anymore. Education has become corporatized, and the market is swamped with substandard products, pitched by Harold Hill types, who use glossy hand-outs and slick phrases and real-sounding "research" to sell to desperate school districts who are told that change - any kind of change - is good, and who don't have time to do the studious, sober, painstaking vetting themselves. Companies like Pearson, with their swimming pools of cash, have taught us that there is a lot of money to be made in education. A heck of a lot. And you don't need to make good products to do it. (To be fair, I have seen a total of three very excellent materials from Pearson. The rest have been crap. And yet, when I attended the last International Literacy Association Convention to receive an award, Pearson - all on its own - took up nearly half of the entire Convention floor. There's a lot of money to be made, apparently, in hocking substandard materials. I don't fault Reading Horizons for wanting to be another Pearson. People want to make money. I'm just upset with the Minneapolis Public Schools for not seeing through the salesman's facade. They should know better.

I'm also pretty frustrated with the general trend toward scripted, "direct instruction"- style curriculum acquisition, to the exclusion of a more broad, student- centered, literature based approach. These curriculum systems are VERY expensive, and are sold with a lot of references to "studies" that, on closer inspection, are actually done with very small research groups. My child's highly-touted charter school switched to a direct-instruction reading program for its younger grades, and saw its scores plummet after four years. It's been a disaster for us. A very expensive disaster. Kids need great books. They also need patient, child-centered instruction on the fundamentals of text and language. Direct instruction does not do either of those things, because it is not the teacher teaching - it's just the script, written by someone who does not know those children. Reading Horizon's sales pitch that their curriculum is "So scripted, even a janitor could teach it!" is not only offensive to both teachers and janitors, it's also an indication that the entire approach is lousy. MPS should be ashamed of itself.

Offensive

Could anyone point me to an image or copy of the supposedly offensive books??? I'm having a hard time finding offense in the descriptions above. The "run very fast" part seems to be the only one that is racially stereotyped, and is not a negative stereotype. Is it the poor illustration? I'd like to see it.

Well, first of all, Kenya -

Well, first of all, Kenya - where the "Lazy Lucy" book supposedly takes place - is a massive country with bustling cities, universities, diverse agriculture and manufacturing, thriving tourism, and, according to a journalist friend of mine who recently spent two months there, better cellphone reception in remote areas than he can get in downtown Minneapolis. To depict Kenyans as hut-dwelling lazy people to a bunch of very impressionable children - many of whom were born in Kenyan refugee camps before moving here with their families - is frankly offensive. Even more offensive, though, is the story about "Neko the Hunting Girl" which portrays a quasi-Native-American girl (nation unknown), going out with her father to hunt . . . a wooly mammoth. Which are extinct. So what is that book saying, exactly?

And honestly, as someone who works in children's publishing, what is most offensive to me is the low art quality and the laughably bad text that the district decided to pay such exorbitant fees for. There is NO EXCUSE to pay that kind of money for that low quality. Add to the fact that there is zero research indicating that this program is at all effective shows that the district thinks nothing of paying massive amounts of taxpayer money for substandard products. And that is the most offensive of all.

WCCO's John Williams

has discussed this issue at length. And I think he's got it right. The hysteria over this is ridiculous.

Neko, the Hunting Girl is a story from pre-history, so yes, there are Wooly Mammoths. Context is everything, and unless we know and understand the whole reading program, why are we getting hysterical about it?

Are you saying...

Are you saying:
#1 "Lazy Lucy" is about all Kenyans? And no place in Kenya has huts where villagers dwell? Because I'm pretty sure that not all of Kenya is Nairobi any more than all of Minnesota is the Twin Cities. And there are various tribes of peoples whose homes are often made of grass and/or mud--you might even call them huts. Are we supposed to ignore those people for the benefit of children who have lived in refugee camps so that they might believe Kenya is an urban center of the world rather than the mix of rural and urban, and amazing cultural diversity, it actually is? Are we to assume that kids don't know the difference between an individual and an entire group of people? Because that just seems to be the basis for stereotype and racism.

#2 Kids can't be taught about prehistoric times because those times didn't occur in the 21st century? It's somehow offensive that someone, somewhere, back in the days of the woolly mammoth was taught to hunt mammoths by their father? What's the offensive part? That the character is a girl? That the character is "quasi-Native-American"? Just WHO hunted woolly mammoths, anyway??? Or is the offensive part that main character had the misfortune not to be born in the modern age where she should be taught to use her cell phone by her father instead of bonding over a hunt?

#3 Kids care about the quality of the images they're shown? Egad, I had a terrible childhood, growing up on poorly drawn roadrunners (which aren't purple and blue in real life, by the way) and other cartoons. By that standard, we should cover childrens' eyes whenever there's a Picasso in the room. Kids like simple and bright images. It keeps them engaged. Kids become more complex over time, and words, stories, and *gasp* artwork should reflect that if we're going to keep them interested in learning.

#4 A million dollars, excuse me, $1.2 million dollars, is an exorbitant fee for an entire reading curriculum with materials. Look, a million dollars is a lot of money, but is it too much for a teaching curriculum for an entire school district? I really can't get over hearing Dr. Evil's voice demanding a ridiculously low ransom for not destroying the world because he's been in stasis for 3 decades.

There might be an issue here, but I can't find it without the ability to see these "really terrible books." Maybe the issue is in the curriculum, but that's barely touched upon in this article. Actually, on rereading the article, I'm not sure if Ms. Hawkins is being serious or if this is one giant sarcastic article.

#3: You seem to mistake my

#3: You seem to mistake my meaning - possibly intentionally. I would encourage you to go to the library and get a stack of picture books that have won the Caldecott Medal in the last two decades to see what I mean about what "high quality" looks like. And I'm not sure why you're bringing up Picasso. That seems a bit out of nowhere. Kids need great books. They need a lot of great books. They need books that are well written and well constructed and well designed. They need books that teach, books that explain, books that inspire. And they need books that can help them learn to read. The "Little Books" do none of those things. They were a waste of taxpayer money.

#4 Maybe you're missing a word there? If you are saying "1.2 million dollars is an exorbitant fee", then we agree. The rest of your paragraph seems to be saying that you believe the opposite, and perhaps you forgot to write "not". In any case, whether it's 1.2 million dollars or just 1.2 dollars, the fact is that the MPS used taxpayer dollars to buy a curriculum that supposedly had research to back it up, BUT NO SUCH RESEARCH EXISTS. They believed a sales pitch and did not do their homework. So what they bought was a bill of goods. Forget the fact that the books are poorly written (because they are), or that they have crummy art (which they do) or the fact that they have cultural and race-based biases (because they definitely do). And forget the fact that acknowledging the fact that sometimes books are racist clearly makes you uncomfortable (and, please realize that is a YOU problem, not an EVERYONE ELSE problem). Let's just focus on the fact that MPS spent a huge chunk of taxpayer change without doing their due diligence. They let themselves get hoodwinked by a salesman. And I think both of us can agree that there is a lot to be outraged about - just in that.

Mistake

#3 I didn't mistake your meaning intentionally, and I suspect I didn't mistake your meaning at all. I've been asking for images to make my own call--no one wanted to provide them. I finally found a few images. Have you seen the books in question? They're not poorly drawn. They're simply drawn. It's not fair to compare them to the Caldecott Medal books. The Caldecott Medal books are awarded the Caldecott for their pictures. They're picture book awards. That doesn't make all other books trash. This is about READING, not illustration. If they work, the only reward is the value of educating a child, which, in my humble opinion, is far more valuable than a shiny emblem on a book cover.

#4 I used a period and not a question mark. I was questioning your assumption and my lack of intended punctuation was...unintentional. I think we can both agree that typos happen, right? I disagree that the cost is exorbitant, unless, as you claim, the curriculum is ineffective. But then, to your point, I'm not sure there's research either way about the effectiveness of the curriculum. Of course, as an aside, I wonder who all would howl if the school district spent $1.2 million on that sort of research without actually getting a curriculum.

Summary: No, we both can't agree that there is a lot to be outraged about. That's my point--I see outrage, but the reason is not clear at all.

Second of all, the title.

There has been a long-standing stereotype that people of color are lazy. The title "Lazy Lucy" made me think of a 1930s Our Gang episode called "Lazy Days," in which the character was too lazy even to swat a fly. Whoever wrote these books has no sense of history or sense of place.

Are you one of the dozen people who have read the book?

If not, on what basis do you make your claim that the author has no sense of history or sense of place? Or perhaps you don't have the full context of the lesson within which the book is placed?

It's amazing the conclusions people jump to and the hysterics that people so easily fall into without taking the time to understand anything.

Is it racist...

Is it racist if Lazy Lucy is a white girl with red hair? Because I Googled "Lazy Lucy" because no one would actually show me the books in question. This is what I got:
https://www.google.com/search?q=lazy+lucy&espv=2&biw=1600&bih=775&source...

As a white woman with red hair, should I be offended?

Of course you should be offended.

That's what we do in America. We find offense and create hysteria over the smallest of things. It would be un-American of you to not be offended.

And then

Someone else snipes about the people who are offended, and diminishes and demeans the sensibilities of those other than themselves.

Sometimes

Sometimes that's ok. Many of the offended are offended simply for the purpose of being offended. Many others of the offended are offended for those who should supposedly be offended. Which of these things is laudable? I did finally come across some images of pages of a handful of these stories. The artwork is no more horrible than most of the artwork in other children's books, including the fair-skinned, red-haired Lazy Lucy that initially showed up in my Google search. Dora the Explorer, a fairly well-liked cartoon for children, is also simply drawn. The story telling is simplistic, as far as I can tell. Of course, children's books tend to be simplistic. "See Spot. See Spot run." The most offensive part I could find (and that's very little--I assume the most offensive parts are highlighted online, though...) was that one book generalized that all Kenyans can run fast, when the truth is that some Kenyans can run fast, and there is a tribe that takes great pride in their speed and stamina while running. So, more accurately, the book should have said, "Some Kenyans can run very fast."

So, I must admit that I find the craze over how offensive these books are quite ridiculous. The curriculum might be a different story, but maybe Beth should report on that rather than focusing on the rather far-fetched offensiveness of the actual books.

Wrong Lazy Lucy

Here is a link with a picture of the Lazy Lucy from the book. As you can see, that Lazy Lucy is black.

http://www.theroot.com/articles/news/2015/09/black_girl_called_lazy_lucy...

The point

The point is that Lazy Lucy isn't a stereotype. It's an alliteration. It appears that children named Lucy with difficulty managing what they should be doing come in more than one level of pigmentation. Lazy children also appear to come in lots of different species--there is a Berenstain Bears book about not doing chores (the same topic that the "truly terrible" Lazy Lucy book appears to be about--read the first line in the book, "When Lucy was six years old, her daily chore was to tidy the hut. Now and then, she was lazy and did not do her duty."). Do we purposefully avoid diversity in children's books in order to avoid stereotyping? So, if I want to write a children's book about a bad tempered child, I should only do so if the main character is anything but a red-headed child? Are we so much looking for intentional harm, we avoid reality in order to keep feathers completely unruffled? Are we really going to relegate all children's stories to only containing non-human animals and white children in order to prevent someone from having hurt feelings? I really, really have my doubts that there was any intentional racial profiling in the Lazy Lucy book. As I've said before, there's precious little to go on, but based on what's available to see online, it's not terribly offensive.

...Just curious?

If the book publisher Reading Horizons in this instance, was of Islamic persuasion rather than Christian fundamentalism...would there be more uproar over a religious orientated book seller in contract with a public school system?

If They Were of the Muslim Persuasion

Do you think they would have been allowed within 10 miles of a contract with the public schools?