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

The episode represents a proxy war being waged over the strategic direction of Minneapolis Public Schools.

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

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.

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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 — 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. 

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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.

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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.