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The Politics of Reading: Power, Opportunity, and Prospects for Change in America's Public School


reviewed by Joel Taxel - 1988

coverTitle: The Politics of Reading: Power, Opportunity, and Prospects for Change in America's Public School
Author(s): Jo Michelle Beld Fraatz
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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Political scientist Jo Michelle Beld Fraatz’s study of the relation between the policy and politics of practices designed to promote equality of educational opportunity rests on the argument that a “close look at the ways in which people in schools negotiate the tasks of providing opportunities for learning can go a long way toward explaining the persistently lower educational outcomes of poor and minority children” (p. 2). Taking an “ecological perspective,” Fraatz scrutinizes the “operation of public schools as whole systems,” rather than “isolated programs, techniques, teachers, or schools” (pp. 2-3, 5). Fraatz’s central finding is that the “most important obstacle to equality of opportunity” is not “the prejudice or hard-heartedness of educators” (p. 12) but rather the school’s “mobilization of bias” with respect to equal opportunity. This intriguing phrase refers to “the way in which organizational structures and processes condition the ways people interpret their goals, alternatives, resources, and personal contributions to the ‘mission’ of the institution” (p. 11). Fraatz argues that it is the teacher’s responses to the dynamics of the classroom that lie at the heart of a mobilization of bias in reading instruction that both penalizes low-income and minority children and paralyzes the incentive of teachers to innovate (p. 19).


The Politics of Reading is an important book for several reasons. It tells us a great deal about the dynamics of elementary school reading instruction in general, especially that which is provided for economically deprived children; about the nature of the relations between teachers, reading specialists, principals, district level administrators, and parents; and about the reasons why patterns of instruction are so resistant to change. It is the product of 103 interviews with personnel involved in reading instruction in four school districts in a northeastern state. Significantly, Fraatz’s sample includes urban and suburban schools that vary in terms of socioeconomic and racial composition.


The book does include a considerable amount of discussion from the various school personnel about the characteristics of children, their parents, and home environment, which are alleged to inhibit the schools’ ability to teach reading effectively. We are presented with the all-too-familiar litany of claims about how low-income students are educationally deficient, about their linguistic deprivation, and so forth. Interestingly, Fraatz suggests that one of the most important contributors to the “deficit view” of the home lives of disadvantaged children is the classroom mobilization of bias in reading instruction. Thus, despite research indicating that the nonstandard vocabularies and syntactical structures of poor and minority children are “as rich and developed as those of their advantaged counterparts,” the mobilization of bias in the classroom compels teachers “to define only certain patterns of language and social behaviors as appropriate ‘background’ for successful classroom reading” (p. 162). The overriding sentiment of Fraatz’s respondents suggests that it is easier to “blame the victim rather than to change the system” (p. 167). The prevailing attitude seems to be to require that all students possess the “cultural capital” that is “natural” only to certain social classes and then to blame, and penalize, them when they do not.1


From her respondents’ descriptions of the practices, programs, and policies they designed to meet individual needs, Fraatz identifies the alternatives for individualization that schools pursue along three dimensions. The first dimension, identifying individual needs, refers to the informal observational assessments and formal testing procedures used to identify and place children in reading and other instructional groups. As we have just seen, “the very behaviors economically disadvantaged students are least likely to exhibit form the basis on which their cognitive needs and achievements are assessed” (p. 51). I n seeking to provide educational resources, the second dimension, Fraatz’s teachers never question the adequacy of basal series to the fundamental tasks of teaching reading. Teachers attend less to the quality and appropriateness of the materials and instead focus on ensuring that materials are available in sufficient quantities. Even when they decide to utilize materials from other series, they “tend to rely on the same instructional routines.” Consequently, lower-achieving students are least likely to have available instructional materials appropriate to their needs (pp. 52-54). In regard to the third dimension, structuring interactions, most respondents noted that the reading groups so basic to basal reading instruction, and other aspects of the classroom context, severely constrain opportunities for individual help (p. 55). In their pursuit of routine and control, teachers find their ability to provide for every child’s individual needs is restricted. Again, those most penalized are low-income students, “who are disproportionately assigned to low-achieving reading groups” (p. 61). Significantly, children in these low-achieving groups actually spend less time reading than do their peers in high ability groups.2


None of these findings will surprise those who spend much time in classrooms or who are familiar with studies such as those conducted by Goodlad.3 Perhaps the greatest contribution of The Politics of Reading is in showing how the reading specialists who assist and those who supervise the classroom teacher end up supporting, rather than challenging, this particular mobilization of bias. Interview data with principals, for example, reveal that they see their accountability to their teachers superseding their accountability to “their other clients.” As a result, “neither ‘effective’ nor ‘typical’ school administrators significantly expand the range of opportunities available to low-income children learning to read” (p. 93). Even when problems are identified, the actions taken by principals “leave the basic classroom experiences of the teacher unchanged” (p. 108). Similarly, “principals are likely to interpret students’ needs in terms of the needs of their teachers” (p. 124). This essential pattern is repeated when we hear from the reading specialists and district-level supervisors.


While Fraatz focuses on the characteristics of schooling, rather than school children, we are not given profiles and comparisons of the various schools. It would have been interesting, for example, to have been able to compare and contrast reading instruction in one of the “Trade City” schools, which serves a high proportion of black children, with that found in one of the “White Collar” suburban schools, which serves a middle- to upper-middleclass clientele. It may be the case, however, that in its essentials, reading instruction is largely the same across districts and schools. That is, reading instruction means basal readers.


Fraatz does an excellent job of detailing the complexities and difficulties faced by teachers in “crowded, uncertain instructional contexts” and avoids the teacher bashing implicit in the myriad reports on schooling and explicit in the popular media. Nevertheless, one of her basic claims, that teachers are the “preeminent wielders of power in public schools” (p. 191), may well have this quite lamentable consequence. This would be particularly unfortunate since the claim itself is suspect.


Although teachers have always been able to shut the doors of their classrooms and have a measure of control over what occurs within them, recent scholarship indicates that “teachers are being deskilled as more and more of the curriculum, pedagogy, and evaluation is standardized or prepackaged.“4 Apple refers to this process as the “proletarianization” of teaching and points to a worsening of teachers’ working conditions, control, and autonomy. While Fraatz’s teachers report that they would abandon their basal series “only in extraordinary circumstances” (p. 52), the choice to use or not use particular curriculum materials is available to fewer and fewer American teachers. In being compelled to utilize these increasingly “teacher-proof’ curricula, teachers are losing their power to make decisions about what is taught and in what manner. In short, Fraatz’s discussion about teacher autonomy is flawed because it is limited to that which occurs within the classroom and fails to consider the fact that teachers are insufficiently involved in deliberations about what curricula are adopted in the first place and how they are to be taught. This fact may well account for her contradictory finding that, despite their supposed power, “teachers feel surprisingly powerless” (p. 192).


A final issue demanding discussion is one not directly raised in The Politics of Reading. I speak here of the tacit acceptance by Fraatz of a definition of reading as a collection of skills to be taught sequentially through basal reading programs. Nowhere in this book is there any evidence that this conception of reading is under serious challenge. In light of Fraatz’s otherwise impressive citation of relevant research, this is a surprising oversight. This is especially so in light of the emphasis given to the “problem of professional uncertainty,” the fact that “no one is sure exactly how children learn to read” (p. 26). Despite this uncertainty, the author fails to cite a recent report that raises serious concerns about most basal readers,5 or the theory and research suggesting that holistic, process-oriented approaches to reading are preferable to the fragmented, scientific approach of the basals6 In view of Fraatz’s concern with economically disadvantaged children, this oversight is particularly troublesome since, as her book so clearly demonstrates, such children appear to be ill-served by the context-stripping skill/drill approach of the basals.


In spite of these shortcomings, The Politics of Reading provides an important contribution to our understanding of the astonishingly complex nature of schooling, the problems facing those seeking to institute reform, and the difficult job faced by our nation’s teachers. The book also makes it apparent that the “quick fix” solutions (e.g., more testing) so often favored by politicians have about as much chance of succeeding as did those of previous generations.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 4, 1988, p. 595-599
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 558, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:27:10 AM

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