It was the first day of middle school for my 6th-grade homeroom students. I tentatively passed out their schedules. It took only a few moments before the questions started coming: "What is READ180?" “Why don’t I have gym?” “When do we have art?” My students looked to me for answers that I was hesitant to give.“READ 180 is a special class to help you read better,” I responded. “As soon as your reading improves, you can test out of READ 180. I know it’s not fair you don’t have gym or art, and I don’t like it either.” I told them that I was going to do everything I could to make sure they were given a chance to take electives during the year.
When I was in middle school, we had two different elective classes each day that I enjoyed very much. Cooking, sewing, art, music, gym, computer lab, wood shop, performance arts, and your choice of a foreign language were not just options, but requirements. By the time I finished middle school I knew how to type with my fingers correctly placed on the keyboard, bake a cake, use a power saw, sew a patchwork pillowcase, and make glass jewelry. I also knew, through experience, that I could not sing and didn’t want to be in the high school marching band. I got a jump start in foreign language that eventually allowed me to test into fourth-semester college Spanish. It angered me to know that those classes still existed in the suburbs, where my stepdaughter was attending middle school, but that, under the best of circumstances, the electives for students at my urban Milwaukee school were reduced to art, gym, and computers. Now most of my homeroom students had none of these. They had READ 180.
My students were enrolled in READ 180 because, based on No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the state of Wisconsin had labeled our school a Level Five School in Need of Improvement (SIFI)—aka “A school with really, really bad test scores for many years in a row.” READ 180 is just one of many boxed reading intervention programs popping up all over the United States and being used by districts to meet the requirements of NCLB at a huge cost to students. The Milwaukee Public School District calls it “a research-based reading intervention program focusing specifically on students determined to be nonproficient.” The Scholastic READ 180 website describes the program as a 90-minute class composed of four parts: 20 minutes of whole group direct instruction, 20 minutes of small group direct instruction, 20 minutes of instructional software, 20 minutes of modeled and independent reading, and a 10-minute “wrap-up.” Every 12 weeks the students take a computerized READ 180 assessment; if the results show they are reading on grade level, they are supposed to be exited from the program. I can’t say I’ve researched READ 180 enough to evaluate its efficacy, but I can say from experience that scripted reading programs, especially direct instruction based programs, do not stimulate higher level thinking or critical thinking skills in students.
This was my first year teaching 6th-grade English and language arts and my eighth year teaching overall. My students were all first-generation Mexican and Puerto Rican English language learners (ELL) and, thanks to our district’s bilingual maintenance model, they were literate in both English and Spanish.