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Ability-grouping at Lake Harriet Community School #1
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Re: [Mpls] phonics, ability grouping in public schools
Date:     11/17/2002 11:19:23 AM Central Standard Time

In a message dated 11/16/2002 4:40:38 PM Central Standard Time,
lynnell michelsen writes:

"Doug Mann does not have a child the Minneapolis public
 schools. I've have three kids in the city public schools. Doug Mann's
descriptions of MPS curriculum, class size and ability grouping
practices do not fit with what I've observed over the last ten years
and counting.
 For the record:
1) My kids were drilled in phonics and de-coding.The Whole
 Language versus Phonics debate has been moot for us. Our teachers
have always used both methods and used them well..."

Doug Mann's Response:

For the record: Doug Mann has a child who was continuously enrolled
at Lake Harriet Community School from the beginning of Kindergarten
to part-way through the fourth grade in the fall of 2000.

Lynnell Michelsen has a child who was in the same school, in the same
grade level, and sometimes in the same homeroom.  Her child
received phonics instruction in school, my child did not. (If students
aren't learning something, the teachers aren't teaching it). Her child
spent 50 minutes per day in a reading program for children designated as
high-ability learners, my child spent those 50 minutes per day in one of the
other reading programs.  The sorting and assignment to separate reading
classrooms happened at the beginning of first grade.

The material presented in all of the reading programs was similar.  
However, the expected and actual outcomes were very different.  
The designated high-ability learners already possessed or quickly
acquired critical decoding skills that helped them to assimilate
the phonics materials presented to them, and they covered more
ground than the other groups. No one moved in or out of the
high-ability group after the initial assignments were made. The high-
ability group members were also enrolled in the gifted pullout program
at the beginning of grade 2.  These kids are headed toward college
and good jobs.

The kids in the reading programs for so-called low- and medium-ability
learners increased their stock of sight-words, increased their awareness of
sound-letter relationships, and used contextual cues to guess at what a word is.
Some of these kids learned how to sound out words but generally acquired
a very limited knowledge of phonetic rules.  Most of these kids are headed
toward low-paying, low-status jobs and / or prison.  

While our child was at Lake Harriet Community School my wife and
I used the school directory to figure out where most of the kids in the
low-, medium-, and high-ability learners groups resided.  It almost looked
as if the kids were sorted and grouped by zip code.  Students in the
high-rent districts were placed in reading programs for high- and medium-ability
learners. Students in the low-rent districts were placed in reading programs
for the so-called low- and medium-ability learners.  One of the reasons
I think it looked like students were ability-grouped by zip code is that
students in the high-rent district typically spoke middle-class English and
many had been enrolled in the better (and higher-priced) preschool
programs and private kindergartens before they entered the public school
I have worked with "at risk" kids on their reading skills as a volunteer
tutor in the Smart Start summer school program, and participated in
discussion groups for parents of "at-risk" students organized by the
Shulman law firm on behalf of the NAACP in 1998. I served on the
NAACP K-12 education committee and the Parents Union executive
board. And I did extensive canvassing during my campaigns for the
Minneapolis School Board in 2001 and 2002, which resulted in
many extended conversations with Minneapolis Public School
parents, teachers, students, and administrators.  

-Doug Mann

Power doesn't take a step back in the face of a smile, or in the face
of a prayer, or in the face of a loving nonviolent action.  Power only
takes a step back in the face of greater power.  And power in defense
of freedom is greater than power in defense of tyranny, because the
power of a just cause is based on conviction, and leads to resolute
and uncompromising action.
--Malcolm X, "Prospects for Freedom," Militant Labor Forum,
New York City, 7 January 1965