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Monday, August 9, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reading Comes First -- John Stanford's Book

Part two of four

Probably nothing former Seattle Public Schools Superintendent John Stanford did captured the public eye as effectively as his campaign to encourage children to read. In this excerpt from his book, readers can see how he inspired the community to support the effort before he lost a battle with leukemia Nov. 28, 1998, at the age of 60.

We began the reading campaign my first week of school. As a new superintendent, new to education, I was casting about before school began for a bold first initiative, a program we could use to kick off our revolution in academic achievement.

One day a retired school librarian, Elaine Quan, dropped by to see me. She entered my office, made a slight bow, looked me in the eye and sat down.

"Mr. Stanford," she said, "I know that you are new to education. Let me tell you what I think is the key to succeeding in our schools."

She then delivered an hourlong lecture that ranged over many different subjects, but mostly she talked about reading.

I listened quietly, utterly mesmerized by her experience and wisdom. When she was done, she bowed to me again, and left.

And as soon as she was gone, I realized that she'd given me the idea for the program: a massive, districtwide reading campaign, a campaign that would get the entire city focused on the skill that, more than any other, affected children's success in school.

But I knew we couldn't do a reading campaign on our own. Love of reading isn't just a schools issue: It's a cultural issue that requires community reinforcement.

If we were going to get our kids to read, we'd need their parents and the community to help.

Parents would have to be enlisted to read to their children every night, and to make sure their children did their reading homework.

Radio stations would need to broadcast messages encouraging children to read.

Local heroes - the Mariners, the SuperSonics - would need to come to schools to talk to children about the importance of reading.

And volunteers, thousands of volunteers, would need to come to the schools to tutor children one-on-one and read with them in small groups.

By the end of the year, students had spent more hours reading in school and at home than ever before.

Chains of paper cars and airplanes snaked through the hallways of the elementary schools advertising the names of every book the children had read.

Principals, who had promised to sit on the school roof for a day or to come to school in crazy costumes if students read to a certain level, did so; I kept my promise to arrive at an elementary school in an Army helicopter. (I'd hoped to pilot it myself and rappel out, but Army regulations wouldn't let me.)

The real reward, however, was the students' academic performance.

Teachers reported gains in reading comprehension. Students' writing improved (we did formal writing assessments for the first time that spring, so we had no base line against which to measure improvement, but teachers said they saw a blossoming of students' ideas and an increased ability to express them .

Reports from parents were favorable, too. We heard stories about children who had asked their parents to buy them books instead of toys, about children who, after years of struggle, had suddenly blossomed into readers.

One of our School Board members went to a friend's home for dinner. Midway through the evening, the young son turned off the TV and headed upstairs.

"Where are you going?" his mother asked.

"I'm going upstairs to read," he answered. "The superintendent says I have to read twenty minutes every night."

Another mother said she thought she'd heard every excuse under the sun until her daughter came up with a new one: She refused to take the garbage out because she had to do her reading.

Children are individuals

Stanford regularly expressed his admiration for teachers, both those who taught him as a child and those who worked for him as an adult:

The field of education is full of stories about superlative teachers, teachers who pull remarkable performances from every student year after year. Every school has at least one of these teachers. Many schools are fortunate enough to have several.

How do these teachers do it? It isn't really a mystery. They love every child, they see each one's strengths, they find ways to work with each child individually, capitalizing on his or her strengths to overcome areas of weakness. They do whatever it takes - making materials at home, calling parents at night, staying late to give extra help after school - to help their children succeed.

The individualized plans haven't turned every teacher into a superlative teacher, but they have systematized the superlative teachers' methods. They have enabled us to give every student who can't succeed without it that kind of individual attention.

The individualized plans have also changed the way schools look at what they are doing. Instead of monitoring their performance solely in the aggregate - by looking at average test scores, overall attendance, overall dropout rates, and so on - schools now need to monitor the performance of each individual student.

We still expect them to raise their averages, but, just as important, we expect them to raise the performance of every child. The individualized plans enable them to do that. The quarterly reports, which are sent to my office, are the measure of their success.

The curse of bad teaching

But Stanford also recognized that within the teaching profession were some who shouldn't be there:

In the opening weeks of school in Seattle, I visited several schools a day, meeting principals and talking to teachers, learning as fast as I could about the district. At one of the schools I visited, a teacher told me a remarkable story.

Mary Kant (not her real name) was a third-grade teacher who had apparently lost her love of children. She was dour and impatient with them and had been heard on more than one occasion to say, "You're too stupid to learn."

Children who had flourished in earlier grades seemed to wither in her class. Time and again, parents had complained to the principal, but each time he refused to remove her, claiming that "the system" wouldn't let him.

The process of removing a teacher from a school was simply too difficult and disruptive.

After two years of complaints and inaction, another teacher spoke to the principal about Mary's unprofessional conduct.

Word of the meeting got back to Mary, who then organized a "freeze" against her fellow teacher, convincing half the teachers in the school not to talk to the "complainer."

For the remainder of the year, the teacher community was paralyzed: Teachers couldn't work together on curricula, they couldn't discuss their students, they could barely plan the spring play.

The "complaining" teacher, who had a stellar record and was loved by parents, threatened to quit. And still the principal refused to move or fire Mary.

The children and their education had been abandoned by the warring factions of adults.

Now, had this been the only such story I heard, I might have blown it off, assuming that the incident was an aberration. But it wasn't.

In the next few weeks I heard other stories about teachers who had lost their passion to teach children: I heard about teachers who were so distracted by disagreements with the principal that they could barely concentrate on the classwork; I heard about "unsatisfactory" teachers who had been given "satisfactory" evaluations so they could be transferred to another school; I heard about teachers who had given up on students and let them play in the back of the classroom.

Regrettably, the small percentage of teachers who were not performing reflected badly on the vast majority of teachers who were bringing our children love, support, and a bright and hopeful future. Why were these teachers allowed to remain in the system?

As the weeks went by, I discovered the answer.

In part it was our contract with our union, which made it almost impossible to remove teachers from their jobs.

In part it was the leadership of principals, who chose to keep teachers in their schools rather than face the disruption caused by trying to remove them.

In part it was teachers themselves, who often rallied behind colleagues whose jobs were in jeopardy for fear of endangering their own jobs.

These individuals didn't mean to be self-serving, but they were trapped in a system that made it easier to act in the interest of adults than in the best interest of children.

From the book "Victory in Our Schools: We CAN Give Our Children Excellent Public Education," by Maj. Gen. John Stanford. (Copyright, 1999, by John Stanford)

Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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