District severs ties with Reading Horizons

The Board of Education voted to rescind its $1.2-million contract with the Utah-based provider of an early literacy curriculum

Protesters disrupted the School Board's effort to hold small group conversations on Reading Horizons. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Minneapolis Public Schools will end its relationship with Reading Horizons, the Utah-based company behind a controversial literacy curriculum, following a vote Tuesday by the Board of Education.

The 7–2 vote acknowledged the concerns of teachers and community members, voiced loudly by a group of protestors who interrupted successive board meetings, that Reading Horizons books targeted to young learners reinforced racist and sexist stereotypes. Even though the offensive material was removed before it could be used in classrooms, many questioned how the district could work with a company that produced the books in the first place.

The board’s action to rescind the contract leaves it with little leverage to negotiate for the return of all or part of the $1.2 million awarded Reading Horizons for the literacy contract. It also raises questions about what will replace a tool district leaders hoped would speed critical gains in elementary reading proficiency and help to close wide gaps between white students and students of color.

The resolution passed by a majority of the board states that the contract violated multiple district policies, including an equity and diversity policy that aims to correct practices “that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all forms.” It also placed the responsibility for the decisions that led to the contract squarely on the shoulders of interim Superintendent Michael Goar.

Board members Josh Reimnitz and Tracine Asberry sharpened the language of the resolution before the vote. Their amendment made it clear it was Goar’s failure to carry out established district policy that forced the Board of Education to act on Reading Horizons.

“Policies are not being implemented by the interim superintendent,” Asberry said.

Just before the vote, Goar apologized to board members for placing them in a “lose-lose” position. He acknowledged “major faults” in district’s protocol for reviewing and adopting new curricula.

“If we had done our job, clearly the board would not be in this predicament,” he said.

Goar said the episode revealed fundamental cultural issues for the district. The system that seemingly accepts wide disparities in student achievement is the same system responsible for the lax review of the Reading Horizons material.

“Our organization is on a journey of equity, and that’s what you’re seeing right now, today, in terms of Reading Horizons,” he said.

Board members Carla Bates and Josh Reimnitz were the only “no” votes on the resolution.

Bates said the decision to cut ties with Reading Horizons left her with an “ill feeling.”

Bates said her main concern was that district students read proficiently by 3rd grade — considered a key benchmark for future academic success — and that she was “unclear about the impact” of the board’s vote on teaching and learning.

A group of about 80 people attended the meeting to protest the Reading Horizons contract and urge the district to sever ties. A smaller group disrupted an attempt to pause the meeting and hold small group discussions with board members in a cafeteria space near the board meeting room. Their chants called for board members to return to their chambers and act on the resolution immediately.

Ancestry Books owner Chaun Webster, a member of the protest group, said the Reading Horizons controversy should provoke deeper conversations about the district’s policies and ties to corporations. Webster was among those calling for district staffers — and potentially the superintendent — to lose their jobs for the decision.

Noting Goar is seeking the district superintendent position on a permanent basis, Webster said, “I don’t know if that is somebody I would say will hold that position responsibly.”

Tyson Smith, CEO and president of Reading Horizons, said after the meeting he was “disappointed” in the board’s decision. Smith watched from the audience but was asked not to speak, even though a board resolution passed a month earlier had called on him to make a public apology.

“As a company, we’re deeply sorry for the role that we’ve played,” he said after the vote.

Smith said he met with Goar to offer the district a partial refund of the $1.2 million. Going forward, the contract would have been tied to specific student achievement outcomes, he said.

Smith said he was “hoping for a bridge” at the Board of Education meeting, but that bridge never materialized. The company already had pledged to diversify its curriculum development team in response to the controversy in Minneapolis, and Smith said those efforts will continue even after its relationship with the district ends.

“We have committed as a company to doing better,” Smith said.

In September, the district published an initial feedback report on implementation of Reading Horizons that made a case for sticking with the curriculum. The report recorded largely, but not entirely, positive responses from district literacy specialists and elementary teachers who voluntarily shared their experiences with Reading Horizons.

The report concluded: “With long-term district commitment and support, the product has strong potential to accelerate learning trajectories of the lowest performing students in Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Less than half of district students scored at or above grade level on reading tests last school year. As a group, the district’s students of color lag their white peers by 50 points on state reading proficiency tests. Only 22 percent of students of color are reading proficiently by grade 3.

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lynn Nordgren said she conducted an informal poll of “several hundred” union members prior to the board vote. The results came back roughly split between ditching the curriculum and forging ahead, Nordgren said.

Supporters said the curriculum wasn’t perfect, but just weeks into the school year it was producing results for students. Opponents argued that continuing to work with the company was “just not morally O.K.,” Nordgren said.

“I met with the company,” she said. “… I didn’t feel like they had a clear understanding of the depth of the impact.”