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Critic of No Child Left Behind Was Disinvited From Meeting

PUBLISHED: May 13, 2006 | By SUSAN SAULNY | New York Times

Patricia Polacco is a popular author of children's books, known for her cuddly tales of loving grandmothers and precocious tots. She is also known for her less than comforting critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act and its emphasis on high-stakes testing.

Now she says a leading publisher found her dual roles incompatible and disinvited her from speaking at the International Reading Association's annual meeting this month in Chicago because she would not agree in advance to stay away from her views on testing in her talks.

Ms. Polacco says the publishing house, McGraw-Hill, a sponsor of the convention, canceled her contract for two appearances because of its dual role as book and test publisher. McGraw-Hill says it only sought to stop an author with an agenda from turning its exhibit at the reading convention into a political platform.

"I see teachers across the country, and they come up to me with tears in their eyes and say we used to be able to do creative things" before the emphasis on testing that came with No Child Left Behind, Ms. Polacco said, explaining why she wanted to talk about the law. She accused McGraw-Hill of trying to benefit from her popularity yet censor her views. "If they want someone to stand up and say how wonderful No Child Left Behind is, then hire someone who feels that way," she said.

McGraw-Hill denies that it sought to censor Ms. Polacco, stating, rather, that it wanted to enforce a contract she signed in February, listing two specific themes that she would cover at the convention: "The Heroes of My Life" and "Tales and Talk," speeches that were supposed to bring into play the real life stories that inspired her books.

In the contract, the company gave Ms. Polacco direction: "gear message to directly connect with the audience (predominantly teachers) by focusing on how they too are heroes and encourage them." It also asked her to provide "inspiration and tips" about breaking into publishing. The contract does not mention testing or anything related to education law.

Ms. Polacco said she told the company in late April that she could not talk about either topic without referring to what she considered the negative impact of No Child Left Behind on education. "That's part and parcel of what I believe," she said yesterday in a telephone interview from her home in Union City, Mich., adding that she told a representative of the company, "I would be remiss if I didn't bring this up."

One week before the convention, which drew 22,300 attendees, McGraw-Hill took back its invitation via e-mail message. Ms. Polacco was to be paid $5,000.

"We respect her right to express her ideas," said Steven H. Weiss, a spokesman for McGraw-Hill Education. "Since our presentation was focused on reading and children's books, we didn't believe that our exhibit was an appropriate forum to make a public policy speech."

In addition to its literary publishing, McGraw-Hill is one of the market leaders in providing testing materials to help its clients — states and school districts — meet the requirements for annual accountability required by No Child Left Behind. Test publishing is estimated to be a $1.4 billion industry.

Ms. Polacco, whose primary publisher is Penguin Putnam, said she accepted the invitation only because she mistakenly believed it came directly from the International Reading Association, a nonpartisan professional group. Although she signed the contract with SRA/McGraw-Hill, whose name appears many times on the document, she said that did not initially register. Further complicating matters, most correspondence and calls about the event came from a media relations firm for McGraw-Hill, not the company itself.

As for the confusion, Mr. Weiss, the publisher's spokesman, said, "That's impossible."

The International Reading Association is not taking a side. "This was a private for-profit arrangement between Ms. Polacco and a publisher and has nothing to do with IRA," Alan E. Farstrup, the group's executive director, said yesterday in a statement.

Still, the disagreement was fodder for comment on the Internet, after Ms. Polacco posted personal messages on her Web site, and bloggers took up the conversation. Ms. Polacco urged her fans not to direct anger toward McGraw-Hill, but rather toward "the tyranny of the No Child Left Behind mandate."

While Ms. Polacco found much support on the Web, particularly among librarians, one blogger, Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book Inc., a small publishing house in Boston, said: "I can't agree that this is a case of censorship. Speech you get paid for rarely is."

Red Alert!
Let's Opt Out of the April 2014 NYS Tests

Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

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