August 28, 2009

Et tu, PBS?

Posted in Books, Children and adolescents, Education, Television at 3:43 pm by The Lizard Queen

If you listen to NPR’s Morning Edition or read Shakesville faithfully, then you’ve already heard the news that Reading Rainbow is going off the air after a 26-year run.  It’s not happening because LeVar Burton wants to retire (though who knows; maybe he does) or because every child in the US is so excited about reading that it’s no longer necessary.  Here’s why it’s happening:

The show’s run is ending, [John Grant, who is in charge of content at WNED Buffalo, Reading Rainbow‘s home station] explains, because no one — not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.

Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Furthermore, as “Linda Simensky, vice president for children’s programming at PBS, … explains, research has shown that teaching the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority.”

I can’t help but feel that focusing on the mechanics of reading is putting the cart before the horse.  Which sounds better: learning to read because you’re supposed to, or learning to read because you’re excited about a book you just saw on Reading Rainbow?  I genuinely can’t wrap my brain around the idea that phonics and spelling should be prioritized over getting kids to want to read in the first place.  It doesn’t at all surprise me that the change started during the Bush administration, because this smacks of exactly the same educational philosophies that drove No Child Left Behind. These philosophies seem to me to get everything backwards, putting results before process and process before impetus.

Another element of Reading Rainbow that I fear may be lacking in a show that focuses on mechanics is the diversity of readers and stories Reading Rainbow displayed.  A clip from the show that was played on NPR featured Burton talking about children who have a parent in prison.  How many kids’ shows talk about that kind of thing?  And look at the image front and center on!  How many kids’ shows feature that kind of racial diversity?

In short, Reading Rainbow will be sorely missed.

[On a tangentially related note, following the various threads over the impressively varied topography that is the internets, I came across this announcement about a Reading Rainbow-style show for adults.  How cool is that?  *Scurries off to become a follower of LeVar Burton’s tweets*]



  1. pavlov112 said,

    They haven’t made new episodes since 2006, at least according to this. So we’re really talking about no longer getting to see reruns – not that that’s any less sad.

    • Sure enough, my trusty resource IMDb verifies the 2006 date, so I assume you’re right, and that reruns are no longer going to be broadcast. That almost feels worse (given that people who might have watched the show in reruns can’t necessarily afford to buy the DVDs instead…). At any rate, I stand by what I said. (Bah.)

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