Not so special specialists

In Chicago, 400 elementary schools have a reading specialist to help teachers improve instruction. Low-performing schools must hire two. How’s it working? Writing in Catalyst, Alex Russo of This Week in Education says fewer than half the schools are showing progress faster than the district average.

All told, district officials argue the program is worth its $52 million pricetag, citing test score improvements at 65 percent of the schools participating last year, 78 percent of those on probation.

However, a Catalyst analysis of test scores found only 45 of the 109 schools that have participated in the reading initiative since it began posted gains higher than the districtwide average, and scores at another 41 schools declined.

To fill all the slots created by the program, “the district had to water down the credentials required for the job,” an audit found. Some specialists hired aren’t so special. In addition, the program has gone through three directors in three years.

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  1. SiliconValleySteve says:

    My wife who is a public school teacher and I discussed this possible scenario awhile back and concluded that giving more money to the schools for essentially tutoring would be of no use.

    The problem is that the curriculum, teaching methods and general management of public schools is awful. Increasing the supply of this awful instruction won’t do anything but increase the number of jobs for educrats and buddies of the administrators. These will often be parents who hang around the school and suck up.

    A better solution would be to offer a tax credit or voucher for the parents to use a tutor or program (Kumon, Sylvan etc) of their choice. This would put them on equal footing with more middle-class parents who address the awful instruction at their schools by this method.

    If the program or tutor they choose isn’t proving to be successful, they can just try another. In the big-mama school system method, they are stuck with whatever lousy program has been offered to them.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    How were the schools compared? Did they compare schools were the majority of kids were low socioeconomic status against middle class and upper middle class kids? What were the criteria for the reading specialist? Did they get real teachers or not to fill these positions? The fact they’ve gone through 3 directors in 3 years makes me guess there is some serious problems at the upper levels of the district

  3. The reading specialists don’t tutor students. They coach teachers, helping them develop more effective methods of teaching reading. As the post says, the standards had to be lowered to fill all the newly created positions. The evaluation looked at the rate of progress at each school compared to the district average. A higher percentage of low-performing schools showed progress with literacy coaches than other schools.

  4. Carl Larson says:

    I am a 3rd year Chicago Public School (CPS) math teacher.


    My school has been on probation for enough years so that it is mandated by NCLB to provide free tutoring programs to students. Tutoring options not only include programs taught by teachers at my school but also the outside programs you mention (vouchers are provided).

    However, CPS and my school did a very poor job of promoting the availablity of this free tutoring to parents, so we didn’t have many students sign up. Most were juniors who signed up to prepare for the ACT.

    What information was provided to students and parents was focused mostly on the in-house programs, not the external programs. So the result is that the vast majority of the students picked the in-house programs, taught by the same teachers they have during the regular school day. The tutoring program teachers were provided one day of training.

    Bottom line — Outside tutoring programs are offered, but I believe the system does not adequately promote these programs and works to direct the available funding to programs within the system.

  5. Richard Brandshaft says:

    If — big if — one reading specialist can help teachers, then two reading specialists can help more. That’s the best one I’ve seen since the one about the ultra-long odds against two identical twins scoring perfect on the SATs.

  6. SiliconValleySteve says:

    I really don’t mean to be a wise guy but my initial response is you aren’t going to get anywhere having the blind lead the blind.

    As a corporate training developer with an MA in Instructional Design, I look at the experiences of my wife working in the school system and my children being “educated” there and I can only conclude that they practice something like “accidental education.” They throw out lots of stuff and some of it is even good. However, there seems to be no clear idea of a progressive skill development. They talk about obscure concepts like “constructivist” learning but are short on technique.

    I’m a professional writer (course developer) and when my son was having trouble learning to write I asked the teacher and principal how the curriculum was designed to make him proficient. From their reaction, I can only imagine that they didn’t understand what I was saying. I gave up on them. After calling around, I found an old retired teacher that explained how he would teach my son. It was a clear and logical presentation (nothing like I got at his school). In about 10 sessions, he was writing papers that his teacher graded with an A.

    I tend to agree with Tom Sowell that the best federal expenditure for education would be to pay all of the university education professors to stay home.