Messing with success

Third graders at a mostly black, mostly poor school in Rockford, Illinois aced the state reading tests, coming in second behind a school for gifted students, a few years after their school adopted scripted, teacher-directed instruction in phonics in the early grades. But fifth graders, who’d been taught under the “balanced literacy” method, were reading poorly, so the principal expanded the direct instruction program to all grades. The district relieved the principal of her instructional duties and ordered a return to “balanced literacy,” reports the Rockford Register Star.

Lewis Lemon, along with Nelson and Kishwaukee — three of the district’s most impoverished elementary schools– began its academic climb in 2001.

Former NIU professor Bill Bursuck developed a program called Project Pride for kindergarten through second and third grades at the three schools. The program’s $720,000 in federal funding ended last school year, although teachers in these schools were trained to continue.

From 2000 to 2004, a grant-funded reading coordinator, Mary Damer, worked with teachers to incorporate phonics and drilling called direct instruction: Teachers read from scripts, ask students questions, and they chorus back responses.

Once students had a foundation to decode words, or sound them out as is done in phonics, teachers would move forward with other approaches. This came at the end of first grade or into second grade.

By 2003, third grade reading scores were up dramatically. Principal Tiffany Parker decided to use direct instruction for all grades. The district’s new instructional director, Martha Hayes, said the program won’t work with older students.

Hayes wants teachers to use a variety of approaches like at Johnson Elementary, where reading scores are among the district’s highest. Teachers there use an eclectic approach, including guided reading, with children working in small, ability-based groups where they read books specified at their level. As a teacher works with one group, other groups do more self-directed activities.

Parker maintains that the small groups with book rooms and learning centers didn’t work at her school. Lewis Lemon’s upper elementary teachers used the tactic before the switch to direct instruction.

Parker says she started out as an advocate of balanced literacy, but “got so frustrated over not meeting the needs of my kids” despite teacher training, reading coaches and funding. She points out that Lewis Lemon has high teacher turnover; scripted lessons help inexperienced teachers be effective. Johnson has a more stable, experienced staff and mostly middle-class students.

A school board member asks a good question: “Why mess with success?”

Thanks to The Instructivist, who thanks Professor Plum, who quotes a subscribers-only story in the New York Sun by Andrew Wolf. The Sun story warns readers that New York City schools also are using “balanced literacy,” which Wolf calls “a revisionist term for the increasingly unpopular whole-language programs that research has proven don’t work for the lowest performing children – those most at risk – typically minority children.”

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Comments

  1. While no phonics-zealot myself (I’d be mad as heck if my Grade 1 son was forced through totally scripted lessons), whatever happened to the WW strategy (Whatever Works).

    For these kids in this school, it seems pretty clear what is working, and what is not.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    This is a good story in that it shows the feds idea of “one size fits all” does not work. The schools chronicled did what they saw works best for their students. Its a shame the principal who did what she thought was best for her students was chided for it.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    A Woolworth management committee called in a candy counter sales clerk who consistently outsold all her coworkers. When asked her secret, she said that, while other workers put more candy on the scale and then removed pieces until the weight was attained, she put less on the scales and added to make the weight. Customers seemed to bellieve the others were taking away while she was adding.
    After some consideration the managers ordered her to stop her practice and do it the way the others did.

  4. Mike in Texas wrote:

    This is a good story in that it shows the feds idea of “one size fits all” does not work.

    Maybe you were reading a different article and got confused or, more likely, your knee jerked when you saw the word “phonics” and out came the excuse du jour.

    Whatever.

    What jumped out at me in article were:

    A) Chief instructional officer Martha Hayes,

    Chief instructional officer? I wonder how she’s defined? A teacher? An administrator?

    And what could she possibly do? Go around from one classroom to another, observing, and then providing the sort of masterful feedback that helps the non-chief instructional officers – that would be “teachers” – become more competent?

    Fat chance. How would anyone know she was doing a good job since it’s been established by assumed-competent, self-interested authorities, that measuring teacher ability is impossible or, at the very least, unfair? So I think it’s safe to assume that she isn’t encouraging the mere teachers to sit at her knee and absorb her chiefly intructional aura.

    Which still doesn’t answer the question of what the heck she does.

    Based on my knowledge of educational hierarchys in particular and hierarchical organizations in general, the chief instructional officer spends most of her time sending out district publications that no one reads and pursuing grants. The former because it lets people know she exists, along with padding her CV; the latter because money talks. Fading the rubes with edubabble has its uses but there’s nothing like a big, fat check from some granting agency to make you irreplaceable.

    B) She says Lewis Lemon’s heavy dose of phonics, the skill of sounding out words, cannot sustain the spike in test results as students get older.

    Oooh! A predication! How exciting!

    Couldn’t this prediction be used to determine if phonics is just a flash in the pan, resulting in impressive short-term results but in the long-term resulting in children who can easily pronounce the words on the page but are unable to understand what they’ve just read? Naw.

    What would be the point? The important determination’s already been made: “balanced literacy” allows beginning readers to avoid the tedious aquisition of a skill by leapfrogging right to the techniques that master readers use. Why ask a lot of questions when the proper answer’s already been determined?

    In any case, the proper outcome’s occurred. The chief instructional officer has asserted her authority and her authority has been affirmed by the expulsion of the heretic. Too bad about the kids but, hey, you can’t have everything.

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