Archives for February 2005

Direct Instruction under attack

Direct Instruction, a scripted reading program is producing gains in some of Chicago’s lowest-performing schools. So it’s being dropped. The Sun-Times reports:

Last December, the Chicago Board of Education called the news media to a small school in Woodlawn to show off the best and brightest of its “rising stars.”

The Woodlawn Community School boosted reading scores by 20 percentage points in one year after rededicating itself to a controversial, scripted reading program called Direct Instruction, the principal proudly explained.

Now the board has decided no new schools can adopt the program.

DI uses rote learning. Teachers follow a script with little room for creativity. Students are grouped by reading level, not age.

Thirteen first- and second-graders sat ramrod straight in two rows, each with an index finger on the same word in a story.

“Next word. Get ready,” chanted teacher Althelia Strong.

“Got!” the students called out in unison.

“Next word. Get ready.”


“Next word. Get ready.”


“What did they get?”

“They got a goat!”

Students work on reading for 90 minutes a day.

“By the end of the year they are reading, much more than with any other program I’ve used in 30 plus years,” Strong said.

DI’s effectiveness is well-established. In 1999, five leading education groups sponsored a study of 24 school reform models. DI was one of only three to receive a “strong” rating for evidence of positive effects on student achievement.

In Chicago, the recent evidence is not as clear. Standout schools exist, but between 2002 and 2004, DI schools made only marginally better reading gains than the system average. DI supporters say CPS has never supported full implementation and DI was tried in the lowest-performing schools.

“It’s silly for a fairly limited group of people to eliminate a reading program that has been demonstrably effective with poverty children and bilingual children across the country because it’s scripted, as opposed to free flowing, and that rubs people the wrong way,” said Gary Moriello, principal at Gladstone, where reading scores nearly doubled since DI was introduced in 1997.

In higher elementary grades, DI may not include enough writing or literature. Kids get bored, teachers say. So, use it in the early grades, and then move on to something else.

Necessary but not evil

Standards and testing aren’t a “necessary evil” that stifle innovation by the best teachers, concluded Time DeRoche, a consultant with the Broad Foundation and the National Center for Educational Accountability. He writes in Education Week:

I was a part of a team that visited five extraordinary urban districts in the country. What we saw was astounding: Many teachers are embracing standards and testing. These tools, when used correctly, have an incredibly positive effect on teacher morale. Educators thrive when expectations are clear and when they have immediate access to data about their students’ progress.

Since my epiphany, I no longer think of standards and testing as a necessary evil. I now understand what a positive force these tools can be: They have the potential to spark an extraordinary revolution in the teaching profession.

DeRoche was “astounded” by what classroom teachers told him.

Almost unanimously, they told us that standards and testing have made their jobs both more rigorous and more rewarding. Specifically, they mentioned that the new focus on results fosters more collaboration. Because all grade-level teachers now work with the same content at the same time, there are more opportunities to cooperate on lesson plans. In this environment, educators actively seek out one another to share ideas and improve instruction. Teaching is no longer a lonely profession.

A standards-based approach also encourages the use of benchmark tests as diagnostic tools. To complement state testing (which usually occurs annually), many districts have developed preliminary measures to assess student progress. In many school systems, educators see student results within 48 hours, giving them immediate feedback about the effectiveness of their teaching. We observed several meetings during which teachers discussed the relative performance of their students and then brainstormed about how to improve instruction.

It also creates clear job expectations. By looking at standards documents from the district and state, a teacher can understand exactly what his or her students are expected to learn. This takes much of the guesswork and fear out of the evaluation process.

Teachers have raised their expectations for low-income and minority students, he writes.

The Summers of Harvard's discontent

Everything’s political at Harvard, writes James Atlas in the New York Times. In the context of the university, Lawrence Summers is a flaming conservative because he’s pushing the university toward the center.

That is to say, he would like to see R.O.T.C., which was banished from Harvard during the sit-ins of the 60’s, restored to campus; he would like to overhaul the core curriculum; he would like to hire who he pleases, regardless of race or sex.

By being naturally and deliberately provocative, he has challenged campus liberals, which is not what campus liberals are accustomed to. Neil Rudenstine, the previous president, was a former English major devoted to inclusivity. Derek Bok, who preceded Mr. Rudenstine, was an affirmative action proponent, even writing a book after he left office on the merits of race-based preferences.

In contrast, Mr. Summers has had a series of widely reported confrontations: He rebuked Cornel West, a distinguished professor in the African-American studies department, who promptly decamped to Princeton; he made the suggestion, provoked by a pro-Palestinian faction demanding that Harvard divest itself of stock in companies allied with Israel, that campus anti-Semitism was on the rise; he deplored rampant grade inflation.

Harvard professors who complain Summers is “intimidating” are wimps, suggests Harvey Mansfield, a conservative (by Harvard standards) professor.

High school blues

Bill Gates was the keynote speaker for this weekend’s education summit in Washington, D.C. Governors and business leaders want to improve high schools.

“Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age,” said Gates, whose philanthropic foundation has committed nearly a billion dollars to the challenge of improving high schools. “Until we design them to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year.”

. . . Gates and other speakers enumerated a list of alarming statistics to back up their argument that high schools are failing students, particularly low-income or minority children. The United States ranks 16th among 20 developed nations in the percentage of students who complete high school and 14th among the top 20 in college graduation rates.

Math and science education is a particular concern; U.S. students fare poorly compared to students in other industrialized nations, and China and India are coming up fast on the outside.

The summit’s leaders said high schools need to reshape their curricula and make high school more rigorous. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the NGA vice chairman, cited a study that found that the key predictor of whether a student would finish college was neither race nor income but whether he or she had been exposed to a rigorous curriculum in high school. “This is about the starting line, not the finish line,” he said.

The Washington Post editorial board urges them not to demand lower standards in the name of flexibility.

Achieve, Inc., cosponsor of the conference says that only 68 of every 100 ninth-graders will graduate from high school, 40 will enter college, 27 will enroll for a second year and only 18 will graduate with a two-year or four-year degree within six years. More than half of college students must take remedial English or math in college.

In the Baltimore Sun, Tom Toch writes that small is beautiful. The Gates Foundation is putting a lot of money into small high schools.

School spending

The average expenditure per K-12 student is $7,734 nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of that, $4,755 goes for instruction. Utah, at $4,900 per student, spent the least; the District of Columbia spent the most, $12,102. California was right in the middle, spending more than Texas but a lot less than New York and New Jersey.

Adding in capital expenditures, the national average was $8,589 with D.C. spending more than $15,000 per student, and getting very little education for the dollars.

Update: As commenters noted, the cost of living is much higher in California than in Texas. A reader sent me a link to a salary calculator, which says that $35,000 in Houston is the equivalent of $49,000 in Los Angeles.

Out of the yearbook

The principal of a Florida high school pulled the yearbok photo of a lesbian student because she’d dressed in a tuxedo. Officials say the student didn’t follow the dress rules, but the school board attorney says there is no dress code for senior pictures.

Fudging on small-class law

By state law, Florida schools must cut class sizes, but schools have found ways to get around the law, reports the Miami Herald.

Many school districts have the money to hire teachers but can’t afford to build classrooms. So administrators have taken advantage of loopholes in the state formula, which does not actually measure class size, but rather the ratio of students to teachers in each classroom. Here is what they are doing:

— Mainstreaming special-education students, which has the ancillary benefit of reducing class size, at least on paper. If the special-education teacher is counted as a second teacher, the student/teacher ratio is cut in half.

— Having a specialist — such as a reading teacher — visit a classroom for one period, which reduces the student/teacher ratio for that period, and thus for the day. Since class-size data are collected on a specific day each week, schools can reduce their reported ratio by scheduling specialists in large classes on that day.

— Pulling students out of class for tutoring, speech therapy or other special help on the day of the count.

— Putting two classes in one room, with two teachers, who can “team-teach.”

At Hallandale Elementary for example, the state of Florida says teacher Danielle Eberly’s class has 18 first-graders.

But when Eberly is standing before her class, she’s speaking to 36 children, not 18. As Eberly teaches, her co-teacher, LoriAyne Stickler, might be doing paperwork, or walking around the room to make sure her youngsters understand the lesson. Then the two reverse roles.

Research shows small classes benefit students in kindergarten and first grade; after that, the evidence is murky. The two-teacher model described in the story has a lot in common with staffing classrooms with a teacher and an aide; there’s no evidence that aides improve student performance, though they make the teacher’s job less stressful.

Books for a rapper

Last night I interviewed a former student at the charter school I’m writing about, and discovered that Jose is working in construction, studying for his GED and planning to enroll in community college classes, probably at night, in the hopes of earning a college degree. He’s a bright guy who writes rap-style rhymes as his hobby and discusses questions like “what is real?” with his kid sister, who’s on the honor roll.

I’d like to give him some books to encourage him to keep reading, writing and educating himself. At first, I thought of Hemingway’s short stories, and then I thought I should send him poetry books. Blake, maybe? I just checked and I have two copies of T.S. Eliot’s poems (with Prufrock and Wasteland). One was mine in high school; the other was borrowed and never returned from the dorm library by my ex-husband. Of course, I can get used books cheaply from Amazon, so it doesn’t have to be something I have on the shelves now. I’d particularly like to ask teachers who work with teen-agers what they’d recommend. I also have short story collections. I think Jose would get Nelson Algren’s “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” but I don’t think stories about the marital angst of New Yorkers would do much for him.

New links

My brother David, who’s acted as my webmaster for years without compensation, has posted three links in the right-hand column to his Tech Solutions business, his Ladera Marketplace directory (check it out if you live near Ladera Ranch or Mission Viejo in Orange County) and his new pod-casting blog. If you have any business or mindshare to throw his way, please do so.

First Impressions are misleading

In Scottsdale, Arizona, the school district receptionist is now “director of first impressions.” Many employees have new titles to make their self-esteem as inflated as their students’. The Arizona Republic reports:

Was the school bus late? Blame the “transporter of learners,” formerly the bus driver.

Got a problem with your school principal? Take it up with the 10-word “executive director for elementary schools and excelling teaching and learning,” formerly known as the assistant superintendent of elementary schools.

Superintendent John Baracy explains: “This is to make a statement about what we value in the district. We value learning.”

Best of the Web responds:

“Learning”? That’s “facilitating the development of critical thinking skills” to you, bub!

When I was in high school, guidance became the “Pupil Personnel Services Center” and the library became the “Instructional Materials Center,” known, redundantly, as “The IMC Center.”