Reading on the same page

Congress hates the most successful part of No Child Left Behind, writes Charlotte Allen in a Weekly Standard story on Reading First. She looks at a Richmond elementary school for low-income black students that’s shown dramatic gains in student achievement. With the help of Reading First funds, teachers start students with direct, systematic instruction in phonics.

The education establishment may sneer at the techniques (teacher Laverne) Johnson uses, but they are part of a small-scale miracle: Ginter Park, despite an unpromising location and a high-poverty-level student body, now ranks in the top third of more than 1,100 public elementary schools in the state of Virginia, holding its own against schools in the ultra-affluent, highly educated suburban counties of northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Until only five years ago, Ginter Park … the second-worst-performing elementary school in the Richmond Public Schools district — which was itself the second-worst-performing school district in the state.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who took over as superintendent in 2002, standardized the reading curriculum.

Before that, every teacher had been free to pick his or her own reading materials and design his or her own curriculum. This led to widespread “hobby teaching,” as one Richmond teacher called it: Instructors left to their own devices would sometimes spend the entire school year working with their students on art and other projects that suited the teacher’s interests . . .

I wonder how common “hobby teaching” is.

Update: Shep Barbash suggests LA’s superintendent, a former admiral, hire a chief academic officer who understands the success of Reading First.

In California, the percentage of Reading First schools scoring at 600 or higher on the state’s Academic Performance Index — the dividing line between basic and below basic performance — has increased from 4% in 1999 (the year the state launched an initiative similar to Reading First) to 40% in 2002 (when Reading First began) to 93% in 2006. The achievement gap between Reading First and other schools on this benchmark has narrowed from 63% to 48% to 6% over that time.

Reading achievement at RF schools in LA is improving more rapidly than at other schools.

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  1. If hobby teaching is doing arts and crafts with the students instead of academics, what is it called when the teacher chooses projects and activities that reflect their political preferences diversity, global warming rather than academics?

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Why, LOBBY teaching, of course! =)

    My favorite was example of the Social Studies teacher in a CATHOLIC highschool where I taught for a year….

    She had the kids do an extended project on why free access to Contraception was an ESSENTIAL human right….

    Needless to say, the parents, the principal, and the pastor were NOT amused……..

  3. Bob Diethrich says:

    You will find “hobby teaching” and lobby teaching (great line BTW) in the humanities a lot. I know several people who got stuck with a Civil War buff for 8th grade US history, and spent about a whole semester on that subject. And its worse in large state universities. A friend of mine went to Penn State years ago as an undergrad and took a course on “US History 1865-1913.” She told me the entire course dealt with the populist era (bascially the 1890’s) and their term papers were only to be on that subject. Two years later the professor publishes his next book on……Yep you guessed it!

  4. I’d suspect both abberations are relatively common, and hobby teaching is not new.

    I had a couple of hobby teaching types in the ’50s in the Midwest, but they were much commoner in the Bay area in the ’90s when my kids were dealing with the modern California version of education. And, lobby teachers are extremely common in English, history, and the social sciences.

    But the prevalence of both types is simply a symptom of incompetent management in the schools.

  5. Robert Wright says:

    Except in the subject of basic reading, I’m a strong proponent of hobby teaching.

    If I ran a school, hobby teaching would be strongly encouraged and anybody who even said the word “standards” would be socked on the arm or the leg and get a charlie horse.

    Why? Because I’ve seen some of the best teaching and learning take place when teachers are allowed to follow their passions beyond the limits of their prepared scripts.

    I experienced it when I was a student. I see it all around me where I teach.

    My 5th grade summer school math teacher was the best social studies teacher I ever had. I will always cherish her digressions.

  6. Robert, what you’re talking about is great for things that go above and beyond the core of a sound curriculum. Applying that idea to everything except reading is an invitation to allow massive gaps in knowledge for kids. It’s certainly true that some teachers can do wonders with SOME things that they’re passionate about, but allowing it across the board (except for reading) will cause serious problems for students (and future teachers of those students).

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    Allen’s article is thorough albeit slanted away from whole language. It does, however point out the whole language pedagogy (small cooperative groupings, independent reading time, child-centered classroom, etc) borrowed by the teacher that was the focus of the article.

    What I think that such glimpses bypass (the plural of anecdote is not data), is that there is always much going on in real life. During the time that whole language is alleged to have run rampant, with resultant loss of global standing in reading scores, the women’s movement drew many bright and talented women away from teaching as a profession. There are measurable drops in class standing, SAT/ACT scores etc. of teachers entering the profession. Couple that with the fiercely protected right of every teacher to determine what goes on in their own classroom and the comparative disadvantage of urban and minority schools in attracting seasoned teachers, and there are many competing influences on reading scores.

    If you ask many adults today how they were taught to read, they are likely to respond that they learned by phonics (sound it out!). If pushed, they likely remember the Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry readers–which, though systematic, were assuredly not phonetic, but a reaction to phonics called look-say. It was based on senseless repetition of an expanding list of words–until they are memorized “by sight.” Those of a certain age also picked up Dr. Suess at the library–which one might view as whole language (recreational reading), but is heavily infused with phonics (hop on pop, in a boat, with a goat).

    Except for those instances where approaches have been systematically studied (and despite the disparaging tone of the article, qualitative research does require rigor), most reading is likely taught by an amalgam of many strategies. This in no way discounts the effect of the Reading First program–despite the ethics challenges. However, to use that documentation to disprove any of the features of whole language is not only silly, but unscientific.

    What I have come to realize about the scripted approaches–once past my knee jerk response to them–is that they frequently pick up where teacher education left off. Where we don’t systematically provide educators with scaffolded supervision in acquiring methods, these programs, when done well, can provide a short-cut into ensuring faithful application of what has been proven. Whole language–or other constructivist approaches–as presented in the article, frequently become an excuse for “anything goes.” Where faithful applications of whole language principles have been studied–as in Reading Recovery, I believe that there have also been indications of success.

  8. Andy Freeman says:

    > My 5th grade summer school math teacher was the best social studies teacher I ever had.

    Did anyone miss out on math?

  9. Charter Mom says:

    This article reminds me of when my older son was approaching kindergarten and I visited several magnet schools in my local district. I always asked about reading curriculum and was always told that essentially teachers used whatever method and materials they wanted — and that kids could wind up with a teacher that taught phonetically one year and a teacher that taught whole language the next. Since I thought consistency might be just a bit important I opted for a charter that offered a consistent curriculum (SRA Open Court). My now teenage son reads above grade level despite his reading and writing related LD (actually was above grade level when the LD was diagnosed — the evaluation was for writing but the reading problem also showed up). Was it the curriculum? Not totally, I’m sure — but I do believe it helped.

  10. a nit: David Brewer is a retired Admiral, not a former Admiral. Military officers who have retired remain eligible for involuntary recall to active duty until the day they die.

  11. Perhaps the saddest part about the decline and fall of the Bush administration is the effect it will have on No Child Left Behind in general and reading first in particular. In the minds of many the last six years is completely tainted, and that’s a damnable shame because Reading First really does work.

  12. Re: hobby teaching. In one of my favorite “education” movies–Teachers (1985) starring Nick Nolte, JoBeth Williams, Judd Hirsch and others–a student asks Nolte what he’s going to teach that day. “Radiators,” he says, and spends the class fixing the one in the class, with the students handing him tools.