Could you imagine a surgeon who only performed easy procedures, regardless of their efficacy, because he didn't want to put the work in necessary to perform the difficult procedures that were more effective? Could you also imagine this surgeon then labeling all the patients he failed to cure as "healing disabled" and referring them to another surgeon? Of course not.
I bring this up to preface an illuminating discussion I came across on the Direct Instruction listserv on the topic of Reading First schools with large "at risk" populations continuing to choose what they like as their core reading program rather than what works. Under Reading First, schools were often required to adopt an intervention program for the kids who inevitably failed to read using the school's core program. Let's see how the system works as explained by one administrator in the know:
In deciding which program to adopt as core, it would be wise to understand a school's student population. Is it "typical"? Or is it "at risk"?
Even though all Reading First Schools have a high percentage of at risk students, the decision at most of them has been to select Open Court or Houghton Mifflin because these programs are more familiar to decision makers, are far less demanding to teach to fidelity, and appear to have more literacy components, giving the impression that students would be able to engage in a wide range of comprehension activities sooner.
Decision makers are also aware of staff resistance to the direct instruction teaching demands of Reading Mastery, even though they may also be cognizant that research studies and recognized experts, such as Dr. Shaywitz, attest to its effectiveness. Hence, as an unspoken compromise, they most often choose it as an intervention program as a sort of reading safety net.
The problem this creates is that many students do not show progress in the core program and need to be placed in the intervention program. Because it is understood that first grade students need to be finished or just about finished with RM Level II in order to attain 40 correct words per minute on DIBELS assessment, staff resources are strained. Some staff teach the core program, and some staff teach the intervention program.
I don't want to infect this analysis with a discussion with balanced literacy programs, but I can assure you if it weren't for the fact so many children in these schools are failing to learn how to read in a timely manner, the program of choice would be a balanced literacy program because such programs require even less teacher skill and knowledge that the big three basal programs.
So why is a reading program like Reading Mastery so difficult to teach to fidelity? Because Reading Mastery requires teachers to identify and correct each and every student mistake to enable each student to be taught each lesson to mastery. There is no such requirement (other than lip-service) in other programs. Other programs assume that kids will learn the material presented in each lesson even though the lessons have never been field tested in front of children. Some kids will get it, others will not. Those who don't get it are shipped off to a separate intervention program more attuned to their "learning style" with the slowest learners being labeled "learning disabled." In contrast, in Reading Mastery, the intervention is built right into the program. The teacher's responsibility does not end at the initial presentation. Rather, the teacher's responsibility ends at the students' mastery of the material, not before.
For our brighter students, understanding typical occurs after the initial presentation and with some practice, mastery typically follows. A monkey could teach such kids. A dumb monkey. And so could, I would hope, even an inept ed school graduate fresh out of school. It is not difficult to correct the errors of children who make few.
But as we move down the cognitive food chain, errors become more frequent and serious. And, teachers quickly realize that they do not know how to correct these errors reliably. Errors mean the student doesn't understand. Not correcting the errors means the teacher hasn't taught. And, when the teacher hasn't taught, you can bet the student hasn't learned. In this case, the student hasn't learned to read. This is why Reading Mastery is a demanding program to teach because, unlike other reading programs, it doesn't let the teacher off the hook when the student fails to learn. In short, it requires that teachers actual teach, not just the brighter students, but all students.
Since almost every schools has a population of non-bright kids who need to be educated in order to comply with NCLB, schools have two options to teach these kids:
1. Adopt a program like Reading Mastery which has an intervention built in and train your teachers how to use it; or
2. Adopt another core curriculum and enhance it, even though you have no idea how to enhance it in a way that guarantees that almost every student will learn (otherwise you wouldn't be in this predicament). You could always use a program like Reading Mastery as your intervention program.
Option two is not without its pitfalls as another educator pointed out in the discussion:
Staff need to be trained in how to effectively teach the Core curriculum. Because typical teachers who've graduated the past twenty years have rarely received effective training in how to teach phonics, from basic alphabetic principle to multi-syllabic word reading, the training to get teachers to effectively teach the core takes about two years through a combination of formal training and practice and in classroom coaching. You have to be prepared to make up for the deficits that students come out of ed school training with.
So, the first problem is that ed schools haven't adequately prepared elementary teachers how to teach reading or for that matter the proper underlying theory.
The core needs to be enhanced for at-risk learners. As part of training, teachers need to learn how to apply effective scaffolding through model-lead-test ("My Turn-Together-Your Turn") strategies; to maintain high reinforcement levels in the classroom; to effectively correct errors; to get unison responses from students; to teach lessons to mastery before moving on, etc. These strategies are not currently routinely used for regular education instruction. Open Court 1st grade is especially difficult to teach when long vowels are introduced. For example they present several different types of long e in the same week. Teachers have to put on the brakes and slowly move through those lessons.
Problem two, most core curricula are not carefully designed to parcel out instruction at an acceptable rate. Schools are still seen as sorting machines in which Herculean tasks are presented to children without regard to whether those not a the very tippy top can achieve the tasks.
All of the big 3 Phonics curriculum teacher guides have enough material in one day's lesson to last a week. Some of the suggested activities address critical reading skills - others include things like making Russian nesting dolls. We've found that many teachers have a penchant for opting for the Russian nesting dolls. Often critical reading skills are omitted (ex. words with tion suffixes are taught, but the suffix tion has never been taught in isolation.) We found that simply teaching the teachers to adapt the curriculum wasn't enough - that we had to write daily lesson plans based on the curriculum that teachers would use each day before doing the "other stuff." Thus, every day teachers knew which letter sounds to teach, which words to teach, which sentences from the story to practice, etc. In the beginning, we assumed that teachers would pick the quality comprehension activities, until we observed all of the Russian doll making. Thus we began including a list of research based comprehension activities from each day's lesson. These activities had to be completed before the "project stuff."
Problem three, when confronted with a choice of material, teachers often don't know how to pick out the material that will teach the important skills. Better to keep the slower learners occupied and docile, rather than go through the effort of teaching them. Projects and activities are good at keeping kids occupied.
Part of the training should include "deprogramming" reading mythology that teachers have learned in ed school. This is the most difficult part of the training for K and 1st grade teachers. Both Open Court and Harcourt encourage way too much sight word learning in kindergarten and first grade before students have acquired alphabetic principle. I've seen far both curricula taught as whole language programs by less capable teachers with a bit of phonics thrown in and the predictable/leveled books emphasized while the decodables were ignored. We trained teachers to omit the leveled books until alphabetic principle (50/15 on DIBELS NWF assessment) was established. Teachers need to learn how to appropriately select activities for the students in RM when they aren't in RM. It would seem obvious that you wouldn't give those students frustration level reading material outside of their instructional time, but I'm always surprised how often we have to intervene when teachers do that.
Problem four, ed schools again.
If your district does the above, they can improve reading results using the two curricula. We've seen that all of the big 3 can be credibly taught if adapted from the start. If your district is a high poverty one those adaptations are essential. Also we found that using Language for Learning in kindergarten with all of the children whether in RM or not will have immediate benefits as well as long term ones.
Problem five, educators need to know what they're doing to be successful. They don't. And, low-performers need explicit language training as well--something schools have historically relegated to the parents, i.e., they don't know how to do this either.
The more time in RM, the faster the students will progress. I suspect that all of the multi-tier programs don't plan for enough instructional time in the Intensive curriculum.
Lower-performers often need more instructional time, not less. See KIPP. If you enhance your program and do a poor job at it, as is most likely the case, you may have to cut into play time. You'll hear lots of complaints about this for good reason. If you just used a program like Reading Mastery in the first place, you wouldn't be in this predicament now.
There is no magic road to learning. Stop looking for it. So far the only road we found is uphill (both ways), you might as well use it intead of trying to hack your own path. At least you won't get lost along the way, and, in the long run, it'll likely turn out to be less work.