January 9, 2007

Strict reading program puts Butte schools in spotlight

I came across this story from the Montana Standard about how the Butte school district abandoned their whole-language reading program (aka balanced literacy) for the DI program Reading Mastery. The results were predictable.

(The story does not appear to be available online so I'm going to throw caution to the wind and post the whole thing and let the copyright lawyers come after me. My comments are in blue.)

Strict reading program puts Butte schools in spotlight
By LESLIE McCARTNEY
Montana Standard

BUTTE - It was around the year 2000 that the Butte school district found itself in trouble.

Reading scores - as measured by mandatory standardized tests - were slipping in some elementary schools.

"We were consistently in the 80th percentile and suddenly we were in the 60th percentile," said Judy Jonart, the district's curriculum director. The statistics showed many of Butte's students were struggling with reading, a building block for all other subjects.

So began a dramatic shift in the way the district's nearly 4,600 students attacked reading: They hired an outside consultant, used a different curriculum and added reading coaches in every school. More time was devoted to the subject: teachers and students spent at least two hours of every school day learning and practicing reading.

The changes are working.

Two of the district's elementary schools recently placed in the top 15 percent in reading of 300 schools designated as Reading First. Those schools are targeted for special help - and dollars - from the federal government because of low scores.

Just three years ago, those schools scored only in the 40s in measuring students' reading proficiency, but last spring's measurements put those them above 80 percent at what is termed "benchmark," or meeting reading goals for that grade level.

[To put this in perspective, 75% of 4th grade students passed the Montana state exam in 2005. That means that these schools are now performing above the Montana average. WHo said there was no such thing as Lake Woebegone]

But the change wasn't easy because it required a shift in educational philosophy.

[Odd that. Most professionals don't like failing, but for some reason educators are the exception to the rule. Seems they'd rather stick to a failed philosophy than change.]

And it hasn't been cheap, with nearly $1.8 million spent to implement,teach and measure student progress. That money came from general fund dollars and grants.

[Another perspective factoid: This amounts to about $400 per student. Around here are per pupil spending goes up by at least that amount every single year with little to show for it.]

"They are in the top 15 percent in the country, not just the state of Montana. It is phenomenal," said Molly Blakely, the Missoula reading consultant who works with the district and visits each school once or twice a year.

The success has attracted attention with Butte regularly fielding interest from other districts and educators trying to turn their own programs around.

New system

Just a few years ago, the buzz word in reading was the "whole language" method. Whole language devotees believe all children can learn to read naturally, encouraged by immersion in good books and literature that will make them lifelong and eager readers.

[That is, if they would only learn how to read proficiently, which they weren't. Keep this in mind.]

"You couldn't find anything that wasn't whole language," Jonart said of the materials available to districts.

But Butte statistics showed whole language wasn't working and parents complained the system did not emphasize phonics and "drill and kill" methods with which they learned to read.

[I have a hard time believing that parents would be asking for more "drill and killing" using those exact words. "Oh please, would you drill and kill my kids. It's for their own good."]

In 2001, the district started a pilot program in five classrooms using a program called Reading Mastery, which emphasized phonetic awareness - especially in the younger grades - and fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and other skills.

Developed by a scientist, Reading Mastery was resisted by teachers who weren't sold on the new curriculum.

[Here's where that "philosophy" business rears its ugly head.]

"It's scripted and it's very strict," Jonart said.

The system provides a script from which teachers read and lessons are plotted, leaving some teachers feeling robbed of creativity and spontaneity. The program also requires total devotion or "fidelity," meaning teachers must not stray from the boundaries.

[Let's weigh the pros and cons. Con: teachers feeling robbed of creativity. Pro: kids learning how to read. Yeah, that's a tough winner to pick. Creativity to do what? Misteach kids how to read? isn't that waht it boils down to when you look at the statistics? Such calls for "creativity" really ought to be made in front of a greek chorus of students "reading" from a grade-level book.]

"People I have great respect for didn't agree with me," Jonart said. But the results from five pilot classrooms convinced the district that Reading Mastery was the best route.

"They were way ahead of everyone else," Jonart said.

[Again, this is the predictable result. On average there should be about a standard deviation increase in effect size.]

Although it seems having a scripted program would result in less work for teachers and administrators, it's not the case. In fact, Jonart said the program requires more of teachers. The program is targeted toward children's abilities, which are categorized as intensive, for readers most in need of help, and strategic, for children on their way toward meeting benchmark goals for their age groups.

"These teachers are totally awesome," said Kathy Weeres, a reading coach at Kennedy Elementary, a school where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. "We wouldn't be here without them."

Weeres started at Kennedy about two years ago, after the school charted its first dismal reading scores, and she has seen the progress brought about by hard-working educators and students. Seeing low scores reported in the newspaper each year was difficult, Weeres said, and was especially disenchanting for students and teachers.

Reading earlier, faster

But the latest batch of numbers offered encouragement.

Not only are kids reading earlier, they are advancing faster. By fourth grade, some students have tackled high school material from 20 years ago with Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

[Both of these stories are found in the the fourth and fifth grade lessons of Reading Mastery. As is the Wizard of Oz to name another well-known children's story off the top of my head. So let's put that lie to rest that in DI reading programs it's all phonics instruction all day long and that there is no literature readings.]

To be sure, in Shannon Tregidga's class on a recent day, about 20 students sat in front of a board filled with small words as Tregidga - who had perfect command over squirming bodies - practiced each word, taken from their reading, in rapid-fire fashion.

[Read that again: "perfect command over squirming bodies." Then go read some of the teacher blogs and the horror stories that they can't control their students.]

Weeres encourages teachers to put their mark on the system, even though it is scripted, paced and repetitive. "I say you can't take anything away, but you can add (to the lesson)," she said.

[Oh, so you mean that you can deviate from the script? Gee, I wonder why that factoid isn't mentioned by the critics. With higher performing students, you could deviate quite a bit from teh scripts without adverse results. But, you better be very careful when deviating from the script with lower performers.]

That is because the system requires constant testing, monitoring and repetition. But it also allows the school to know exactly where a child is and how they are progressing. It also provides ways for advanced children to excel, reaching into upper level lessons.

[The rest of the world calls this "feedback"which is essential to getting things working right]

[Here's another little mentioned factoid: "It also provides ways for advanced children to excel, reaching into upper level lessons" Clear instruction helps accelerate the performance of higher performers too. The biggest complaint you heare from higher peformers is that they are bored silly in the conventional classroom. Such would not be the case if the teaacher were covering moving at twice the normal rate and covering twice as many lessons.]

"We really ask a lot of teachers and students," said Margie Willhite, a reading coach at Whittier Elementary. But Willhite likes the program because it keeps kids involved in the lesson and also helps zap errors as soon as they are made, she said. The program also lays bare strengths and weaknesses of each individual reader.

[And of the teacher as well. If the same exact lessons are working for all the other teachers and aren't for you. It's likely that you're doing something wrong which will be readily ascertainable within a few days do to the constant monitoring.]

By example, whole language depends on an entire class reading aloud. So, some kids with reading deficiencies are hidden by those who are advanced.

[I don't think this is an accurate statement about whole language.]

Blakely touts Reading Mastery's ability to catch children earlier - they are tested three times a year outside of standardized tests. "You don't want to find out they need help in June," Blakely said.

[Which is the typical scenario. Kids can go the entire year in kindergarten without making adequate progress and it isn't picked up until June -- of third grade.]

Whittier Principal Christy Johnson said the success is the result of many things: a good program, outside help, teachers' commitment and students' work. And she admits it hasn't been easy with more hours needed and devoted to reading. "It's been stressful," she said.

But both she and Willhite say the effort has been worth it: At the end of last year, 98 percent of Whittier's kindergartners reached benchmark.

[That would be a good thing.]

"Kids really want success," Willhite said.

Blakely also applauds the district for spending the money to put reading coaches - which she considers crucial to success - in all of its six elementary schools, not just the ones that were under-performing. "They made it available to all students and
teachers," she said.

"Now I'm not going to say Reading Mastery is the end-all," Jonart said, adding that there are other programs. "But our kids are performing.

2 comments:

allen said...

As long as you keep firmly in mind that whole language, and every other edu-fad, isn't really about it's stated purpose the mystery is resolved.

The purpose of whole language is the promotion of professional self-regard. It doesn't so much matter that the kids read as it does that the teacher, or administrator or school board member, is part of the educational cutting edge.

The practice of education is reduced to the pursuit of fashion leadership since there aren't more mundane but objective measures in use.

Who wants to be known as a practitioner of something as inherently dreary sounding, if not actually alarming, as "drill and kill"? Sounds like a combination of an assembly line and an abattoir job.

Not the image that the molders of the leaders of tomorrow want to present to the world or accept for themselves. Nope, this is the profession that turns out Sistine chapel ceiling-painters and philosopher kings.

ShortWoman said...

Athletes and musicians have another name for "drill and kill." They call it "practice makes perfect."