May 16, 2008

Today's Video

Today's video is from cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, on brain-based education:

This is a good video to point your friends to the next time one of those new brain-based education fads comes knocking on your school district's door.

As Willingham makes clear, most of the "programs" out there trying to capitalize on important-sounding "brain-based" terminology are mostly bunk. He also explains why.

If you haven't done so yet, go read every one of Willingham's cognitive science articles from AFT's American Educator. You'll be the better person for it. (or at least you'll stop leaving me silly comments showing you haven't read them.)

May 14, 2008

Decodable vs. Predictable Texts

In the last post I described how to tell the difference between a balanced literacy and phonics-based reading program. The difference is in the texts that the students read. In balanced literacy programs, predictable texts are used. In phonics-based programs, decodable texts are used.

Someone requested an example, and before I had a chance to provide one, a teacher who goes by the handle PalisadesK provided not only a great example, but further elaborated on my point. Here's what she wrote.

Here are two examples from the Reading A-Z site, which offers both “leveled” books (balanced literacy approach – sight words and “predicting” from pictures and the first letter) and “decodable” stories, based on letter-sound correspondences that have been taught. In decodable stories, children should be able to work out the words even if they have not seen that exact word before, providing they have learned the letter/sound association, and learned the skill of blending sounds into words.

Both these are from the Kindergarten level, roughly partway through K:

Leveled Book:

(Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Level A)

Maria Counts Pumpkins

(each sentence is on a page by itself, with a detailed illustration)

Maria has one pumpkin. Maria has two pumpkins…. (etc.) up to Maria has seven pumpkins. Maria has too many pumpkins!

Note that most of these words are not “decodable” by the beginning kindergarten student, who would not have learned diphthongs (ou), or how to sound out two-syllable and three-syllable words like “Maria” and pumpkins” and “many.” The number words would have been taught as sight words, and can also be inferred from the pictures. “has” can be decoded, but might also have been taught as a sight word. Many K students learn letter names, but are not taught to decode words, left-to-right, saying the sounds. They are told to use the first letter sound as a “cue” to guess the word.

Now here’s a decodable story which would be appropriate for a child who had learned most of the single consonant sounds and the short vowel sounds (plus the long vowel digraph ay and final y and i-consonant-e as a long I sound)), and been taught to blend them together. Programs like “Jolly Phonics” teach these to four and five year olds in one school term, with a lot of practice in blending new words and spelling by sounds.

Decodable Book:

My Pug Has Fun

(format is the same, but there are several sentences on each page and a detailed drawing. The drawing would help the child confirm that he decoded correctly )

My pug Bud and I like to play. We like to tug on the rug. We like to get a bug. We like to sit on a rug in the sun. (New page, shows pug digging in a sandbox, holding a coffee mug in his jaws, while child takes a nap on a blanket or mat) My pug likes to tug my mug. He dug a pit. He put my mug in a pit.

There are a couple more pages about things the pug and boy do together. It’s not deathless literature, but it’s cute. The child can read it independently.

Many of the “leveled books” at the early stages (you can see some free samples on are quite contrived and boring. It’s hard to imagine any kid staying up with a flashlight to read these things under the covers! Although balanced literacy proponents make a big deal about exposing children to “authentic literature,” it is a sad fact that most of the “literature” the students read is contrived and far from authentic – or interesting.

Decodable stories are no prose masterpieces, either, but they do provide children with a chance to consolidate an important skill. Moreover, children who master decoding early and fluently will soon be reading that “authentic literature” that “whole language” enthusiasts love.

May 13, 2008

Looking Beyond the Reading First Controversy

Now that you've digested my Layman's Guide to Reading First you're going to want to take a look at Shep Barbash's Looking Beyond the Reading First Controversy in Education Next.

Shep does a good job describing the scandal (or lack thereof) aspect of Reading First and does some solid reporting on the data coming back from the states that tried to implement the program with fidelity.

Full Disclosure: I helped Shep analyze the state data to make sure it was being reported accurately.

May 12, 2008

The Layman's Guide to Reading First

When I see smart guys like Dean Millot and Sherman Dorn confused about what went on in Reading First I think it is safe to assume that nearly everyone else is confused as well.

So this is my attempt at a brief and simple primer on what actually went on in Reading First. To understand what's going on you need to understand the reading wars, basic economics, and a little history. Then all you need to do is to follow the money. I'll keep this as short and sweet as is humanly possible.

The diagram below shows you the kinds of reading programs in use.

There are two kinds of reading programs on the market: whole language/balanced literacy and phonics programs.

Whole language programs and balanced literacy programs are similar. Balanced literacy programs merely add a phonics component. Both programs use predictable texts which favors the guessing of text from context clues rather than the decoding of words via phonics skills.

Phonics based programs use highly decodable texts that facilitate the decoding of text via the use of phonics skills and discourages the use of context clues during the initial stages of reading instruction.

Oddly enough, the presence of a phonics component does not distinguish between between balanced literacy programs and phonics based programs. Both programs claim to have a phonics component. In fact, both will argue that they contain the five essential elements of reading instruction (ECRI), i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies. These are the five components that the National Reading Panel's meta-analysis found were present in all highly-effective reading programs (though the presence of these components does not guarantee effectiveness).

Rather, the most easily ascertainable difference between the two is in the texts that are used in the initial stages of reading. Look at the texts and you'll easily see which pedagogical lineage the program belongs to.

Most of the reading programs in use today have not been validated by scientifically based reading research (SBRR). At the time Reading First was adopted, only three reading programs have program specific SBRR -- Success for All (SfA), Direct Instruction's Reading Mastery (DI), and a prior edition of Open Court (OC) (though not the current edition). All of these programs are phonics based programs using highly decodable texts.

The publishers of these reading programs are capitalists and will dutifully provide whatever product the market calls for. The market has been predominantly calling for balanced literacy programs. This is because balanced literacy ideologues are firmly entrenched in most school districts throughout the country and at all levels of the education hierarchy, including at schools of education and at state level departments of education.

The poor track record of balanced literacy programs with 'at-risk" students and the mounting research base of phonics based programs has not served to dislodge the entrenched balanced literacy programs which remain in widespread use.

But, phonics advocates had the Bush administration's ear starting in 2000. Apparently, someone had the idea to let the federal government do what it does best -- bribe schools with federal dollars to adopt scientifically based reading programs for their "at-risk" students. And, thus, Reading First was born as part of NCLB and the effort to force more accountability and obtain better results from the federal dollars being sent to schools to increase the achievement of "at-risk: children. NCLB was enacted with overwhelming bi-partisan support.

Reading First was designed to cause change. And change is going to cause tension between those who want change (and federal dollars) and those that want to maintain the status quo (while getting federal dollars). Given the state of the reading wars let's see how all this breaks down.

At the state level, the motivation is to continue the status quo, i.e., balanced literacy, while grabbing as much Reading First funding as possible. This is called rent seeking and it is what monopolies do. (It's also why your utility companies and the DMV treat you like crap.) As a result, these folks were going to do whatever they could to get their existing reading programs funded with little or no modification. If you read the IG's reports on Reading First, you can plainly see that this activity was going on behind the scenes and DoE was trying to prevent it.

Reading program publishers were trying to increase their market share caused by the disruption caused by the injection of Reading First funding. To accomplish this goal they published phonics-based programs that were capable of being funded under Reading First, but yet were palatable to those balanced-literacy lovin' educators who would ultimately be selecting those programs at the state level. (Publishers are, by and large, capitalists who will provide the market with whatever it is asking for.) Thus, publishers were also trying to game the system by skirting the line between phonics-based programs and balanced-literacy programs in order to grab the biggest market share they could. Similarly, publishers were simultaneously trying to re-market their existing balanced-literacy programs as complying with the Reading First statute.

The U.S. Department of Education would be charged with determining which reading programs qualified for Reading First funding and which ones didn't. The DoE would be constrained by two primary factors: the statute itself and the department's prohibition against directly mandating curricula.

The relevant section of the Reading First statute is vague, requiring only that funding go to a school that selects and implements a reading program that is "based on scientifically based reading research" and includes "the essential components of reading instruction." Both of these terms are further defined in the statute, but not in a meaningful way that would have informed DoE where to draw the funding line.

But, let's cut right to the chase. There are only three meaningful places where the funding line could be drawn based on the statute.

1. Funding limited to reading programs having program-specific reading research. Basically, this would have limited funding to Success for All, Direct instruction, and Open Court. But, the statute clearly intends broader funding than this since it reads "based on" SBRR and not something more restrictive like "having its own program-specific" [SBRR]. Now Bob Slavin thinks the line should have been drawn here, but Slavin is an interested party that would reaped a financial windfall had the line been drawn here. I've been going back and forth with Dean Millot, both in private correspondance and on his blog, about this issue. Dean thinks this is where the line should have been drawn, but has been unable to convince me that his interpretation is proper. I will go so far to say that this is where I wish the line were drawn, but the statutory language precludes such a strict interpretation. Moreover, no one involved in the drafting of the law has gone on record and said that this is the proper interpretation of the statute. If anything, those members of Congress who have made statements appear to be of the opinion that the funding should have been widely distributed.

2. Funding limited to phonics-based programs having decodable texts. In my opinion, this is the most likely place that the funding line should have been drawn based on the statutory language. In fact, this is where DoE thought the line was drawn and was the distinguishing point at which they excluded programs from funding. All the major publishers must have thought that this was where the line was drawn as well sicne they all developed new phonics-based reading programs. Publishers were also trying no make their balanced literacy programs appear to be phonics-based by including a phonics component. these programs were rightfully sent packing by DoE since the research shows that a phonics component won't do the trick; it has to be a phonics component plus complementary decodable texts. In any event, this is where the main battle line was drawn and where much of the behind-the-scenes fighting took place. A few questionable reading programs appear to have been funded, but it appears that those programs snuck by with the help of ideologues at the state level that did whatever they could to obscure the reading programs they intended to fund on their Reading First applications. It also appears that DoE was fearful about violating the prohibition against mandating curricula and capitulated to the demands of some of the more aggressive states that wanted to fund balanced literacy programs. The facts also indicate that DoE did what they could to make sure as few non-phonics-based reading programs as possible.

3. Funding not limited; all reading programs funded. This is not a reasonable reading of the statute, but some members of Congress and the Inspector General believe that some reading programs were unfairly excluded from funding. Given that DoE pretty much funded all the phonics-based reading programs, this would mean that all reading programs were fundable for some to be unfairly excluded. This is a ridiculous interpretation, by any standard, but it appears to be the standard that the IG used in finding in its reports. And, those reports were parroted by various Democratic congressmen for partisan ends -- just in case you think your congressman is more concerned with making sure "at-risk" are properly taught with federal dollars than throwing them under the bus when political gains could be made.

With this background in mind, you can read any Reading First media story, any congressional press release, or any of the IG reports and make a fair evaluation of what actually went on. Did DoE violate the law?

We don't know for sure. The IG didn't find any actual violations in which a program was improperly excluded, was improperly include, or in which anyone in a position to make a funding decision made one that benefited him or herself.

At most, DoE played fast and loose with the law and regulations in an effort to maintain as much control over the process as possible. That activity was technically improper by an reasonable standard even if DoE thought they needed the control to fend off hostile publishers and states that were trying to get funded improperly. The conditions appear to be in place for violations to have occurred, but oddly, the IG failed to find any actual violations.

But that's for you to decide. If you find an actual violation let me know.

Slow Output

Sorry for the slow output, gang.

This time it's not for wont of other work or laziness.

I have three partially completed big-picture posts in varying states of completedness. I'm not quite done wrapping my head around them quite yet.

Hopefully, they will be worth the read when they do come.


May 9, 2008

Today's Question (redux)

I'm cross-posting this question from over at Kitchen table Math posted. It is a follow-up from a previous post on reading asessments which did not yield as many satisfactory answers as I expected --meaning I asked the question poorly. This is take two.

NCLB is vague in its requirements with respect to measuring reading ability. NCLB is concerned with "proficiency in ... reading or language arts." That is the extent of the guidance given to us.

We know that reading is a complex skill comprising various subskills and content knowledge. But, what does it mean to be a proficient reader? What standardized test or battery of tests exist that accurately measure the "reading" ability of children and whether they are proficient?

Further, under NCLB it is the educators whose performance is being measured, even though the students are the ones taking the test. So the testing instrument must not allow educator subjectivity and must not be capable of being gamed by the educator. For example, Elizabeth's example in the post below describes a test that can be gamed by an educators since students can be taught to memorize the words appearing on the test and, thus, the test is not a true reflection of reading ability.

So, pretend you are a new superintendent of a school district who wants to accurately determine the reading ability of the children attending the schools in your district and how well they are being taught. So, for example, you want to know that your third graders are reading at a third grade level and will be capable of reading at a fourth grade level next year. You get to pick the standardized test(s) to be used. You will have non-reading-specialists monitoring the administration of the test(s). The monitors can identify outright cheating by teachers and/or students but nothing more subtle than that, i.e, they are incapable of making substantive determinations related to reading of any kind Otherwise, the administration of the tests is out of your control. Only the results of the test(s) will be reported to you.

What assessments do you select and why?

May 6, 2008

Interim Reading First Study

Methodological deficiencies notwithstanding, I'm not sure why anyone is surprised that the the interim Reading First Study seems to be showing null results.

Reading First was a product of political comprise. Instead of limiting grants to research validated programs reading curricula, the Reading First was watered down to permit reading programs "based on" scientifically based reading research. In reality, all this meant was that publishers needed to provide curricula appearing to have "explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies.

Reading Recovery is the antithesis of this approach to teaching reading. Yet look at what those clowns managed to show (pdf).

Designing effective reading instruction targeted to at-risk kids requires an orchestration of minute details and variables.

Throwing a few disjointed phonics exercises in your previous whole language program is not effective instruction, though you'd likely be able to make a case that it falls within the statutory language of "explicit systematic instruction in ... phonics" since that undefined term is all but meaningless. Oh sure, such instruction is going to be successful with many "advantaged" kids, but a broken clock is correct twice a day as well yet we don't say that this clock tells good time.

Let's be honest, many "real" phonics programs only perform marginally better than phony phonics programs. Phonics is not a magic wand that can be waved over a reading program and make it effective instruction. Phonics is a tool. A tool that can be wielded many ways, only some of which are effective with "at-risk" children. And phonics is only one smallish part of an effective reading program.

Prior to Reading First the major education publishers were not exactly cranking out high quality instructional programs--nor were they known for their ability to design effective instruction. Then an opportunity came along to grab a larger share of the reading curricula market by putting out a product that would be selected by all those schools with Reading First grants. All that needed to be done was to redesign your program so that it appeared to comply with the undefined statutory language of Reading First. Not exactly a Herculean task.

There are an infinite number of ways to design a reading program that complies with the Reading First statute. The probability of any of the major publishers stumbling upon one of the few effective combinations is pretty slim, especially considering their previous track record. And, the probability of a school selecting one of these newly-cranked-out reading programs from one of the major publishers and seeing improved results is similarly slim.

Then there are other problems.

Even if a publisher did stumble upon an effective program, the chances that a school would actually implement it with fidelity is slim as well. There's a reason why the few reading programs that have been validated by research tend to be scripted: without the scripts, schools would screw them up.

And selecting a generic reading comprehension test as your measure of achievement is going to be mostly testing student IQ/SES and the amount of background knowledge they've acquired which arguably has little to do with reading ability.

Add all this up and the only conclusion you'd expect from evaluating Reading First schools as a whole is going to be a null set. That's what the interim study appears to have found. Lest you forget, that's what Project Follow Through found as well. Most of the Follow Through schools failed to achieve positive results. In fact, almost all of the Follow Through schools showed negative results. Reading First is only somewhat less of a failure than Project Follow Through. But that's only if you look at the programs as a whole.

It's a fair bet that when you look at individual reading programs, some of the Reading First programs will show significant positive results. One of the Project Follow Through programs showed positive results.

In education we expect a preponderance of losers. Education is not yet a mature profession. It's not even a profession. We're not going to see improvement until we make a concerted effort to separate the winners from the losers, scrap the losers, fund the winners, and find effective means of identifying and developing new winners. The Federal Government has already attempted to go down this route twice and failed both times. The Democrats tried it with Project Follow Through and the Republicans tried it with Reading First. In both cases political forces overwhelmed and weakened the attempts, returning us back to the status quo.

I expect the same outcome with Reading First. Some winner might be identified in the final report, but that outcome will be overwhelmed by the overall failure of the program as a whole. History will no doubt repeat itself again the next time we spend lots of money on a fancy grant program. You can count on that.

You're kidding yourself if you think there will be a governmental/political solution to our education woes. That's not the way the world works. It works the other way.