February 19, 2007

The payoff

(Update: Chapter 5 is now on-line.)

Last Monday, Zig posted chapter four of his book The Outrage of Project Follow Through: 5 Million Failed kids Later. If you haven't done so yet, you should go download it now. Chapters 1 and 2 have already been taken down and chapter 3 will be taken down in another hour.

So far the first four chapters have been a big set-up for chapter five. Zig describes chapter five as:

It is a very short chapter, but it will blow you away. It is the keystone of the book because it provides incontrovertible evidence that:

(a) there was an extensive plot to suppress the findings of the evaluation;
(b) the plot involved highly respected academicians in education; and
(c) the motivation for suppressing the truth was simply that DI made a mockery of what “experts” predicted would happen.

Note that the details of the plot have never appeared in print before.

If you are battling naysayers who contend that the Follow Through evaluation showed that no model won the competition, or that DI is not as effective as you claim it is, have them respond to this chapter. I would love to hear anybody try to argue either position after reading the chapter.

Note that the reason I didn’t just write the chapter as an article is that I wanted the reader to share some of our experiences in working nine years on this project before the evaluation came out.

Yes, chapter 5 will piss you off because it documents that the decision makers didn’t consider kids anywhere near as important as political correctness.

Chapter four details Zig's work with deaf, autistic, retarded, and brain-injured students along with a description of how the remedial DI program Corrective Reading was developed during the Follow Through years.

There is a misprint towards the end (p. 71) of chapter four in the section on reading comprehension. I think the entire section is a valuable read, so I'll reproduce the corrected section:

Initially, we assessed the comprehension of at-risk high school students in four cities, with a 100-item test that asked open-ended questions like, “In what year did Columbus discover America?” and “How many days are in a year?”

The results were frightening. Fewer than 25 percent of the students correctly answered the question about Columbus. (Several responded, “1942.”) About the same percentage didn’t know the number of days in a year. Their answers ranged from 360 to 12.

The ideal goal for these students is to provide them with enough information to permit them to pass courses. This is an ambitious goal, because students lack so much information that it would be impossible within one or two years of densely packed instruction to fill all the gaps that have developed over more than ten years.

Following the first tryout of the initial level of the corrective comprehension program in Springfield High School, the director of the project called me and indicated that the program was a failure. Why? Because students did not comprehend the history textbook scheduled for 10th graders.

I tried to explain that there were lots of concepts and knowledge of language that these students lacked and that we focused on central skills they needed. He didn’t seem convinced, so I arranged to meet with him and the students. I indicated that I would give him concrete examples that showed the extent of their lack of comprehension.

When we convened, I directed the 20 students in the class to open their history book (United States History for High Schools) to the first chapter, “A New World and a New Nation.”

I read the first sentence of the text and then asked them questions about it. The sentence:

Today, few Americans think of their country as having been a part of a British Colonial empire, but America’s colonial history lasted over 150 years, and Britain’s influence upon America was fundamental.

I asked them about the sentence, a part at a time. Over half the students missed each of the following questions:

  • The sentence starts with "Today." Does that mean this day or something that would be true today, tomorrow, and yesterday? The consensus: only today.
  • The sentence refers to few Americans. Is that a small number or quite a few? Quite a few.
  • The sentence refers to their country. What’s the name of their country? Britain.
  • The sentence says their country was part of a British Colonial Empire. Which country was part? Britain.
  • The sentence says that few Americans think of their country. Whose country was that? Britain. Was a British Colonial empire something owned by England or America? America. (Most students didn’t know that Britain was England and that colonial referred to colonies, or exactly what colonies were.)

After asking about several other phrases, I indicated that the last part of the sentence says that Britain's influence upon America was fundamental.

“What does fundamental mean?” Long pause. One hand
goes up.
“What does fundamental mean?”
“Dumb, stupid.”
“Like what?”
“You know. Learning fundamental skills.”

Comprehension is billed typically as reading comprehension, but it has very little to do with reading. Students don’t understand a host of concepts and relationships involving any academic pursuit. It’s not that they can’t extract them from what they read. They can’t extract them from what they hear.

Over the years, we extended the corrective reading programs so there are three levels of decoding programs, and three parallel levels of comprehension programs. The lowest level of the comprehension strand teaches skills and information taught in the second and third level of the language program that we use with children in grades 1 and 2.

An amazing phenomenon is that a lot of high school students who are considered pretty good students place in the highest level of the decoding sequence and the lowest level of the comprehension sequence.

Reading comprehension requires two important things: being able to decode the written text and matching-up the decoded text to words and concepts in the student's oral vocabulary so the student comprehends what has just been read. In many classrooms today decoding is taught in a haphazard fashion with phonics instruction thrown in on an ad-hoc or "as needed" basis and the teaching of vocabulary and underlying concepts takes a back seat to "comprehension strategies."

And, we're surprised when so many kids can barely comprehend not only what they've read but what they've been told, as in what they've been taught.


Unknown said...

“What does fundamental mean?”
“Dumb, stupid.”
“Like what?”
“You know. Learning fundamental skills.”

I'm not surprised to see this. I saw the same thing with "basic" when coordinating that writing program in grad school. I would say, "whenever possible, stick to basic English vocabulary," and I always ran into this idea that basic vocabulary was uneducated and simple, or dumb.

Basic vocabulary are the words we use most often. They are the words we use most often because they are most frequently the best tools for the job.

JohnL said...

And chapter 5 delivers. Zig's included scanned correspondence showing the disingenuous rationale for not publicizing the results of the FT evaluation and, in typical Engelmann-the-logician fashion, recounted the contridictions in the reasoning behind the rationale.

Anonymous said...

As a fourth grade teacher for several years, I learned this thorough experience. Reading "comprehension" is not the problem-- it's critical thinking skills.

The students MAY or MAY NOT be able to decode the words. But once the words are decoded, their minds cannot understand the meaning of what the author is trying to convey.

It's a very long story, but to keep it short-- this whole business is a very sad affair. We owe our children more than this.

KDeRosa said...

Actually I wouldn't call it critical thinking skills. I'd call it vocabulary and underlying concept knowledge. The lack of this precludes comprehension. Students' thinking skills work just fine when they have the underlying vocabulary and domain knowledge.