September 11, 2009

Duncan Finally Gets One Right

Today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged universities to get more involved in helping to improve under-performing schools, by forming partnerships with local school districts, establishing charter schools, and improving teacher education.

There's nothing I'd like to see more than Ed schools putting their crackpot theories on how best to teach children, manage a classroom, and run a school into practice under the unblinking eye of NCLB's data collection scheme (the one saving grace of NCLB).

The joy of being able to compare the performance of these Ed-school-run schools to other schools. Finally for the public to see that the emperor really has no clothes.


Kathy said...

As far as I know ( I am a retired Phila teacher doing reading tutoring in a Phila public school) the School District of Phila is already doing this at Penn Alexander:

I would think Temple, St Joe's and other nearby universities would be involved in similar programs.


The Phila District has also just purchased Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading for all its IEP students. This will be a mandated program. We have been using Fast Forward for at least 5 years too. I am not sure that has made any difference or not. I have not seen any District wide data on it.

RM and CR may be extended to at-risk students without IEP's. I am not sure all has been decided.

Teachers had one week of training during the summer. I have no idea how much follow-up will be provided.

Students however will still be getting a mixed message as balanced literacy will continue in their home classrooms. RM and CR will be pull-out remediation.

I read in a recent post that you blamed Obama for speaking to the wrong folks about school failure. I agree that asking kids who are getting improper instruction to work harder is not the answer. However I did find his speech excellent and I am sure some students benefited.

I think an over looked problem however is that many educators, including the experts selected by Obama to fix this mess, operate on a "belief" system about what is and what is not good instruction. In your post you listed the Science Leadership Academy as having plenty of money but still continues to have student failure. In the rebuttal to you the principal often referred to his belief about progressive education. He really ignored the data you provided.

Another Philly blogger, when presented with Willingham's argument about learning styles, also argued that he still believed they were important to good instruction. He said he had been teaching for over 12 year and this classroom experience counted for something.

Data does not seem to change educator's beliefs about instruction. If it did Zig would be having much greater success by now.

I deal with this everyday at school as I try to explain to classroom teachers why memorizing lists of sight words will not be good for my students or why they are having trouble with the task. I beg them not to have my students use the leveled readers that force the students to guess at words. Balanced literacy is a reading philosophy based on an unsupported belief system. Reading scores are low yet teachers hang on to the beliefs. Universities which produce the experts and teachers operate on this same belief system.

I have no idea how to change this.

RM and CR to most Philly teachers is just another program from yet another CEO who will be gone in less than 5 years.

Unless there is some movement in their belief system about reading instruction I don't see how we can make real progress.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Kathy on that one - literacy and intervention strategies are what at issue. Our district invested a lot of effort into structured english immersion, yet it failed to attract teachers. The training was made mandatory, yet the teachers were reluctant to implement the strategies.

There is too much pressure to get good test scores and its far easier to fail students and blame families than focus on educating children. Its not a war that public school will win. You still have the majority of children entering adulthood with a sixth grade education.

Should textbooks shoulder some blame? Absolutely.

Unknown said...


Perhaps if you have a hard copy of the National Institute for Literacy's superb 2007 60 page footnoted report "What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy" you can get better attention.

You can call 1-800-228-8813 to order.

Then you can hold it in your hand and say "this details how to get most students to the goal where they can read and understand most of the print they encounter".

Teaching reading strategies and calling it balanced literacy means we are still using the discredited whole language under a new name but with the same poor results.

Kathy said...


No amount of data from any source will change beliefs. Folks simply interpret the data to support their belief system. I don't think the educational field is alone in this problem.

My school district did not decide to bring in RM and CR because they suddenly changed their belief system about reading instruction. They brought in the programs because they believe the students who are not reading are disabled and need something different. The data for them supports their beliefs, it does not change them.

If reading scores go up then their belief system will be supported by the data. Those kids do poorly because educators BELIEVE they are disabled, they are the problem along with poverty, parents and environment. For those kids, yes, they will try anything since they believe the circumstances call for drastic measures.


Brian Rude said...

Robin, Kathy, and others,

I'm a little confused here. Maybe you can clarify a few things. "Whole language", as I have understood it in the past, is the idea that language can be taught "holistically". That is, it is unnecessary to isolate and concentrate on the individual parts of language. We don't have to teach reading directly. If we provide a language rich environment for children reading will develop spontaneously, something like osmosis. And we don't have to teach writing directly. All we have to do is provide an environment in which writing is valued, and in which opportunities for writing are plentiful. Learning will seep in by osmosis. By this perspective we don't have to teach phonics, and I presume the weekly list of 20 or 25 spelling words I had for years in elementary school would be considered pretty primitive, something approaching child abuse.

Is this pretty much what is meant by whole language? Is this description something that would be accepted by advocates of whole language? Or is it more a summary of what critics of whole language think? Or am I missing something important?

And I think "balanced literacy" is a term that usually means retaining much of the idea of whole language, but with enough concessions to phonics and direct instruction (in the generic sense) to make it more defensible to critics of whole language and the general public. Is this right?

I take it that "Fast Forward" is a whole language reading program, and that "Reading Mastery" and "Corrective Reading" are reading programs meant to help students who have fallen behind.

If I have these terms right then I am certainly a non-believer in both whole language and balanced literacy. I take it as a very basic principle of teaching and learning that we must "isolate and concentrate" on one little thing at a time. As an analogy, there is no way to build a house holistically. When you are driving a nail you concentrate on that one nail, and nothing else until that nail is right. By my perspective the twenty weekly spelling words is very sensible. When I concentrate on the spelling of one word, by analyzing it and drilling on it, I am doing it just like driving a nail. I isolate and concentrate. That's what gets the job done. I would also add that isolating and concentrating, drilling even, is not unpleasant when done right, and it is the teacher's job to manage the students efforts so that it is done right. It enables accomplishment. It results in the satisfaction of accomplishment, which is a very important driver of long term educational accomplishment.

And lest I be misunderstood, the "isolate and concentrate" principle must be balanced by the complementary principle of "spread and relate". Any bit of knowledge must at some point be connected with other knowledge. That is equally important.

Brian Rude said...

So with this perspective I have a question. Kathy says " . . . . I try to explain to classroom teachers why memorizing lists of sight words will not be good for my students or why they are having trouble with the task.
. . ." If by this it is meant that memorizing sight words should not displace a serious and disciplined study of phonics, then I understand. Critics of whole language might take this perspective. But would not advocates of whole language also vociferously attack the idea of memorizing sight words? Wouldn't they consider it unnecessary, counterproductive and frustrating "drill and kill"?

It seems to me that there certainly should be a place in reading instruction for memorizing sight words, for putting a core of common words on a "look-say" level rather early in the teaching of reading. Such a core of sight words enables fluent reading in a small sphere. The teaching of phonics enables wide applicability of reading. Aren't both necessary? Isn't the balance between the two extremes, and the use of a lot of the middle ground between them, the way to good teaching. And isn't the skillful use of drill where appropriate and osmosis where appropriate important? Anyway, that's what I argued some years ago here.

And I have another question. Do we really need a "program" for reading instruction, and is training in such a program workable or productive? In my reading of blogs for the past year or so I am concluding that educators might have unknowingly slid into a false and destructive assumption, the assumption that we need a "program" to teach reading. I have a different perspective. My view is that a reading program can be nothing more than materials, and some suggestions for the use of those materials. It is quite understandable that the publishers of such programs would reject this view. They want to sell their product. It is not so understandable that teachers, and administrators, would uncritically accept the publisher's perspective.

And while I'm at it, what is "structured English immersion"? I understand the idea of foreign language immersion. Maybe this is something for non-native speakers of English. Is it replacing bilingualism?

I do understand the idea that for many educators belief leads and our interpretation of facts and data follows. I wrote about that here.

Unknown said...

Brian -

The problem with sight words is that you are training the developing brain to use the wrong approach and habits are very hard to unlearn. For the sake of reading those early readers quickly out loud, you teach the habit of whole word guessing that can only take the kids so far.

Kids then mistake an ability to recognize words seen over and over for reading and then hit a wall around middle school as it gets difficult to keep the vocabulary controlled.

It's quite sad that so many students these days have no idea how to read multisyllabic words they have never seen in print. There can sometimes be a sentence full of subtle meaning in one word.

If you don't have a systematic reading program that was designed by someone who understood the phonetic nature of English print, the teacher must understand it and NCTQ says the ed schools aren't teaching this.

There's a fascinating part of the Zig interview transcript that Ken posted where the interviewer says that his child had an "auditory memory processing deficit".

Zig immediately recognized what was really happening and says that if you design sentences in readers where more than 20% of the words are unfamiliar to the students, they will make mistakes on all the words because of overload.

Instead of applying this principle to readers that teach reading so kids can move on and decipher anything in print, we seem to apply it to the literature anthologies used in too many middle and high schools. Next thing is the AP classes are stressed to be be about "immersion", not subject mastery.

It's easy to see the consequences of the lack of reading instruction by charting the rise in 'learning disabilities". The sad thing is how much it affects are so-called most successful students as we limit the diversity of print they're exposed to or constrain their ability to move on to mastery by having access to solid textbooks.

We are losing at every level from our frequent failure to teach reading sequentially and thoroughly.

Unknown said...

A problem with analogizing learning to read with learning math is the ambiguity of the letter-sound relationships in English.

A good reading program has to teach kids that it's not their imagination. Many letters in English do represent more than one sound and kids need tools to deal with these ambiguities. I believe that with enough practice, the physical structure of the brain changes. Fluency is in part having practiced the various combinations and worked through the ambiguities so that neural connections exist that let a reader read print with ease and understanding.

Brian - I read through your cites and you have clearly tried in good faith to work through this. I like some of your comments about ciphering. I think you're wrong though in saying that students don't become fluent readers on the basis of phonics. It's quick so it may seem like it's look-say, but if you were to interview accomplished readers who comprehend difficult, new material, everyone I have known attacks new words phonetically, usually by syllables.

KDeRosa said...

I used to gte exciyed when school districts started using research-based curricula. Not anymore. School districts often mis-use these foreign curricula and tend to get poor results if they don't pay for the conultants to show them how these programs are supposed to be used properly.

Problem one with k-12 education is that it remains non-empiric.

Jane said...

Re: attacking words thru phonics vs. memorization. The reality is that fluent readers, over time, develop sight recognition of increasing numbers of words (thousands) despite the fact that they may have originally learned them through phonetic decoding. If you have many, many encounters with a word and have any visual memory at all, that will happen. But that doesn't mean that initial learning should be through sight memorization, for thee reasons cited by Robin and Kathy. If you start with emphasis on sight recongnition, the phonics-based decoding never develops well.

Dick Schutz said...

". . . fluent readers, over time, develop sight recognition of increasing numbers of words (thousands) despite the fact that they may have originally learned them through phonetic decoding."

Actually, what appears to be "sight recognition' is the automaticity that results from repeated practice and consolidation of any complex skill. Eye movement studies demonstrate that skilled college students read through every word; they just do it very rapidly.

The link between spoken language and written language is the Alphabetic Code. It's not a "principle." It's the 170ish letter/sound (grapheme/phoneme) correspondences that make ALL English written language "regular" (excepting one-instance proper nouns like Worcester.)

The Alphabetic Code is analogous to the Genetic Code and te Periodic Table of Elements.

But morphology (such things like prefixes and suffixes--e.g. "ion" and past tense e.g. ed" pronounced as /t/ and /ed/--also come into play as does syntax--e.g. "To the gave John Mary ball" is illegal.

Some kids do intuit the Alphabetic Code on their own. Others memorize whole words, use these, context, initial letter/sound correspondences, familiarity with the substance of the text, and such to "read." But these individuals are at a loss when they encounter an unfamiliar word that is focal to the communication.

Current standardized reading achievement tests do not differentiate between how the kids are going about reading. The tests confound the results further by including vocabulary that is not within some examinees spoken vocab and by assuming background information that some examinees lack--under the banner of measuring "inferential ability."

Given the limited feedback information mis-instruction in the early grades goes unnoticed until the time that a psychobabble label can be slapped on the kid; the kid can be designated "specific- learning disabled"; the kid drops out or limps through high school to graduate with few academic qualifications.

The University-school "partnerships" that Secretary Duncan touts don't do any better than run-of-the-mill public school or "charter school" endeavors. Student variability, test insensitivity, and personnel and student selection combine to make each initiative idiosyncratic and non-replicable.

Programs (products/protocols) are needed to deliver replicable results. Engelmann and his colleagues "developed" the products/protocols by iterative tryout, using the feedback from kid and teacher performance to guide the development. That's using engineering technology, not scientific method. It's what NCLB should have mandated rather than "programs based on scientifically-based research."

The DI architecture has its flaws, but that's a whole nother story.

Jane said...

Dick, thank you for correcting my sloppiness. Fluent readers do indeed scan words, but they do not have to decode them the way beginning readers do. Very much agree with your comments about the poor information generated by most reading assessments.

Cal said...

Stanford has all sorts of small charter schools in the bay area--most notably EPA Academy. I assume they have test scores, you can check them out. I had a number of discussions about EPA's grading policies while at Stanford, with the dean and some of the major players--only 20% of the grade is based on demonstrated ability. The rest of the grade is based on how well they work with others, how hard they try, and so on.

I also taught EPA kids when I taught test prep at College Track--they were often the kids with the weakest skills and the strongest GPAs, although they usually had strong writing skills.