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Three Rural Districts Improve Students' Reading Skills

Rural school districts might not have the staffing or resources of larger ones, but that hasn't stopped three in the Midwest from training their teachers to implement a demanding reading curriculum and boost students' test scores.

Experts have said researchers studying rural education should place a higher priority on identifying ways to help rural teachers improve classroom instruction.

A new 19-page article, "Increasing Reading Skills in Rural Areas: An Analysis of Three School Districts," in the Journal of Research in Rural Education, focuses on that issue by delving into how three rural districts supported teachers' development to produce better test scores.

Author Jean Stockard studied districts that instituted a highly structured and explicit reading curriculum, Reading Mastery, with intensive implementation support and guidance from the National Institute for Direct Instruction. The schools received help to teach the reading program with fidelity, and that meant an institute staff member spent about 35 days at the school during the year. Teachers were monitored, students' progress reviewed, and follow-up conferences held. The support was phased out starting in the third year so schools could become self-sufficient.

Stockard compared the test scores of students in those districts who had the curriculum since kindergarten to students who began it in later years, as well as to samples of students statewide and nationally. The students who had the lessons since kindergarten outscored the other groups through the early elementary years.

The research article points out that the improvements were made without lengthening the school day or changing the way the school was governed. And the most positive results came from students who began the curriculum in kindergarten and who had teachers fully trained in the instructional guidelines.

"Thus, practitioners should be cautioned to exercise patience when implementing Reading Mastery and other programs with extensive requirements. These results suggest that the programs can produce significantly higher reading achievement, but these changes will most likely appear after teachers have fully learned the new curriculum and with students who are exposed to the model as designed, beginning in kindergarten," according to the article.

Stockard acknowledged the limited scope of her analysis and suggested it would be beneficial to replicate the study in other areas and look at a broader national sample.

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