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There is more than one right method


Dear Diane,

You're right, Reading First is not mandatory. I just visited a school in Oakland that turned down being part of a Reading First initiative because they thought it wrong-headed. I wish others were as professionally responsible. But the published correspondence between the leaders of Reading First demonstrates with what glee and persistence they went about the task of twisting arms—especially in Districts with needy kids under threat of NCLB sanctions. Diane, if the next administration chose to use the same pressure on behalf of Balanced Literacy (as California once did re whole-language—to my dismay at the time), I think we might agree it was abusive. Still you are right to remind me that the fault lies both with those who tried to bribe districts into using their favorite methods and those who took the bribe.

I'll accept the idea that the bribe was offered with good intent, by people who think there is only one best method. It scares me since at this point research into learning proves only one thing: that there is more than one right method. Other examples: research shows that holding kids over does not—usually—help. I still believe that school people and parents are in the best position to make such decisions based on their firsthand knowledge about how it might impact on a particular child in a particular school. Ditto for spelling research, etc.

There is a strong tendency to want to remove controversy from school life and base our decisions on Science. We too often assume Science removes uncertainty. Untrue. The ground between Infallible Certainty and Infallible Faith is above all what schools need to prepare our future citizens for. Democracy requires us to act "as if" we could be wrong. Tolerance for uncertainty is a critical quality of being a well-educated person—for teachers also. It's in our ability to negotiate in this vast in-between that democracy rests. We're not seeking to remove fallible judgment, but to better inform it.

Since, as I mentioned before, American schools rank near the top in teaching kids "how-to read"—based on international test score data of 4th graders—the panic and passion on this narrow subject is curious. I'd like us to explore instead why this edge disappears in later years. It may relate to how we formally introduced reading to 5 year olds—or may not.

I'm back to what first amazed me when I subbed in Chicago schools: how is it that kids who seemed so lively and smart on the playground in front of my house seemed so passive and "dumb" in school?



Ms. Meier,
You write: "I just visited a school in Oakland that turned down being part of a Reading First initiative because they thought it wrong-headed. I wish others were as professionally responsible."

Consider these facts. In Virginia, urban, high poverty Richmond started science-based reading instruction two years before Reading First support for such programs. Wealthy Fairfax County did what you advocate: refusing RF funding and science-based instruction.
The results? By the spring 2005 state testing, , the 3rd grade reading pass rate for black children was 15% higher in Richmond than in Fairfax. Richmond black pass rates rose to 74%; a 16% rise in two years, while pass rates in Fairfax improved 1%, to 59%.

Virginia SOL scores were not disaggregated by ethnicity until required by NCLB in 2003. However, due to NCLB, we know that between 2003 and 2005 the black-white achievement gap in 3rd grade reading in Richmond was cut from 30% to 13%. Those remarkable gains for minority children, narrowing the achievement gap, are what you are opposing.

The Fairfax gap went from 28% to 26% in the same two year period.

Which was better for minority children, Reading First, or oppositon to Reading First? What is important? Ideology, or children?

The NIH reading recommendations are a) from the nation's leading scientists and b) are tested and proven to be incredibly effective.

If a medical doctor did not treat children consistent with the recommendations of the National Institutes of Health, the doctor would face and deserve severe criminal penalties. Shouldn't the same be true for school leaders that refuse to adopy programs that help children to overrcome reading difficulties?

First of all, this ... distrust? ... or unease about science is puzzling. May I ask what Ms. Maier would say in response to the numerous surveys over the past few years which have shown that less than half of all Americans believe that Darwin-based theories of evolution are correct? Do teachers or administrators, or school boards, with the same anti-science bias undermine their schools’ science and math instruction to the point that we’ve been “educating” a generation of ... Yahoos or Luddites? Why push technology in the schools if we’re not encouraging our kids to learn to use, and learn what they'll need, for starters, to invent and manufacture, the technology?

Perhaps I’m naïve, but after seeing so many people give diametrically-opposed descriptions of the results of what go on in any particular school – (what administrator says, up front, that s/he runs a squalid, ineffective dump?) - or what happens as the result of a school’s use of any particular program or methodology, I tend to go with the numbers, first. If the numbers look good, then a second look via a visit seems, to me, to be worthwhile. But if the numbers are pretty awful, why waste the time?

For 4th grade, the Central Park East I (preK-6) scores are really kind of ... disappointing. See CPE I’s School Report Card at http://schools.nyc.gov/daa/SchoolReports/05asr/104497.pdf, pp. 4 et seq. Although the school has far fewer Free Lunch-eligible kids than the NYC DOE overall, the sub-group breakouts indicate that the poor black and Hispanic kids there aren’t, predominately, learning to read or do math well, whether you look at the combined NYCDOE (grades 3,5,6) and NYS (grade 4) test results separately or together. In fact, the school apparently would flunk AYP and be deemed “in need of improvement” were it not for State Ed.’s small-N-size accountability games.

For the Central Park East High School’s Report Card, the dropped out and transferred to GED numbers are pretty high (p. 8, “High School Non-Completion Rates,”) the “Cohort Graduation Rates” are quite, quite low (id at p.9); the raw numbers, i.e., those presented irrespective of State Ed.’s “waivers” granted to a select group of “small” high schools, are depressing (see pp. 14-15); the students’ SAT scores average below 400 (p. 18); and either nobody from this school went on to 2- or 4-year colleges at all or the numbers are so embarrassingly low that nobody would publish them (id.) http://schools.nyc.gov/daa/SchoolReports/05asr/104555.pdf. Since nobody (“0”) was reported as having gone on from CPE HS to the military, or to employment, may we assume that the “Other – 100%” means that all graduates went on to ... unemployment?

Now, the anti-testing and anti-systemic phonemic instruction folks – these tend to be the same people when you look down deep - tend to say that one should ignore the numbers and look at what’s really going on in a school. While I agree that the numbers, by and large, don’t tell the whole story, if the numbers are as low as those referenced above, I’m wondering why all scores, and all the research based in whole or in part on scores, shouldn’t just be chucked out with the trash. Then folks can say that all American schools do well by all their kids, and we don’t need federal anti-poverty funding, including Title 1 and Reading First, at all. We can just ask the federales to send a drastically-reduced portion of our tax dollars to public schools’ ... art programs. The ones which don’t ask kids to read the labels under the paintings. Because ... they can’t.

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