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NCLB Outrages

Reading by the Script:: What's All the Fuss About?

With penalties looming under NCLB, educators are increasingly using 'scripted' reading programs to teach budding readers, but this newest trend in reading instruction has fast become a lightning rod for controversy.

As if sparks had hit midway through their reading lesson, the cheery kindergartners pop up from their seats and strike an attitude. Pretending to hold a mirror with one hand and brush their hair with the other, they sway their hips side to side and with a touch of Southern sass chant, "Look-in' good, look-in' good!"

It's not just comic relief. These students at Baseline Elementary School in Little Rock, Arkansas, are looking—and sounding—good, indeed. Their reading scores have soared in the last few years, and this jazzy cheer is their celebration—one of many they've happily learned, courtesy of the scripted reading program Baseline's teachers credit for the reading turnaround. "For years, we had one of the lowest reading scores in the district," says third-grade teacher Wilfred Dunn. "This year, we showed the greatest gain of any school in the entire state."

For Baseline, scripted reading programs—on the rise across the country—have been a boon, and some teachers can't sing their praises enough. Typified by standardized instruction, formulaic lessons, and an intense focus on phonics—these highly structured programs, say boosters, stand as the best defense against a rising illiteracy and the demands of standardized testing.

A Debate Rages
But not everyone is so enthused. Far from it. In fact, this latest trend in reading instruction has sparked a debate so fierce that some educators question whether kids being taught today will ever become thoughtful, discriminating readers who can actually grasp a book's real meaning—much less subtext.

What's the fuss about? The most fervent detractors say scripted programs cast publishers as producers, reading coaches as directors, and teachers and students as mere actors in someone else's play. Many complain they take away teachers' ability to make informed, creative choices for their students. "They take the professionalism out of the profession," says Dawn Christiana, a reading teacher in Bellingham, Washington. "You don't have to think; you don't have to modify; you just script." Others say the programs are nothing more than quick fixes for school districts on a desperate search for the Holy Grail of reading instruction—programs that raise reading scores in time to avoid penalties under the so-called No Child Left Behind law.

Notably, critics say, scripted programs are the ones that get the heartiest sanction under the rules of NCLB's Reading First legislation, which only grants federal monies to districts that use "scientific researched-based" reading programs. Since Reading First was launched three years ago, the use of scripted programs appears to have risen sharply and educators are taking note.

"NCLB is shaping the way reading is being taught," says John Cromshow, a Los Angeles kindergarten teacher whose district uses a scripted program despised widely by many of its educators. "Districts are feeling the pressure to use scripted programs that have been sanctioned by the current administration," Cromshow continues, noting, "There's lots of money to be made. The district spends millions of dollars on reading coaches, conferences, and program training."

Not All Black and White
But there are areas of gray, and where educators position themselves in the dispute depends a lot on how their school districts have responded to NCLB demands. Although federal reading grants are targeted to schools that can least afford to lose them—those with the lowest performance and/or the largest proportion of neediest students—some districts have shunned the money and adopted more progressive literacy programs or kept the programs they currently use.

But where districts have complied and adopted scripted programs that have a Reading First "good housekeeping seal of approval," the viability of those programs, says Cathy Roller, director of Research and Policy for the International Reading Association, has depended largely on a potpourri of local decisions: which specific program gets chosen, the attitude of reading coaches, the availability of extra support and, most important, the extent to which teachers have a voice in the process.

Baseline Elementary in Little Rock, the teachers there admit, was fortunate to have the right combination of all these factors.

A Measure of Success
Even though Baseline's reading program, Success for All (SFA), is one of the most highly scripted programs on the market, Baseline's teachers agreed from the start that its structure was an advantage. "This program is the right choice for the kids in our community," explains teacher Wilfred Dunn. "It may not be right for the kids across town, but southwest Little Rock is the 'hood.' A large percentage of our kids are in foster care, so they don't have a stable home environment. Some come to school without any sleep or food. Our kids have no structure in their lives; they need the structure of this program."

Another plus: Baseline's teachers feel supported rather than "spied on" by their literacy coach and program facilitator, Mary Jane McDonald, unlike in other places where teachers feel put upon by coaches they bemoan as "reading police."

"Our coach asks for our input," says Barbara Garner, a third-grade teacher whose degree is in literacy. I don't feel Mary is critiquing me. I feel she's monitoring how the program works." McDonald makes sure the program is implemented according to the script but "the script is there to familiarize teachers with the lesson," she says, "not to be read word by word."

The relationship has paid off. Four years ago, 85 percent of Baseline's students scored below the proficient level on the state reading exam. Last year, 85 percent scored proficient or above. Which is why teachers at Baseline don't just love the program—"I'm obsessed with it," admits second- grade teacher Darrel Sharp, who has been teaching for 33 years. Notes Shantel Fells, one of Baseline's three full-time reading tutors: "I start working with them on the Word Board on Monday and by Friday, Bam!, my babies can read those words just like everyone else in the class."

In fact, the entire staff felt so strongly about the program that when they were encouraged to use Arkansas Reading First-—a more flexible and less scripted program-—during the 2003–04 school year, Principal Eleanor Cox successfully advocated for the return of SFA. "Impoverished children don't arrive here as astute grammarians," says Cox. "Their parents send us the best they have. We work with them and by the time they reach fourth grade, they've got a foundation."

Cox recounts the remarkable progress of one fourth-grade student who was "reading" on a pre-K level in second grade but had caught up by fourth grade. This year, she ran for vice president of the student council, writing and delivering her own campaign speech. Cox admits this kind of success story would not have been possible without the buy-in of the staff. "If you don't have collaboration," says Cox, "you're just spinning your wheels."

A Different Perspective
It's a lesson the teachers and administrators in the Los Angeles school district have learned all too well. In sharp contrast to Little Rock, many teachers in Los Angeles bitterly resent Open Court, the scripted reading program widely used throughout the district and the state.

Phoebe Conn, a kindergarten teacher at El Sereno Elementary School in Los Angeles, describes what she sees as the main flaw in the Open Court program. "It's boring," she says flatly. "It stifles initiative and creativity and frustrates everyone—students and teachers. When they give the Teacher of the Year Award, they always give it to wonderfully creative teachers. They don't give it for reading a script—'This woman can really read like a metronome!'—and God help us, let's hope they never do."

"When we first piloted Open Court at my school," Conn adds, "six experienced kindergarten teachers all turned thumbs down. It wasn't age appropriate. It's a very slow program and four- and five-year-old children need to be more involved in learning."

Say That in Spanish
"As hideous as Open Court is in English, just cube that in Spanish," says outspoken bilingual kindergarten teacher Sheryl Ortega. Ortega teaches at Logan Elementary School, where 80–90 percent of the students are English-language learners.

When the Los Angeles school district decided to align its Spanish and English reading programs, Ortega was asked to serve on the advisory task force, along with 11 bilingual teachers and 11 district representatives. The task force reviewed two programs—McGraw-Hill's Foro Abierto (the Spanish version of Open Court) and Houghton Mifflin's Lectura. "We had four hours to pick a series, a process that usually takes months," says Ortega. By the end of the day, all but one member had voted for Lectura because Foro Abierto, explains Ortega, "is a literal translation of the English program and therefore linguistically incorrect in Spanish."

Shockingly, the committee's recommendation was rejected—mainly because schools were already using Open Court in English. After an uproar from bilingual teachers, the superintendent relented and allowed K–2 teachers to use Lectura. But Foro Abierto is still used in the upper grades, and while it's not desirable, says Ortega, "teachers have accommodated, as they've always done, inventing their own materials to make instruction work." When word gets around that the series is successful, "it's in fact due to teachers' professional expertise," she says.

Teachers Make It Work
Although Ortega believes experienced teachers can make up for some of the deficits in scripted programs, she worries that beginning teachers aren't getting the training they need to provide rich, high-quality reading instruction. "We've got hundreds of young students coming out of teacher programs at the universities," says Ortega, "and they're only being trained how to deliver Open Court and not how to teach."

Ortega's co-workers agree the "teacher factor" is a critical component in the ultimate success of a scripted program. James Lopez, a fifth-grade teacher at Logan, confesses, "I go off-script. How else will all my kids get individual attention?" "It's more work," says fourth-grade teacher Felix Quiñónez, whose classroom is down the hall, "but personalized instruction has a greater impact."

Like many teachers in the higher grades, Quiñónez worries that scripted reading programs overemphasize phonics at the cost of comprehension. "I teach to understand," says Quiñónez, who is currently working on his National Board Certification. "You can't have breadth with no depth."

But Siegfried Engelmann, a professor of education at the University of Oregon and author of the scripted program Direct Instruction, vigorously disputes this portrayal of scripted reading programs. "Direct Instruction's comprehension performance exceeds its decoding performance. You don't teach comprehension through reading in the early grades; you teach comprehension through oral instruction."

The comprehension issue is a particular concern to critics who note the widespread use of scripted programs in low-income, minority communities, where administrators have felt the most pressure to raise reading scores. Many now ask: Will low-income kids suffer in the upper grades without access to the same rich, multifaceted reading instruction their peers currently get in more successful schools? Some educators say there's a reason to be concerned. Studies of scripted programs over the last five years have found that reading scores are declining in the higher grades and that poor and minority students in some districts are as far behind as they ever were.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to teaching Johnny to read, there's a growing consensus among educators that no single magic bullet will lead to reading success or failure. Many teachers believe the best reading instruction allows teachers the flexibility to address the full spectrum of reading skills and diverse student needs.

NCLB has created a need for reproducible reading instruction that guarantees quick results, says NEA reading specialist Barbara Kapinus. "But in all of our emphasis on raising test scores," she cautions, "we can't lose sight of the fact that one score on one reading test does not equal being able, or willing, to read."

By the Script:

When it comes to scripted reading programs, value is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Supporters say scripted programs . . .

* provide consistent, reliable instruction
* provide a solid foundation for beginning readers
* are strong on phonics
* help guide beginning teachers
* require less preplanning and set-up work for teachers
* help raise test scores

Critics say scripted programs . . .

* are weak on comprehension and good literature
* are inflexible and not well-balanced
* leave no room for individualized instruction
* shortchange beginning teachers
* limit teacher choices
* lead to declining test scores in the upper grades

Test Scores: Do They Add Up?

Test results "make the grade," say supporters of scripted reading programs.

Early studies suggested Open Court students performed better than students taught with a literature-based curriculum. An independent study commissioned by publisher McGraw-Hill maintained that California schools using Open Court showed marked jumps in children's literacy skills and significantly improved test scores compared with other programs.

The test scores are misleading, say some researchers.

One study done by Margaret Heiss Moustafa, a professor of literacy education at California State University in Los Angeles, found that the percentage of children scoring at or above the 50th percentile on California's SAT 9 reading exam was significantly lower in schools with scripted programs. Several studies have found that reading scores started to decline in the higher grades, as comprehension skills become increasingly important. But Siegfried Engelmann, author of the scripted program Direct Instruction (DI), counters, "The scores for all students—groups, not individuals—drop somewhat after third grade no matter what type of program you're using. When DI is well-implemented, the scores drop less than any other program out there."

What about national vs. state scores?

Experts caution that any good news about student reading performance must be put in a national context. For example, 80 percent of students in a state may test proficient on the state exam, while only 20 percent test proficient on the rigorous NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reading assessment, which includes high-level comprehension questions that require an in-depth understanding of the text.

— Sabrina Holcomb
NEA Today


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