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NCLB Outrages

Radical change for failing schools

The Indiana Policy Review Foundation was organized to promotive conservative principles. Watch for the carefully vocabulary that sends up red flags: researched-based practices, science. And then it gets worse: it moves in to ideas.

by Andrea Neal

The most promising part of the No Child Left Behind Act is language requiring schools to use research-based practices. Yet it’s the least embraced by the educational establishment.

The phrase “scientifically based research” appears 111 times in NCLB, a sign of Congress’s commitment to doing things differently. When schools land on the federal failure list, they are supposed to respond with immediate changes implementing “scientifically based” instructional strategies, school corporation’s curriculum manuals,

In practice, it’s not so easy. One look at Geyer Middle School in Fort Wayne helps explain why.

Federal law required Geyer, on the ropes after several years of low test scores, to devise a school improvement plan detailing how students would achieve mastery of tested skills.

Under the plan, 73 percent of Geyer’s students were to meet Indiana state standards in language arts by the fall of 2008; 72 percent were to meet state standards in math. It was a lofty goal considering that, in 2005, only 33 percent passed the language arts portion of ISTEP+ and only 47 percent passed the math test.

If the testing goals were ambitious, the improvement plan reflected the status quo. Its action steps largely repeated language found in the school corporation’s curriculum manuals. Nothing in the plan called for a dramatic change in content or teaching technique. Although the plan described Fort Wayne’s literacy and math programs as research-based, there were no data to support that claim.

In Fort Wayne Community Schools, as in many school districts across the country, schools follow a uniform curriculum model and sequence of instruction that’s been hammered out by administrators and teachers and aligned with state academic standards. Textbooks are chosen from state-approved lists. There’s no science behind any of it.

FWCS Curriculum Services Director Schauna L. Findlay expresses a common frustration with NCLB when she challenges the notion of scientifically proven instructional programs. There is “no literacy-based program that meets the definition” of science, she says.

It’s true that, at the middle school level, little research has been done to verify the effectiveness of language arts programs. To date, the bulk of studies have focused on elementary school instruction in reading and kindergarten-to-12th grade programs in math.

But even where the science is clear – as in the debate between phonics and whole language at the primary grades – educators resist the idea that there’s a preferred way of teaching reading. For whatever reason, the education field has been slow to accept that teaching methods and material can be empirically evaluated.

Sue Heath, research editor for Wrightslaw, an advocacy organization for special education issues, says it’s a multi-layered problem.

“Few, if any, teachers colleges in the United States are training teachers in even one research-based method of reading instruction. … The problem is that school districts do not require the training as a condition of employment. States do not require the training as a condition of certification. Teachers colleges do not require the training as a condition of graduation.”

Fortunately, NCLB has inspired a wave of academic research aimed at identifying best practices. The What Works Clearinghouse was established in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Education to collect and distribute scientific evidence. Its Web site, .gov, already has posted analyses of middle school math programs. Middle school language arts programs will be added soon.

Liam Julian, with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said programs with track records could be used now. “There is evidence to support several approaches to teaching middle school students who are poor readers.” He cites the LANGUAGE! curriculum, published by Sopris West Educational Services; and direct instruction programs, such as Corrective Reading, published by SRA.

Mary Lowery, acting principal at Geyer Middle School, implemented a reading remediation program this past school year called Voyager Passport that has gotten good reviews from other school districts around the country. It appears to meet the federal definition of “scientifically based.” But any gains made because of it were too late to show up on September ISTEP+ scores.

This much is clear: If failing schools want to do more than nudge test scores up slightly, they will need to make more radical changes in curriculum and teaching methods. They need the flexibility to deviate from school corporation curriculum guidelines. Doing more of the same won’t cut it.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

— Andrea Neal
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette


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