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NCLB Outrages

Schools to cut back reading program

Ohanian Comment: I am not a fan of Accelerated Reader. Some day I'll post my massive research. That said, this is so sick I can barely cope. Mesa administrators must be reading Timothy Shanahan's columns in the IRA paper: District administrators say research shows direct teacher instruction, not independent reading, is the most critical factor that increases a child's reading ability. This shows you the danger of federal "scientific" research. It outlaws reading. Kids learn all the rules about reading but they never read.

by Josh Kelley

Mesa Public Schools top administrators have decided to stop elementary school teachers from allotting class time for an independent reading program that tests students comprehension and vocabulary skills through computer quizzes.

Instead, the Accelerated Reader program, used to encourage children to read, will only be allowed during free-time such as lunch, clubs and before or after school. The changes take effect next fall.

The district has found that reading and writing scores on standardized tests such as AIMS are not improving enough, and district administrators say research shows direct teacher instruction, not independent reading, is the most critical factor that increases a child's reading ability.

Some parents and teachers are upset, arguing that the program helps kids and required a big financial investment that should not be abandoned.

In e-mails to the school district's governing board, teachers and parents said the reading program helps students improve test scores, provides students with practice they don't receive at home and develops young students into dedicated readers.

Barbara Carroll, co-president of the PTO at Highland Elementary, said she's unhappy with the district's "fairly abrupt" decision to pull AR from regular class time. Carroll said her PTO last school year raised $18,000, an amount matched by the district, to supply classrooms with refurbished computers specifically set up to accommodate the reading program.

Carroll also questioned the district's proposal to make the reading quizzes available before or after school, an option that she said might not be practical for students who are bused to school.

"I think it is a beneficial program," Carroll said. "My daughter likes to read, and she does well with the program and does well with the books and testing."

School board President Elaine Miner said she understands the frustration of parents and teachers because she advocated heavily for the reading program when it was first being introduced to the district.

"I still believe in the AR, and I am sympathetic to what they are saying," Miner said. "But I don't think they understand what we are at risk of losing if we use AR too much."

She said too many teachers are over-emphasizing the program in lieu of more technical reading training.

"Our reading scores aren't as high as they should be," Miner said, "so we had to address what we're doing and what we could be doing differently."

The unfortunate casualties, she said, are the teachers that properly used the program in the classroom to improve students' reading ability.

"It's a great supplement. There's no question," Miner said. "We really spent a lot of money getting it out to all the schools. It had such great reviews, and it sounded like such a great program. . . . It's not being taken away. It's just being changed."

Associate Superintendent Michael Cowan said the district has seen "waning or stagnant" reading test scores at some schools, indicating the need for a better approach to making kids literate, particularly those in lower elementary grades where the foundation for a student's education is set.

"The Number 1 factor influencing a student's achievement is the teacher," Cowan said.

That's why it's key, he said, to provide teachers with as much time as possible to actively teach students to read. By actively teaching, Cowan said he means activities like evaluating a student's reading level, identifying weaknesses and offering students instruction in specific areas of deficiency.

"We need our teachers to be engaged in the scientific and the research-backed aspects of quality teaching," Cowan said. "We're not saying kids are not supposed to be independently, silently reading in their classroom."

He pointed out that Accelerated Reading will still be available to students in media centers, or libraries, at schools and soon online at home. And students can still read books included in the program when they have free time during class. But specific time will not be designated for it.

"We're trying to make sure that the scale is balanced appropriately because if you have too much just direct instruction . . . without any opportunity to practice, you've done the kids a disservice," Cowan said. "But on the opposite side, if you're not providing the appropriate level of direct instruction to the kids and you're relying more on the independent reading, again you're providing the kids a disservice."

Cowan said the program was never a designated curriculum. It was a supplemental program that grew from a pilot program about a decade ago.

Sarah Brem, an associate professor of education at Arizona State University, said she conducted a study on the effectiveness of Accelerated Reading in Gilbert Public Schools, whose demographics include fewer English language learners and a generally wealthier population than Mesa.

"We did see substantial, significant gains in their reading scores," Brem said.

Over a five-year period, scores increased 18 percent. However, Brem said, there was still concern about teachers correctly implementing the program and avoiding an "I-just-have-to-perform" mindset among students instead of fostering a true appreciation for reading.

"The schools that are implementing the program as recommended do see much larger gains than the schools that are not doing the (program)," Brem said.

But, she warned, teachers should avoid giving prizes or creating contests associated with the program, motivational factors that can encourage students to simply get through books to earn scores. Renaissance Learning Inc., which sells the AR program, removed a virtual store from its Web site that encouraged teachers to give prizes.

Lucy Calkins, a professor in the Teachers College of Columbia University, said research does not show that direct instruction is superior to independent reading.

"It's a no-brainer that the kids who read a lot score better," Calkins said.

Three years ago, public schools in New York City adopted an approach to reading instruction that put independent reading at the heart of the curriculum. The result, Calkins said, is that no school district has seen a greater improvement in reading scores than New York. Reading scores in Boston improved when independent reading was emphasized, and Washington, D.C.'s best performing school on reading tests uses AR, Calkins said.

Maureen L. Bradford, director of educational services for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California, said in an e-mailed response that direct instruction is important for learning literacy tasks such as determining theme, skimming, summarizing, citing evidence in text and identifying bias.

"That being said, students who have . . . acquired reading skills through direct instruction will need to practice and apply them in authentic, independent reading tasks," Bradford wrote. "Unless built into the literary block, many students simply will not choose to spend time in independent reading."

Bradford said it's important that students are held accountable by teachers for independent reading and have the ability to select choices within their skill level.

"Accelerated Reader is one way to accomplish the monitoring of independent reading," she said. "The assessment provides immediate and direct feedback to both the teacher and student. The downside to AR is that its multiple choice format does not allow students to demonstrate the wide range and variety of skills and concepts . . . that are key to developing highly literate students."

— Josh Kelley
Arizona Republic


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