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Another Ode to Direct Instruction

Ohanian Commentary: Chenoweth and I live in different universes. She proves frequently that her own hubris allows no room for respect for teachers.

Hallelujah -- I hope.

As regular readers of Homeroom know, Montgomery County has a reading problem.

Lots of statistics demonstrate the point, but I'll stick to the spring Maryland School Assessment, on which 30 percent of county kids failed to meet state reading standards. If you break down that number, it means that 15 percent of the non-Hispanic white students didn't meet standards, nor did 20 percent of the Asian American students; 47 percent of the African American students; 53 percent of the Hispanic students; 58 percent of the poor students; and 63 percent of the students receiving special education services. In some of Montgomery County's low-performing schools, as many as 70 percent of third-graders failed to meet state standards.

These are disastrous numbers, pointing to endless amounts of heartache and failure, because unless you can read fairly well, you are pretty well doomed to failure in high school and beyond. Poor kids, especially, who don't learn to read well will, in all likelihood, remain poor all their lives.

It doesn't need to be so. Extensive research shows that with well-prepared teachers using proven methods and materials, at least 90 percent of all children can read at or above grade level.

So the fact that Montgomery County has decided to put a proven reading program into elementary schools that receive federal Title I money is welcome news indeed. We'll get to why I have trepidations in a minute.

The program is Direct Instruction, which has a long history of raising achievement, particularly among poor and minority students.

The history goes back decades, when Direct Instruction was the one reading program found to be effective in raising achievement among poor students in a $1 billion federal evaluation of instructional methods called "Project Follow Through." The project was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society effort to identify and eliminate the causes of poverty. Direct Instruction was similarly found to have a strong record of raising achievement in a recent analysis by the American Institutes for Research on behalf of a number of organizations, including principals associations and unions representing teachers.

Direct Instruction has been so clearly identified as successful, in fact, that it is a mystery why it has not been used more widely.

The only places it hasn't done well in boosting achievement among kids is where it was implemented clumsily and without adequate preparation of the teachers and principals.

That is why I'm nervous about what's being done here in the county, where it is being shoved into schools with what appears to be inadequate training and inadequate explanation.

I'm looking at an Oct. 31 memo that went to elementary school principals from school system muckety-mucks (associate superintendents and the like) that is almost incomprehensible. It certainly gives principals none of the reasons Direct Instruction was adopted.

Here's one reason the memo could have cited: City Springs Elementary School in Baltimore. The enrollment at City Springs is just about all poor and all black, with a mobility rate of nearly 50 percent -- meaning that kids are coming and going all the time. Thanks in part to Direct Instruction, 66 percent of the students met the state reading standards this spring, including 80 percent of the students receiving special education services. They still have a way to go to bring the rest of the kids up to state standards, but City Springs is proving that success is possible under very difficult circumstances.

One of the issues for Direct Instruction in Montgomery County, however, is that it is totally different from the teaching method the county has been using.

Direct Instruction programs -- which have different names, such as Horizons, depending on the grade level -- lay out the lessons for just about every school day and require teachers to move at a very fast clip, monitoring how well students are mastering the lessons, partly by frequent tests and partly by listening to kids read aloud in unison (a method called choral reading). They explicitly teach all the sounds used in the English language and how they are represented by letters -- otherwise known as phonics instruction.

All this requires a huge culture shift among Montgomery County teachers, who have been told for years to eschew explicit, systematic teaching of phonics and rely on what is called "contextual clues," such as pictures, to help children derive meaning from a storybook.

For the most part, county teachers are desperate for a program that will actually work, and in places where Direct Instruction has been successfully implemented, teachers have become convinced of the possibility of success and have dropped their initial misgivings.

But there's no question that some Montgomery County teachers and principals will approach such a radical change hesitantly, and it is unfortunate that as of today they have not been provided with enough information or training to make them comfortable with the program.

For example, only two days of training is being offered to principals and teachers, according to the Oct. 31 memo. "Uh-oh" was the reaction of Jerry Silber, who has written a book on how to implement Direct Instruction programs, when I told him what the memo said. "A week of training" is the minimum he says is necessary, with additional training and coaching available.

Karen Harvey, the new director of the county school system's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, said more training will be provided during the year, and that it will be of a very high quality.

But here's another issue: It will be used only in the second, third and fifth grades, as an "intervention" program for kids who need help. "That's a real mistake," said Silber, who believes such an approach is just "waiting for kids to fail," rather than getting them the instruction they need in the first place.

And here's another confusing point. Some of the schools that will use Direct Instruction beginning this school year will be part of the federal Reading First initiative next year, which will require them to adopt a reading program instead of the current Montgomery County language arts program. So the teachers and principals will have to train in yet another reading instruction method, though it may be similar to Direct Instruction.

If those issues can be worked out, the news should be good for kids. And then maybe in a couple of years, we can start seeing scores on reading assessments in our high-poverty schools that don't make us wince.

— Karin Chenoweth
New Reading Program Is Proven, but County's Support Is Not
Washington Post


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