Let's provide tools needed to fix our schools

July 14, 1998|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE Reading by 9 series in The Sun is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. The five-year literacy project designed to boost reading skills of young children has rescued reading instruction from the phonics-whole language battlefield and shifted the focus to scientific evidence. Also, it has helped to fuel a statewide movement that has put phonics-based instruction back into a more prominent role in the classroom.

Yet, the Reading by 9 articles have failed to adequately address some instructional tools that research has shown are indispensable in helping students, especially the disadvantaged, succeed.

For example, class size is apparently a key factor in early student success. Some evidence shows that inner-city students benefit from reading and math groups that have no more than 20 students.

Also key is the amount of instructional time. Should more than the usual 90 minutes (perhaps 150 minutes) be allotted to reading/language arts? A state task force on reading recommends devoting at least 120 to 140 minutes a day in elementary grades.

Remedial approaches

But the most striking omission from the Reading by 9 articles is the issue of remedial interventions. Extensive research shows that many at-risk students will fall behind despite the best phonics-based pedagogy. Such students need tutoring, summer school or other instructional supplements to succeed.

Research shows that professional teachers, not volunteers, are necessary for effective tutoring.

Summer school, as recent studies show, is imperative if many students are to avoid "social promotions" and make sustained academic progress.

Many other essential research-based interventions -- preventive as well as remedial -- should be addressed in the Reading by 9 articles, including all-day and half-day kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds; school-based staff development, including reading coordinators and expansion of health and social services programs offered.

Why do Reading by 9 and some other programs advocating early literacy slight the full range of evidence on what it takes to bring at-risk students up to grade level? One reason is a misunderstanding of the results achieved by the most scientifically proven "best practices" programs. Evaluations usually describe students in model programs as doing `significantly better` than comparison students. Yet, `significantly better,` as determined by arcane statistical techniques, typically leaves many students well below grade level.

This is illustrated by two of the most extensively researched and justifiably pre-eminent reading programs in the country, Direct Instruction and Success for All. Both exemplify the lessons learned in Reading by 9 and are backed by studies showing impressive results, especially for at-risk students.

Still, Success for All has achieved success for many, not all. Students taught in that program who were in the bottom 25 percent on achievement test scores register the largest gains, but remain far below grade level. Direct Instruction has eliminated the proficiency gap for many students, but not all.

Another reason for the tendency to understate the necessity of preventive and remedial interventions is their high cost. Policy makers are under heavy pressure to put a low price tag on education reform.

Cost of reform

In the drive to revamp the city school system, many powerful voices emphasized stronger management and downplayed more money as the key to improved student performance. Phonics-based instruction and stiffer teacher certification requirements are low-cost reforms.

On the other hand, a research-based shopping list of other essential interventions is expensive. In city schools, reading and math class sizes of 15 in the early grades, professional tutors, summer school and additional kindergarten programs alone would cost tens of millions beyond the current budget. I hope that Reading by 9 articles will put a spotlight on these other issues.

Another key question: Should the state provide more money for the necessary instructional tools and remedial programs to help all students succeed, considering its constitutional duty to assure adequacy in school financing? (Maryland ranks near the bottom among states in its share of state-local education expenditures and in state aid relative to state per capita income. While the city-state settlement two years ago added about $50 million more per year, that seemingly large sum is less than a 7 percent increase in the city school budget.

There are hopeful signs. The state Board of Education recently passed a resolution that tied new high-stakes high school graduation exams to "mandatory interventions [beginning in the early elementary grades] for each public school student throughout the state who is not succeeding in reading and/or mathematics . . ."

And the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a trailblazing decision last month that requires that state to pay the cost of research-based "opportunity-to-succeed" standards that enable at-risk students to meet high academic requirements.

Maryland should follow this path, with The Sun helping to show the way.

Kalman R. Hettleman, an education consultant, writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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