Way too early to give up on reading plan Program: On paper, the first year for the phonics-oriented Direct Instruction at City Springs Elementary doesn't look good, but give it another year.


October 11, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BESS ALTWERGER, a professor of elementary education at Towson University, is one of The Sun's harshest critics.

"Gotcha!" she said in effect in a letter to the editor yesterday.

She had noticed the story in the Oct. 10 edition summing up the newspaper's yearlong comparison of reading instruction at two Baltimore elementary schools -- one with a phonics-oriented program known as Direct Instruction, the other with an approach that we could charitably call "eclectic."

Turns out that at the end of the school year, first-graders at City Springs, the Direct Instruction school, and Lyndhurst Elementary, the hodgepodge, tested near the bottom in reading, six months below grade level (that is, two-thirds of a school year below) and a month below the pitiful citywide average.

On paper, at any rate, there was no difference between Direct Instruction and the nonprogram at Lyndhurst and most city schools.

That was a keen disappointment to me. I'd been watching the Direct Instruction experiment with great anticipation, hoping that here was a program that would help city kids achieve literacy after so many false starts.

To Altwerger, the results proved that The Sun and the other parties in what she sees as a conspiracy -- including the Republican Party -- have been wrong all along. There are no "one-size-fits-all" solutions, no magic "commercial, profit-driven" programs, she wrote.

"Success in reading can only be achieved when teachers understand the complexities of the reading process and can individually assess students in order to provide instruction that meets their needs. Teachers need to draw on a range of approaches to accomplish this."

Educators will recognize Altwerger's prescriptions -- individualized instruction and a range of strategies -- as part and parcel of "whole language," a once-dominant philosophy now widely discredited.

Altwerger's frustration is understandable. She's a national leader the whole-language movement. (She also knows -- and preaches -- that city kids won't achieve at the level of their suburban counterparts until they get equal school funding. She's right about that.)

Her "gotcha," however, may be a tad premature.

Direct Instruction happens to be the only reading program on earth with a 30-year record and a mound of supporting research sponsored by the federal government. In fact, the Direct Instruction people had expected the results they got at City Springs, said Siegfried Engelmann, who created the program three decades ago and keeps track of every Direct Instruction school from his base in Oregon.

"I feel sorry for the folks at City Springs," Engelmann said. "They're getting bad press, but the program is working. We're on schedule. You have to look at where we had to come from before you criticize where we are."

Good point. Like other city schools, City Springs had a basically illiterate student body when Direct Instruction began two years ago. Third-graders, taking the Maryland School Performance Assessment tests for the first time, almost didn't register on the state grading scale.

About two-thirds of the first-graders tested began school the previous fall unable to read, even though most had been in kindergarten.

Moreover, inner-city kids at age 5, 6 and 7 aren't test-wise, and the Direct Instruction program is so scripted and intense that there isn't time to teach these youngsters how to succeed in standardized testing.

How do you turn around a school like City Springs in a year or two? You don't. But the educators are always ready to try, often with programs that have no research base.

"So many hopes are pinned on education that we're willing to try anything. And we do, and then the hopes are dashed," said Susan H. Fuhrman, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Three and four years out? Now that's something else. Engelmann, supremely confident in the program he developed and fine-tuned over many years, guarantees success at City Springs and says we'll see it in a major way with next year's testing.

So let's call him on it.

"If you can't do it at City Springs, you can't do it," said Engelmann.

If he doesn't do it next year, we'll accept no more excuses and declare Altwerger the winner. If he does, Altwerger's the loser.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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