Unusual book, unusual day


Story: President Bush looked confused Sept. 11. Maybe it was the format of what he was reading.

July 11, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MYSTERY solved. For seven minutes after he was informed a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, President Bush read aloud a simple children's story about a pet goat who thwarts a car robbery.

Those who instantly recognized what the president was reciting to a class of Sarasota, Fla., second-graders were the educators at 17 Baltimore City schools and hundreds more across the country who teach reading and math in a program called Direct Instruction.

my pet goat, which Bush found so compelling that he had to be dragged away to confront a major national emergency, is Lesson 60 in a textbook series called Reading Mastery. The president's videotaped performance is enshrined in Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

"a girl got a pet goat," the story begins. "she liked to go running with her pet goat. she played with the goat in her yard. but the goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad. the goat ate things. he ate cans and he ate canes. he ate pans and he ate panes. he even ate capes and caps."

It goes on from there. I won't bore you. Suffice it to say that a car thief appears at the end of the chapter and takes a liking to dad's big red car. In the next chapter, our hero takes on the robber. "the goat hit him with his sharp horns. the car robber went flying."

Everyone smiles as the story concludes -- everyone but the car robber. "he said, `I am sore.' "

Note some unusual aspects of the text. In the books for the earliest grades, the only capital letter that appears is "I". In DI, as the educators refer to it, children learn to read first, then the rules of capitalization.

And though it can't be shown here, the text has diacritical markings; long vowels are marked, like the "o" in "goat," and letters that don't say anything, like the "a" in "goat" and the "a" in "steal," are printed smaller than other letters, delivering a message to children learning to read: Don't worry so much about me. Worry about my neighbor.

The markings disappear in Reading Mastery books for older children, said Muriel Berkeley of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which operates three Direct Instruction schools. And capital letters appear in their proper places later on, too.

Direct Instruction, once called DISTAR, is a highly scripted program involving logical precision, careful measurement of mastery, rapid correction of mistakes, early emphasis on phonics (note the alliteration and rhyming) and strict schedules.

That's why the Baltimore teachers (and principals) recognized my pet goat right away. It's not just a story that a teacher in a loosely organized program might or might not pull off the shelf for her first- or second-graders. It's part of a designed sequence, and all teachers introduce it at about the same time.

"We all know [my] pet goat well," said Berkeley.

Much of the establishment disdains Direct Instruction, which was developed 40 years ago by a philosopher named Siegfried Engelmann, co-author of my pet goat. Direct Instruction is a lot of work for teachers, but it has a proven track record at urban schools like Baltimore's City Springs Elementary.

President Bush probably knew none of this when he set out to read my pet goat at Emma E. Booker Elementary that fateful morning. Wonder what he thought when, having just heard planes had crashed into both towers of the World Trade Center, he encountered this strange story (in the second grade?) about a car robber, a story with weird markings and only one capital letter.

No wonder he looked confused.

Educators' name game masks student failure

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige doesn't want the news media to label as failures schools that don't meet achievement goals two years in a row. The No Child Left Behind Act, he says, calls schools in this category "in need of improvement," and we should, too.

Educators are masters at masking failure. Students who aren't so bright are "differently able," and they "don't meet with success." Remedial education long ago was changed to "developmental education."

The best example comes from the so-called "twilight schools" established last year in Baltimore so that students who failed courses could make up the credits. These students were not repeating courses they'd flunked. No, they were engaged in "credit recovery."

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