A Track Record of Lackluster Results in Baltimore
Before he was promoted to dictate reading policy from Washington, the director of Reading First managed a reform program in Baltimore that created lackluster results for the children and their families.
The Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP), a reform effort funded by the Abell Foundation for eighteen Baltimore elementary schools that hoped to improve the reading scores of disadvantaged urban children using so-called "research-based" programs had to admit disappointing achievements after five years.
This effort asked schools to use a method called "Direct Instruction" that has been around since the sixties and has quite a research base behind it. It is often cited as an example of a program that works. It is heavily scripted, heavily structured and very controlling.
It is not the kind of program you would wish on your own child unless you are fond of strait jackets and heavy-handed approaches. As a former elementary principal with considerable background in reading methods, I would pull my own children out a school that turned to such methods.
It just goes to show that research-based programs do not guarantee success despite the bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated claims and propaganda coming out of Washington these days. The BCP experience should be mandatory reading for any Senators or Representatives who think NCLB's reading mandates are healthy for children or approach anything like "science-based" school improvement.
BCP proudly mentions the research base:
- There is a clear and extensive research basis for DIs effectiveness in improving student achievement.
To find out more about Direct Instruction, click on these links: www.adihome.org and www.nifdi.org.
- A Brief History of the Baltimore Curriculum Project
By Muriel V. Berkeley and R. John Blackley
Despite this research base, BCP had little to show for its efforts.
The research on most of these programs is mixed at best. Many times the studies are flawed. Many times the results match the BCP experience for lackluster disappointment. The fans of these programs frequently mention the exceptions but ignore the failures. It turns out that the true causes of school improvement are usually the result of many different factors, some of which might include heroic leaders, unusual teachers or skewed collections of students. The studies of reading programs tend to average out these other factors in ways that exaggerate the impact of the reading programs, creating a false impression of effectiveness and reliability.
Sometimes the company that publishes the program also creates the tests used to measure its effectiveness. In many domains that would be viewed as a conflict of interest - much like CBS News rating the Super Bowl half time show of business partner (and Viacom possession) MTV.
If programs like Direct Instruction were predictably reliable and effective, all urban children would now be reading above grade level. After all, this program has been around since the 1960s and has been judged effective for decades. If we know what works, why have we waited so long? If we know what works, why did it fail in Baltimore?
All we need to do, so the research-based myth argues, is give children the right reading programs and they become good readers - all reading at or above grade level - all above average!
If that were so, why did Direct Instruction fail in Baltimore and many other places where it was advanced as some silver bullet, miracle fix? Why did Direct Instruction fail the Reading Boss - Chris Doherty - when he used it in Baltimore?
Why is this whole approach to school improvement a terrible fraud?
Pseudo Science and Voodoo as an Excuse for Oppression
It is misleading and wrong when Washington-based bureaucrats claim that they know better than the folks in New York City. They have no track record of success that stands up to scrutiny. There are no research-based (favored) programs that work well in all circumstances. "Research-based" means "studied" but it does not mean "guaranteed." The research actually shows that they are unreliable and unpredictable, but proponents gloss over these findings. They pick and chose across the findings to push their pet programs.
We also have no evidence that unfavored programs will fail because they lack the research base (or corporate financing) that characterize favored programs.
Well meaning citizens of both political parties should demand that this federal interference in what should be a local matter - the choice of reading programs - stops immediately.
A Failure of Intelligence
We have here a failure of intelligence - a misreading of the research and a misunderstanding of its purport. We have politicians promoting personal agendas by twisting science, research and information about learning to serve their own policy interests.
When a program is research-based, it only means it has been studied. It does not mean that we can predict future success. Many of the studies show little progress at a statistical level of significance. Some might show progress under special circumstances. Even if the research is a mixed bag, proponents focus the light on the success stories and ignore the failures or the projects that were inconclusive
We witness politicians and their staff picking and choosing research that suits their goals. They create what amounts to virtual truths.
"It's helping focus the funds on programs that have proven to work."
Words of Mass Deception - Are there no Poor Houses?
Within the next few years, real reading progress in these urban districts employing Beltway mandated reading programs will prove as elusive as the weapons of mass deception the Bush administration used as an excuse for invading Iraq without international or United Nations backing.
The claims of research-based programs will soon be discredited as the limitations of these highly scripted, heavily structured programs do damage to the thinking skills and the reading comprehension of urban children who are subjected to very bad reading strategies that undermine reasoning and deprive them of their birthright as American citizens.
The contrast between the progressive reading experiences of affluent American children in the suburbs and the plight of disadvantaged urban or rural children is dramatic and tragic. The plight of poor children in America is Dickensian - reminiscent of Oliver Twist and other tales of woe.
"Are there no poor houses?" complained Ebeneezer Scrooge.
To see the difference in black-and-white terms (pun intended), read about the diet of thinking, questioning and wondering that greets first grade students in the classroom of Debbie Miller vividly describes in her book - Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Students in her class are challenged to collect and explore fascinating questions. Understanding and insight are priorities. Phonics are also stressed, but reading is broadly defined and students are encouraged to think about their own thinking behaviors, taught to take responsibility and to wrestle with the surprising or unexpected.
The student role in Debbie's classroom is elevated and teacher control is minimized as young ones are expected to handle difficulties without relying upon memorized patterns. The contrast with Direct Instruction is dramatic.
Hot Air, Fake Miracles and Hidden Agendas
NCLB and its reading agenda condemn poor children to a low wage future - one where pay is $7 per hour, there are no benefits and one need only punch pictures of hamburgers on a cash register. No thinking required. Follow orders. Do what you're told. Follow the script. Never challenge authority. Do what the boss says. The boss knows best.
Our way or the highway. Beltway or no way!
Many children will end up sleeping on air vents as adults like this homeless person in our nation's capital.
One group will move into highly paid professional jobs while the other takes the minimum wage jobs that are the only job sector the Bush administration has expanded. Along with tax breaks for the wealthy, we see the rich get richer and the poor grow in numbers and poverty.