Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Early Reading Intervention And Special Education's Woes

To the Editor:

"Funded Into Perpetuity" Jan. 29, 1997, by David O. Krantz raises provocative issues and questions regarding special education, particularly in regard to student outcomes, escalation in referrals, the pre-referral system, costs, and even what a learning disability is. But Mr. Krantz provides no answers when answers are abundant in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world.

This past year, for example, has witnessed the release of two critical learning-disability reports: "Learning Disabilities: A National Responsibility" (the report of the Summit on Learning Disabilities in Washington, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities); and "Learning Disabilities: A Barrier to Literacy Instruction" (a report by the International Reading Association). The first highlights the overwhelming evidence that too many learning-disabled children are failing in public schools under the current implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Instead, the report says, "effort must be made to provide assistance as early as possible." It hammers away consistently at the need for effective early intervention.

The second report more specifically isolates the common practice of slotting into special education children who have difficulty learning how to read. The IRA study identifies Reading Recovery as an excellent example of both a professional-development model and a highly effective intervention model, calling it "a program designed to help students who are at risk of failure in reading and who otherwise would have been identified as learning-disabled." Reading Recovery teaches children how to read and write, but it also reduces the number of children labeled with learning disabilities.

If, as this IRA report says, research demonstrates that Reading Recovery can decrease the number of 1st grade students classified as learning-disabled, and if, as the report also says, the placement of children in Reading Recovery for "15 to 20 weeks of one-on-one instruction is far less expensive than placing them in special education," then what are we waiting for?

In my own state of Massachusetts, the legislature has--for the first time--allocated in the budget for the current fiscal year $500,000 for early intervention (recently doubled by Gov. William F. Weld for fiscal 1998). After conducting their own seven-month investigation of research relating to Reading Recovery, the legislative team confirmed the high degree of success this intervention has had in teaching children how to read and write; its ability to defer children from special education; its positive impact on retention; and its cost-effectiveness (for every $3 invested in Reading Recovery, a school system saves $5).

So, although Mr. Krantz's point is well taken, he missed the solution: The relentless referral of young children to special education because of reading failure can be stopped by strategic early intervention in the 1st grade through Reading Recovery. Why place children in learning-disability programs with no or limited success? Why maintain inequality when this program has the potential to equalize almost all children?

As Jonathan Kozol says: "The question is whether we want to be one society or two? Until that is dealt with nothing else will be solved."

David J. Moriarty
Director of Language Arts K-12
Medford Public Schools
Medford, Mass.

One State Legislator Sees Bias Against Local Control

To the Editor:

Your analysis of South Dakota's experience in providing quality education was skewed, I believe, against the concept of local control ("Quality Counts,"Education Week special supplement, Jan. 22, 1997.) Far from being a negative, local control in our state has meant involving more people in educational decisions and quality initiatives, such as the statewide content standards adopted by the state board of education last June.

Although you claim to have analyzed volumes of data and reports to complete your 50-state study, several important factors relating to South Dakota didn't rate mention: a graduation rate of 88.9 percent, third highest in the country; a dropout rate tied for seventh lowest in the nation; a very low student-teacher ratio, ranging from 6.7 students for every teacher in the smallest districts to 19.4 students per teacher in districts of more than 2,000 students; achievement-test results in which South Dakota students consistently outperform the rest of the nation (our 11th graders last year improved their achievement in math by 9 points, to an average score of 71; 50 is the national average); growing use of technology in the classroom, with one computer for every six students (highest in the country) and one multimedia, networked computer for every 15 students.

It is true, as you say, that South Dakota has eliminated many rules and regulations. In 1995, those of us in the legislature loosened the strings on local boards and placed our faith in their common sense, good judgment, and commitment to quality. Was it necessary to have requirements on the books mandating a flagpole at every school building, or special instruction in patriotism, or programs on tree planting? While these may be good ideas, the state doesn't need to tell schools to do them.

Meanwhile, we believe our academic results speak for themselves.

Richard E. Brown
South Dakota House of Representatives
Pierre, S.D.

Accountability, Standards Do Not Require Tests

To the Editor:

Congratulations for the work that went into assembling and editing "Quality Counts." It is a valuable source of information that should spur thinking and debate on school reform across the nation.

We are, however, concerned about the assumption that high-stakes testing will enhance academic achievement. The report gives higher scores to states which have rewards or penalties for holding schools accountable for student performance and for graduating or promoting students based on whether they "master the standards." While accountability and mastering standards do not, in principle, require the use of tests, only states with high school exit tests score high on this indicator.

In practice, such tests are likely to undermine reform. To access complex forms of thinking (divergent thinking, synthesis, evaluation, or use of knowledge in a field) requires complex forms of assessment (performance exams with extended responses, projects, or portfolios). The more complex the form of measurement, the more difficult it is to ensure high reliability. But to pass legal muster, an exit exam must have high reliability. The result is that imposing high stakes tends to force a narrowing in what is measured and in the measurement methods (for example, only multiple-choice).

With high-stakes tests, teachers are even more certain to teach to them and to tailor instruction to the tests' methodology. Students thus tend to be taught not the whole curriculum, but mostly what is tested, and to be taught in ways that emphasize lower-level drill. Scores on the tests may go up, but real learning likely will not. Thus, tests designed to establish accountability consistent with standards can undermine the learning called for in standards.

Quality Counts correctly highlights the problems of inadequate and inequitable financial and instructional resources and very limited professional development in most states. These failures will all too likely result in high-stakes tests like the exit exams simply confirming the existing class and racial divisions in U.S. schools, but with more harmful consequences for students.

As the final twist in failed school reform, the scores on tests that helped undermine the reform could be used to justify the very inequities that the tests reveal.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

Pennsylvania 'New Standards' Are Same Old 'Outcomes'

To the Editor:

Your story "Pennsylvania Lawmakers Urged To Try Again To Pass Charter Bill," Feb. 12, 1997, purports to be about Pennsylvania. While it contains no outright untruths, it is certainly misleading. Let me list my cavils:

By no stretch of the imagination is the governor recommending that $200 million in new dollars be put into Pennsylvania's basic public schools this year. It comes to considerably less than that. Most are increases so embarrassingly inadequate as to defy discussion, with the exception for a "growth supplement" that will ensure that many of the state's wealthiest schools will get a percentage increase greater than any that most of the poorest will receive.

You mention the state's "new academic standards." There are no new academic standards. The administration continues to try to produce them, as you state, but due to their lack of trust for anyone who knows anything about such things, they are a long way away from standards. I expect what they will do is ape Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and simply adopt some standards put out by a McGuffey wannabe.

The governor of Pennsylvania may not like the state's minimum expected learning outcomes (the current standards) but he cannot make them voluntary. They were adopted by the state board of education and were approved by the appropriate committees of the General Assembly, making them regulations with the effect of law. As much as he may wish it, Gov. Tom Ridge does not rule by fiat.

Thus, the infamous "outcomes" are in effect. It is true that they are not being enforced. Of course, what is eventually produced in the way of standards will also be outcomes. I guess the magic is in not calling them that.

Joseph Bard
Executive Director-Elect
Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools
Harrisburg, Pa.

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