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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Drilling in Texas

Drilling in Texas

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The children sit in neat rows on the floor, their legs crisscrossed, hands in their laps. In unison, they sound out the letters, their voices loud and clear, as part of the morning reading drill. In the singsong tones of a military cadence, they work their way through the alphabet:

"A, a, what do you say, ah, ah, ah ...," they chant.

B, b, what do you say, buh, buh, buh. ..."

Next, the teacher points to colorful flashcards that line the top of the chalkboard, and the children follow her rapid-fire commands.

"Boys and girls, identify the picture on the card," she directs.

"Monkey," they answer.

"Say the sound."

"Mmm."

"Spell the sound."

"M."

They continue to speed through the letters. The teacher interrupts periodically with instructions on the shape their mouths should make or how they must blow air out when they say the letter.

During a brief pause, the activity is halted by the sounds of children in the next room reciting a similar drill. Pupils in all the surrounding classrooms, in fact, are engrossed in nearly identical activities as they prepare to read from the big storybook propped up on an easel in front of the classroom. The exercises are part of a highly scripted program designed to teach youngsters to read through an intense focus on explicit, systematic phonics.

This is kindergarten at Thompson Elementary School in one of this city's poorest neighborhoods. As the school year winds down, children are immersed in structured reading tasks dominated by repetitive phonics activities and stories that correspond to each lesson.

Many of these 6-year-olds are conquering 1st grade books and vocabulary words with skill and enthusiasm, and in the process, working to dispel the common perception that the nation's neediest children aren't learning to read.

Officials in the 225,000-student Houston Independent School District have taken an almost militaristic stand in addressing the schools' most fundamental task for ensuring academic success: teaching children to read. A 2-year-old initiative that administrators praise as a balanced approach has forced teachers in every one of the district's 280 elementary, middle, and high schools to conform to a more uniform strategy for teaching reading that begins with basic skills.

The approach that Superintendent Rod Paige has emphatically declared as the best way to teach this city's children to read--and has thrown a barrage of resources behind--has attracted the national spotlight and, with it, the praise and criticism that have fueled the "reading wars" for decades. But as the rosy reports out of Houston inspire other districts to try to emulate the strategy, some experts are urging closer scrutiny.

In a state and a city that closely guard local control of education, decisions about how to teach children have traditionally been made at the school or even the classroom level. A 1991 school-based-decisionmaking policy had given principals and teachers wide latitude in choosing instructional methods that suited their students' needs.

But several years ago, a group of the district's best teachers lamented that teaching reading had become haphazard. Over the years, schools had jumped on the bandwagon of nearly every new trend in the field, they complained. Nearly a decade ago, the district adopted instructional materials styled for whole language, a method of teaching reading in the context of literature. And they had bought "every basal known to man," says district reading manager Phyllis Hunter. Reading instruction was approached in dozens of different ways.

The district's high rate of student mobility--at least 25 percent of students at most schools, and as many as 63 percent at others, transfer within the district or leave altogether--pointed to a need for uniformity, the teachers said.

Paige, who had formed committees with representatives from the district, local universities, and the community to review management policies since becoming superintendent in 1994, decided to do the same for reading instruction.

"I wanted to settle the argument once and for all," says Paige, referring to the perennial debate over whether to use a phonics- or literature-based method to teach children to read.

After months of reviewing research, conducting focus groups, and discussing the issue, the Peer Examination, Evaluation, and Redesign Committee--or PEER--unveiled its report, "A Balanced Approach to Reading" in 1996.

As a result, "our board adopted a district philosophy of reading," Paige says. "We announced that reading is not a decentralized activity and that we expect compliance across the district."

Under that policy, which plucked many of the decisions out of teachers' hands, reading in grades K-3 must be taught in an uninterrupted block of at least 90 minutes each day using a six-pronged approach. By incorporating all the components--phonemic awareness, print awareness, alphabetic awareness, orthographic awareness, comprehension strategies, and reading practice--district administrators aim to get all children reading at grade level by the 3rd grade.

"Our task now is to bring together reading components supported by research from cognitive science and the effective practices of successful teachers in a balanced approach to reading instruction," the 1996 report says. "Balance involves a program that combines skills involving phonological awareness and decoding with language- and literature-rich activities."

Implementation of the program in Houston has coincided with a state reading initiative, led by Republican Gov. George W. Bush, that also prescribes greater attention to phonemic awareness.

Responding to alarming statistics on reading achievement among young children--some 40 percent of 4th graders could not read at the "basic" level on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading-- many districts and states have begun to set similar, more explicit guidelines for teaching reading in the elementary grades. Texas students scored at the national average on NAEP, with 57 percent of 4th graders reading at the basic level or above.

But it is the sheer scope of the effort in this, the nation's 7th-largest district, that makes it notable, observers say.

"All in all, they have seen some positive effects from the emphasis placed on reading in the increased attention on professional development, the public attention to the issue, and the money," says Leslie Patterson, a language arts professor at the University of Houston.

As the pendulum has swung from employing one method of instruction to another, teachers have rarely gotten the training and support necessary for adopting the changes effectively. District leaders here have made that training a priority.

Over the past year, three dozen reading teacher-trainers have been leading carefully designed sessions for some 3,000 elementary teachers. During the sessions, the trainers outline the district's reading philosophy and the PEER report, which serves as the foundation of the program. They hand out articles outlining the latest research in the field, review a glossary of language arts terms, and discuss curriculum guidelines. They lead activities that often end with teachers reciting nursery rhymes or breaking into song as they demonstrate techniques for developing early reading skills. The training also prepares teachers to conduct the program in English and Spanish to accommodate the district's large Hispanic population.

The district has budgeted $3.4 million a year for the professional- development portion, which includes the hiring of Hunter, the reading manager. Nearly $2 million more from federal Title I and Goals 2000 grants has also been directed toward reading. The full-scale training is supplemented with smaller workshops that assist teachers in writing lesson plans, setting up literacy centers, and creating other means of infusing the program's elements into their lessons.

Nearly all the district's elementary teachers have been put through the paces of the intensive training mandated under the initiative. The program was expanded this year to include many in middle and high schools as well. Eventually, all the secondary teachers will receive training in reading instruction.

For elementary teachers, five days are scheduled throughout the school year for them to review research, run through reading and writing activities that they can use with their classes, and learn assessment techniques. Middle and high school teachers must attend three training days--10 days for reading-enrichment teachers--on literacy and comprehension strategies.

For some of the district's veteran teachers, the training was a hard sell, either because they didn't see the need for more training or they suspected it was another fad that would fade away.

"Many longtime teachers have seen programs come and go," says Jean Barber, a reading teacher-trainer. "Some said, 'I'll wait this one out, too, and continue doing what I've been doing.'"

Many teachers here had been taking a balanced approach for years, using their own blend of phonics lessons and literature to build students' skills. Now, the district demands that all understand the specific elements of the district initiative and the underlying reasons for addressing them, Hunter says.

District officials say the impact of the program has already reverberated down to even their most troubled schools. On state tests, students' scores at every grade level have increased steadily. The gains at some schools have been dramatic.

Superintendent Paige and his staff were ecstatic when the latest results of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, were released last month. Overall, 85 percent of 3rd graders, 89 percent of 4th graders, and 88 percent of 5th graders met at least the minimum standards on the reading portion of the annual test, an increase of at least 4 percentage points at each grade level since last year. In some schools, all the students who took the test passed. Fourth graders have improved 11 percentage points since 1996--the year before the new mandate went into effect.

Houston students' achievement rivals that of many of their suburban counterparts, yet the district profile would predict far less success. Roughly half its students are Hispanic, another 35 percent are African- American, and more than one-fourth have limited proficiency in English. Some 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and in many schools, almost all the children live in borderline or extreme poverty. More than 40 percent of district students are identified as at- risk of dropping out of school because of poor academic achievement. And many students here, teachers and administrators say, begin their academic careers with limited experience with books, words, or even the alphabet.

At Wesley Elementary School, teachers and administrators have headed off that formula for failure. All its 1,000 students qualify for federal Title I aid earmarked for disadvantaged children. More than three-fourths of the pupils, 93 percent of whom are black, qualify for free or subsidized lunches. Yet, 87 percent of 3rd graders passed the TAAS reading section last year. It is not uncommon for Wesley's kindergartners to read 2nd grade books. Fewer than 6 percent attend special education classes in a district where 10 percent is the average.

On the other side of the school's barbed wire fencing is a neighborhood characterized by tiny, rundown dwellings. Nonetheless, Wesley Elementary has garnered national attention as a model urban school.

Thaddeus S. Lott Sr., its no-nonsense former principal who now directs a project that clusters Wesley and two other public elementary schools under the state's new charter school program, has become something of a celebrity after appearing on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and being featured in magazine articles and on television newsmagazines.

A cover story in the February issue of Policy Review, published by the conservative Heritage Foundation, declared that Lott "Puts Failing Schools to Shame," for demanding a strict adherence to the basics.

All students at Wesley are taught to read through what is called direct instruction, an intensive phonics-based curriculum. Using the commercial reading program SRA Reading Mastery, formerly named DISTAR, teachers lead children through daily drills sounding out letters and letter blends and other repetitive reading exercises. Teachers, who receive extensive training in conducting the program in lockstep fashion, ask several hundred questions of their students each day.

"Boys and girls, get ready," kindergarten teacher Mary Abdelsayed prompts a half-dozen pupils. "What's the word?"

They respond in decibels barely below shouting: "Fin."

"Again," the teacher instructs as she runs her finger quickly under the word.

"Fin."

"Once more."

"Fin."

"Get ready," Abdelsayed directs, maintaining a steady rhythm to keep the children focused.

"What's the word?"

"Fine."

"Again."

"Fine."

"Once more."

"Fine."

After this warm-up, they read from a text featuring the words they just practiced.

Lott, who was principal here for 23 years before forming the charter school cluster, brought this program to the school shortly after his tenure began. Raised just blocks from the aging brick building, he was taught that education could break the cycle of poverty.

Continue reading >

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 32-37

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