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

Drilling in Texas

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The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is so impressed it has offered $4.5 million over the next three years to train teachers around the city in direct instruction.

When he discovered that students in his school couldn't read, he quickly set out to institute wholesale change. Nearly two-thirds of the five-dozen teachers at Wesley have less than five years' experience, and one-fourth of its teachers leave each year. The students are also highly mobile. Under such conditions, a standard reading program is the only answer, Lott maintains.

"I had teachers who didn't know how to teach reading and whose hands I was not able to hold until they learned," he says.

Lott paid for the reading materials out of the school's supplemental budget during the years the district purchased texts for whole-language instruction. But in 1991, when the television news program "Prime Time Live" featured Wesley Elementary as a school that was achieving widespread success with little help from the district, Lott began to win more support. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is so impressed it has offered $4.5 million over the next three years to train teachers around the city in direct instruction.

The school has been praised by back-to-basics advocates, but it also has been the subject of scrutiny by state officials. The state audited its testing methods and results after skeptics raised suspicions that a school with such an impoverished student population could not possibly perform so well. The audit found nothing out of order.

Lott doesn't mince words about how he interprets such challenges. "It is nothing more than a display of ignorance," he says. "It is racist" to assume that poor minority children can't learn.

Despite Wesley's success with the approach, SRA Reading Mastery is practiced by only a handful of schools here. Most of the 181 elementary schools have opted for other popular programs that also provide step-by-step guidelines for teachers but are somewhat less restrictive. More than 70 use Success for All, a whole-school reform program created by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Some schools, including Thompson Elementary, use Open Court, also published by SRA, while still others combine several programs or design their own. Incorporated in all the programs are periodic assessments.

At Poe Elementary School, which draws a mix of students from wealthy and poor areas of the city, Principal Anne McClellan and her teachers customized their reading program to better suit the needs of students and teachers. The school's literacy lab, the centerpiece of the program, helps teachers in planning their lessons and assessing students' reading skills. Dozens of other schools have also opted for their own plans.

"We decided that it would be easier [to devise the school's own strategy] than buying a package, to capitalize on the strengths of our teachers," says McClellan. At least two teachers left the school, where whole language was previously a common instructional approach, because the new plan conflicted with their own philosophy, she adds.

While few educators and researchers will criticize Houston's sharp focus on reading, or the millions of dollars dedicated to it, the district's seeming preference for commercial reading programs has been faulted for promoting a one-size-fits-all attitude.

"Obviously, they are making great gains with the types of kids that many schools have not made great gains with," says Kathleen Stumpf Jongsma, a language arts specialist for the Northside district in San Antonio and a board member of the International Reading Association.

"But the programs seem to be geared toward the masses, and progression is made for all children rather than on an individual diagnostic basis."

Teacher advocates, while praising the district for attending to professional-development needs that are often ignored, say that some of the programs, when applied too strictly or in lieu of other strategies, fail to capitalize on the skill and experience of the teaching corps.

"The strongest teachers are not trained in one method, but have a number of methods or strategies to work with children," says Margaret H. Hill, an associate professor of reading/language arts at the University of Houston at Clearlake and the new president of the Texas State Reading Association, an IRA affiliate.

Many teachers say they like the predictability of the structured programs.

Programs like the one at Wesley Elementary School may add to the problem of teacher turnover, according to Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

"It's a 'burnout' program," she suggests. "Because it's so interactive ... you are talking and [working closely with students] for the better part of six hours a day."

But Fallon says it is better to have more structure than not enough. "We have seen improvements in student test scores and, basically, every teacher likes to feel successful," she says. "We went for years with a new reading program every year, adopting every fad that was out there. 'A Balanced Approach to Reading' stabilized the reading program and put the focus on making sure it is research-tested."

Many teachers say they like the predictability of the structured programs.

Abdelsayed, who has been at Wesley for four of her nine years as a kindergarten teacher, says she prefers direct instruction to the whole-language approach she used elsewhere.

"This program gives kids a very solid base," she says. "When I got these kids at the beginning of the year, they couldn't read anything. Now, they are on the 2nd grade level."

But she believes that any program would be effective with the same amount of training and resources that Houston is expending.

"I can work with any program as long as I'm trained," Abdelsayed says. With sufficient support, "any program would work."

Schools are not required to adopt a commercial program, Hunter, the district's reading manager, says. They need only incorporate the six required components into their classrooms in a systematic way.

"You will not find 'A Balanced Approach to Reading' in a box," she says. "It is not a program; it is a philosophy."

Administrators here point to recent research as providing the basis for that philosophy. They point to one study in particular, which was conducted in another Houston district and sparked national controversy last year.

Barbara R. Foorman and Jack M. Fletcher, researchers in the pediatrics department at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School, studied the effectiveness of several commercial programs in teaching at-risk children to read. The study, underwritten by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and published in the March issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, found that explicit, systematic phonics instruction led to higher word-recognition skills among poor 1st and 2nd graders than methods that teach phonics less directly.

The study has been held up by legislators around the country--primarily conservatives--who have called for schools to get back to basics. They say the findings are proof that phonics is the best way to teach children to read. But that interpretation has led to oversimplification and widespread misinformation about the findings, says Foorman, who has been surprised at how her research has been used as ammunition in the reading wars.

"I was amazed at the attention we got. Our findings are consistent with a lot of research over the last 20 years," says Foorman, who was the chairwoman of the Houston PEER committee.

Fletcher says that many people have misinterpreted the research as prescribing "phonics first, and phonics only," when, in fact, it merely indicates that explicit phonics instruction may be the best initial strategy for teaching the most disadvantaged students to read.

G. Reid Lyon, the NICHD's director of research, says the Houston plan does incorporate a balance of essential elements. He does, however, add a caveat: Teachers must have the training to recognize how the components should be applied to meet the needs of individual students.

"The plan clearly includes the components that the research indicates are critical in reading development," says Lyon, whose federal agency is financing Foorman's latest research project in nine Houston schools.

Houston educators say their performance on state tests is proof that the program is working.

But some prominent researchers disagree. Richard L. Allington, a reading professor at the State University of New York at Albany and an IRA board member, contends that the Houston strategy gives short shrift to comprehension strategies. It also ignores evidence that a single policy for all schools in a large district is ill-advised, he says.

"The best research we have says that this is a school-by-school process," Allington says. "This plan assumes that every Houston elementary school is alike and that one plan will work in all of them. It also seems to assume that there is some quick fix ... that if you buy a particular program, or buy a test, you can turn things around."

Houston educators say their performance on state tests is proof that the program is working. Some schools, where barely one-third of students met minimum requirements on the TAAS reading test several years ago, now see a majority of students passing. For instance, at Peck Elementary School, which serves more than 300 largely impoverished students, 68 percent of 4th graders passed the TAAS last year, compared with just 34 percent two years earlier. Third and 5th graders at the school also made significant gains.

Although there are still a dozen or so schools where fewer than half the children at a given grade level are performing up to par on the state exam, most schools in the district have done well.

But critics say that those results prove only that students have learned the rules of the language and how to do well on the test. They do not prove that the children are reading well, or that they understand what they read, they say.

The TAAS, which does not have a significant reading-comprehension portion, does not offer "an appropriate assessment of reading levels" in Houston, according to the PEER committee.

On the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, which has a reading-comprehension section, the district's students scored below the 40th percentile nationally--considered below average--at nearly every grade level last year.

Even in Foorman's study, the impact of direct phonics instruction on reading comprehension was not "as robust" as it was on word recognition, and it had no greater effect on spelling achievement and vocabulary development than methods that teach phonics less directly.

"The children can call the words on almost any text put in front of them, but the synthesizing of ideas with real-life experience may be lacking," the IRA's Jongsma says.

Houston officials acknowledge that work remains to be done. A more uniform assessment system that will gauge students' comprehension skills is in the works. A state-mandated reading inventory to identify children at risk of having reading difficulties is set for grades K-2 in the fall. The district is also in the process of adopting new spelling textbooks that will meet the demands of the program. But with the adoption of reading materials a full two years away, schools must make the best of the basal readers that the district purchased before it adopted the reading initiative.

The district may be closer to realizing some of its reading goals than others.

Of the 12 broad goals the district has outlined, the first four deal with concepts of print, the structure of language, word recognition, and vocabulary skills. Others aim to foster students' interest in reading and their comprehension and critical analysis of text. Goals 8 and 9 call for students to express their thoughts and reactions to various types of text and to analyze critically its elements.

In one elementary school here, 6th graders, who were taught to read well before the reading program was in place, provide a compelling example of how mastering reading skills does not guarantee comprehension.

As part of a program that encourages students to read children's literature, small groups of students recently completed extensive research projects on the themes and characters highlighted in the books they selected.

On one recent morning, the groups present their research, starting off with a lengthy and well-rehearsed summary of the plot, characters, moral, conflict, symbolism, and irony of the story. They proudly show off small-scale models of a scene in the book and turn in research papers outlining their work.

But when they begin to answer more substantive questions about why characters took certain actions, or what particular words or phrases mean, some of the students appear perplexed.

One group, which read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, cannot express what the title of the book means or why one of the story's protagonists is considered brave. The children hesitate before giving the meaning of basic vocabulary words, and they guess at explaining figures of speech.

"We are trying to get them to look deeper into what they are reading," the school's principal says. "Obviously, the teacher now knows what these children need to work on."

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 32-37

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