Chapter 1: Why Do Students Have So Much Trouble Learning?

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The editorial pages of this newspaper and other publications are abuzz with proposals for reforming Chapter 1. The articles generally start by pointing out that Chapter 1 is not working and then unveil their solution to make it work. Not one word is ever said about why the students are having trouble learning. The proposed solutions are inevitably designed to let new groups get their hands on the Chapter 1 funds to balance budgets, or push schools toward implementing their conception of a social ideal, such as having all students heterogenously grouped all the time to foster greater social understanding. These general goals result in specific recommendations, such as liberalizing the provisions for schoolwide models and/or using Chapter 1 funds for schoolwide restructuring (whatever that is).

But why are the Chapter 1 students having trouble learning? Without the answer to that question, proposals to change Chapter 1 are like trying to cure AIDS without knowing what causes it. By arguing that simply mixing students together, or restructuring schools, will solve the problems, current reformers seem to believe that there are no real cognition problems inhibiting Chapter 1 students from learning, and the students have no real learning deficits. (The profession has solved the latter problem by decreeing that saying students have learning deficits is politically incorrect.) All that is needed is to get the social process right.

When reformers who advocate eliminating Chapter 1 do talk about student learning needs, the views are simplistic and naÃive. The most common tactic to avoid dealing with the underlying learning problems is the rallying cry: "All students can learn.'' Nor is the conclusion by Margaret Wang and co-authors in their March 24, 1993, Commentary in Education Week ("Reform All Categorical Programs''), that the underlying problem is merely that some kids need more help than others, much help. (See related Commentary on page 25.) Things are really not that simple. What kind of help do they need? Do all need the same type of help? Why do they need that help? These key questions go unanswered.

The belief that there are no real cognitively based learning problems in Chapter 1 students simply does not meet the test of common sense. There are simply too many students having real trouble learning--particularly after the 3rd grade. Simple techniques just do not seem to work after the 3rd grade. At the same time, there have been two national programs that have enjoyed major success: The Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) Program from the University of Arizona, and Reading Recovery from New Zealand. Although they focus on different grade levels, they share significant other characteristics that evolved independently.

First, to confound the social-process folks, both programs are pullouts. The fact that they are pullouts is not significant. What is significant is that both are pullouts because they created a new, highly specialized type of learning environment which involved a highly technical response to specific learning problems which could not be done in the regular classroom. In addition, the implementation and dissemination of the programs are controlled by the researchers who developed them instead of commercial publishers. Research conducted over an extensive period of time guides the dissemination process. Research-generated standards determine the conditions under which the program can be used by schools, especially issues of teacher selection, teacher training, pupil-teacher ratios, and the amount of service that must be provided to students.

I cannot speak for Reading Recovery. However, as the developer of the HOTS program I would like to share what has been learned about the nature of Chapter 1 and learning-disabled students' learning problems from 12 years of experience with providing them a state-of-the-art thinking-skills program. The implications of this knowledge for program reform will then be discussed.

First of all, the learning problems seem to be very different in the K-through-3 and the 4-through-8 grade spans. The primary learning problem in the early grades seems to be a knowledge deficit. After the 3rd grade the problem shifts to being an inability to construct a sense of understanding about how to integrate ideas. This explains why so many techniques that work in the early grade levels have no effect later on, and why the effects from positive early interventions seldom are sustained beyond the 3rd grade. Totally different interventions are needed after the 3rd grade. By focusing on developing students' sense of what it means to understand, 10 percent to 15 percent of HOTS students make honor roll--and this is true for the different ethnic groups in the program. As a result, Chapter 1 needs to have totally separate provisions for students in grades K-3 as compared to grades 4-8.

The second finding has to do with different learning problems within the Chapter 1 population. Margaret Wang and her co-authors suggested in the March 24th Commentary that there may not be differences in the learning problems between Chapter 1 and learning-disabled students. This appears to be true, but it hides an even more significant truth. There seem to be three distinct types of learning problems within the Chapter 1 population itself after the 3rd grade. The biggest problem is students with a metacognition deficit, an inability to systematically construct meaning and employ strategies efficiently. The second and much smaller group is students who have undiagnosed dyslexia, which prevents them from accurately processing what is actually on the page. The final subgroup is students who are borderline educationally mentally handicapped. These students never seem to reach the point where they can generalize in sophisticated ways.

Despite the current educational fad to pretend that all students can be effectively taught all the time in heterogeneous environments, these three problems require very different solutions. Indeed, the fact that teachers are forced to treat all three problems with the same intervention makes it virtually impossible for Chapter 1 to be effective. Even worse, the current legislation, which requires schools to serve those most in need first, leads to a practice wherein the borderline educationally mentally handicapped students, whom Chapter 1 teachers are least able to help and for whom Chapter 1 was never intended, are served first. Those students suffering from metacognition deficits, and who can benefit the most from the requirement to provide "advanced skills'' training, are underserved. This is particularly a problem in urban districts. Urban districts can often only select students for Chapter 1 who are below the 15th percentile in reading (a population with a high percentage of borderline educationally mentally handicapped students) and not serve most of their metacognition-deficit students, while a neighboring rural district can select up to the 40th percentile and reach all of its metacognition-deficit students.

But wait, there's more. Guess what is going on in the learning-disabled program? It has the same three wide-ranging categories of students. In a recently completed study of 30 HOTS teachers servicing learning-disabled students, the basic determinant of whether these students responded to our thinking-skills approach was whether their verbal I.Q. was above 80. In other words, most of the learning-disabled students responded to a metacognition-development approach except those who were borderline educationally mentally handicapped. I was amazed at how precise a conclusion we were able to come to. In fact, there seems to be a cognitive-based rhyme and reason for why things do or do not work in the major categorical programs that has absolutely nothing to do with current reform rhetoric.

Addressing the highly differentiated learning needs of students lumped together arbitrarily would require two key policy changes. First, the provision to serve those most in need needs to be eliminated. Schools need the flexibility to determine which students are true Chapter 1 students, that is, are of near-average intelligence with metacognition deficits. In the HOTS program, we have been able to design a very simple task that indicates whether low-performing students have the potential to make substantial progress from thinking-development activities.

Second, and this is far more difficult, students should he reallocated between learning disabled and Chapter 1 according to their learning problems. Chapter 1 and learning disabled should be eliminated as program categories, and the students in these programs who have a metacognition deficit should be combined into a new categorical program for "metacognition development.'' This more efficient use of categorical funds would create enough saving so that the other students could get the appropriate special help they need under existing special-education categories. For example, the borderline educationally mentally handicapped students would be served in educationally mentally handicapped programs. (Indeed, most current borderline educationally mentally handicapped students were previously labeled as such, but were taken out of special education because of inadequate funding.) Severely dyslexic students in Chapter 1 and learning-disabled programs should be served in a special program for dyslexia.

The net result of such a reclassification would be that instead of having Chapter 1, learning disabled, and educationally mentally handicapped programs, there would be metacognition development, educationally mentally handicapped, and a program to help with dyslexia. (I do not know if there is as a need for such reclassification of students below the 4th grade.)

While I hate to label students as much as the next person, it is as necessary a step to dealing with the problem as to label and then treat differently a cancer patient from a heart-disease patient. The students are suffering from specific and severe learning problems which require sophisticated interventions. Even as this is being written, researchers are for the first time proving that dyslexia is a learning problem based on specific physiological, not emotional, causes. Indeed, the difference in the needs of the Chapter 1 students are so great that we have had to establish a two-tiered Chapter 1 program in many schools, with HOTS serving those who are apparently close to average intelligence, and a simpler skills-based intervention for those who are borderline educationally mentally handicapped.

But why does the new metacognition-development program need to be a categorical program? The lesson from Reading Recovery and HOTS is that solving the learning problems requires the best teachers, working with learning environments that are more sophisticated than those found in the general classroom. In addition, the teachers have to be trained with better models of training than those generally found in colleges of education. In other words, addressing deep-seated learning problems to enable students to perform in the classroom up to their real ability requires a highly specialized intervention that cannot, and need not, be typically done in the regular classroom.

Enabling Chapter 1, learning disabled, or the new metacognition-enhancement program to effectively meet the real learning problems requires some additional reforms. First, schools need to allocate their best teachers to them. Making categorical funds contingent on schools assigning their best teachers would do more to improve outcomes than anything else. Second, urban districts should be allowed to use some of their funds to reduce intradistrict mobility of students. This will enable more students to spend the extended time needed to benefit from more sophisticated programs. (It takes most Chapter 1 and learning-disabled students a year and a half to automate a sense of understanding.) Relatedly, schools should be given the latitude to focus categorical funds on students less likely to leave in the middle of the year. Third, some funds should be provided for the development of more sophisticated interventions. None of the $7 billion in Chapter 1 funds is allocated to developing national interventions.

Reforms such as those recommended by the independent Commission on Chapter 1 do not even come close to dealing with the learning problems described above. Schools will not get better by changing the social process of Chapter 1, using new tests, flying to new rallying calls such as eliminating categorical programs, or adopting new names like "inclusion'' for approaches that have already failed. There are real learning needs that must be solved with highly sophisticated, well implemented instructional approaches. Few such examples currently exist. Let's stop pretending to have the solutions and get on with the hard work of designing better interventions that are targeted for specific learning problems. Special-needs students respond so positively to the right approaches that their standardized-test scores go up, as do the smiles on their faces.

Vol. 12, Issue 35, Pages 26, 36

Published in Print: May 26, 1993, as The Forgotten Question in the Chapter 1 Debate: Why Do Students Have So Much Trouble Learning?
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