Reading & Literacy

L.A. Students Get Reading By the Book

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 01, 2004 13 min read
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Kim Lattimore thought good teaching was doomed when her elementary school was chosen to test a rigidly structured commercial reading program under the Los Angeles district’s aggressive campaign to turn around dismal reading achievement. Even for the struggling urban school, where she was an assistant principal at the time, the lockstep program seemed excessive.

“I believe teaching is an art, and that teachers as professionals should be able to express themselves. When we rolled the program out,” she said, “I wasn’t a fan.”

Teachers and administrators throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District expressed similar concerns after officials announced in 1999 that most of the district’s 425 elementary schools would be required to use Open Court Reading.

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Read the accompanying story, “Leading Commercial Series Don’t Satisfy ‘Gold Standard.’”

With its carefully sequenced lessons, intense focus on phonics and other basic skills, and standardized instructional strategies, the program had gained a reputation for helping provide the foundation that struggling readers were missing. On the heels of an influential 2000 report by the National Reading Panel, many administrators turned to such packaged programs as the easiest way to give teachers the tools for incorporating the essential elements of reading instruction the panel had identified.

But many teachers also viewed the approach as a high-cost mandate that would stifle creativity and undermine their expertise.

Ms. Lattimore, now the principal of Brockton Avenue Elementary School here, has continued to fret over the program’s inflexibility and its tendency to dominate the school day. But after seeing Open Court in action over five years, and in two different schools, she is convinced it is effective in helping more of her pupils achieve reading proficiency.

“I became a fan because of the difference [Open Court] has made in teaching here,” she said, pointing to steady improvements in student achievement. “We’re at a point now where teachers are consistently getting good results.”

Los Angeles was among the first of the nation’s big-city school districts to standardize the reading curriculum with an off-the-shelf program, replacing the hodgepodge of texts and trade books that had guided instruction for a decade. Districts from Baltimore to Detroit to Sacramento, Calif., have also felt compelled to take that route amid widespread perceptions that the approach has been scientifically proven to work.

And by using such programs, administrators believe, schools are all but guaranteed to meet the requirements of the federal Reading First initiative—one of the prime forces driving the way schools teach the subject.

Temporary Bounce

The strategy pursued here in Los Angeles and other cities has won praise for giving teachers access to sound, evidence-based teaching practices, particularly in basic reading skills. Conversely, critics complain that Open Court and several other reading texts promote a one-size-fits-all approach and are more effective for teaching isolated skills than building reading comprehension.

In general, results attributed in part to the programs have been the most dramatic in the earliest grades, with improvements to achievement in some districts leveling off or dropping once more sophisticated reading skills are tested. Those trends are evident in some of Los Angeles’ most disadvantaged schools, according to research under way at the University of California, Riverside.

Moreover, the detractors say, the prescriptive lessons leave few opportunities for teachers to address individual needs or to use their own teaching strategies or materials where they see fit.

“It absorbs the time like a great and horrible sponge,” John Cromshow, a veteran kindergarten teacher and radio commentator here, said of Open Court. “There were a lot of songs that we did in the past that children liked. We’d do finger plays, art, playing with blocks, cutting and pasting,” he said. “Now, it’s hard to squeeze anything in.”

Some teachers and reading experts also question claims about the programs’ ultimate value, given that in some districts the highly structured approach has squeezed out other subjects, allowed little time for reading trade books, and produced a temporary bounce in test scores that does not persist into 3rd and 4th grades, when pupils must read and understand more complex material.

Despite the complaints, school leaders and policymakers in Los Angeles and elsewhere have taken a hard line. They argue that homegrown approaches have failed to address persistently low test scores or equip large numbers of students with even basic reading skills.

In 1998, about two- thirds of Los Angeles’ 2nd through 5th graders fell below the 25th percentile on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition in reading. Armed with such data, and buoyed by a 1996 state literacy initiative that provided millions of dollars for professional development and instructional materials that were deemed research-based, district leaders decided that all but the highest- performing schools would use Open Court. They then pushed teachers to follow the program closely.

Since then, the 746,000-student district has spent more than $130 million in state and local money on the program, trained some 12,000 elementary teachers, and hired hundreds of reading coaches to ensure that the classroom teachers follow the curriculum and to help them in teaching the structured lessons.

The result, Los Angeles officials maintain, has been steady improvement in reading achievement districtwide. “We’ve seen, every year, increases in [test scores] across the elementary grades,” Jim Morris, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary programs, said last school year.

Slightly more than a third of 2nd and 3rd graders, a quarter of 4th graders and 44 percent of 5th graders districtwide scored at or above the 50th percentile this past spring, about the same as they performed in 2003. The new California Achievement Test, Sixth Edition is not comparable with the Stanford-9, which was the state test from 1998-2002. On the Stanford- 9, the district saw steady gains at each grade level.

At Brockton Avenue Elementary, district officials say, the reading program helped more than a third of 2nd and 3rd graders, a quarter of 4th graders, and nearly half of 5th graders, perform at or above the 50th percentile on the CAT-6 last spring. The school met all its performance goals for the 2003-04 school year based on a state index. A majority of the school’s 230 pupils are Hispanic and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“We are on the precipice of great things,” Principal Lattimore declared.

Popularity Boost

After some 30 years on the market, Open Court began to soar in popularity in the late 1990s in a backlash against the whole-language reading approach—which shuns reading drills and sequenced texts in favor of authentic children’s literature and embedded skills lessons. Open Court, which was purchased by the McGraw-Hill Cos. in 1998 from a small, family-owned publisher, has been further bolstered by its reputation for documenting evidence of its effectiveness, although the strength of that evidence has been disputed. (“Leading Commercial Series Don’t Satisfy ‘Gold Standard’,” this issue.)

Preliminary reports on a study in Houston in the mid-1990s, for example, suggested that the disadvantaged youngsters who were taught with Open Court outperformed pupils exposed to a literature-based curriculum. Once the study made it to publication in a peer-reviewed journal, however, the overall results were mixed, with the Open Court group surpassing the others on word recognition, but performing about the same in reading comprehension. The final results did not attract the intense interest that the earlier data did.

The National Reading Panel, the congressionally mandated group that reviewed reading research and released its report four years ago, evaluated studies on the effectiveness of the phonics portion of Open Court—which includes lessons on sounding out letters and words. But the report did not suggest that the program was superior to any others, according to Timothy Shanahan, a member of the panel and the director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Still, Open Court had long featured some of the elements of reading instruction that the panel had outlined as essential. And other publishers quickly began to retool their products to incorporate those elements.

When the Bush administration rolled out its Reading First initiative in 2002, based in large part on the reading panel’s findings, Open Court got another boost, if only subliminally, observers say.

In reading academies organized by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige to help state administrators grasp the requirements of the six-year, $6 billion federal reading program, Open Court materials, as well as those from at least two other commercial publishers, were used as examples of research-based programs. (“States Unclear on ESEA Rules About Reading,” May 1, 2002.)

Proven Record?

District reading administrators apparently took note.

“Open Court Reading has been very successful for McGraw-Hill, and by sometimes grumpy acknowledgment, publishers concede that the heavily scripted program appears to be the benchmark that the U.S. Education Department has in mind when it touts research-based phonics programs to improve reading,” noted the newsletter Educational Marketer in July 2003 in announcing the company’s position as the largest educational publisher. That same year, one that signaled a slump in textbook sales for most publishers, McGraw-Hill’s education division reported revenues of some $1.3 billion, the Stamford, Conn.-based newsletter reported.

McGraw-Hill officials say that status was well-earned. Schools and districts across the country have adopted the program, they say, simply because it is effective.

“Districts that use Open Court, large and small, continue to get results and continue to express satisfaction,” said McGraw-Hill publisher Ruth Cochrane. “When Reading First criteria were set based on the National Reading Panel report, … we were already in line with the requirements.”

Despite its growing popularity, many administrators have decided the program is not a good fit for their students or teachers.

When it came to choosing between Open Court and Houghton Mifflin Reading, some 85 percent of California districts chose the latter. Houghton Mifflin is seen as less prescriptive and makes more use of children’s literature. Other series—including those published by Harcourt, Macmillan, and Scott Foresman—have also won favor in some districts, having been found to meet the criteria researchers have deemed essential.

But McGraw-Hill representatives maintain that Open Court Reading has the most proof of its success. The company points to an independent study it commissioned that shows California schools using Open Court improved their test scores more significantly than those that adopted other programs.

Still, some researchers say the program’s effectiveness is not so impressive.

Robert C. Calfee, a prominent scholar at the University of California, Riverside, college of education has been pulling together a longitudinal database of test scores on the Stanford-9 for schools in Los Angeles and several other Southern California districts. Mr. Calfee’s study of test scores of student cohorts throughout the five years the test was administered paints a different picture of reading achievement.

“The impact of all the state and district efforts in reading is constrained to the first couple of grades,” then there is a decline and only modest recovery after 2nd grade, when students must build reading comprehension, Mr. Calfee said. The situation contrasts that of mathematics, where students have made significant gains, he added. “There has been an enormous effort over the past five years [to improve reading scores], and it’s not paying off.”

A little more than a third of Los Angeles 2nd graders who took the Stanford-9 in the 2000-01 school year, for example, scored at or above the 50th percentile. As 3rd graders, a slightly smaller proportion of those students met or exceeded that mark. A year later, as 4th graders, only about 20 percent were at the national average on the state’s new test, which also compares students with their peers nationwide. The scores on the old and new tests, however, are not wholly comparable.

Second graders who took the test the following year—the first full cohort to have been taught with Open Court since the 1st grade—improved on that performance, with more than 40 percent scoring above the national norm. As 3rd graders, however, just 21 percent of those students met or exceeded that mark on the new test, according to Mr. Calfee’s analysis.

Just last month, the release of the latest results on the state assessment showed scores for many of the district’s schools had dropped or stayed flat. The LosAngeles Times, which had encouraged the district’s adoption of Open Court several years ago, responded with an editorial questioning whether it has helped.

“This year’s results show that not only are students generally not moving up, but poor, black, and Latino students are as far behind their more affluent white and Asian peers as they were before the reforms were instituted,” the Aug. 19 editorial said. “Open Court, the highly scripted phonics program that was going to teach all students to read, helped some but didn’t come close to creating a literate crop of students.”

‘It’s Not the Bible’

At Brockton Avenue Elementary School, however, Ms. Lattimore is hoping to make the program as effective as possible. She’s working with teachers to be more strategic in editing the program and in supplementing materials and techniques to meet the varying needs of pupils.

For Luz C. Baltazar, a 2nd grade teacher at the LAUSD’s City Terrace Elementary School, that flexibility is critical.

“I think Open Court is a good guide, but I really need to supplement it depending on the student,” said Ms. Baltazar, who was once a student at City Terrace and whose own children attend the predominantly Hispanic school.

One day last school year, for example, she set aside a small portion of the 90-minute reading block to step away from the Open Court lesson. In an exercise she designed, children sitting in small groups held pictures of wild animals and discussed their characteristics and habitats. The lesson, Ms. Baltazar said, was intended to help the many English-learners in the class build their vocabulary and conversational skills.

But that kind of leeway has not been an option for some teachers in the district, particularly in schools where administrators demand close implementation. As their rationale, they cite a large number of inexperienced teachers and the continuing failure of previous strategies in bringing all pupils to proficiency.

The strict adherence to the program has earned literacy coaches in some schools the nickname “Open Court police.” Such implacability has also caused resentment among some teachers.

At City Terrace, Principal Christopher Ortiz, now in his second year there, said he would expect his teachers to follow the program explicitly. “As a colleague of mine describes it, Open Court is like a soufflé,” Mr. Ortiz said. “You don’t know if it’s a good recipe until you follow it precisely.”

A few miles away, Farmdale Elementary Principal Teresita Saracho de Palma takes a different position. She sees Open Court as more of a resource than a guidebook. For the school’s 740 students—more than 90 percent of them are Hispanic, and half are identified as English-learners— teachers must rely on more than the reading series to help all the children learn to read proficiently, she said.

“It’s not the Bible. … It doesn’t rule what we do,” Ms. de Palma said. “We have to modify and adjust [the curriculum] to meet the needs of our kids.”

Brockton’s Ms. Lattimore has also encouraged teachers to be creative, both in supplementing the program and in strategically skipping some Open Court lessons that their students may not need.

But for many on the faculty—especially those new to teaching—the structured program has become a safety net, she said. Those teachers have been reluctant to risk going off the program, but the principal hopes that more targeted professional development will raise their confidence and give them more resources for making their own curriculum decisions.

“You can only empower those willing to be empowered and willing to take the risk,” Ms. Lattimore said. “We are trying to develop the core knowledge of what teaching reading is all about. … You can’t really get that information from a teachers’ manual.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2004 edition of Education Week as L.A. Students Get Reading By the Book


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