Reading & Literacy

Page Turner

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 12, 2004 4 min read
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When she first heard the news five years ago, Kim Lattimore thought good teaching was doomed. The Los Angeles Unified School District had just announced that her struggling urban elementary school would test Open Court Reading, an off-the-shelf curriculum designed to supplant the hodgepodge of texts and teacher-selected trade books that had guided instruction for a decade. With its carefully sequenced lessons, intense focus on phonics, and standardized instructional strategies came a reputation for lock step uniformity and inflexibility, and that rubbed Lattimore and other educators the wrong way.

Critics wonder aloud what good it does a school to use a monolithic cookie-cutter curriculum if it doesn’t even fulfill its raison d’être past 2nd grade.

“I wasn’t a fan,” she says. “I believe teaching is an art and that teachers, as professionals, should be able to express themselves.” But after seeing Open Court in action for five years and in two schools, she is convinced it has helped more of her pupils achieve reading proficiency. Lattimore, now the principal of Brockton Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, is not alone. Urban districts from Baltimore to Detroit to Sacramento, California, have also reached for ready-made solutions to their seemingly intractable reading-achievement problems. Murmurs of dissent over stifled teacher creativity persist, but so does administrators’ faith that Open Court and its ilk will help districts pass muster with the federal Reading First initiative—one of the prime forces driving the way schools teach the subject.

Open Court, which was purchased by McGraw-Hill in 1996 from a small, family-owned publisher, was well-positioned to ride the pendulum of pedagogical theory as it swung away from whole language and back toward phonics. A report four years ago from the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel labeled as essential some of the elements of reading instruction found in Open Court and other phonics-based reading curricula. Although the report did not suggest that the Open Court program was superior to any others, fellow publishers quickly began retooling their products to incorporate similar elements. And when the Bush administration rolled out its Reading First initiative in 2002, based in large part on the reading panel’s findings, Open Court materials were included among the examples of research-based programs. “When Reading First criteria were set ... we were already in line with the requirements,” notes McGraw-Hill publisher Ruth Cochrane.

Converts are quick to point to results like those at Brockton Avenue Elementary, where district officials say that the 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 most recent version of the California Achievement Test. The school also met all its state performance goals for the 2003-04 school year despite the majority of its 230 pupils qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches and not speaking English as a first language. “We are on the precipice of great things,” Lattimore declares.

But others wonder whether the precipice is of another kind. The heightened test scores attributed in part to Open Court and similar programs generally don’t persist as students confront more sophisticated reading challenges in later grades. That trend is evident in some of Los Angeles’ most disadvantaged schools, according to research under way at the University of California, Riverside.

Robert Calfee, an education scholar at UCR who has been compiling a longitudinal database of Stanford 9 test scores from schools in Los Angeles and several other Southern California districts, paints a less rosy picture of reading achievement. “The impact of all the state and district efforts in reading is constrained to the first couple of grades,” Calfee says—followed by a decline and only modest recovery after 2nd grade, when students must build reading comprehension. “There has been an enormous effort over the past five years [to improve reading scores], and it’s not paying off.”

The heightened test scores attributed in part to Open Court and similar programs generally don’t persist as students confront more sophisticated reading challenges.

A little more than a third of Los Angeles 2nd graders who took the Stanford 9 in 2000-01, 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. The scores on the old and new tests are not wholly comparable; 2nd graders who took the test the following year—the first full cohort to have been taught with Open Court since 1st grade—improved on that performance, with more than 40 percent scoring above the national norm. The next year, however, just 21 percent of those students met or exceeded that mark on the new test, according to Calfee’s analysis.

Critics wonder aloud what good it does a school to use a monolithic cookie-cutter curriculum if it doesn’t even fulfill its raison d’être past 2nd grade. “It absorbs the time like a great and horrible sponge,” says John Cromshow, a veteran kindergarten teacher and Los Angeles radio commentator. “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.”

Even Open Court converts such as Lattimore continue to fret over the program’s inflexibility and its tendency to dominate the school day. But she still hopes to make the program as effective as possible—even if that means deviating from some of its orthodoxies. She’s encouraged teachers to be creative, both in supplementing the program and in strategically skipping some lessons that their students may not need. After all, she says, it’s not the specific reading pedagogy that’s ultimately important. “We are trying to develop the core knowledge of what teaching reading is all about.”

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