Little testing of basals

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The vast majority of schools use a basal reading program—a “reader,” a teacher’s guide and assorted workbooks—to teach reading.

The most widely used programs are written largely by publishing house staffers, not the education professors listed as authors. And field testing plays a minor role.

In most field tests, teachers try out material in their classrooms and write evaluations. Since that is time-consuming and the cost of printing expensive, a major publisher might send out only a few units per grade level, according to a longtime industry executive, who asked not to be identified. And when publication deadlines are tight, she says, “You might not field test at all.”

Instead, publishers often get feedback from teacher “focus groups.” Teachers review the program for 15 minutes, just as they would in deciding which series to adopt for their school. The publisher is interested primarily in “initial impressions,” such as whether colors are appealing, the executive says.

“And they’d lump it under the field test category, so they can say ‘our program has been teacher-tested,'” she explains. “It’s one of the many things you’d give yourself credit for.”

Typically, smaller “niche” publishers—those that appeal to customers with particular needs—field test programs more thoroughly than do major publishers, the executive adds.

Of three major publishers contacted by Catalyst, only Houghton Mifflin claimed to have field tested every unit in its most recent elementary reading series. However, only about a third of the units at each grade level were sent to any given school, and teachers may not have had time to try all the units sent, according to Deputy Director Ray Shepard. However, he declined to say how many schools were involved in the most recent field testing, or whether any of them was an inner-city school.

He noted, though, that the series is a revision and has received feedback from teachers over the years.

A spokesperson for Harcourt Brace declined to say how many units per grade level in its new reading series were field tested. The spokesperson also declined to provide the number of field testing sites.

A vice president at Silver Burdett Ginn, Robert Maderick, was more forthcoming. Only one unit per grade level of the new series Literature Works, was field tested, he reports. For each grade level, about 15 teachers were sent a unit to try but they “may or may not have responded.”

Under the pressure of deadlines, Silver Burdett Ginn sometimes relies on focus groups in place of field testing. Although “oftentimes a program that ‘focus-groups’ well doesn’t work that well in the classroom,” he acknowledged.