What it takes to make a program succeed

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It’s not magic, says Jerry Silbert, manager of Direct Instruction implementation at Malcolm X College. “If it isn’t used well, it’s just another book.”

Silbert is talking about DI, of course. However, the same can be said for any educational program: if it’s not done well, it won’t amount to much.

Both Direct Instruction and whole language are working well at some Chicago schools and poorly at others. And in some places where they’re working well, there still are problems.

At the close of the 1995-96 school year, enthusiasm for Direct Instruction was running high at Herzl Elementary in North Lawndale. The school implemented DI reading in the primary grades only last November and immediately saw a substantial increase in the percentage of 3rd-graders meeting or exceeding state goals in reading—from 38 percent in 1995 to 58 percent in 1996.

“We saw a difference within weeks,” says Principal Betty Green. “Parents indicated that as they walked along, children were looking at the billboards and sounding out the words, reading everything they saw.”

“They’re actually learning how to read,” echoes Sandra Greer, a 3rd-grade teacher at Goldblatt Elementary in West Garfield Park. “Before, they were not.”

“It’s truly—every child can read, from the lowest to the highest,” says Cynthia Newton, 1st-grade teacher at Joplin Elementary in Auburn Gresham. “They’re very upset when for some reason they don’t get reading group. They love it.”

Special education students responded particularly well to the structured, phonetic approach to reading, teachers say. At Hearst Elementary in Garfield Ridge, teacher Kathy Musselman says that during last school year, her 1st- through 5th-grade special education students posted nearly a year’s growth in reading. With previous programs, she says, students typically progressed only a half year during the course of a school year.

More literature

While finding the approach effective, teachers and principals agree that it needs to be supplemented with literature—a practice DI developers strongly encourage. Goldblatt students, for example, read children’s literature daily and discuss the stories in a weekly seminar. Discussions let teachers address reading comprehension skills, such as making inferences, not taught until the third level of the DI program.

Herzl students have 15 minutes a day for free reading. “We don’t want to them to just be able to read any one thing,” says Green. “We want them to be able to read everything.”

Children in the DI classes visited for this report seemed enthusiastic about their lessons, too. They often cheered “Yes!” when they learned they had written the correct answer on a worksheet. And they talked excitedly about completing a workbook. However, there was little evidence of creative or independent work. In many DI classrooms, the only student work displayed was math worksheets and spelling tests, stapled to the bulletin board.

Some teachers unwilling

Malcolm X College began its DI work in the Chicago public schools in 1992-93. However, before the board and teacher’s union agreed to add extra staff development days last year, there had been little teacher training.

At one school, for example, an untrained kindergarten teacher did not pronounce letter sounds with perfect accuracy, and her pupils had to repeat an entire reading level the next year.

Even with training in place, some teachers are unwilling to make sufficient effort, some principals report, expressing frustration at not being able to get rid of incompetent or uncooperative staff. You can invite them to leave, says Principal Theresa White of Hearst. “But if they don’t go, you’re stuck with them.”

Running an effective DI program also requires principals or other staff to monitor classrooms daily and coach teachers on their performance. This requirement causes tension in schools where administration and faculty had rarely communicated, says Silbert. In some cases, consultants have had to train principals to give constructive criticism and positive feedback. “The relationship between principals and teachers is adversarial for the most part,” he notes.

DI project staff say their efforts sometimes are hampered by low expectations for students and poorly managed classrooms, which encourage disruptive behavior. They also complain about schools that use discretionary funds to hire additional administrative staff instead of reducing class size.

Finding time for subjects outside the DI curriculum, particularly science and social studies, has been difficult for many teachers, too. Intermediate levels in DI reading have science and social studies content but not enough to meet Illinois’ science and social studies goals, acknowledges DI project manager Joe Layng of Malcolm X College.

The amount of time DI schools devote to science and social studies varies. Joplin, which has not implemented all the DI programs, finds ample time for them. Goldblatt, which has a full-blown DI program, barely squeezes them in. And Hearst has all but cut them out. “We are primarily a math and reading school,” says White. “We put first things first.”

These curriculum cuts do not sit well with Andrea Kerr, the board’s director of curriculum and instruction. “We hope they’ll contact us for help with scheduling their time,” she says.

Meeting state goals in all content areas is more than a scheduling challenge, however. With their emphasis on an integrated curriculum, progressive schools generally make comprehensiveness a priority. Accomplishing that is no easy task.

At Woodson South in Grand Boulevard, primary teachers created a “hands-on” program around the state and city goals for science and social studies. The effort took teamwork, administrative support and plenty of planning time.

Each summer, Woodson teachers meet to select their science and social studies themes and divide up the workload. To organize a life-cycles unit, for example, one 1st-grade teacher ordered eggs, an incubator and activity booklets pertaining to baby chicks. Another teacher took care of the tadpole material, and a third the butterflies.

During the school year, each grade level meets once a week with an instructional coordinator to discuss strategies for teaching the material. The coordinator, hired with grant money, also provides expertise in African culture, a significant part of the curriculum. He also monitors classrooms daily.

Teachers are highly motivated to pursue professional development courses, adds Principal John Hawkins.

In addition, from November to March, every teacher volunteered to meet twice a week after school with a small group of students who were below grade level in reading and math. In fact, teachers cite these tutoring sessions—for which they received no extra pay—as the No. 1 reason for Woodson South’s dramatically rising test scores.

Exceptional staff

Asked whether he considers his staff exceptional, Hawkins replies, “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Switching from traditional reading textbooks to theme-related literature has sparked children’s interest in learning, many Woodson South teachers feel.

However, some find that students are still struggling with reading. All three of Woodson’s 3rd-grade teachers report that their students have difficulty with “decoding”—or identifying printed words—and that the vast majority of them began the year reading below grade level. Two of the three believe that decoding skills have actually declined since Woodson stopped using a basal reading program. In addition to whole-language techniques, the school uses a range of commercial phonics programs and a computer lab to teach phonics.

But teaching children to decode well requires more than simply “doing phonics,” says Jean Osborne, a consultant at the Center for Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “The question is, what kind of program are you going to use?”

Many commercial phonics programs and basal readers are “designed for middle-of-the-road children,” she says, not “kids who were going to have trouble learning to read.”

Third-grade teacher Claudine Walker feels that whole language decoding strategies—such as identifying a word from an initial consonant and a picture clue—gave her students wrong ideas about reading. In September, many would “look at a word that starts with ‘m’ like ‘may’ and call it ‘monster,'” she says. Others would tell a whole story from picture clues. “They’ll just forget the words,” she says.

“That’s the hardest part of my year, trying to break those habits,” she adds.

Even so, Woodson South, which has worked with the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development for nine years, has posted some of the most dramatic test score increases in the city.

Erikson President Barbara Bowman acknowledges that phonics are a problem for children at some schools it is helping. However, she feels that for most of their underachieving students, the real issue is “stresses at home,” not the instruction.

“If you’ve got kids whose parents are on drugs, it’s very hard to talk about an instructional strategy,” she notes.