Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.
March 21, 2006
Creation of a Discussion Forum
Increasingly, I am coming
to the opinion that one of the most important (and most overlooked)
components of learning to read is fluency. Children who can
identify words, but who can not do so quickly, effortlessly, and
confidently seem to be ubiquitous. Over the weekend, I updated
the section on Fluency (See F is for Fluency) to reflect current research information on the topic.
I am also getting a number of very interesting e-mails that I would
like to share with the public. I already have a section on kudos
(a place where wonderful people can say how wonderful this site is --
see K is for Kudos),
but I thought a place where other types of questions and comments could
be posted would be appropriate. I don't want a free-for-all, but
when an interesting comment or question comes to me, I will post it
(along with my response if I have one) to the Discussion Forum (See D is for Discussion Forum)
so everybody can benefit. If you send me an e-mail
(firstname.lastname@example.org) or send me a comment through one of the
feedback windows (See F is for Feedback)
and it is appropriate for posting to the Discussion Forum, I will do
so... When I have time. Which, alas, I don't have a lot
of... But I will certainly try to stay on top of this.
As the beginning of another year of school approaches, it is time to
get our minds back in the game. It has been a lovely summer
(assuming you are not living in the Middle East), and I personally have
spent much of it on sabbatical writing the first of what I hope will be
several books on the subject of reading and literacy instruction.
Whatever you have done with your summer, I hope you will start shifting
gears and preparing for the school year ahead. The opportunity to
help students develop a love and a talent for reading is coming, and I
believe that every minute you have to spend on that goal is
precious. The very first minute of the very first day will set
the tone for the year, so it is important you have your head in the
In these last few weeks before school starts, I would like to recommend
you spend time with a little professional reading. I find that
reading a good book about effective instructional strategies or a
review of research in an area is an excellent way to charge teachers'
batteries and get them thinking about their practice.
I have a variety of recommendations for professional books on BalancedReading.com (http://www.balancedreading.com/books.html), but I would like to highlight one of them for you that I had the pleasure to read this summer.
Two years ago, we lost one of the greatest contributors to the field of
reading research and instruction. Steven Stahl lost his battle to
cancer at far too young an age in May of 2004, and with the passing of
this happy, funny, wonderful man, our field also lost a brilliant
collection of research that will never be conducted. I mourn the
loss of a character who was larger than life I barely had a chance to
know, and I also mourn the loss of all that he could have shared with
our field if he had been able to live out his life.
A new book -- Reading Research at Work: Foundations of Effective Practice
-- celebrates the enormous contributions that Steven Stahl made before
he passed away. Steven worked until he could no longer work to
share his vast experience and insight with us, and after he passed, his
most influential and profound writings were collected and reprinted in
this book. Friends and colleagues also added chapters to this
book to share different perspectives about the contributions Steven
made through his career.
Reading this book, it was hard to reconcile the serious and profound
contributions to reading research with the jovial, easy-going man I
knew. He was at the center of every debate in reading
research. He was in charge of some of the most important reading
research and policy events of the past 20 years. He conducted
some of the most important, seminal research in all of the five "big
ideas" of reading instruction.
And he was a young prankster who cracked jokes all the time. I
really can't wrap my mind around that. Had I not known Steven, I
would read this book and think of a venerable old scholar who
meticulously pushed out the boundaries of our knowledge through the
course of a long and diverse career. But I knew Steven to be
young, vital, and so very personable. He always made time for
teachers and students and friends and family, and reading this book, I
can't help but wonder where he found the time to do so much.
If you read this book, you will be amazed at how much of instructional
practice was influenced by one man. He conducted research in
phoneme awareness, phonics, and fluency, and of course, he was
best-known for his work on vocabulary and comprehension. He
inspired me with his prescient advocacy for a "balanced" approach to
reading instruction, and I promise you, while you may not know it, he
changed what you know about reading, too.
March 16, 2006
End of a Chapter in My Career
Yesterday was my last day working for the Southwest Education Development Laboratory (SEDL).
I started my career there 8 years ago, and my experiences working
for a Regional Education Laboratory have been amazingly rich. I
got to do things on a daily basis that most people never have a chance
to do in their career. However, funding for the school
improvement project that I have been involved with has come to an end,
and so it is time for me to start the next chapter in my career.
I'm not sure what that will be yet (losing funding came as a bit
of a surprise), so if anybody has any ideas, I'm all ears. The
foundation that I have from SEDL has given me a lot of options, so I'm
not worried. And no matter what I do, I promise to make time to
continue to develop BalancedReading.com and to continue to make
research-based information about reading available and accessible to
Also, SEDL will continue to exist and thrive. They have been
around for 40 years, and they will always be there, providing
information and support for the tough questions in education.
January 29, 2006
Another Tirade about "Quick-Fix" Programs in Education
The state of Virginia has recently
announced a new initiative to combat the horrible, expanding epidemic of
childhood obesity in their state. Starting this year, at a cost of
over $500,000, every school in the state will receive a video game called
Dance, Dance Revolution (DDR), and the state will endeavor to build (at further
cost) a curriculum incorporating DDR into physical education instruction.
What does this have to do with reading? Bear with me... I'll get to
DDR, for those of you over the age of 16, is a dancing video game.
An X-Box controller is wired to a mat on the floor and a video monitor.
The student watches the video monitor which gives instructions about which
parts of the floor mat the student should jump to. It is, by all accounts,
a very aerobic game.
But half a million dollars? For a video game that only one student in a school
can play at a time? That seems like an awful lot of money when you consider
that most forms of exercise are basically free. That seems like an
awful lot of money for a faddish game that kids will probably get bored with.
That seems like an awful lot of money for a toy that will probably break
down or become obsolete in a few years.
Cards on the table and full disclosure -- I'm a big believer in exercise
and health. I have always been athletic, and I have always divided
my time and energy between exercising my brain and exercising my body.
When I was a child growing up, my father (who ironically was a very unhealthy
man) often repeated an Irish Gaelic expression: Láidir in aigne agus
i gcorp. Basically it means "Strength of mind; strength of body." It
reflected a philosophy of balance between physical and intellectual endeavors.
Too much of one and not enough of the other is simply unhealthy.
When it comes to education, it is my view that there is little point in improving
the minds of children if we are just going to let their bodies go to waste.
I believe that schools do have a responsibility to teach health, exercise,
and diet alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic.
But half a million dollars? For a video game?
I will wager that these same schools with their new X-Box video games also
sell sugary, fatty, salty snacks from vending machines. Schools, always
desperate for money, get kids hooked on horrible junk food in exchange for
corporate sponsorship. I worked in a small, rural school for a while
that had 14 vending machines and 350 students. That works out to roughly
one vending machine for every 25 students. For this, the school received
over $35,000 per year.
That's considerably less than 30 pieces of silver when you consider inflation.
I'll wager these same schools in Virginia with their new Dance, Dance, Revolution
video games provide cafeteria food that is rife with grease, fat, and sugar.
How many times have I been famished while working in a school only to lose
my appetite completely when I went to the cafeteria and saw what was being
served for lunch? More times than I care to think about. The food choices
in schools are usually appalling.
Childhood obesity and poor health is a serious issue, and a video game is
not going to make a dent in the problem. The roots of the problem are
much deeper than a cute video game can reach -- they stem from poor health
education, poor adult role models, and lousy food choices. Spending
half a million dollars on an aerobic video game makes us all feel better
-- we feel like we are doing something to address the problem. But
we're not. We're just throwing money away on a silly, faddish quick
fix. Two years from now, 90% of those games will be collecting dust.
That's what happens with silly, faddish, quick-fix programs.
And that brings us to reading. (I told you I was going to get there
eventually. Thanks for hanging in there.) Reading difficulty, like
poor health and childhood obesity, is a very, very serious and complicated
problem. And the weight of any solution is usually proportional to
the weight of the problem -- big problems must be met with big solutions.
Simply throwing money away on quick-fix, faddish programs will not begin
to solve the problems with literacy we face. Buying a slick, new program
makes us all feel better -- it makes us feel like we are doing something
to address the problem -- but it really doesn't help all that much.
The roots of the problem are far too deep for a simple, superficial program
A school may have one Dance, Dance Revolution video game in the gym, but
as long as they have 14 candy and soda vending machines in the hall, they
are not really addressing the fundamental roots of their obesity problem.
Similarly, a school that buys a new reading program, but does nothing beyond
that to address the general quality of reading and literacy instruction across
all grades has done little to address the roots of their literacy problem.
High-quality, well-researched reading programs are, at best, only somewhat
helpful. And they are only somewhat helpful if all of the teachers
actually use the program faithfully and implement the program with fidelity.
But that, alas, is not the fate of most reading programs.
Most reading programs are used sporadically, and most teachers only use parts
and pieces of the overall reading program (if they use any part of it at
all). And most new reading programs fall out of favor fairly quickly.
Publishers are constantly struggling to update and revise their programs
to make them seem new and fresh and current -- otherwise, they lose their
fickle customers who are all too willing to throw their money at another
new program -- the next new thing.
Reading programs do serve some purposes, and they have a role to fill in
the big picture of reading instruction. But before schools jump on
a new program to solve their literacy woes, I challenge them to consider
the fundamental issues that are really causing literacy problems in most
schools. How will purchasing a new program address these issues? And
more importantly, could they address these issues without spending millions
of dollars on new programs?
1. Time on task -- how much time do students really spend every day
reading and writing (not counting worksheets and other forms of time-killing
"busy work")? In most schools, students only spend a few minutes a day practicing
and honing their reading and writing skills, and struggling readers tend
to spend less time than average.
2. Professional development -- do all teachers understand how children
learn to read, and do they know how to teach all students to improve their
reading and writing skills? Most teachers do not feel very comfortable in
their role as a reading teacher, and they have fairly confused notions about
what they should be doing to help students learn to read.
3. Alignment -- is instruction consistent and coherent within and across
grades? In most schools, the instruction in one class has little relationship
with the instruction in other classes. And most efforts at creating
alignment are fairly superficial and pointless.
4. Engaging instruction -- do teachers have a wide repertoire of instructional
strategies, and do they have a talent for making their instruction engaging
and interesting to the students? I have been unfortunate witness to many
a lesson that did nothing to capture the attention or interest of the students.
5. Individualized instruction -- do teachers use assessment information
to plan instruction responsive to the needs of individual students? In most
classes, instruction is large-group and aimed at the average student.
Struggling students are left behind, and advanced students get bored and
6. High expectations -- does every educator expect great things from
every one of their students? Most teachers and administrators do not believe
they live in Lake Woebegone -- they do not believe that all of their children
have the potential to be above average. In other words, they are comfortable
with a certain percentage of failure.
7. Leadership -- is there a strong instructional leader who works every
day to provide guidance and support to teachers? In most schools, teachers
work in isolation with little mentoring, guidance, or monitoring. What
really happens behind closed classroom doors is a mystery to all.
I'm trying not to name any reading programs in my little diatribe here, but
a lot of them seem like Dance, Dance Revolution to me -- faddish, superficial,
cute, but ultimately a waste of money.
Mark my words, DDR is not going to solve the problem of obesity in Virginia.
Not by a long shot. A few years from now, if you visit any of those
schools, you'll probably find a broken or unused DDR game stuffed in a closet
somewhere. And if you wander down the hall and check out the rest of
the school, I bet you'll also find a lot of old, unused reading programs
collecting dust on shelves, serving no purpose -- all artifacts of millions
of dollars wasted on simple-minded, quick-fix solutions.
January 16, 2006
Greetings, and happy new year.
I hope you had a good holiday, and that you are looking forward to 2006.
Over the holidays I made a few changes to BalancedReading.com that I would
like to make you aware of.
First, I presented a paper at the National Reading Conference in December
on Literacy Coaches (their promises and problems). A draft of the
paper I presented and the overheads I used for my presentation are in the
"L is for Literacy
Second, I wrote a short essay on spelling and added it to the "S is for Spelling"
And finally, I wrote a paper on school-wide intervention for older struggling
readers (for middle- and high-school). That's right here:
A School-Improvement Plan
for Older Struggling Readers
Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.
When students begin to fall behind their peers in reading skill, rapid,
effective intervention is imperative. Because of the Matthew
Effect (see M is for Matthew Effect on BalancedReading.com), if a small
disparity in reading skill is not addressed early, it tends to grow
over time. Young children who enter school with poorer reading
skills than their peers can usually be helped with two successive years
of very high-quality reading instruction. Typically, no extra
intervention is necessary beyond high-quality instruction delivered by
very talented and knowledgeable teachers.
However, some students inevitably slip through the cracks and do not benefit
from high-quality reading instruction in the early grades. Over time,
they suffer from Matthew Effects, and fall further and further behind their
peers. Frustration sets in, and the gap widens ever further until
drastic steps must be taken.
Previous studies paint a very grim picture of reading intervention for
older struggling readers who have fallen significantly behind their peers.
By 4th or 5th grade, odds of struggling readers catching up with their peers
without significant intervention are diminishingly small. By middle
school, no one teacher can effectively accelerate the literacy development
of struggling readers. Instead, the structure of the school itself
Below, I describe some of the structures in a school that must be brought
to bear on systemic intervention for older struggling readers in middle-
and high-school. With a highly effective reading-intervention system,
it is reasonable to expect that struggling readers will make about 18 months
of growth in literacy skills over a school year when compared to a normative
sample. This means that a student in 6th grade who is reading at a
3rd grade level can be reading on grade level by the end of 9th grade.
Effective reading intervention begins with a structured reading and language
arts assessment system. Naturally, at the end of every school year,
students should be assessed through a standards-based assessment or state
accountability assessment. And naturally, that data should be used
to inform general instructional and programmatic decisions at the school.
However, that data is woefully insufficient for understanding the needs of
In addition to the summative (end of year) standards-based assessment,
all students should be given a formative (beginning of the year), standards-based
reading and language arts assessment to assess overall competence in reading,
writing, and language skills. A comparable assessment should be given
at mid-year to assess progress in development and to inform revised instructional
For students who are found to be substantially deficient in reading and
language arts skills, additional assessment information will be needed to
make informed, ongoing instructional decisions. Those students should
be given a diagnostic reading assessment battery (e.g. the Diagnostic Assessment
of Reading by Roswell and Chall). This subset of students should have
an intensive reading intervention plan that includes specific short-term learning
goals. Those short-term learning goals should be tracked through bimonthly
All data collected should be synthesized and reviewed in bimonthly staff
meetings. Staff should monitor the progress of all students, and collaborate
to develop instructional and programmatic modifications for students who
are not making sufficient progress in reading and language arts.
Struggling readers benefit from additional instructional time to practice
and polish their literacy skills. Time on task is one of the most
influential variables in an effective reading intervention plan. Time
must be created and protected for explicit instruction and for practicing
literacy skills. Every struggling reader at the middle- and high-school
level should have two class periods dedicated to enhancing reading, writing,
and language skills -- one class in language arts and a second class in
literacy skill development.
This increased time allocation for focused literacy instruction has been
shown to be beneficial for struggling readers (Knapp, 1991). There
is an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence linking reading volume (time-on-task)
with reading proficiency (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1989; Collins, 1986;
Krashen, 1993), but unfortunately, struggling readers in typical schools
actually tend to spend less time engaged in effective reading instruction
activities (Allington, 1977; Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Taylor,
Frye, and Maruyama, 1990). In an effective school literacy intervention
plan, struggling readers should have substantially more reading instruction
and opportunity to practice and refine their literacy skills than they would
likely have in a traditional school setting.
Every struggling reader should participate in a normal, grade-appropriate
language arts class. The language arts class should focus on the standards-based
curriculum that is appropriate for all middle- and high-school students
using an integrated curriculum that supports other content-area learning.
Struggling readers do benefit from the content and instruction provided their
peers in the normal reading and language arts class, and they should not
be "pulled" from this class to be given remedial reading instruction.
The second class in addition to the grade-appropriate language arts class
-- the literacy skill development class -- should be more individualized
(with a small student-teacher ratio) and should focus on the literacy skill
and knowledge development that will most benefit each individual struggling
reader. For example, a student who has not yet developed fluent word-identification
skills would be given intensive instruction in word-identification strategies
and would participate daily in activities that research has shown to improve
fluency, such as repeated oral reading or echo reading (Pany & McCoy,
1988; Rashotte & Torgesen, 1985; Tan & Nicholson, 1997). Progress
monitoring assessments should be used regularly in the literacy skills development
class to ensure rapid development of necessary literacy skills.
In addition to a second literacy course in every student's course schedule,
literacy instruction should be infused within the content-area courses.
Reading and language arts teachers should collaborate with teachers of science,
history, social studies and arts to ensure that effective reading comprehension
strategies are being reinforced throughout the day. All teachers in
the school should participate in professional development in reading instructional
strategies designed to support adolescent struggling readers. This
coherent school-wide approach to improving reading instruction would support
content and domain knowledge and vocabulary development for all students
(Bean, Valerio, and Stevens, 1999).
Two classes of systematic, data-driven reading instruction plus coordinated
literacy instruction in the content-area courses should be sufficient instructional
support to rapidly accelerate the literacy growth of nearly all of the struggling
readers in a middle- or high-school. However, for the few students
who have more enduring reading difficulties, additional tutoring services
should be provided before and after school by highly-trained reading specialists.
The tutoring program should involve explicit and systematic one-on-one instruction
either before or after school for up to 3 hours per week. The tutoring
should be designed to complement the reading instruction provided in the
core classes, but should be much more assessment and needs driven.
A curriculum team composed of the principal and a representative sample
of teachers should be tasked with meeting monthly to review the core language
arts curriculum for the school to monitor it's appropriateness for the student
population. That curriculum team should also be tasked with ensuring
that all teachers understand the curriculum and actually adhere to the curriculum
in daily classroom instruction.
Where appropriate, modifications should be made to the core reading curriculum
to improve it and tailor it to the needs of the students in the school.
However, the curriculum team should be cautioned that a constantly changing
curriculum is rarely effective. New programs and new instructional
materials can create confusion and even strife in a school. Changes
to the curriculum should be taken seriously, and should only be made after
due consideration and discussion. All teachers should be included in
the decision, and all teachers should understand that they will be held accountable
for actually implementing the new curriculum and using the new materials.
In developing the curriculum, particular emphasis should be placed on structured
vocabulary instruction. Most struggling readers come from linguistically
diverse backgrounds, and many also come from low-income households.
Research in vocabulary development indicates that students from linguistically
diverse and low-income backgrounds tend to have more limited vocabularies
than their more advantaged peers (Cummings, 1984; Hart and Risley, 2003).
However, a substantial amount of research on vocabulary instruction has shown
that deliberate, integrated instruction of vocabulary can significantly
decrease the "vocabulary gap" that exists between advantaged and disadvantaged
students (Beck, McKeown and Omanson, 1987; Blachowicz and Fisher, 1996;
Bos and Anders, 1990; McKeown and Curtis, 1987). As part of the integrated
curriculum, vocabulary instruction in different classrooms should be complementary,
with repeated reinforcement of key concepts and terms. Extra emphasis
should be placed on the academic vocabulary that is often key to success
for students from linguistically diverse backgrounds (Cummings, 1984; Qian,
2002) as well as the "Tier 2" words that are critical for successful academic
development (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002).
Additional Literacy Resources
In addition to the core reading materials, supplemental, high-interest
reading materials should also be made available to struggling readers.
Engaging, interactive computer programs that support decoding skills, reading
comprehension, and writing composition should be made available on computers
in every classroom, as well as on computers in a central technology laboratory.
The campus administration should endeavor to secure funding to provide every
student with portable computers with wireless internet capability.
Technology should not be used as a surrogate for high-quality classroom
instruction, but instead should be used as a tool for reinforcement, refinement,
and application of skills. All school-owned computers should have
high-speed internet access, and the integrated curriculum in all classes
should include a component in conducting internet research.
While most research on literacy development has focused on the cognitive
components of learning to read (phoneme awareness, vocabulary, semantics,
decoding fluency, etc.), most experts in literacy development also acknowledge
that the student's intrinsic motivation to engage in literacy activities
is one of the primary determinants of literacy development. Without
motivation, older struggling readers do not develop proficient literacy skills.
Many older struggling readers develop aversion attitudes and avoidance behaviors
that extinguish literacy development (Anderson, Tollefson, and Gilbert,
1985; Worthy, 2000).
While a great deal is understood about the cognitive domains, less is known
about cultivating motivation in struggling readers. The research literature
in this area is somewhat sketchy, but there is some evidence supporting
a few strategies for stimulating motivation in adolescent struggling readers.
Where possible, instructional materials should be used that are clearly
relevant and intrinsically interesting to the students (Hidi and Baird,
1986; Schiefele, 1999; Sleeter and Grant, 1999). The curriculum
should be built around the state standards, and should incorporate
strategies shown by research to be most effective for developing the
literacy skills of struggling readers. However, the curriculum
and materials also need to be relevant and interesting to the
students. Older struggling readers are more motivated
to engage in literacy activities for longer periods of time when they
the activities are intrinsically interesting or beneficial to
them. Materials and instruction that seem disconnected from their
lives, ambitions, or concerns are rarely effective for enhancing and
accelerating the growth of literacy skills.
Students should also have regular input into selection of reading materials
and instructional activities (Carson, 1990; Turner, 1995). Many of
the instructional resources that are found in high-quality reading programs
are relevant and attractive to struggling readers in middle- and high-school,
but very often students have very little interest in much of the material
or subject matter. Schools and teachers often find they must work
with the students to find other appropriate and engaging instructional materials
that can be used to supplement the materials in the core reading program.
Every year, a committee comprised of both students and teachers should
evaluate candidates for addition to the school library. Students and
teachers will collaborate to make decisions about library purchases, including
books, reference materials, and periodicals. Students and teachers
should also collaborate to develop plans to promote awareness of and interest
in the library materials.
Finally, instruction should be designed to encourage social discussions
of reading and writing activities. Social discussion and collaboration
has been shown to support both student motivation and comprehension of materials
(Hynds, 1997), and may be of particular benefit to struggling readers.
Every teacher and administrator should be expected to play a role in helping
all students develop mastery of language, in oral, written, and other forms.
However, among middle and high school teachers, expertise in literacy and
language instruction is rare. Beyond elementary school, most teachers
view themselves as teachers of content, not teachers of reading and language
skills. Even highly qualified, expert secondary teachers are often
at a loss when confronted with students who are struggling with literacy
and language barriers. Therefore, literacy in the content areas should
be a cornerstone of professional development for all staff.
Literacy professional development for all staff should focus on effective
grouping strategies for accelerated literacy development (Mehan, Villaneuva,
Hubbard, and Lintz, 1996), reader-based discussion strategies (Newell, 1996),
concept-driven instruction and questioning techniques (Ruddell, 1996), and
other effective content-area reading strategies.
Delivering and coordinating this professional development (and facilitating
all of the other components described above) is a full-time job. So,
a full-time literacy coach should be staffed to lead this effort.
A literacy coach is a reading specialist who takes leadership and responsibility
for improving literacy achievement in a school (Wren, 2005). The literacy
coach provides guidance and support to teachers trying to learn new literacy
concepts and strategies. The literacy coach helps teachers to plan
effective instruction. And the literacy coach works closely with the
school leaders to ensure that the school continuously improves in their efforts
to provide high-quality reading instruction to all students.
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October 23, 2005
Disappointing NAEP Scores -- What are We Doing Wrong?
The Nation's Report Card for
Reading came out on Wednesday, and the news is not good. Since 1969,
every few years, a very large, representative sample of students has been
tested on a variety of basic knowledge and skills -- reading among them.
Because of its consistency in content and implementation, this assessment,
called the National Assessment of Education Progress (or NAEP) is one of
the best indicators of education trends in our country. NAEP reading
data has been consistently gathered from 4th, 8th and 12th graders, thus
making trends over time easy to monitor. No other reading assessment
in the country gives a more accurate picture of long-term trends in reading
Since 1969, debates have raged about reading education. Schools
have restructured and changed their approaches to teaching reading, reading
programs have fallen into and out of favor, philosophical views about how
best to teach reading skills have come into and out of vogue, reading education
laws have been passed, and funding sources for reading education initiatives
have changed. As the saying goes, the only thing you can count on in
education is change.
One would think that with all of this change
and turmoil going on, SOMETHING would have had some impact on our nation's
reading scores. What is strikingly remarkable about the NAEP reading
scores, however, is that they really have not changed at all in over 35
years. With all of the fuss and turmoil that has been characterizing
education and reading instruction in this country for the past 35 years,
it is simply amazing that absolutely none of it has had any impact on NAEP
reading scores. Zero. None. Zip. Nada. Bupkis.
In the 1971 NAEP Reading assessment, the average scale score for 12th
graders was 285 -- this year, it was 285. For 8th graders, the
average score rose from 255 to 259 -- 4 points over the course of 35
years. 4th graders have made the greatest gains, from 208 in 1971
to 219 this year.
That's 11 points in 35 years.
The most recent NAEP reading scores were considered by many to be a test
of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was authorized in 2001.
It was expected that with new, stricter accountability standards, and a clear
focus on reading skills, student achievement would be substantially improved,
and that improved achievement would be reflected in gains in NAEP reading
scores. Over a billion dollars has been spent on Reading First, which
was to improve reading instruction in grades K-3, and a clear emphasis
was placed on using reading programs in all grades that have been proven
effective through "scientific research."
As the most recent NAEP reading scores have remained stubbornly fixed
where they have been for over 35 years, many critics of NCLB are exercising
their constitutionally guaranteed right to say "I told you so." With
no real change in NAEP reading scores, the NCLB does indeed seem to be a
frustrating and expensive failure. The promise of NCLB was to dramatically
improve reading education, and the absence of gains in student achievement
on the reading portion of the NAEP tells us that NCLB is probably not going
to live up to its promise. Critics of NCLB are taking this opportunity
to call for dismantling and scrapping NCLB.
This is disappointing for me because there are many parts of NCLB that
I think are important and necessary components for school improvement.
I think that school accountability is a good idea, although as I have
reported earlier, I think our current accountability system could be much
improved (see below for a previous essay on the subject -- May 2, 2005 -- Sebastian's Formula for a Better School Accountability
I believe that relying on high-quality reading research to guide instruction
is a good idea, although the way the term "research based" is currently
being applied to reading programs is simple-minded and meaningless.
I also am generally opposed to leaving children behind.
So I do not think we should view the torpid NAEP reading scores as a
complete indictment of all of NCLB, but instead we should realize that
a few critical components of school improvement were sorely lacking from
NCLB. In fact, if you want my opinion, I think it is fairly obvious
that MOST of the reform efforts and debate about reading and literacy for
the past 35 years has been fairly irrelevant and trivial. We have
argued and fought about improving reading programs, and changing standards,
and imposing accountability, and legislating fairly uninformed philosophical
views about reading instruction for much more than 35 years -- none of
it has had any impact on student achievement, good or bad. All of
this debate has simply been irrelevant.
When in doubt, I trust research, and research evidence has clearly and
repeatedly shown that the quality of literacy education depends primarily
upon the knowledge and skills of the classroom teacher. Teacher quality
is the single, most important variable in literacy education, yet we pay
very little attention to it in public debate and legislation. NCLB
does indeed call for "highly qualified teachers," but the standards expressed
in NCLB for teacher quality are not relevant to literacy instruction.
The NCLB expectations for "highly qualified teachers" focus on middle- and
high-school teachers teaching subjects in which they have an adequate education
themselves. Thus, a high-school math teacher should have a degree
in mathematics, a science teacher should have a degree in science.
But what about the elementary reading teacher? No mention is made
of teacher quality at that level. No initiatives within NCLB exist
to significantly enhance the knowledge and skills of early reading teachers.
I have repeatedly argued that learning to read is by far the single,
most important skill a person can learn. I have also repeatedly argued
that reading teachers should be the best-trained, most knowledgeable experts
on that subject. If you have a question about a medical issue, you
go to a doctor for expertise. If you have a question about a legal
issue, you go to a lawyer. If you have a question about a literacy
issue, you SHOULD be able to go to a reading teacher for expertise.
If we want to see substantial improvements in the NAEP reading and writing
scores, then we must do much more than merely invest in "research based"
reading programs. Most of the reading programs out there are already
pretty good, and further investments in reading programs will have trivial
returns. If we want to see real improvements in reading achievement,
we absolutely must invest substantially in the quality of reading teachers.
Improving reading programs and instructional materials should consume 20%
of our efforts -- improving the knowledge and skills of reading teachers
should consume 80%. Right now, if anything, those numbers are reversed.
I believe we have our priorities exactly backwards.
To earn a college degree in elementary education, at least 15 hours of
coursework in reading research, instruction, and assessment should be required
of every student.
A Master's degree should be required for certification as a reading specialist,
and that certification should require renewal every 5 years.
A novice reading teacher should serve for at least one year as an apprentice
with a mentor providing guidance and support.
And our approaches to teacher professional development need to be seriously
overhauled. More time and resources should be invested in professional
development, and professional development should be 10% workshops, and
90% job-embedded modeling, coaching, and mentoring. Workshops serve
a purpose, so they shouldn't be outlawed all together, but workshops do
very little to change practice. Job-embedded coaching and modeling
and support are much more effective for improving instruction.
And, of course, substantial increases in pay should accompany these changes
in professional standards. With professional expectations come professional
When children can read and write well, the rest of education follows
relatively easily, so investing in reading instruction will pay off down
the road. Better reading programs are only a small part of improving
reading instruction -- improving the knowledge and talent of reading teachers
is the solution we should be investing in. Had NCLB made teacher
quality for reading and literacy teachers more of a priority, I believe
we would be seeing the the first increase in NAEP reading scores in over
35 years. Instead, what we have is just more of the same.
September 25, 2005
A few weeks ago, somebody wrote me and asked me how many words a typical
adult knows. Alas, I am not a very organized person, and apparently
I misplaced that person's e-mail, but the question is a good opening to
discuss vocabulary knowledge.
Before we can say how many words a typical adult knows, we have to define
what a word is, and what it means to "know" a word. Oh yeah... and we have to define "typical."
Defining what a word is is a bit of a challenge. There are words
like "dance" "dancing" "dancer" "dances" and "danced" that can be counted
as five different words, but that seems vaguely inappropriate. If
I gave you a new word that you have never heard before -- "prieve" -- and
told you that it was a verb, you would probably be able to generate other
forms of that verb without any difficulty -- "prieved" "priving" "prieves"
etc. And you could probably guess that somebody who "prieves" is a
"priever." One could argue that at the heart of it, you only learned one new
word, and you already knew the rules for using that word in different forms.
If you follow that line of thought, though, you have to deal with irregular
verbs -- when you learn the word "go" you don't automatically learn the word
"went." There are also words with common roots that give linguists pause
-- is "know" the same as "knowledge" or "acknowledge"? What about compound
words? If you already know "side" and "walk," should "sidewalk" get
counted separately? What about proper nouns? Should "Sebastian"
be counted as a word that I know? All of this just gives me a headache.
Rather than talk about specific words, linguists often talk about "word
families," but there is not 100% consensus as to what a word family is.
It is very clear that "dance" and "dancing" belong to the same word family,
but it is less clear if "know" and "acknowledge" belong to the same word
family. Still, those are fairly unusual cases, and most linguists
agree that there are somewhat more than 50,000 but probably less than 60,000
word families in the English language.
Most of those word families are completely unfamiliar to most
people. There are thousands of words like "dramaturg" and "odeum"
and "iracund" that almost no adult is familiar with. They are
indeed real English words, and you will probably find them in your
unabridged dictionary, but chances are you have never encountered them
in your life before today. There are also thousands of words that
almost every speaker of English is very, very familiar with -- words
like "green" and "today" and "dinner." There is no question that you
know those words -- everybody who speaks English knows those
words. However, there are also a few thousand words that you are
only vaguely familiar with. These words are different for
different people, so I will just guess and hope I don't get victimized
by my example. You may have encountered words like "adroit" and
"egregious" and "lucent," and you might even have a vague notion about
what they mean, but I'm betting you are not as confident about your
knowledge of "lucent" as you are about your knowledge of "shiny."
In English (as in any language), there are some words that are extremely
common, and everybody knows them -- "green." There are other words that
are extremely rare, and almost nobody knows them -- "guttle." But then there
are these middle words -- "egregious." They are fairly rare, and somewhat
nuanced, but some people know them very well, and other people don't know
them well at all. Every individual person has a private collection
of rare words that they know well -- I, for example, love the word "defenestrate,"
and try to use it in conversation whenever I can (as I just did). Your
mechanic is probably quite familiar with words like "camber" and "bushing."
Your plumber uses words like "ferrous" and "petcock," and he or she knows
at least two definitions for the word "dope."
This is why it is so hard to define how many words a "typical" adult
knows. There are about 5,000 to 7,000 common word families that
almost everybody knows. And there are probably 20,000 word
families that almost nobody knows. But there are between 10,000
and 20,000 word families that some people know and other people
don't. How many of these semi-rare words a particular person
knows depends on several things. How much does that person read
every day? What level of education did that person achieve? What does
that person do for a living? What kind of family background does that
Somebody who did not get much of an education and does not make a habit
of reading may only be really familiar with 5,000 to 10,000 word
families. Somebody who has a college education and reads a fair
amount may have a working vocabulary of closer to 20,000 word
families. Somebody who reads voraciously and has more of an
academic career may be familiar with 25,000 or 30,000 word families.
True story: I was listening to reading and vocabulary expert Anne
Cunningham give a talk a few years ago -- she was telling the audience
that everybody should read more because the vocabulary used in
literature is far, far richer than the vocabulary used in conversation
or dialog. The vocabulary used on television or in conversation
tends to be very limited. I was dutifully taking notes for the
first half of her talk, but I realized about half way through her talk
that her presentation was peppered with a very
rich vocabulary. (This was a bit ironic given the point she was
to make.) I found myself writing down the rare words she was
using. I did not catch all of them, but in the last 15 minutes of
her talk, she quite
comfortably used these words: provoke, maneuver, equate, invariably,
dominance, participation, multiple, subgroups, relatively,
differentiated, significant, separately, increased, hypothesis,
explore, contribution, control, observe, effect, examine, variable,
interest, intervene, exposure, consequence, aspects, potent, mismatch,
correlation, discrepant, contemporaneous, acquisition, analysis,
implemented, comprehension, summary, variety, cumulative, phenomenon,
divergence, hypothesized, efficacious, cognitive, caveat, displace,
prerequisite, encouraging, despair, malleable, partially, ilk, and
I bet Scrabble night at the Cunningham house is a hoot.
Is Anne Cunningham typical? Clearly not. But it is hard to say
exactly what is typical. Most people in this country don't read
very much, so they probably have vocabularies closer to the 10,000 end
of the scale, maybe even closer to 5,000. I have seen estimates
that a "typical" college graduate is probably familiar with 20,000 word
families, but again, even among that population, there is probably a
great deal of variability. People who read 3 to 4 hours a day are
probably familiar with more than 25,000 word families, but very, very
few people actually read 3 to 4 hours a day.
Somebody who dropped out of high school and does not read may only know
5,000 or 6,000 word families.
Somebody who finished high school and is able to read, but doesn't really
make a habit of it may know closer to 10,000 word families.
Somebody who went to college and can read well, and makes a habit of
reading popular books and magazines may know 15,000 word families.
A college graduate with a more "white collar" job may have a vocabulary
of 20,000 word families -- almost 4 times as large as the unfortunate soul
who dropped out of high school.
And of course, somebody with an advanced degree and an academic job
could be familiar with 25,000 word families or more.
I will leave it to you to decide what is typical.
September 11, 2005
Beginning of the year Informal Student Reading Survey
(for grades 2-8)
This is a message for teachers
of students between 2nd and 8th grade.
Here we are at the beginning of a new school year. By now the
students should have settled into a routine (unless their lives were disrupted
by Katrina, of course), and teachers should be getting to know their students
fairly well. So here is a question for the 2nd to 8th grade classroom
teachers -- how well do each of your students read?
More specifically, how many students in your class this year are having
difficulties with reading? Do their difficulties stem from problems
with decoding fluency or language comprehension? Or both?
This is the first question that I try to answer when I encounter a
student struggling with reading -- is it a decoding problem or a language
comprehension problem? The Simple View of reading (R=DxC) tells
us that difficulties with reading comprehension (R) stem from problems
with decoding (D) or comprehension (C). Or both. Determining
this is the first step in diagnosis, and it is the first step in planning
intervention and effective instruction.
Language comprehension problems are easy enough to identify -- if a
student has trouble reading a passage of text, just read the passage of
text out loud to the student. If the student can understand the passage
when she listens to you read it aloud, then her language comprehension skills
are not preventing her from understanding the text. She understands
the material -- she just can't read it independently. It must be a
Decoding is a little thornier, but not much. Most students with
decoding problems are able to correctly identify words and "attack" unfamiliar
words -- they just do it very, very slowly. Those students have problems
with decoding fluency. That's good news because fluency instruction
is quite easy. Some students, however, are not able to accurately
identify words -- especially unfamiliar words they have not seen before.
Those students have more basic word identification issues. These issues
may stem from a lack of phoneme awareness or problems understanding the
To help teachers (2nd to 8th grade) to determine the reading instruction
needs of each of their students, I've created a Simple Formative Reading
Survey (available in PDF). Following this quick survey will help teachers
to figure out what reading-related areas need more instructional support.
May 2, 2005
Sebastian's Formula for a Better School Accountability System
First let me say up front, I strongly believe that accountability
and standards are necessary and important. I think that it is human
nature to slack off a little and to make excuses and rationalizations
rather than consistently dig deeper and work harder. There are very
few people in this world who have an internal drive to excellence and an
uncompromising work ethic. Almost everybody finds their own "comfort
zone" and settles there. So we all need a little prod now and then
to make us work a little harder -- try a little harder -- reach a little
I'm not just talking about education, here. I'm talking about
life in general. We all know we should eat right and exercise every
day, but most of us get a little lazy, and we slack off. We spend
a lot of our evenings eating junk and watching TV when we could be eating
better and going to the gym. We could all live in a cleaner house,
but we slack off and let the laundry go a few extra days, or let the dishes
sit on the counter for a while. None of us is perfect all the time.
To be human is to be a little lazy. That's just natural.
But we shake off the laziness when we need to. When company
is coming over, we clean up the house. When our high school reunion
is approaching, we lose a little weight. People are a little lazy
when we can get away with it, but we are diligent when we need to be.
That's true in life, and that is definitely true in education.
Without standards and without accountability, schools would be
a mess. Kids would be falling through the cracks all over the place.
Some people try to fantasize about a utopia where there are no standards,
and there is no accountability, and teachers are simply "free to teach."
Well, that does sound nice, but it's just silly. Educators, like
all humans, tend to settle into a routine and a comfort zone. Given
no standards or accountability, principals will let teachers do whatever
they want, and teachers will teach the things that they like teaching.
And they will give all of their energy and attention to the kids they like,
and they will neglect the kids who are frustrating or difficult.
That is just human nature.
I don't deny that in a world with no standards or accountability, SOME
teachers would still be excellent, excellent teachers. I don't
deny that at all. Some people are just good teachers, and it
really doesn't matter for them if there are standards or
accountability. They have high expectations for every one of
their students, and they teach
all of their students very, very well. I am in awe of those
But alas, those teachers are in the minority. Without
accountability, the rest of us (and I certainly include myself in the
"lazy" group) would teach what we like to teach, would teach the way we
like to teach, would work when we feel like it, and would make
rationalizations about student
In the world of education, there are some schools that are consistently
high performers. Nearly all of their students perform at very high
levels all the time. Most of these schools are just lucky -- they
happen to have a population of fairly affluent kids that come from very
educated, English-speaking households, and no matter what they do, their
students are going to perform at very high levels. I call these "Lake
Woebegone Schools" because all of the kids are above average. A few
of these schools are not just lucky, though -- they are what I call "Beat
the Odds Schools" because despite high levels of poverty and diversity, they
still manage to provide an outstanding education and help most of their kids
succeed. These are often schools that have a history of failure, but
which have instituted policies and practices that have helped them evolve
into "high-performing" schools.
These schools are rare, but their numbers are growing, and I have had
the pleasure of talking to people who have worked in these
schools. They are very consistent about their descriptions of
what it took to turn the school around. The formula is almost
always the same, and at the heart of the formula -- the cornerstone on
which everything else was built -- lies a clear accountability
system. People in these schools always report that they could not
have improved their schools without clear,
high expectations and support from their state and community.
Strong, clear, and fair accountability is the single, most important
ingredient in school improvement. And I would say the accountability
should have some teeth -- if schools do not improve, there should be
sanctions. The recent No Child Left Behind Act provides these things,
so despite being a card-carrying lefty-liberal pinko, I am generally
in favor of the NCLB.
Of course, it is not a perfect system. There are a few ways
I would have improved it if anybody had bothered to ask me.
For example, right now the sanctions that are imposed against failing
schools are financial sanctions levied against THE SCHOOL. If a
school does not consistently improve, it loses money, and part of the school
budget must be used to pay for external tutoring services for the students.
Whoever thought of that deserves a dope-slap to the forehead for
being so ignorant.
The school is just a building -- it is the people inside the building
who make the decisions. The problem is, when trouble starts, those
people can abandon the school and go elsewhere. When school budgets
start getting slashed, good educators are usually the first to leave --
they go to a better school. With a cut in the budget, educational
programs get cut, meaning that students get a poorer education. And
the school gets into a cycle of failure -- cut the money some more, and the
school fails more. That's a silly system.
The sanctions need to be against the people, not the building.
When a school consistently fails, the school board that allowed that failure
should be disbanded by the state, and the leaders of the school district
should be challenged to improve the school or else find another job --
outside of education or outside of the state. School leaders who
have allowed a school to fail should not be able to simply get another
job in another school down the road.
In the mean time, there should be MORE money made available for
the troubled school -- money should be made available for high-quality
professional development for the faculty, and bonuses should be paid to
good teachers to encourage them to work at that school. States should
contract with demonstrably effective school-improvement teams who can
work closely with struggling school to help them improve instruction and
The other part of NCLB that I would love to change is the determination
of what counts as a "failing school." Under NCLB, schools were given
10 years (practically speaking) to get all of their students to pass
the state criterion-referenced standards-based assessment. To meet
"Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP), schools have to get one-tenth of their
failing students in every subgroup to pass every year. And it is
not acceptable to help the affluent kids succeed but let the children from
poverty fail -- every subgroup must meet AYP or else the whole school is
deemed "low performing."
I wholeheartedly support the "every subgroup" part of this system
-- I love that schools have to disaggregate their data and focus on the
needs of all students in every subgroup. That's wonderful.
But it is the AYP part that I find silly. In one small school
where I worked, their stated goal in their official School Improvement
to get an additional 9.4 children in each grade to pass the state test
year. That's just bizzare, but that is the kind of weird logic
I very much prefer the "Opportunity Gap" system that is promoted
through the National Center for Education Accountability (a.k.a. Just
4 Kids -- go to http://www.just4kids.org -- it is an outstanding site). In that system, schools are compared
against other SIMILAR schools in their state. So small, rural schools
with a great deal of poverty are compared against other small, rural schools
with the same levels of poverty. Inner-city schools with a great
deal of cultural and linguistic diversity are compared against other inner-city
schools with a great deal of cultural and linguistic diversity.
Apples are compared against apples, oranges against oranges. That's
To the extent that other, similar schools are performing better
than any particular school, Just 4 Kids describes that as an "Opportunity Gap."
If you are looking at your own school on the Just 4 Kids website, you
can see how your school performs against other, similar schools that
serve similar populations of kids. There is no reason why your
school shouldn't be performing at least as well as the top-performing
similar schools. (Right now the Just 4 Kids system is best in
Texas, but they are working on developing similar systems for schools
in other states.)
So let's look at a school here in Texas -- Travis Elementary in
Port Arthur ISD. There is a great deal of poverty, linguistic diversity
and student mobility in Port Arthur -- the challenges for that school
are substantial. And yet, year after year, Travis Elementary consistently
out-performs most other similar schools in the state. With over
90% of the students on free-and-reduced lunch, Travis Elementary students
have passing rates in the 70 to 90 percent range on the state accountability
assessment (the TAKS). I would describe Travis Elementary as a good
school. I don't know that they make AYP in every subgroup every year,
but they are doing a heck of a lot better than other, similar schools.
They are setting the bar that other schools should be aiming for. If
they can do it, other, similar schools can, too.
That, to my mind, is a good framework for a fair and reasonable
accountability system. A good accountability system would challenge
schools to rise to the level that has been attained by similar but more
successful schools in the state. That is clearly an attainable goal,
and it is perfectly fair and reasonable to expect schools to minimize the
"Opportunity Gaps" that exist. That is the accountability system I
would have proposed -- if anybody had thought to ask me...
April 19, 2005
School Choice -- Caveat Emptor
Every day, I read at least
one article about "school choice." Most of those articles are not
research articles, mind you, because there is very little research on
the subject. The fact is, we know very little about the effects
or consequences of creating a school choice system. None-the-less,
in the absence of evidence, many people are adamantly convinced that a
good school choice program is necessary to improve education in this country.
The competition of the free marketplace, they argue, will force schools to
improve or die. If parents have a choice about where to send their
children, they will choose to send their children to the best available
Not that we have ever seen any evidence of that elsewhere in the
marketplace -- there is a price factor in the marketplace that people
who make this "school choice in a free marketplace" argument seem to
be overlooking. In the real free marketplace, the consumer will
the best available product that they can find at the price they want
to pay. People shop at Wal-Mart, not because their products are
better, but because they tend to be cheaper. People drive cheap
cars, not because they are better, but because they are cheaper.
use PC computers, not because they are better, but because they are
With "school choice" programs, there is not a price consideration (not
it is a free choice), so we really can't apply free market
models. We really don't know what would happen if parents were
given free choice about where to send their kids to school.
And even to the extent that we do understand how the free market system
works, we know that sometimes the marketplace is just fickle and hard
to predict. Consumers decided to buy VHS video recorders even
though the Sony Beta machines were higher quality at the same
price. And of course people will buy a much inferior product if
it is marketed and
advertised well. In fact, people will pay much higher prices for
much inferior product if that product is marketed well. Think
about the tires you put on your car -- how do you make that
Chances are, you don't know anything about tires at all, so you go with
a tire with a "reputation" for quality -- a good name. And that
was probably earned through an aggressive advertising campaign.
you were to buy a television today, would you buy an NEC or ViewSonic
Sampo, or would you buy a JVC, Sony, or Philips? You would
go with the names you are familiar with, and if you are like most
you haven't heard of the first three.
So how would you pick a school if you really did have choice?
How would you decide if a school is the best school for your child?
Would you be able to tell the difference between a truly good school and
one that just has good marketing?
Don't get me wrong, when it comes down to it, I'm in favor of
school choice. In fact, I have personally benefited from school
choice. When I was in high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I decided
to go all the way across town to the district's magnet school, Booker
T. Washington. It was fabulous, and I was very lucky to have had
the opportunity to go there. And I mean "lucky" in more than just
one sense. Booker T. Washington was such a good school with such
a good reputation that literally thousands of kids applied to get in,
but Booker T. had an enrollment limit of 1200 kids. That means
that thousands of kids were turned away every year. And it was always
made clear to me that if I was not a good student who contributed to the
Booker T. society, I could be kicked out of the school to make room for
another student who was waiting to get in.
That is the first problem with school choice -- most kids do
not actually get a choice. In the middle- to large-sized cities,
when parents and kids are given a choice of schools, the truly good schools
will be full, and there won't be room for all the kids who want to go
to those schools. In other words, there won't be a lot of "choice."
If you are fortunate enough to get in to one of the good schools (as
I was), then you will benefit from school choice (as I clearly have).
But thousands of kids will not even be able to get in to those schools.
What "choice" will they have? Furthermore, we really don't know what
will happen to these good schools when they get an immigration of students
from all over town. It is quite possible that the "good" schools
will not be so good when they fill to capacity with a highly diverse population
of students. A lot of schools that are "good" right now are only
good because they have low teacher-to-student ratios, and they are populated
with a homogeneous population of students who come from the same neighborhood.
It is impossible to predict what will happen to these schools when parents
get to exercise "choice." We don't know what kind of prejudice
and discrimination and difficulties kids from outside the neighborhood
will experience. We don't know if the teachers will be equipped
to handle diverse populations of students. We just don't know.
Of course, in smaller cities and in rural areas, there simply
will be no choice because there are not any other schools to choose
from. In rural areas, kids often have to travel many miles to get
to the closest school. They do not have a selection of schools
to choose from. The next school down the road may be 20 miles further
away, and likely as not, it is not much better than the school they already
go to. There will be no "competition" of schools in small towns and
rural areas, and there will be no choices. The discussion of school
choice is a discussion reserved for families that live in urban areas,
but some of the biggest problems in our country's education system stem
from the disparity that exists between rural and urban schools. School
choice, if anything, can only serve to widen that disparity.
Also, if there is to be true school choice, the schools have
to be held to the same standards so parents can make reasonable comparisons.
Right now, private schools and charter schools are usually exempt from the
standards and accountability that regular schools are held to.
Kids in those schools usually do not have to pass any sort of state test,
teachers don't have to be certified, and private schools and charter schools
can create their own curriculum and teach things that may be discrepant
with the standards developed by the state. Studies of private schools
and charter schools show that some of them are very good, and prepare
their students very well for future academic and life endeavors.
Most private and charter schools, however, are basically on par with regular
public schools -- better in some areas, worse in others. And of course,
studies have shown that some private and charter schools are considerably
worse than their public school rivals. This seems to be especially
true of charter schools, which usually have less funding than private schools.
Some charter schools are quite good, but most charter schools, when they
are examined, are found to be over-all worse than the public school they
are "competing" with.
However, the parents who send their kids to these inferior charter
schools do not seem to know that the schools are inferior. How
would they? As I stated before, charter and private schools are
not usually held to the same standards as regular public schools, and
do not have to publicly report student achievement data. The kids
in these schools do not have to take the state accountability
assessments, the schools do not have to report drop-out rates or
retention rates. They don't have to publish their school safety
record or share discipline records. They can expel students who
are not progressing well, and retain only the students who are
successful. Charter schools and private schools simply are not
open to the same levels of scrutiny that public schools are. So
when parents make a choice, they are usually making a choice based on
faith when they really should be making a choice based on data.
The Heritage Foundation, a notoriously conservative organization
that has been aggressively supporting school-choice programs, has recently
released a substantial database of information about school choice in the United States. I take everything that the Heritage Foundation
claims with a grain of salt, knowing they have a reputation for bias
in the information they choose to share and promote. However, even
the Heritage Foundation school-choice site describes a spate of problems
with existing school-choice programs.
The Heritage Foundation, in many of their own research reports,
finds that school choice usually does not result in increased student
achievement or improved educational environments. The Heritage
Foundation also found that some charter schools and private schools are
run by unscrupulous people who are using the school choice system for
their own unethical financial gain, exploiting the children they are supposed
to be helping. The Heritage Foundations conclusions are the same as
my own -- any school-choice system must come with a very clear, objective
accountability system so that parents can see for themselves which schools
are best for their children.
If we are to have a viable school-choice system in this country,
then we must be clear that all schools that receive state and federal
dollars to educate students should be held to the same standards and subjected
to the same scrutiny. The accountability system used for charter
schools and private schools accepting public funds must be the same as
the accountability system used for the local public schools and magnet
schools. Any student whose education is funded by taxpayers should
be regularly tested using valid and reliable measures to be sure they are
developing the knowledge and skills that the taxpayers expect of students
who are getting a publicly funded education.
As I said, I am very much in favor of school choice, and I believe
magnet school systems provide for us an excellent model for school
choice. Magnet schools are different from mainstream schools --
they provide a viable alternative to the traditional school, and create
a little healthy competition. But they are also held to the same
standards as their mainstream competitors.
With a good accountability system, parents can look at publicly
available data about the school and make an informed decision about
where they should send their child for an education.
April 10, 2005
A tirade about school finance
I once knew a very wise man who often said, "When ya buy cheap,
ya get cheap." Every time someone would try to save a dime on
a purchase, he'd smile and make that snide remark. Every time a
"cheap" purchase would prove to be disappointing in some way, he would
remark that cheap things are usually cheap for a reason. He always
said, you can be cheap when it doesn't matter, but if something is important,
then you should spend what it takes to get something of quality.
We are very fortunate to live in the wealthiest country in the
world. In fact, our country is the wealthiest country in the
history of the world. We have more wealth and power and strength
than any civilization has ever attained -- ever. Our country has
accomplished so much, and we have shown the ability to break down any
barrier that we set our mind to, with one notable exception. We
can't seem to teach everybody to read. About 40 percent of the
kids in this country lack even basic reading skills. How insane
is that? The one, single most important skill that anybody could
possibly learn is beyond the grasp of nearly half of our nation's
children! What kind of contribution are these people going to
make to our society? What kind of life are they going to have if
we do not teach them to read? For such a wealthy country, we have
a shockingly weak and underfunded education system.
Our federal government has recently provided us with new standards and
higher expectations than we have ever had before. The No Child
Left Behind Act sends a clear and important message that we absolutely
must fight to decrease education disparity everywhere it exists, and
that we must help every single child to master the critical skills
necessary to succeed in school and in life. That is a noble and
laudable goal. But achieving it is not going to be easy, and it
is definitely not going to be cheap. Worthwhile goals never are.
We could not have sent men to the moon cheaply. We could not have
built the greatest military in the history of the world cheaply.
We could not have built highways that cross this country cheaply.
The Hoover Dam? That was kind of expensive. Wiping out
We spent some money on that. The internet? That was very
costly. We have always invested in the things that are important
to this country, but we have never seriously invested in education.
Currently in this country, we spend between $5,000 and $11,000 per year
to educate a child, depending on where that child is. On average,
we spend in the neighborhood of $7,800 per child per year. That
sounds like a lot of money, but it really isn't. That's cheap.
If you send your child to a typical, reputable daycare every weekday
from 7:30 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, it will cost you
between $400 and $600 per month. Over 9 months, that adds up to
between $3,600 and $5,400, just to have somebody watch after your child
every day and make sure he or she does not come to any harm.
During that time, although it is not required of them, a good daycare
center will often try to engage the kids in a few educational
activities, which may or may not be effective for enhancing academic
skills. The daycare provider who is interacting with your child
might have gone to college, and may even have a college degree, but
that is not required. Like all low-paying jobs, employee
turn-over in daycare facilities is quite high, so over the course of 9
months, your child may have several different daycare providers.
Oh, and one other thing. In some places, getting your
child into a reputable daycare center is quite difficult. Just
because you have the money to pay for the service doesn't mean you
will actually get the service. Many reputable daycare centers
have waiting lists, and the wait for some centers can be years.
So on the one hand, you have daycare facilities that cost
around $4,500 for full-time care during a 9 month period. For
that fee, they are responsible for keeping your child safe and alive.
On the other hand, you have schools that cost around $7,800 per year. For the extra $3,300, what do you get?
For starters, most kids will only go to school for 9 months,
but the school almost always provides summer services for kids who
need it at no extra charge. They often provide support to students
before and after school, too, free of charge.
Schools provide safe, free transportation to and from campus
for any child who needs it. Daycare centers do not.
Schools provide a substantial library and course textbooks
for the children to use. Daycare centers do not.
Schools have science labs, computer labs, theaters and athletic
facilities that daycare facilities just don't have.
The school facilities are usually substantial. Daycare
facilities are usually cramped and barely adequate.
All of those wonderful things that schools provide cost money.
Libraries are not free, textbooks are not free, school busses are not
free. And daycare centers can not begin to pay for those things.
And then, of course, there is the service that schools actually
exist to provide. They employ college-educated teachers who
are responsible for delivering a high-quality curriculum to their students
in safe, productive classrooms. School teachers are required
to have bachelor's degrees, and many of them have advanced degrees.
They are trained professionals who are under pressure to show that, under
their care, their students make substantial academic gains, and develop
the knowledge and skills that are required by the states where they
live. The taxpayers pay for this service, and the state, appropriately,
sets clear standards that must be met by educators and by schools.
The state develops assessments and monitors the quality of education provided
by schools, and the state intervenes when schools are not meeting those
standards and expectations.
All of this takes money. When the money is short, the
quality declines. Monitoring and intervening with struggling
schools becomes impossible. Retaining high-quality teachers and
placing them in the neediest schools becomes difficult. Class sizes
increase. School safety decreases. Resources dwindle.
The school year is shortened. Student support and intervention
programs get cut back. In short, children get a poorer education.
Money is not the only answer. Throwing more money at
education, by itself, will not improve instruction. We have seen
several cases in this country where more money was spent, but no corresponding
change in achievement followed. It takes more than just spending
the money. But the money is definitely a starting point.
Spending money on education is necessary for improvement, but not sufficient.
We should strive to set ever higher expectations for student achievement.
We should do everything we can to recruit and retain teachers of high quality
and skill. But we can not reasonably expect those things if we are
unwilling to spend the money to achieve them.
Right now in Texas, legislators appear to be making very little
progress in passing a reasonable education spending bill. Special
interests are fighting hard to keep taxes and spending low in Texas,
and legislators are in a pinch to find a way to increase spending on
education without raising taxes. Something is going to have to
give. Either we find a way to substantially increase funding for
education, or education in the state of Texas will suffer.
Texas is a wealthy state -- as President Bush has so often pointed out,
if Texas was a country, it would have the 8th largest economy
in the world. But it is also a highly diverse state. We
have 4.2 million school children in our state, and increasingly they
coming from very culturally and linguistically diverse
backgrounds. Texas also has one of the highest child-poverty
rates in the country, with almost half of our children (44.5%) being
eligible for free-and-reduced lunch programs. These are
challenges that would justify increased spending in Texas for
education, yet 31 other states with fewer challenges actually spend
more on education than Texas does.
And that is not to say that those states are spending enough.
Texas ranks low among states that probably also need to increase their
spending for education. Right now, the state that spends the most
on education is also the state that consistently ranks the highest in
of education achievement and quality. Connecticut spends just
$11,000 per student per year, and it shows. Connecticut's
score very well on standardized assessments, they have very low
and drop-out rates, and they have very high rates of success in higher
education. Connecticut has set a reasonable goal for other
states. There is no reason why every state couldn't spend $11,000
per year per student (adjusting for cost-of-living). They just
have to decide that it is a priority worth spending money on.
It all comes down to this -- do you drive a Yugo? Do
you live in a shack? Do you dress in rags? Do you eat dog
food? Of course not. You spend money on things that matter to
you. When you want something nice, you spend a little money on it.
It's always nice when you find a bargain, but for the most part, you
know you have to spend some money if you want quality.
Isn't it about time we spent a little extra money on education?
Isn't it about time the states stopped trying to educate our children on
the cheap? I think it is definitely worth a few pennies a day
to invest in education and teach our children the skills they need to
thrive and prosper.
• P. O. Box 300471 • Austin, TX 78703
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Last Updated 3-21-06