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 Sebastian's Web Log
(Not to be confused with Sebastian's Discussion Forum)

  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 (swren@balancedreading.com) 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 game.

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 everybody.

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 it.

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 to address.

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 frustrated.

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 Coaches" section.

Second, I wrote a short essay on spelling and added it to the "S is for Spelling" section.

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 must change. 

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 struggling readers.

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 decisions. 

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 progress-monitoring assessments.

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.

Time Structures

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 feel 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.

Professional development

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.


Allington, R. (1977). If they don't read much, how they ever gonna get good?  Journal of Reading, 21, 57-61.

Allington, R. L., & McGill-Franzen, A. (1989). School response to reading failure: Chapter I and special education students in grades 2, 4, and 8. Elementary School Journal, 89, 529–542.

Anderson, M.A., Tollefson, N.A., and Gilbert, E.C. (1985).  Giftedness and reading:  A cross-sectional view of differences in reading attitudes and behaviors.  Gifted Child Quarterly, 29, 186-189.

Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285-303.

Bean, T.W., Valerio, P.C., and Stevens, L. (1999).  Content area literacy instruction.  In L. Gambrell, L.M. Morrow, S.B. Neuman, and M. Pressley (Eds), Best Practices in Literacy Instruction (pp. 175-192).  New York, NY: Guilford.

Beck, I.L, McKeown, M., and Kucan, L. (2002).  Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction.  New York: Guilford Press.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Omanson, R. C. (1987). The effects and uses of diverse vocabulary instructional techniques. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. (1996). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Bos, C. S., & Anders, P. L. (1990).  Effects of interactive vocabulary instruction on the vocabulary learning and reading comprehension of junior-high learning disabled students.  Learning Disability Quarterly, 13(1), 31-42.

Carson, B. (1990).  Gifted hands.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Collins, J. (1986).  Differential instruction in reading groups.  In J. Cook-Gumperez (ed.), The social construction of literacy (pp. 117-137).  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cummings, J. (1984).  Bilingualism and special education:  Issues in assessment and pedagogy.  Avon, England:  Multilingual Matters, Ltd.

Hart, B., and T.R. Risley (2003). The Early Castrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap.  American Educator.

Hidi, S. and Baird, W. (1986).  Interestingness -- A neglected variable in discourse processing.  Cognitive Science, 10, 179-194.

Hynds, S. (1997).  On the brink: Negotiating literature and life with adolescents.  Newark, DE: International Reading Association, and New York: Teachers College.

Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from Research. Englewood, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

McKeown, M. G., & Curtis, M. E. (1987). The nature of vocabulary acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Mehan, H., Villanueva, I., Hubbard, L., and Lintz, A. (1995).  Constructing school success in literacy: The pathway to college entrance for minority students.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Newell, G.E. (1996).  Reader-based and teacher-centered instructional tasks: Writing and learning about a short story in middle-track classrooms.  Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 147-172.

Pany, D. & McCoy, K.M. (1988).  Effects of corrective feedback on word accuracy and reading comprehension of readers with learning disabilities.  Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 546-550.

Qian D.D. (2002). Investigating the Relationship Between Vocabulary Knowledge and Academic Reading Performance: An Assessment Perspective. Language Learning, 52(3), pp. 513-536.

Rashotte, C.A., & Torgesen, J.K. (1985). Repeated reading and reading fluency in learning disabled children. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(2), 180–188.

Ruddell, R.B. (1996). Researching the influential literacy teacher:  Characteristics, beliefs, strategies and new research directions.  In D.J. Leu, C.K. Kinzer, and K.A. Hinchman (Eds.), Forty-Sixth Yearbook of the National Reading Conference.  Chicago, IL: National Reading Conference.

Schiefele, U. (1999). Interest and learning from text. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3(3), 257–279.

Sleeter, C., and Grant, C.A. (1999).  Making choices for multicultural education (3rd ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Tan, A., & Nicholson, T. (1997). Flash cards revisited: Training poor readers to read words faster improves their comprehension of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 276–288.

Taylor, B.M., Frye, B.J., & Maruyama, G.M. (1990). Time spent reading and reading growth. American Educational Research Journal, 27, 351-362.

Turner, J. C. (1995). The influence of classroom contexts on young children’s motivation for literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 30(3), 410–441.

Worthy, J. (2000).  Teachers' and students' suggestions for motivating middle-school students to read.  National Reading Conference Yearbook, 49, 441-445.

Wren, S. (2005).  Literacy coaches: Promises and Problems.  Paper delivered at the annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Miami, FL.  (Draft can be downloaded at http://www.balancedreading.com/literacycoach.html)

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 education.

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 System).

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 salaries.

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
Vocabulary Development

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 person have?

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 trying 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, exposure, 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 travesty.

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 problem.

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 alphabetic principle.

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 further. 

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 teachers.  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 failure.

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 achievement.

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 Plan was to get an additional 9.4 children in each grade to pass the state test every year.  That's just bizzare, but that is the kind of weird logic that AYP encourages.

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 fair. 

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.)
Just 4 Kids Scatterplot
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 school.

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 buy 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 little cars, not because they are better, but because they are cheaper.  People use PC computers, not because they are better, but because they are cheaper.  With "school choice" programs, there is not a price consideration (not if 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 a much inferior product if that product is marketed well.  Think about the tires you put on your car -- how do you make that decision?  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 reputation was probably earned through an aggressive advertising campaign.  If you were to buy a television today, would you buy an NEC or ViewSonic or Sampo, or would you buy a JVC, Sony, or Philips?  You would probably go with the names you are familiar with, and if you are like most consumers, 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 they 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 Polio?  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 are 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 measures of education achievement and quality.  Connecticut spends just over $11,000 per student per year, and it shows.  Connecticut's students score very well on standardized assessments, they have very low illiteracy 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.

BalancedReading.com  •  P. O. Box 300471  •  Austin, TX  78703

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Last Updated 3-21-06