kitchen table math, the sequel: education, not remediation

Friday, March 5, 2010

education, not remediation

With my tiny district's per pupil spending now somewhere north of $30K and rising, and a new law requiring Response to Intervention, I'm getting desperate.

So this morning I wrote this plea for adopting programs that work and unadopting programs that don't work:

Response to Intervention wouldn't break the bank if we used evidence-based decision making: if we rigorously evaluated curricula and teaching methods for evidence of effectiveness -- and had a Plan B in place for abandoning curricula and teaching methods that aren't working sooner rather than later.

Example: we use 'balanced literacy' to teach reading.

Scientists who study reading instruction, and the National Reading Panel of 2000, tell us that children should be taught to read using "systematic synthetic phonics instruction." Balanced literacy is far less effective than phonics.

Exactly as the science predicts, here in Irvington we have a very large number of struggling readers. I believe the number is currently 18 or 19%, but I will check my notes. We currently have 5.5 "literacy specialists" remediating all of our struggling readers K-8, and after Response to Intervention kicks in I assume we'll have to hire more.

If we were using the program "Jolly Phonics," a field-tested British (pdf file) synthetic phonics curriculum, we would have only 5% of our students struggling to read. That 5% would include kids like my two children with autism.

We can easily afford to teach the 'bottom' 5% of our students in a 1:5 or 1:3 ratio. We're pretty much doing it now.

Moreover, because fluent reading is the core skill underlying all future academic achievement, we would likely have fewer special education students. That is the goal of Response to Intervention law: to reduce the number of students needing special education.

For me, the most important path out of our financial crisis is to ardently embrace evidence-based decision making: do what works, stop doing what doesn't.

In the run-up to the first fields vote, when people were putting up hand-lettered signs overnight, someone put up a sign that said:


That should be our principle. Remediation is fantastically expensive: it costs the taxpayer who must fund remedial teachers, and, more importantly, it costs the child who is struggling to learn.

Our district-wide goal should be to reduce to the absolute minimum the number of children needing remediation. We should adopt curricula and teaching methods that give our kids success.


I can no longer locate the Johnston & Watson PowerPoint that gave the 5% figure (I can email a copy if you'd like to see it). Palisadesk cites 10%.


Anonymous said...

"For me, the most important path out of our financial crisis is to ardently embrace evidence-based decision making: do what works, stop doing what doesn't."


In Education, unfortunately, research and application regarding best practices tends to be unknown at best or ignored at worst.

ElizabethB said...

Here is a quote from Sally Shaywitz's "Overcoming Dyslexia, A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level" p. 261:

"In one Tallahassee, Florida, elementary school where such a program [scientifically proven prevention and early intervention programs] was implemented, the percentage of struggling readers dropped eightfold--from 31.8 percent to 3.7 percent."

I would guess 1% using Webster's Speller and teaching both spelling and phonics at the same time, its focus on spelling and syllables is very helpful for my struggling students.

BTW, that's a great motto, "Education not remediation." Every smart students learn more when taught explicitly.

Catherine Johnson said...

Elizabeth - thank you so much!

I'm getting that filed away.

Catherine Johnson said...

Elizabeth - if you're around - does that figure include everyone (i.e. kids with developmental disabilities)?

In a public school, I'm going to guess it does - but do you know?

Also, your estimate of 1% - that's probably for kids who don't have severe developmental disabilities, right?

That's general education students?

palisadesk said...

The Shaywitz example that Elizabeth quotes is a fairly representative one. Schools that use effective instructional methods and materials significantly reduce their "struggling reader" populations, usually to a 1-digit %ile. There are many examples;most however are school-based. We don't see scaled-up replications of this type of success on a district basis.

The 1% that Elizabeth cites is reasonably the percent of children who would still flounder even after intensive 1:1 teaching with effective methods and materials over a significant period of time. However, it would not be likely to represent what could be achieved in general education classrooms at our current level of knowledge and operational constraints.

Students with severe disabilities must be taken on a case-by-case basis, as their learning needs are highly specific; in other cases, important variables are not always under school control -- for instance, students with high levels of absenteeism and/or frequent changes of residence. You can have the best-ever teaching, but the student has to actually be there and participate in order to benefit.

So hard data on what is the lowest percentage of students who we can expect will still lag *far* behind despite our best efforts is not available. What we do know is that the number of "struggling" students is far too high.

From intensive work with students at all ability levels, I believe it's a testable hypothesis that 99% could be taught foundation skills in reading, writing and math that are commensurate with their level of receptive language comprehension and cognitive functioning. Some cases would be extremely labor-intensive, and this becomes a time and resources issue. Public schools realistically do not have enough instructional time to be as successful with some high-needs cases as private services can be. I can think of cases where children have needed 4-6 hours a day of intensive therapy in several areas to make significant progress. Schools are not set up to provide this, and perhaps it's a separate question: should allowances be provided to parents of such children to purchase the needed services using special education funding? Should the school district contract these out?
We are talking about a small number (percentage-wise) of students, but their needs are real and not easily met.

Getting all students reading at the K-2 level is realistic for most schools. It is, however, only a step in the process. Children who master decoding and spelling early on may be strugglers later. That is why careful progress monitoring of all students is needed.

Linda said...

Response to Intervention, when done correctly, begins by addressing all students receiving excellent instruction in the classroom (Level 1). Even with excellent instruction, there are a number of students who may need either more time or more intensity of instruction to achieve grade level.
That is what the level 2, small group, interventions are for- additional time and attention. I do level 2 math interventions, but my school does not use an artificial 20% cut-off. I only work with students who are not progressing at level 1, which in our school, is probably 5% of the population. In my experience, the level 2 kids often are ones who have behavior that keeps them from focusing their attention in large groups, have low intelligence (not PC to point out- but some kids just take a LOT of repetition to learn), or will eventually be diagnosed with a learning disability. If level 2 interventions don't work, then kids often are tested for learning disabilities and go on to level 3 interventions, one-on-one.
It is actually a fantastic model that can save districts a lot of money by preventing kids from being diagnosed with disabilities that they do not have. The problem comes in when you don't have excellent level 1 programs and/or you arbitrarily decide that a certain percentage of students needs to be at level 2 regardless of whether or not they could learn in a whole group situation with excellent instruction.
It is too bad that RTI done poorly is probably going to doom this as another failed waste of money, when done well it would be exactly the opposite and really does help kids who are struggling for legitimate reasons.

Liz Ditz said...

Hmmn. What does "struggling reader" mean?

One predictor of later difficulty with reading (or "dyslexia) is difficulty with Rapid Automatic Naming.

Even when the individual has learned to read and is reading at an age-appropriate level (ie, rate & comprehension) the difficulties with RAN remain.

The RAN disparity may be a proxy for processing speed issues or something else.

So I am thinking of the well-remediated students with dyslexia who are reading and writing at grade-level or above....whose intake (reading rate) and output (verbal or written response) is still slower than peers.

This is a serious question: Are these still "struggling readers"?. If no, then perhaps a rate of say <2% is possible. If yes, I think a higher rate would be necessary.