Education Today: Politics, Profits,
Position, Power, and Prejudice
Position, Power, and Prejudice
by Sharman Burson Ramsey
The time has passed when rhetoric and "current wisdom" will suffice for research and results in judging the validity of an educational program. Too many Alabama school children have fallen victim to the tragedy of compassionate child-centered education and the agendas of high-priced consultants with costly solutions for the problems produced by the last wave of high-priced consultants. We are now beset with a new batch of consultants riding the high tech wave into those states with large numbers of disadvantaged children who translate into more federal dollars.
One such high tech panacea is the IBM Writing to Read programs that Dr. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University reviewed in an article for Phi Delta Kappan entitled "IBM's Writing to Read: Is it Right for Reading?"(1) Slavin reports that the first year cost is between $20,000 and $24,000 per lab. This does not include aides to manage the lab, or costs of maintenance, security, insurance, or consumable materials. Despite the cost, the program is being adopted by those that seem least able to afford the program, such as: Atlanta, Baltimore, Tulsa, Nashville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., Mississippi, and now Alabama.
Unfortunately, the test results continue to prove that high expenditures do not translate into high academic performance. There has not been a perceptible increase in the reading scores of those localities since publication of the article in 1990. My own school district, Dothan City Schools, installed IBM computers two years ago when 27 percent of second graders could make only a minimal or no measurable response on the Reading Comprehension portion of the Alabama Integrated Reading and Writing Assessment. Now after two years using the IBM Writing to Read, 30 percent can make only a minimal or no measurable response, a continuing increase in illiteracy and an expensive mistake as our board now faces over a $1 million expected shortfall in funds.
While the IBM Writing to Read program claims to be a phonics program, its lack of direct, systematic instruction in phonics and follow-up of the rules of our language, as well as its use of inventive spelling betray its Whole Language reality. The teacher's instructional manual for the IBM Writing to Read program dispels any doubt as to its being Whole Language. Blatantly spouting the Whole Language philosophy, it reads: "The transition to standard spelling does not need to be specifically 'taught.' Rather, it is a natural process similar to the speech refinement we observe in children as they progress from babbling to speaking with correct pronunciation."(2)
With IBM's Writing to Read, children are encouraged to spell the word "face" as "fas." Children are not taught that the "e" at the end of the word turns on the long sound of the "a," and the c uses its second sound (s) because when "c" comes before e, i, or y it sounds like an "s." Rather, the IBM manual states, "Premature insistence that students use standard or correct spelling inhibits their desires and abilities to write."(3) Contrary to that assumption, when Dr. Sylvia Farnham-Diggory reviewed direct instructional, phonics intensive Spalding Writing Road to Reading, she found eager students who developed early analytical skills through phonetic analysis. She discovered they applied those skills to math and scored higher in math as well as reading.(4)
California has acknowledged the devastating effects of Whole Language on their state. They recently tied for last in the nation in reading on the NAEP. "And the NAEP found that at least 30% of students who have spent from four to 13 years in school aren't even semiliterate."(5) Yet, Alabama continues to use its own scarce education dollars for another expensive educational gadget based on failed theory.
Slavin's evaluation of the IBM program states that while an effect size of .25 is considered significant, the IBM Writing to Read produces only a .00 effect. The same study shows the systematic, intensive, and direct phonics program, Alphaphonics (now Kite), scoring consistently with a .89 effect and costing only $130 per classroom to train the teacher and equip the class. One wonders at administrators' eagerness to spend great sums on an ineffective gimmick. But, grants and federal funding make this tempting technology accessible to impoverished school districts. Then, in spite of gleaming new computer labs, they are no better off academically than before. In fact, with the high cost of upkeep putting demands on scarce local funds, the new technology actually prevents districts from contracting with those companies with successful methods to produce literate children. As one principal put it, "We've got too much invested in this to change."
The tragedy is we have known for years what works. While Secretary of Education, William Bennett reported on a comprehensive study of what works in elementary education in the government publication, First Lessons. But, as John Stossel reported recently on "20/20," only one percent of America's schools use the method supported by research.(6)
Slavin's exposition of the IBM Writing to Read program reinforces the research findings of Project Follow Through, a competition of methodologies involving 70,000 low IQ, disadvantaged children over a four year period. The results are reported in Making Schools More Effective: New Directions from Follow Through. (7) The most effective program entered in the competition by far is Distar, developed by Siegfried Englemann, who was featured in the "20/20" segment done by John Stossel.(8)
Ironically, as we face skyrocketing juvenile crime, Distar is reported in Advances in Clinical Child Psychology to be "distinctively prevention oriented." Its authors go on to report that it "minimizes the possibility of individual problems arising in the first place"(9) by displacing "the reading performance of disadvantaged children from the lowest percentiles to the norm on standardized reading test."(10)This is confirmed by studies conducted by the Justice Department.(11)
"60 Minutes" revisited Marva Collins' West End Preparatory School after 16 years to follow up on the 34 students they had originally featured.(12) Those methods considered preventive for potential psychological problems in Distar have brought Marva Collins' "at risk," "disadvantaged" students academic success and personal fulfillment. . .and have confirmed their usefulness as a preventive for juvenile crime. Her students score consistently in the 99th percentile, police have never been called to her school, and there has not been one teenage pregnancy.(13) The Justice Department acknowledges the effectiveness of this type of education as a deterrent to crime by supporting Marva Collins' School.
Yet, in spite of the amazing results of Distar in Project Follow Through, in 1984 the Department of Education ignored its own study and gave sociologist William Spady a mandate to put Outcome Based Education in schools across the nation. Since that time our colleges of education have promoted self-directed learning, individualized instruction, and social intervention, building blocks of Outcome Based Education. These concepts are the basis for the current politically correct, but factually incorrect, assumption that children are illiterate because they are victims of society and therefore society must be fixed so that "all children can begin school ready to learn," a basic premise of Goals 2000. In fact, Project Follow Through proved that "good will, people, material, the Hawthorne effect, health programs, dental programs, and hot lunch programs do not cause gains in achievement. All Follow Through sponsored programs had these components, but all models did not achieve similar levels of success in basic instruction."(14)
It is little wonder the results of Project Follow Through have been ignored by the NEA and its alter ego, the Department of Education. It does not fit their agenda as set forth in the 1995 NEA Resolutions.
Sharman Burson Ramsey has been a teacher in public and private schools.
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