Reading Between the Lines: Madison Was Right to Reject Compromised Program

Jason Shephard:

From the beginning, Mary Watson Peterson had doubts about the motivations of those in charge of implementing federal education grants known as Reading First. As the Madison district’s coordinator of language arts and reading, she spent hundreds of hours working on Madison’s Reading First grant proposal.
“Right away,” she says, “I recognized a big philosophical difference” between Madison’s reading instruction and the prescriptive, commercially produced lessons advocated by Reading First officials. “The exchange of ideas with the technical adviser ran very counter to what we believe are best practices in teaching.”
The final straw was when the district was required to draft daily lesson plans to be followed by all teachers at the same time.
“We’ve got 25,000 kids who are in 25,000 different places,” says Superintendent Art Rainwater. The program’s insistence on uniformity “fundamentally violated everything we believe about teaching children.”
In October 2004, Rainwater withdrew Madison from the federal grant program, losing potentially $3.2 million even as the district was cutting personnel and programs to balance its budget. Rainwater’s decision, made without input from the school board, drew intense criticism and became an issue in last year’s board elections.

From a public policy perspective, the School Board should have discussed the $3.2M, particularly given the annual agony over very small changes in the District’s $333M+ budget.
The further concern over a one size fits all Reading First requirement (“We’ve got 25,000 kids who are in 25,000 different places,” says Superintendent Art Rainwater.) is ironic, given the push toward just that across the District (West’s English 10 [Bruce King’s English 9 report] and the recently proposed changes at East High School).
Barb Williams noted that other “blessed by the District” curriculum are as scripted as Reading First in a December, 2004 letter to Isthmus. More here via Ed Blume and here via Ruth Robarts.
It will be interesting to see what Diana Schemo has to say about Reading First.

15 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines: Madison Was Right to Reject Compromised Program”

  1. It’s not even worth debating or commenting on the half-truths and revisionist history promoted by the MMSD administration.
    One piece of truth lies in Rainwater’s comment that the MMSD’s curriculum is based on his BELIEF about how children learn, which is the whole language belief that children learn to read just as children learn to talk — an anology — a BELIEF not proven by research.
    Another piece of truth lies in the MMSD administration’s management of the district to minimize outside influence — from parents, taxpayers, federal government, and any and all people outside of the Doyle building.
    Hundreds of Madison children each year will fail to learn to read as long as the superintendent bases the MMSD’s curriculum on his BELIEFS, not scientific research or data even produced by the MMSD, such as the MMSD’s own data that shows the failure of Reading Recovery, another program based on beliefs, not science.

  2. I agree that discussion of reading curriculum is never worth debating or commenting on for the same reason that one should never debate and discuss religion — neither is based on rationale thought, and certainly not basic science. Generally the discussion is gibberish.
    Reading Recover, Direct Instruction (or direct instruction), Success For All, Reading First, Whole Language, Phonics — advocated with religious fervor, each side declares heresy if one fails to genuflect to the given idol.
    Yes, Reading Recovery research is biased. There are no control groups, the RR teachers are the researchers, basic research was done by RR advocates.
    Success For All is fully scripted with teachers required to follow the lesson texts without variation as though it were some magical incantation or the word of some god. Same research problems as RR.
    Direct instruction is divided into two sects: Direction Instruction (with capital DI), and direction instruction (with small di). Which is the cult of witches and which is the True Believers I haven’t figured out yet.
    The fraud committed by the Reading First advocates at DOE is beyond denial. Read the report not only for the legal fraud and bias, but to truly understand the character of the educational researchers who participated in the fraud and self-dealing for their personal benefit.
    The research of these “scientists” should also be considered fraudulent, because nothing in their character would prevent them from doing so, and research in education is generally extraordinarily sloppy.

  3. What a thought, “kids don’t learn the same way”. Well, of course, and of course, different kids will have different levels of skills in different areas that are necessary or useful for becoming a good reader, good writer, good mathematician, good scientists, good historian (at the age-appropriate level).
    Kids may differ in way they learn but of course, each kid tends to pick up different skills and exercise those thinking skills more or less. But, of couse, the current religion these days in “the way we learn” is Howard Gardiner’s.
    But I completely disagree with Howard Gardiner’s “Mulitple Intellegiences” and the leaps of faith required to justify his conclusions. Of course, there is no empirical evidence to justify his ever-flexible categorizations of “intelligences”. He would have sold a lot less books and become a lot less famous if the book had been entitled “Multiple Skill Levels”. He used the word “intelligence” in the title because he is pulling a con-job.
    Leaps of faith are required to come to his absurd conclusions that therefore schools should offer “individual-centered education”, with curriculum tailored to the specific needs of each child. Such a program is impossible to do and prohibitively expensive to attempt (it would truly require that each kid get their own private tutor!), and results in wasted efforts to label the kid as having, say, “linguistic” intelligence and developng his training based on that label, rather than improving his/her skills in the math, spatial, or whatever other fanciful category Gardiner and others can come up with and label “intelligence”.
    Here’s a radical idea. Teach the subject matter, age appropriate, in ways that “experts” in the subject think about such matters. By necessity, that includes “lecturing”, “reading”, “diagraming”, “hands-on”, “acting-out”, “real-world connections”. Kids will vary is how well they see and can use the information. Don’t diagram if it makes no sense, use “acting-out” lab if it makes sense. Some kids will perform better than others, so help those overcome their weaknesses in making a diagram, or writing, or reading when it should be helpful in learning the particular material.
    This is just common sense teaching. It is not rocket science, requiring a vast support network of staff, a theoretically-based curriculum specially designed for each kid, or a vast cadre of clueless researchers.

  4. ALL knowledge and skills essential to reading are essential for ALL learners, regardless of how they supposedly learn. Absolutely every proficient reader must master all of the following:
    a. Phonemic awareness: hearing the separate sounds and syllables in words and words in sentences;
    b. Alphabetic principle: knowing which sounds go with which letters; using knowledge of which sounds go with which letters to sound out or decode words;
    c. Fluency: reading words and connected text quickly and accurately;
    d. Vocabulary: knowing the meanings of words;
    e. Comprehension: making sense of text.
    Every “school” of reading instruction agrees on these five, whether the schools are Direct Instruction or constructivist (whole language and balance literacy).
    However, direct instruction makes certain that every child masters every skill. Direct instruction leaves nothing to chance.
    On the other hand, constructivist theory lets the child “discover” these five skills. Consequently, some children will discover them all; some will discover some of them; some may not discover any of them.
    In short, learning is too important to be left to chance.

  5. Ed and Larry,
    Pardon me for blending my thoughts on separate points that you have made….Yes, I would agree that certain distinct skills are critical for all readers to develop. Where I would differ is with the conclusion that therefore all children should recieve Direct Instruction. I don’t think that it takes a bunch of 1:1 tutors to provide differentiated instruction, and I think it is a waste of everyone’s time try and fit the same approach to every student. That not all students will do equally well under similar circumstances is a given. I do not, however, believe that it is a given that we accept that and just be done with it. Many of the interventions that get at different learning styles are easy to provide and have powerful impacts on student achievement. Much of the literature around the education of Talented and Gifted students speaks to the importance of allowing students to utilize their strengths. It does not suggest (nor do I interpret Multiple Intelligences to suggest) that students do not also need to be educated in skill areas that are more challenging for them.
    For the record, I would personally try D.I. before any other form of instruction for a student who lacked phonemic awareness or was struggling with other aspects of decoding texts. I use it regularly in my own practice to attack those problems. However, for students who are proficient decoders, I would not choose to use Direct Instruction, and would resist the use of it with my daughter, who was reading fluently long before she entered the school system. Further, despite my belief in its strength as a teaching tool, there is no student for whom I would I recommend Direct Instruction be the only reading instruction that they recieve. While many of the materials are entertaining, they don’t allow for adequate teaching of genre or text features, nor do they provide enough opportunity for students to select books by interest.
    On a final note, I would suggest that one of the greatest benefits of understanding learning styles/multiple intelligences is in the area of assessment. By providing different ways for students to demonstrate learning, we get a much more accurate picture of what they have actually learned. If I am assessing what a student knows in a content area, I want to isolate that learning as best I can. That is difficult to do if I am asking that they demonstrate their learning via a process that inhibits the breadth and depth of their response.

  6. I agree with TeacherL, differing only in use of D.I. instead of d.i.
    D.I. is a cult, d.i. is one of many approaches to teaching that, given a kid’s (or set of kids’) current needs, might be most appropriate at the specific time for learning specific material — that is, as part of the general dialog one has with students during a teaching session.
    However, the learning style/multiple intelligences approach even to assessment likely is flawed, if the result is that you assess that the students have actually learned the material when they can only demonstrate it using one of the learning styles. If they can not show mastery using other styles (when they are appropriate to the material) then I would say they have not actually mastered the material!
    For example, if the student is being assessed on mastery of addition, and he/she can only demonstrate it using his/her musical intelligence, I will go to the wall in saying the student has not mastered the subject.
    I would also argue the teacher wasted resources in coming up with a teaching approach and assessment which they claim can demonstrate mastery of addition using music. The same is true if interpersonal or intrapersonal intelligences were substituted for music.
    I would go further. Howard Gardiner seems to claim that if a kid cannot memorize the addition table easily, the child needs help to learn it through one of the other intelligence approaches or that his/her intelligence is outside of math, rather than the truth that the kid simply did not to put in the effort and repetitions necessary to learn it. This is not a learning style issue, but the issue of not appreciating the work necessary to learn — the work necessary to learn anything.
    So instead of teaching the kid the addition table (requiring only repetition and memorization), one places the kid into the “not good in math” track and relegates his future to destitution.
    This learning style/multiple intelligence approach is gibberish. Every accomplished learner and problem solver has one defining set of common characteristics — they use many different approaches to understanding, they don’t have inflexible learning styles, they are careful and not sloppy thinkers, they’re concerned with accuracy, they understand that different material may require different approaches.
    Teachers who buy into Gardiner, et al, or D.I, or whole language or phonics primarily and districts which force teachers to teach accordingly, do positive harm.
    Instead of demonstrating the characteristics of good problem solvers, such teachers and districts model those characteristics of people who do not learn.

  7. Direct Instruction with caps refers to the curricula of publisher SRA and researcher/author Zig Engelmann.
    The term direct instruction generically refers to a wide variety of curricula using direct, systematic instruction, such as Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading, Slingerland, Open Court, and others.
    SRA Direct Instruction includes beginning reading all the way through writing. It also includes math, history, and science, as well as spelling and morphographs (the smallest unit of meaning, like prefixes).
    Language for Learning is probably one of the strongest of all the Direct Instruction curricula. According to the SRA Web site it “helps develop strong language skills and give young children and ESL students a solid foundation for literacy. Not only do students learn language skills, they also learn to think.”
    I encourage people to visit SRA’s Web site and learn more about Direct Instruction and get a fuller feel for what it is, because it is much more than beginning reading. See

  8. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize D.I. as a cult any more than any other curriculum or approach in which people overinvest. The D.I. materials are very well designed and very effective when used skillfully–but like all other materials and/or approaches, they do not meet all needs equally well and do not meet some needs at all. When you refer to direct instruction (little d, little i), I’m assuming you are referring to explicit instruction vs. a constructivist approach? I would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive and that good instruction is the combining of explicit instruction with consistent opportunities for higher level (divergent) thinking. I would also suggest that good instruction can only be delivered when instructors frequently watch the way in which their students approach learning tasks and problems. What we teach explicitly should be rooted in assessment and in understanding of how different students think. This goes back to the learning style question. For instance, when a student is asked to “show their work”, that does not mean the same thing for each student. However, it is likely that students will need explicit instruction as to how to record their thinking so that it is accessible to others. Some students naturally think in arrow language, some think in diagrams, some think by relationship to other problems.
    As to deciding on mastery by singing vs. writing down an answer. That wasn’t exactly what I meant when I talked about assessment. However, if I have a student who consistently makes errors on written tests but is completely accurate when tested orally, I need to know that. That tells me as a teacher that I am wasting my time reviewing material they already know when what I really need to be teaching them is how to demonstrate in writing what they already know. Looking at my own children, there is no question in my mind that learning style is significant. My children respond to and absorb information in completely different ways–they also demonstrate their understanding of things in different ways. To say that there is one “right” way to provide instruction means choosing which of them I think should be successful in school and which I think should simply do “ok”. Why, when both are capable of excelling, would I want to make that choice? Why would I want anyone else to make that choice for them?

  9. TeacherL is making my point for the most part. Advocating for a particular approach, D.I, d.i., phonics, whole language, constructive, etc is always a problem because such advocacy is exclusionary.
    I disagree with the use of the word “naturally” as in “naturally think in language, diagrams, relationship (analogies). “Naturally” explicitly implies “born with”, “genetically unalterable” and other such phrases — as we would refer to being naturally left or right handed. I absolutely reject the notion that most people are so hardwired just because there exist savants that seem to be.
    I invented showing mastery of the addition table by singing to illustrate the absurdity of Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences and his prescriptions.
    The example of the student who makes errors on written tests but shows mastery orally and the conclusion that therefore you would be wasting your time reviewing material he/she already knows illustrates a problem, though the oral assessment vs written was only a hypothetical.
    Oral assessments are particularly prone to misreading. Parapsychology experiments are prototypical examples of showing mastery where none exist, as are skills in “cold reading”, which all of us are more of less good at.
    Okay, try smiling (a very small smile) when the student is on the track of giving of wrong answer, and frown (just a little frown) when the kid is on the right answer path; will they show mastery then? Other subtle behaviors of a teacher during an oral assessment work just as well.
    In an oral assessment, is the depth of “mastery” probed? Is the teacher willing to accept ambiguous answers as right? When the answer is on the right track, are additional leading questions asked that directs the student to a better, more cogent answer?
    Does the student have problems breaking the test questions into small parts? Does the oral assessment sequence the questions so this weakness does not present itself?
    That is, does oral mastery actually show mastery? Are you probing for just “mastery” or probing to diagnose where the thinking weaknesses are?
    There is no question in my mind that learning style is insignificant, and must be made so, else the teacher and curriculum has failed miserably.
    Information comes to us in many forms: verbally, graphically, through experience, from books, in museums, in conversations. This information must be absorbed regardless of the modality. It must be worked to understand.
    If an article contains a detailed description of a cell with no diagrams, the kid must be able to make a simple diagram of the cell, its wall, and nucleus, and organelles, regardless of the kid’s “learning style”. If the article contains only a diagram, the kid must be able to create a list of the objects seen, verbalize it, place the objects in a hierarchy where appropriate (what’s in the nucleus, what’s outside, etc), regardless of learning style. Each way gives a different perspective on the information, highlighting some parts, and hiding others.
    Relegating a kid to a learning style means relegating a kid to missing significant knowledge that different perspectives will give. And relegating a kid to a particular learning style keeps a kid from learning how to learn, how to work a problem, how to work for understanding.
    Relegating a kid to a learning style eliminates ready access to subject matter that is primarily delivered through modalities he/she is less comfortable with, because the teacher and school spoon-feed the kid using only the modality that conformed to his/her “learning style”.
    Learning styles and multiple intelligences views, as currently expressed and implemented, are dangerous gibberish.
    Teaching and practicing presentation and interpretation of information in different ways and teaching mental flexibility for all kids equally (rejecting the idea of hardwired learning style) is the only possible rationale approach.

  10. Larry said: Advocating for a particular approach, D.I, d.i., phonics, whole language, constructive, etc is always a problem because such advocacy is exclusionary.
    That’s not at all true. As a student moves through the day, he or she will certainly get reading instruction in whole language, balanced literacy, and constructivist methods, no matter what primary curriculum might be used.

  11. Thanks, Ed.
    I am using the term “advocacy” here, not strictly saying that a primary approach when implemented will exclude other approaches; though that is a strong likelihood, and that the primary approach will be used regardless of its effectiveness.
    However, books and other materials chosen for a primary approach do seem to, for the most part, deliver the material to the exclusion of other approaches. Teachers who understand the need for flexible approaches do not get support from such materials nor from schools and districts who buy into a given fad.
    The CMP math curriculum does not contain material that supports basic math skills, it doesn’t support repetition. CMP does introduce wonderful math concepts such as scaling, statistics and uses “real world” problems to get at them, but the curriculum is purely constructionist, heavily verbal (English) and does not support a direct instruction approach (not scripted) where a teacher can illustrate the approaches that an “expert” would take to solve a problem. And it suffers from mile-wide-inch-deep.
    CMP also fails to address the language of math and fails to give kids the practice in manipulating that language and its symbols.
    Saxon math has good points covering basic math, but with a formulaistic approach to repetition. The topic and chapter sequencing seems irrational, and unrelated to prior topics. And, the books used for each grade level hardly seem to change as one moves from the 5th grade material to the 8th grade material — seems to be the same book to me, with no push toward increasing math conceptualizations. It is also a mile-wide-inch-deep.
    Singapore math leaves me with a similar concerns.
    When I’ve reviewed material and websites advocating an approach, only that approach is addressed. It’s all PR and a desire to make as much money as possible without regard to whether education is improved.
    The education industry and food/diet industry are the same.
    The food industry produces primarily junk food, but they often say (in very small print) “when part of a balanced diet”, to support how good that junk food is for you. There are exceptions.
    I have in front of me “Post Healthy Classics Frosted Shredded Wheat”. Now, they don’t even acknowledge that this junk food item should be used in moderation as part of a balanced diet. They advocate it to replace a balanced diet. “Choose 2 meals a day and replace each with a serving of [Frosted Shredded Wheat], 1/2 cup of fat free milk, and 1/2 cup of fruit.” Can you say “obese” and “diabetes”?
    Education advocates also do not push their approaches as part of balanced diet. They do not acknowledge that their approach should be used in moderation (where effective). Can you say “incompetent” and “illerate”?

  12. With a direct instruction reading curriculum, it will always be used in moderation, as I said, because balanced literacy, whole language, constructivist approaches to reading will always be used throughout a child’s day. Though I can’t speak from first-hand knowledge, I suspect the same could probably be said for math if the primary math instruction is direct, systematic, and explicit.
    The greatest problem is when a child gets no instruction that’s direct, systematic, and explicit. Then, no one knows for certain whether the child acquires the basic skills necessary to master reading or math.
    You should also consider that most curricula other than direction instruction curricula do not teach “to mastery.” In direct instruction, lessons do not proceed until the student learns a skill completely and solidly in any and all contexts.
    In balanced literacy and whole language, by contrast, a teacher might teach the “d” sound “in a teachable moment” for an individual student but that’s far from teaching the sound to mastery to all students. Anything other than direct, systematic, explicit instruction leaves the learning to chance.

  13. Ed,
    I don’t think it is an automatic that students get other approaches to reading when a class/school/district uses a D.I. curriculum–although I agree that that SHOULD be the case. D.I. lessons are fairly lengthy, especially once you get beyond Reading Mastery A. Providing other types of reading in addition to the D.I. requires the class/school/district to commit to and allot time for that to occur. We have had to take time from other things in order to provide all the types of reading instruction and experience that we think our students need.
    The same is true of math curriculum. As Larry pointed out, most have strengths and weaknesses–there is not a miracle curriculum that will meet all of our needs.
    I think that this is the strongest argument for standards based education. When the standards, (rather than a particular curriculum) drive instruction, it is more likely that teachers will draw from different materials to address different learning goals or (although I know Larry will disagree with me here 🙂 ), different learning styles.
    I would agree that all students deserve a planful, systematic and logical progression of instruction. However, I think that that is what standards should (and do) provide; and that in addition those standards, teachers need easy access to a variety of strong resources (including D.I.!) that can help meet those standards.

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