A question for Tom & Neal Gleason

I’ve asked you, Neal Gleason and others, but all of you avoid the question. Let’s try one more time.
Do you believe a 50%-60% success rate for Reading Recovery is about all that can be achieved because 1) some students just can’t learn or 2) no one knows how to teach struggling first graders or 3) the MMSD doesn’t know how to teach those first graders?

21 thoughts on “A question for Tom & Neal Gleason”

  1. Dear Ed,
    When Madison “sees the light” on RR, you can move to Newport and start over. Check this out.
    “We are going to have free preschool for all 3 and 4 year old students in our district, whether they qualify for ABC or not,” Shannon said.”We are also going to have a before school and after school program for preschool.”
    According to Shannon, parents will have the option to bring their children to school at 6:30 a.m. and pick them up at 5:30 p.m. for a nominal fee.”
    “Shannon continued, “Our philosophy has kind of been to load up on Title 1 monies and we use that for Math Recovery and Reading Recovery and we try to get every child by the fourth grade on grade level. It is so much easier to remediate someone at an early age.”
    With regard to preschool, I reminded of Huxley’s Brave New World:
    “Try to imagine what ‘living with one’s family’ meant.”
    They tried; but obviously without the smallest success.
    “And do you know what a ‘home’ was?”
    They shook their heads.
    I also get amusement from the statement that they will get the kids to grade level “by the 4th grade”.
    When will this type of thinking go away?

  2. Mr. Blume –
    In a recent thread [Not to Worry…, July 28], you asked the following question:
    “Do you think the academic performance of students of color (and their absence in honors classes) arises because 1) students of color aren’t smart enough 2) because the MMSD doesn’t do enough to teach them, or 3) what the MMSD does is ineffective?”
    In this thread, you offer the same set of simple choices regarding Reading Recovery. Your bottom line, like virtually all your posts to this blog, is to criticize the Madison schools.
    I would refer you to the previous thread, a New York Times article (“It Takes More Than Schools to Close Achievement Gap”, August 9) that offers a range of views on the roots of the achievement gap between poor students of color and middle-income students. I infer from this long-running national debate that academic performance is more complicated than the simple choices offered by your question. My personal experience with a particular MMSD student impresses me that academic achievement is anything but straightforward.
    I would also note that I am not a professional teacher. Helping 3 kids through high school and coaching soccer and chess for 20 years have exposed my amateur teaching skills as modest. I know well the fallacy of the common belief that, because I read well, I also know how to teach reading. As a result, in matters of pedagogy, I strive to heed the advice of Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
    This long-winded answer to your question boils down to: the achievement gap and Reading Recovery are complicated issues…and how the heck would I know.
    My experience raising 3 MMSD graduates and many years as a volunteer in elementary and high school leads me to value Madison’s public schools, despite their imperfections. As a result, I steadfastly disagree with people on this blog whose single-minded focus is to criticize MMSD and impugn the motives of its administrators, principals and teachers.
    If just a fraction of that critical energy were redirected into positive work directly with kids, Madison would be a better place.

  3. Ed (please call me TJ)
    Here is what I wrote in response to this same (or a very similar) question recently:
    “On Reading Recovery, although I’ve looked and asked I have yet to see good data that indicates a high likelihood that the population served by reading recovery would have a significantly higher success rate in other programs. I believe in high expectations but recognize that despite the best intentions, research, programs and expectations there are some students who will not meet the expectations, will not be “successes”. I’m not saying to write them off as a group or individuals, we have to keep trying. I am saying that with some groups of students targeted for remediation 50-60% success rates look pretty good to most people. I know we disagree.”
    Among you choices, I would say that the answer is that no one “knows” what will work with any given child till they try it. Madison uses Reading Recovery extensively and other programs or approaches also. The 50-60% percent “success” rate is relatively high for a remediation program, so that means to me that it is working. I don’t believe that MMSD gives up students that Reading Recovery does not work for, they try other things and that is what they should do. Am I happy that 100% of children cannot be listed as successes? No, but this isn’t Lake Wobegon, it is the real world.
    Since we are repeating questions, can you point me in the direction of peer reviewed research that demonstrates that another program working with a similar population would achieve better results? I’d be glad to look at it and it may even bring me to your side.
    I am also not an expert in reading instruction, but I do know how to evaluate research designs and I do know how to read statistics. I also have read the work of many reading researchers and two things seem to be pretty clear. The first is that no program or approach can promise any results for any particular student. The pragmatic thing is to try one with a good track record and if that doesn’t work try another or a blend of multiple approaches (you may be surprised to hear that the resistance of Reading Recovery to blending other approaches bothers me too). The second is (I repeat) that a 50-60% success rate looks pretty good.

  4. Ed
    I forgot to thank you for respecting my desire to have this discussion separate from the referendum posts.

  5. TJ,
    I’ll post some Web sites with reading research over the weekend.
    I separated the Reading Recovery issue from the referendum just so you’d talk about Reading Recovery, and I’m glad that you admit that you’re willing to settled for the 50% – 60% success rate. I’m not, so I’ll keep Reading Recovery on the agenda for discussion.
    Despite dividing the question for you, the entirety of the district’s performance is on the ballot. In other words, do voters want to spend more money on a system with low expectations for student performance; plans to continue dumbing down the curriculum; a constant drive to eliminate successful programs, like strings; unwillingness to commit to successful programs, like Read 180; mismanagement of budgeted funds; hostility toward parent and teacher input, etcetera, etcetera? For all of those reasons and many more, I give the referendum little chance of passage.

  6. TJM,
    You said re: RR “A 50-60% success rate looks pretty good”
    Then why not use a program that will get the same percent results but can be used to help many more….like volunteers.
    By your statement you unintentionally said it is OK to waste money

  7. David Maister has an interesting post on decision making:
    Michael Lovaglia, (a professor at the University of Iowa) proposed Lovaglia’s Law: “The more important the outcome of a decision, the more people will resist using evidence to make it.
    Bob discusses this, and agrees that, the more consequential the outcome, the more power, greed, stress and irrationality come into play in influencing how people react and how individual and collective decisions are made.
    Well worth reading:

  8. TJ,
    You might want to read some basic descriptions of Reading Recovery so that you have some notion of how it works before you begin to look at research on its effectiveness. Here’s one site with a description of the lessons: http://connwww.iu5.org/cvelem/RR/index.html. You can easily find a zillion more with your favorite search engine.
    At a broad theoretical level, I recommend “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential,
    and Inquiry-Based Teaching” at http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/Constructivism_Kirschner_Sweller_Clark1.pdf. It doesn’t say a thing about Reading Recovery but gives you an understanding of how the brain learns some types of information and reviews a long list of research to support its main thesis that the brain learns best (at least for novice learners) with direct (not indirect) instruction because the brain’s short-term memory cannot accomplish what indirect instruction demands. You can get a more general view of the cognitive overload theory used in the above article at:
    With this background, I’m not going to give you any citations for research on effective direct instruction in reading. I’m going to let you use the indirect method (which underlies Reading Recovery and balanced literature and most instruction these days). The indirect method carries many labels:
    “The minimally guided approach has been called by various names including
    discovery learning (Bruner, 1961; Anthony, 1973); problem-based learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Schmidt, 1983), inquiry learning (Papert, 1980; Rutherford, 1964), experiential learning (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Kolb & Fry, 1975) and constructivist learning (Jonassen, 1991; Steffe & Gale, 1995).” From the article above on minimal guidance.
    The proposed Studio School describes the indirect constructivist approach this way:
    “In the field of education there has been growing interest in a constructivist approach to education. With this approach children construct their own knowledge in collaboration with other adults and children. It is a social experience. Constructivist learning theory asserts that each child constructs knowledge while engaging in meaningful learning activities that deepen understanding. Each individual’s construction of knowledge is the result of complex interactions between new information, individual temperaments, learning styles, interests, abilities, life experiences, and physical capabilities. . . . The role of the teacher will be to listen carefully as children reveal their interests and then link them in compelling ways to academic bodies of knowledge (e.g., science, language arts, math). (http://www.madisonstudioschool.org/vision.html)
    So, take it away. Put terms like direct instruction, Reid Lyon, Reading Mastery, National Institutes of Health, Zig Engelmann, and Melissa Farrall into your favorite search engine, and you’ll find a wealth of research on the ineffectiveness of Reading Recovery and the effectiveness of direct instruction.
    Also remember, your search is a “social experience,” so post often with what you’re finding and I’ll “listen carefully” and link you “in compelling ways to academic bodies of knowledge” on reading and brain function.

  9. Ed
    To paraphrase the key parts of this exchange (and if I am mistaken, please correct).
    We start with the premise (we all agree is true?) that Reading Recovery in MMSD has a 50-60% success rate.
    You expressed real concern for the 40-50% of students that are not successes in Reading Recovery and asked me (and Neil Gleason) to pick from three explanations.
    I’ll leave Mr. Gleason’s response to the side, and just say that I (with some caveats and observations) picked a version of one of your choices by saying “no one”knows” what will work with any given child till they try it.”
    I also asked you for “can you point me in the direction of peer reviewed research that demonstrates that another program working with a similar population would achieve better results?” in the context that means better than 50-60%.
    Your direct to this response to this request was: “I’m not going to give you any citations for research on effective direct instruction in reading.” Instead you provided some general background citations and some citations about what is worng with “indirect instuction,” and a suggestion that I do some research myself on what is right about Direct Instruction.
    Does this mean that you can’t find the research I asked for or that you can and are keeping it secret?
    As I said before: “On Reading Recovery, although I’ve looked and asked I have yet to see good data that indicates a high likelihood that the population served by reading recovery would have a significantly higher success rate in other programs. I believe in high expectations but recognize that despite the best intentions, research, programs and expectations there are some students who will not meet the expectations, will not be “successes””. I’ve done the searches and research already Ed, my conclusion is the “with some groups of students targeted for remediation 50-60% success rates look pretty good to most people.” I willing to accept that there probably are many things in reading instruction research that I am not aware of, that there may well be programs out there that will give better results than Reading Recovery has achieved in Madison, I’m willing to change my mind and champion a change, but not based on anything here. I already knew most of this.
    So again Ed: “can you point me in the direction of peer reviewed research that demonstrates that another program working with a similar population would achieve better results? I’d be glad to look at it and it may even bring me to your side.”

  10. TJ,
    My purposeful refusal to give you citations was a bit frustrating, I suspect, because I was telling you what a teacher using an indirect method would tell a student. The teacher would be saying something like this in his or her head: “TJ has an interest in the topic of effective reading instruction. He seems motivated and willing to do some exploration. He has prior knowledge on how to seek out research and evaluate it. I’ll give him some general guidance, then I’ll let him find the research and construct his own meaning. If I were to give TJ my choice of citations, I’d be giving him my construction of the meaning of the research and deny him the opportunity to do an authentic task. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”
    What’s wrong with responding this way, TJ? This is the methodology, as I said, of Reading Recovery, balanced literature, and all the other student-directed methodologies.
    Now to stop playing around. Did you read the articles I suggested? Teaching reading damn near approaches rocket science, because effective instruction must be based on how the brain works. Please read them. They are excellent foundations to understand the specific research on reading.
    I’ll post references on Sunday.

  11. Ed
    I am not your student and your cute game is not amusing. You defined the topic as Reading Recovery in the Madison Schools, I gave you an honest answer and asked a question, and you ignored the question, patronized me and changed the subject. Not amusing, not respectful and not productive. You are correct that I am frustrated, but wrong about why.
    No Ed, I am frustrated because you didn’t believe me when I said I’d looked for evidence of a remediation program or method that has a good chance of producing better results than MMSD has achieved with Reading Recovery, I am frustrated that you don’t recall previous exchanges that demonstrate that I am familiar with the criticisms of “direct instruction,” and the criticisms of Reading Recovery and the strengths and weaknesses of these and a host of other programs, as well as the strengths, weaknesses and abuse of the NIH study, the works of Zig Engelmann, Reid Lyon and many more in your camp (and also those like Gerald Coles and Richard Allington and many more on the other side) and the politics and history of the “reading wars,” I’ve already done exactly what you asked before I wrote my first word on literacy instruction. My conclusion that the “50-60% rate looks pretty good” was based on exactly the type of reading widely in the field (or if you prefer “indirect instruction”) you recommended. You didn’t respect that my conclusion was based on a consideration of the evidence. That is frustrating.
    What is more frustrating is reading your repeated criticism of Reading Recovery (this time you give cites of others criticizing) and continual criticism of MMSD and Art Rainwater for saying that they will stick with a remediation program (Reading Recovery) with a 50-60% success rate, this criticism implies that there are some other methods or remediation programs that will produce significantly better results but (for reasons that remain obscure) MMSD refuses to consider them. Wouldn’t just be simpler and more effective to present that evidence (I know I would find it less frustrating)? There is no need to spend all this energy on what is “wrong” with “Reading Recovery,” if there is strong case to be made for an alternative.
    What is most frustrating is you ignored my direct question, the invitation to offer that evidence and then offered a condescending excuse for your evasion.
    I promise that I will look at whatever you post on this topic, but unless it speaks directly to my question (“Can you point me in the direction of peer reviewed research that demonstrates that another program working with a similar population would achieve better results?”), I see no need to continue this conversation.

  12. Although the site listed below is a review of the “Literacy Collaborative” (Balanced Literacy from Ohio State), it’s applicable to an analysis of RR since LC is basically the techniques of RR applied to the regular classroom. Besides, LC was developed by the same people who developed/promoted RR.
    They basically found no independent scientific proof that it works, even though it is the most expensive.
    You may also find numerous studies proving RR efficacy. Caution must be exercised, however, since if you google the people doing the research you will discover virtually all of them have a stake in the success of RR.

  13. Ed and TJM:
    As a somewhat biased person who works with many different school districts in WI and IL to market a specific product that was developed by neuroscience researchers who have spent over thirty years at their respective research centers (UC-San Francisco’s Keck Center for Neuroscience & the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University), I can smile at the question of “peer-reviewed” studies proving anything in education.
    Their research into how the brain learns and how to impact language and reading development has been replicated numerous times by other researchers seeking to prove that the theories either worked or did not work (usually to support their own programs). With well over 200 studies since the early 1990’s having taken their aim at the software products that were created by these two research teams, the most prominent and largest long-term studies concluded that at least one program, Fast ForWord, has shown a consistent ability to impact cognitive development necessary for the great majority of children and adults who have used these tools in clinical and school studies. Most school studies have indicated an average of 1+ academic years of reading improvement resulting from 6 – 10 weeks of using the software (50 minutes/day)under normal supervision. In Wisconsin districts that have conducted their own studies with elementary, middle and high school aged students, those results have tended to be closer to 1.5 + academic years of improvement, using standardized, normed assessments used in most school reading and special education programs. In 2000, and again in 2003, medical imaging studies conducted at Stanford University of the Fast ForWord program looked at how it impacted “functionally dyslexic” children, and concluded that the software “resulted in changes in brain function that include left hemisphere language regions, righ hemispheric homologues, and a number of other brain areas. Some of the changes brought the brain function of children with dyslexia closer to that seen in normal-reading children, whereas other changes seemed to be compensatory in nature.” “Children 8-12 years old with dyslexia can show increased activity in this region after training, and the extent of the increases seen in this region correlated with the extent of improvement in language ability.” Beyond the measureable changes shown in the fMRI photos, standardized reading measures indicated an average of 1.5 academic years were gained in reading subtests using the Woodcock-Johnson, 3rd Ed. assessment. This study by John Gabrielli and Elise Temple was peer-reviewed and published in the PNAS Journal, and can be found at: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0030098100
    Although Reading Recovery may not identify students as all having dyslexia (inability to read), this study, along with a number of other published independent studies over the past two decades have also looked at the impact of Fast ForWord software on a number of specific learning groups–from ESL learners to low SES backgrounds, to middle and high school learners to medical cases involving aphasia and hemispherectomy patients.
    As to the percentage of any single group that Fast ForWord can remediate–school and university studies differ, but in most published studies, the range is from 70-92%. Because the software is an intensive intervention, it does require adherence to a protocol of 5 days/week, either 48 or 50 minutes per day, and will take approximately 6 to 10 weeks to complete a segment. With the most severe cases, clinicians and schools will use several levels of the products to build an increasingly stronger cognitive base from which to teach reading. Unlike Reading Recovery, Fast ForWord does NOT teach reading per se, but rather builds the cognitive functions necessary to learn to read–including functional memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. With most struggling readers (of any age)one or more of those cognitive functions were not developed strongly enough in the first two years of life to allow the child to succeed in learning to read normally.
    For more research and articles about the brain and reading, check out BrainConnection.com .

  14. TJ,
    I’m guilty as charged on all counts. I was playing games, and you were being sincere. I apologize and won’t do it again.
    On to references . . .
    You’re looking for the silver bullet research that compares Reading Recovery, SRA Reading Mastery, Project Read, and lots of other instructional methods and programs for reading, and I truly wish that I could give you the one silver research report. I’ve looked for it for years and years, and it’s just not out there, because no single research project could tackle such a daunting enterprise.
    What you find are studies that compare pieces of Reading Recovery or other indirect approaches to pieces of direct approaches. You get thrilling articles like “Two letter discrimination sequences: High-confusion alternatives first versus low-confusion alternatives first,” David Carnine, Journal of Reading Behavior, 12 (1), 41-47.
    Then you get meta-analyses or literature reviews that try to put all of the bits and pieces of research together into a larger framework. You can find some of those on the Net, like “Experts Say Reading Recovery Is Not Effective, Leaves Too Many Children Behind: An Open Letter from Reading Researchers, May 20, 2002,” at http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/read.rr.ltr.experts.htm.
    Each of the literature reviews usually includes conclusions such as “There are other first grade programs that are demonstrably efficacious, impact more students because they do not require 1:1 tutoring, are easier to implement, and do a better job than Reading Recovery of improving student reading skills because they do not drop students (Snow et al., 1998; Torgesen, 2000).” Additionally, each review offers pages of references to specific articles, which you can pursue.
    I have an excellent meta-analysis in hard copy (“All Children Want to Learn,” Bonnie Grossen, undated) with nine pages of references, and I’d be happy to photocopy it and send it if you give me a snail mail address by e-mail.
    You can find another excellent meta-analysis (without reference unfortunately) of the research of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and other agencies at http://www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading/publications/html/parent_broch/. The home page http://www.nifl.gov has a link to a PDF of the same analysis.
    Though certainly not a peer reviewed article, you could watch the presentation by two Milwaukee principals whose schools found tremendous success with SRA Reading Mastery: http://www.schoolinfosystem.org/archives/2004/11/norm_and_dolore.php.
    Once again, I sincerely apologize. Thank you for rising above my egregious behavior. Send me your snail mail address (edblume@mailbag.com) if you’d like, and let me know what else I can provide in the way of citations.

  15. Doesn’t anybody ever get tired of throwing research studies back and forth at one another? Can we acknowledge that “both sides” can cite research? Let’s put research aside for a moment and talk common sense. If there was one appropriate way to teach all children, this debate would have died decades ago because one “SIDE” or the other would have had such overwhelming success that we would all just accept some supreme truth about reading development and be done with the whole thing. Here’s my two cents:
    **Different schools have turned around performance with different programs (The book “No Excuses” is a nice compilation of vignettes about different poor acheiving schools, what they did, and to what end). Some schools successfully used approaches that were antithetical to other schools’ successful approaches. No magic bullet.
    **Good instruction does not dismiss entire approaches just to show loyalty to some approach or another. Reading Recovery is showing 50-60% success? Swell. Now instead of just outright trashing it, let’s go about being open to other, possibly “antithetical” approaches that might better serve the other 40-50%.
    On my own instructional team we spend a lot of time assessing our students and then determining how to meet their needs. Some students work in guided groups (ala Balanced Literacy); some students get D.I. (I am a HUGE fan of the Corrective Reading Decoding program for intermediate students who are either struggling or resistant readers); some get Title I/Reading Recovery approach. ALL of our students also participate in literature study; work on general comprehension strategies and recieve opportunities to engage in independent reading. By refusing to get sucked into an armed camp approach for reading, we are able to broaden our access to instructional strategies and meet the needs of individual students.
    **I am frustrated by the district’s “official” position regarding Direct Instruction. Setting the research debate aside, in my opinion the chief drawback to Reading Recovery is that it attempts to remdiate reading deficits with a very similar (though more intensive) approach to the one that is not clicking for a student in the classroom. I’d be a bigger fan of using it as a remediation strategy in a D.I. school for students who are not clicking with THAT approach. HOWEVER, having people trashing Reading Recovery has not been a helpful approach to improving our reading instruction. It seems to just reinforce the idea that this is a “war” with a winning and losing side.
    Here’s a thought, maybe we ought to be working on a way to allow both approaches to co-exist, not just within the same district, but within all of our schools. And maybe, instead of students recieving what they need through luck of the draw, we ought to consider assessing students in all classes to identify which students might most benefit from which approach. Better yet, perhaps we ought to recognize that most students can get something out of each and provide that opportunity.
    My two cents from atop my soap box 🙂

  16. Teacher L: Thank you for your refreshing outlook on a subject area that gets lots of debate with little substance other than “war mode”. When I think about “equity” in schools, your last paragraph hits the nail on the head- and not just for reading, but other subjects as well. It’s nice to hear an education professional’s opinion for a change!

  17. Tell it to Art Rainwater, Teacher L and David Cohen.
    You go into his office and suggest that the MMSD use something in addition to Reading Recovery as an appropriate intervention. Then I’d duck for cover if I were you. He’ll get red in the face, pound on his desk, and yell at you. That man has problems with control. No one tells him what to do. He’ll cling to Reading Recovery until the day he leaves this district.
    He wouldn’t even accept a federal grant worth more than $2 million to teach reading to the lowest achieving kids, because someone from the outside was telling him what to do.
    I’ll stop pointing out Reading Recovery’s failures when Art lets the MMSD adopt different reading programs and when Art stops paying Reading Recovery teachers to take training while all other reading teachers pay out of their own pocket to get more training.
    Talk to Art, Teacher L. Talk to Art, David.

  18. Teacher L,
    What do you consider the “official” position regarding Direct Instruction?

  19. Hmmm…Well, I put the word official in quotes because I don’t know of one, per se, but it is certainly not an encouraged approach as a “district” intervention. When I’ve had conversations expressing my frustration about the attitude that so many people in the district seem to have, I hear things like, “well….I think they’re afraid to open the door…”.
    That said, I’ve used it as one form of instruction for the past eight years, under 3 different principals without difficulty or hassle. We order our materials primarily through the special education budget, but were also regularly approved for SPM money when it was still a process open to all teachers. I mention those things because I think it is important to know that I have never personally been discouraged from using it, nor have I been denied the materials I need in order to use it.
    However, it is certainly not a part of district inservicing and plays no role in the Balanced Literacy Approach. I have seen Title I staff and regular education staff I work with warm up to it over the past few years so that it is no longer a fight to include students without IEPs who seem likely to benefit (at least in my corner of the world). I think that that is due both to the successes we’ve had and because we continue to use and be open to the beneficial parts of a Balanced Literacy approach. It’s less threatening, people get less dug in when we are not competing to win “best approach”.
    I think I need to recant the use of the word “official”, since I’m not in a position to speak “officially”. Let me restate this way (and apologize for rambling). It appears to me that in MMSD, D.I. is accepted in many schools as an intervention delivered by some special education teachers but isn’t really talked about. It appears to me as well that the district is not currently open to the idea of sanctioning it as either a mainstream piece of literacy instruction or a remediation approach outside of special education. I deliberately use the term “piece of literacy instruction” because I want to be clear that as impressed as I am with some D.I. programs, I do not believe that it is a complete approach to literacy and I would not want to see the district go to the other extreme and do nothing but D.I.
    If my discussion here seems muddy, keep throwing questions/comments my way. I can’t speak for the district or all teachers, but I am happy to speak about my own experiences.

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