Since a few years before NCLB really raised itâ€™s head, standardized testing was already a fact of life for â€œTitle 1â€ schools (law for “Improving The Academic Achievement Of The Disadvantaged”) and we started to have mandatory â€œResearch-based literacy programsâ€ thrown at us. In my area the big programs have been CELL/ExLL (Comprehensive Early Literacy Learning and Extended Literacy Learning), SFA (Success for All), and GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design)
These programs focus on literacy and English language skills for students that are behind. One positive outcome of how these programs were implemented was that a lot of money and time were spent to train teachers in implementing and utilizing them. Training models included 5 or more days of initial training, ongoing observation in classrooms where the program had already been implemented, and ongoing peer coaching/mentoring. Before, whenever we were given a new program to implement we were given fly-by-night training and support and then to everyoneâ€™s surprise the new program failed to live up to its lofty expectations â€“ not the case with these programs – time and money were invested heavily.
So have our test scores gone up as a result? At first yes, but they have not even remotely kept pace with NCLBâ€™s requirements with too few exceptions. Schools, teachers and students have worked hard, the programs were implemented well overall, but we have hit somewhat of a wall as far as raising test scores (and note Iâ€™m not even questioning here whether test scores and especially the kind of test scores we are pursuing are the end all we should be held accountable for anyhow).
So why have these programs and the hard work put into them failed to be the savior of our schools? For lots of reasons, and Iâ€™m not going to suggest I know all the reasons – but I will suggest what I feel are some of the most telling and worrisome ones.
Number one is that the way teachers are trained to implement these programs makes them WAY too time consuming. Teaching kids to be literate has to be a top priority for sure, but these programs take up the entire day to the exclusion of REAL science and social studies and art and the list goes on. Proponents of these programs will argue that you â€œintegrateâ€ those subjects into the program. Students read about those subjects as the reading material students use to learn to reflect on and write about and discuss â€“ and by reciting poetry and shared reading and looking at pictures of those subjects students learn the science and social studies and whatever. I agree, to a small degree. Integrating those subjects into the literacy program makes nothing but sense â€“ unfortunately it is not close to enough.
For reading and learning to really be accessible and meaningful students have to possess the schema necessary to make sense of what they read and learn about. In my experience, and in my opinion students need real experience like that gleaned from field trips, experiments, projects, art, sports programs, recess and PE â€“ the very things programs like those mentioned above often cut from the curriculum (none of these programs cut these vital pieces by design – it just usually happens – although many Success For All schools either completely cut field trips or schedule one or two a year because of how the program works). The program designers would say you can still do those things â€“ hence the problem. During my own training in these programs I would raise my hand and bring up that we had just seen a â€œtypicalâ€ dayâ€™s schedule that a model teacher presented and I didnâ€™t see REAL projects and other hands-on minds-on pieces. And every time â€“ every single time the answer was the same â€“ â€œOhâ€¦you can or could do those things.â€ NOTE â€“ not you SHOULD do them â€“ you COULD do them. And every single example they presented NEVER included any active learning project, art, etc. â€“ so the message given and received â€“ NOT IMPORTANT!
My point here is that THOSE SCHEMA MAKING PIECES ARE AS IMPORTANT AND NECESSARY A PART OF LEARNING TO READ AND LEARN AS ANY THERE ARE because without them you might as well be reading word lists instead of a book. How long would you last reading a list of words the length of a book?
Learning to read without having those experiences is like learning to fish in your swimming pool â€“ you can cast and bait your hook and reel in a lure and row a rubber raft around a little and maybe even fall in (not that that has happened to me mind youâ€¦) but you donâ€™t really catch fish and you donâ€™t spend time in a natural setting or deal with weather or rough water or smelly bait or catching a bunch of fish or none or any other actual aspects of fishing – good, bad or otherwise. In other words you totally miss out on the experience. Too many of the students that attend schools that use these programs have already missed the experience, thatâ€™s a big part of why they are behind â€“ they need the experience to make meaning and to get excited about what they read and write about.
Again, these programs are solid programs, Iâ€™m not questioning their merits. Itâ€™s just that they are not enough and the way they are used now they take ALL the time necessary to get to the hands-on experiences. Not totally on purpose, but thatâ€™s what happens. They would be stronger programs if they included much more room for field trips and REAL projects that might go over the scheduled time (oh my!).
Learning has to be messy!