Thursday, July 21, 2011

A brilliant experiment in reading: But will new schools chancellor fund revolutionary program?

Here's Sol Stern on the success of a pilot program with E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge reading program in NYC:

A brilliant experiment in reading: But will new schools chancellor fund revolutionary program?

By Sol Stern

Thursday, July 14th 2011

The best predictor of future academic achievement for American students about to enter high school is the eighth-grade reading test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely considered the gold standard in testing. If children don't reach reading proficiency by the eighth grade, they'll almost always hit a wall in other subjects, and they're unlikely to catch up in the next four years.

By that standard, the educational prospects for most of New York City's 1 million public school students are dismal: Only 21% of the city's eighth-graders reached the proficiency level on the 2009 NAEP reading test. Even more ominously, no more than 12% of the city's black eighth-graders achieved proficiency.

Over the past decade, Gotham's education department has tried several initiatives to fix this, including giving cash bonuses to teachers and principals and paying minority children to show up in class and behave. These financial incentives had no discernible effect on eighth-graders' reading performance. Yet there is a ray of reading hope in the city: the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, a new reading program being piloted in 10 elementary schools in the Bronx and Queens.

The program derives from the research of E. D. Hirsch Jr., author of "Cultural Literacy" and other seminal books. Among Hirsch's insights is that disadvantaged kids quickly fall behind in reading because of inadequate background knowledge; therefore, imparting such knowledge in the early grades is even more important than conveying basic reading skills.

Hirsch diagnoses the problem this way: "Our teachers and administrators are taught brilliant slogans like 'rote regurgitation of mere facts' which make factual knowledge sound objectionable, and they are told that a deeper, better approach is the 'how-to' scheme of education."

To the contrary, he continues, it is precisely the accumulation of facts - whether in history, science, the arts or civics - that enables young readers to move from the foundational skill of decoding written words (through phonics) to a deeper comprehension of complex texts.

Fourth-grade reading scores around the country improved somewhat over the past decade thanks to greater emphasis on phonics and word decoding in early grades. But the effect wore off by the eighth grade, as children had to show greater comprehension of more difficult texts. What was missing, Hirsch believed, was greater attention in the early grades to building students' background knowledge.

So Hirsch and his foundation created a reading program for the early grades that contained the necessary phonics drills as well as the background knowledge that students need to improve their reading comprehension.

Joel Klein, at the time the city's schools chancellor, became a late admirer of Hirsch's ideas - and, starting in September 2008, introduced the Core Knowledge reading program in a handful of schools as a three-year experiment. To monitor the experiment, Klein matched these schools with a demographically similar group of schools that used the dominant "balanced literacy" program; city-commissioned studies would compare the two student cohorts' reading results.

After the first year, Klein announced the early results: On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group.

The results of the third-year study, now that the children have completed second grade, won't be announced until sometime this autumn, probably at about the same time as the 2011 NAEP reading results are made public. It is probable that the Core Knowledge program will continue to show promising results, while scores on the NAEP eighth-grade reading test will be as stagnant as ever.

If that's the case, the rational course of action would be to keep funding the pilot until its cohort of students reaches the eighth grade and aces the NAEP test, showing the education authorities that the solution to the city's reading problem is in plain sight. Unfortunately, rationality is usually in short supply at the Department of Education; Klein has moved on, and it's not clear whether Hirsch's reading program remains on the department's agenda. Right now, there's no guaranteed funding for continuation of the program.

Keeping this potential breakthrough alive would cost a mere $300,000 per year - which seems a far smarter investment than the $70 million paid in bonuses to teachers and principals who produced zero reading gains.

Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This was adapted from the Summer 2011 issue of City Journal.

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