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New Glarus filling in reading gaps

New Glarus filling in reading gaps
Published Friday, February 3, 2006 8:00:54 AM Central Time

The district is counting on a new approach to help struggling students.

By Ellen Williams-Masson

Times Correspondent

NEW GLARUS -- While you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, New Glarus School District Administrator Barbara Thompson is banking on a fresh instructional approach to fill in gaps in curriculum and repair educational deficits that have been identified since she took the helm three years ago.

The discovery of 25 students struggling with reading in the seventh and eighth grades last year and a general weakness in math skills have prompted Thompson to reevaluate the district's curriculum. New Glarus students have traditionally performed above state average on standardized testing but Thompson would like to see them do better.

"We analyzed standardized test scores in August for every content area and compared New Glarus to five similar school districts," Thompson said. "Those districts are at the 100 percent level and New Glarus is at 88 percent for proficiency and advanced scores. We're above the state average, but the question is, why aren't we higher than that?"

New Glarus students in grades four, eight and 10 scored 10-15 percent below the state average in several areas of math, and those weaknesses in many cases matched areas of the curriculum that are out of alignment with standards developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

"We need to work on these areas because we have strands -- it isn't that the kids were missing it at one point, but were typically missing it at several points," Thompson said. "That tells you when you are teaching something that you have gaps, which led us to curriculum mapping to look at scope and sequence and align our curriculum to the standards."

The concept of scope and sequence means that students are taught material in a logical, sequential manner and that areas are neither skipped nor duplicated throughout the educational process. Thompson said she chose Direct Instruction because of the method's proven track record and consistency.

"Direct Instruction is a very research-based curriculum that has been around for 30 years," she said. "It is aligned to the standards and has scope and sequence. DI allows us to differentiate and meet the needs of kids at all levels and teach to mastery."

The former principal of Lapham and Marquette Elementary Schools in Madison witnessed the efficacy of the Direct Instruction teaching method for young readers at Lapham and is implementing the same methodology to teach reading, spelling and math to students in grades K-6 in New Glarus. Thompson was hired to strengthen the school's curriculum.

Students taught using the DI method are screened and placed in dynamic groups based on ability, moving up as skills are mastered in a fluid system that allows for weekly evaluation. A second-grader who reads well may find herself in a reading group with third-graders and with different subsets of her peers for math and spelling.

Proponents of the method claim that sorting kids by ability instead of age or grade ensures that no child falls through the cracks, but some do question the intensive nature of the teaching methodology. Elijah Meeker has a son who is a third-grader and objects to what he calls "collective punishment" whereby the group is allowed to make only so many mistakes during a particular exercise before losing points or repeating the exercise. Although he appreciates the increased depth of curriculum with Direct Instruction, Meeker said that the social pressure is destructive for his child.

"The teaching methodology is monochromatic -- they have one way to do it, which works well for some kids but not every kid," Meeker said. "I feel like it has damaged my son's thrill of learning and that's the one thing I really want to safeguard."

New Glarus will be phasing in Direct Instruction math in the next couple of weeks, completing a two year adjustment period during which students in grades K-6 were switched over to the new system.

DI screening identified additional areas of concern and showed that even the brightest students have gaps in what they have been taught.

Perhaps most shocking was the discovery of 25 middle schoolers with extremely poor reading skills.

"We discovered last year that we had 12 seventh-graders and 13 eighth-graders who were practically nonreaders," Thompson said. "These kids were not in special ed and were not kids with attendance or behavioral issues. We had to implement a reading program because we had kids that were nonreaders, and we are also discovering that same strand with math."

Thompson said that the district has historically performed well on standardized tests but she thinks they can do better.

"Most school districts would probably be doing somersaults at 88 percent, but we want all of our kids to be at 100 percent," Thompson said.