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School reforms rate high; use is low

An interesting story about Oregon's unwillingness to use research based reading.

Two teaching methods with ties to Oregon are applied in a fraction of schools

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Two elementary school reform programs with roots in Oregon show the best evidence of raising student achievement, a new study commissioned by the federal government shows, yet they are barely taught in Oregon classrooms.

The American Institutes for Research, an independent social-science research organization, found that Direct Instruction, founded by Siegfried Engelmann at the University of Oregon, and Success for All, created by Reed College graduates Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden, show strong evidence of raising achievement.

Both programs are highly structured, stress phonics and basic skills, and require a standardized way of teaching.

The two posted a better rating than 20 other school reform programs reviewed by researchers. The study was paid for by the U.S. Department of Education.

Nationwide, only 64 schools use the full Direct Instruction program, according to the study. No Oregon school uses the full program, although a few public and charter elementaries teach the reading component.

There are more Success for All schools -- 1,400 -- but that's a drop in the bucket out of roughly 85,000 elementary schools across the country. Only 16 Oregon schools use Success for All or part of its program, said Cheryl Sattler of the Success for All Foundation in Baltimore.

Kurt Engelmann of the National Institute for Direct Instruction in Eugene said the two programs are little used because they require teachers to hew to specific techniques. Many teachers say the curriculum stifles their creativity and freedom in the classroom. For instance, Direct Instruction demands that teachers follow a script when teaching reading.

"The scripts have been written to convey the most important set of skills students need," said Engelmann, Siegfried's son and institute president. "There are many teachers who find that uncomfortable."

Slavin said Success for All is up against big companies marketing competing programs. He said the federal government hasn't made research-proven reform programs a top priority.

Kirk Sherill, principal at Charles F. Tigard Elementary School in Tigard, predicts that mounting pressure from state and federal officials to raise achievement will force schools to turn to proven programs such as Success for All or Direct Instruction.

At 8:40 a.m. every day, all 600 Tigard Elementary students rise from their seats and go to their 90-minute reading classes.

Tigard Elementary uses the Success for All reading program in kindergarten through third grade. Each student joins others who are reading at roughly the same level. Even fourth- and fifth-graders are grouped by their performance level for reading and writing, though the school does not use Success for All in the upper grades because teachers think it is too prescriptive, Sherill said.

Phonics and practice

Debbie Reid, a first-grade teacher, has the 13 students in her group do silent reading for five minutes at the beginning of class. Then she switches to a quick-paced phonics lesson, giving students words orally, sounding out each syllable. The students respond orally. She glances frequently at her study guide, but her eyes and ears are mostly on her students to be sure each one is keeping up.

Then the students return to their desks to write words on paper. After that, it's another Success for All staple: partner reading. Pairs of students take turns reading to each other. The listener corrects the reader if he or she makes a mistake. At the end of the passage, they ask each other comprehension questions. Reid patrols the room listening to each student read and offers a critique of the session.

Reading scores have climbed steadily at Tigard Elementary since Success for All was introduced about seven years ago. In 1999, 78 percent of third-graders met the state reading benchmark. This year, more than 95 percent did. Progress was similar for fifth-graders.

The only Portland elementary school using Success for All is Vernon in Northeast Portland. It also has seen reading scores jump in the years since it introduced the reading program. This year, more than 95 percent of third- and fifth-graders met state reading benchmarks.

Teachers buy in

Principal Joan Miller says Success for All works because teachers bought into the program and have seen the results.

"I don't think that all schools could or should use it," she said. "And it won't be successful if it is forced on a school."

In fact, both Success for All and Direct Instruction leaders recommend that at least 80 percent of teachers in a school should agree to their programs.

Lynda Hardwick, a veteran teacher at Meadow View School in Eugene, was against Direct Instruction when it was introduced to her school in 1999.

"I was one of those teachers who thought it was worse than poison," she said. "I was sure that the little kindergartners could not do it."

Hardwick and the other Meadow View teachers were trained in Direct Instruction seven years ago. After using it for a year, she said, she realized how powerful it was in teaching reading. She now teaches other teachers how to use it.

Achievement at the Bethel District school has gone from 70 percent of students meeting reading benchmarks in 2000 to 85 percent in 2005.

Humboldt Elementary in Portland uses Direct Instruction for students who are struggling to read, about a third of the 260 students.

Mary Peake, Humboldt's reading coach, said teachers choose whether they want to teach Direct Instruction. Humboldt, where 95 percent of students come from low-income families, once used Success for All, but Peake said she thought it was too fast-paced for some students. Eventually, Humboldt went to a combination of Direct Instruction and Open Court, another elementary reading program highly rated by Oregon educators.

This year, 92 percent of Humboldt third-graders met reading benchmarks in a school where virtually all students come from poverty. But only 54 percent of fifth-graders met reading benchmarks.

Engelmann of the Direct Instruction institute said publicity from the new research institutes report could trigger new interest in his program and Success for All.

"There are some great examples out there of success with these programs," he said. "And after all, it's about the kids, not the teachers."

To see the complete national study, go to

Steven Carter: 503-221-8521; stevencarter@news.oregoniancom