The June 21 front-page article by Jay Mathews, "In Scripted Lesson Plans, Teachers Wary of Roles," on Mount Vernon Elementary School underscores a sad reality: largely unsupported notions about teacher creativity, learning styles and "teaching to a child's experience" are not only pervasive in our schools, but count more than proven methods of instruction.
A university-based study once compared the results of six widely used reading programs. The one judged most successful allowed for the least teacher input. Given the low level of instruction in my own education courses, where we mostly critiqued each others' lesson plans, this was hardly surprising. When one "creative" student came up with Aunt Vowel, Uncle Consonant and their children A,E,I,O and U, the professor praised her lavishly and told us to "put this in your Cute Ideas file."
Balanced literacy programs are loosely structured and leave far more of the day-to-day decisions up to individual teachers. Success for All and other methods of direct instruction are tightly structured, teach decoding skills and are carefully sequenced. They provide time in school for necessary practice and require teachers to follow specific directions.
The Mount Vernon teachers who voted down Success for All owe it to themselves and their students to undertake a review of current research. They ought to go to Johns Hopkins University and talk with the researchers who developed Success for All. What they discover might persuade them to give the program a second chance as well as to give thanks for a principal such as Gayle Smith, who has done her homework.
Parents who hope to sign up a first-grader with that special "creative" teacher instead of the no-nonsense lady with the handmade phonics charts should ask to see the teacher's end-of-year student reading scores for the past five years. They might change their minds too.
The article by Jay Mathews describes the regimented Success for All reading program as a potential way to raise standardized test scores. The program is so formulaic that one teacher describes standing by her classroom door to see if the students across the hall are at the same place in their lesson plans as her students.
Creativity, spontaneity and adjustments for individual needs and interests are all but eliminated with packaged learning plans such as Success for All, which, by the way, has been successful at raising test scores at other schools. But the validity of standardized tests and the educational objectives they represent should be questioned.
What if these tests check students' cultural knowledge more than literacy skills? What if Mount Vernon Elementary is in an area with great disparities in wealth rather than a homogeneous middle class? What if these socioeconomic disparities translate into rich students, who frequently are lifelong residents of the United States, not being a part of Mount Vernon Elementary but instead going to private schools? What if a disproportionate number of Mount Vernon Elementary students are new immigrants who do not hear or use English at home? What if the standardized tests use word problems and reading comprehension assignments that describe and validate knowledge about American heritage rather than also including the students' heritages, such as Vietnamese, Guatemalan or Pakistani traditions?
Success for All may get test scores up temporarily, but if students become bored because school is not about them, in the long run Success for All will fail.
CLOE M. VINCENT