The Curriculum Question

Businessman John Privett thought he had a solution to the problems of some of Houston's troubled schools. The parents wanted to try it. The teachers wanted to try it. But HISD administrators said no.

In 1990, while Privett was working on the committee, he asked his associate, George Scott, to find some effective schools that they could visit. Scott must have started at the end of the alphabet, Privett recalls, because he quickly came up with Wesley Elementary in the black community of Acres Homes. Wesley had all of the problems an inner-city school could have -- poverty, children being raised by grandparents and single mothers, drugs. Yet under the direction of a tough, demanding, homegrown principal named Thaddeus Lott, the school's kindergartners did math, not just arithmetic. Lott's first-graders read at second- and third-grade levels, and their achievement scores equaled those of upper-middle-class schools.

Privett found that Lott was getting these results with an off-the-shelf curriculum called DISTAR (Direct Instruction Strategy Teaching Arithmetic and Reading) that had been developed in the late 1960s by a University of Oregon education professor named Siegfried Engelmann. DISTAR offers a complete program in mathematics, reasoning and phonics-based reading for grades K-3, as well as a system of classroom management. Lott had to scrounge to buy the texts and workbooks for the curriculum, and his teachers had to endure snide remarks from HISD curriculum leaders who regarded the curriculum as old-fashioned.

In 1991, Wesley's high scores on the statewide achievement tests prompted accusations by HISD administrators that Lott's teachers must have been cheating. Lott was vindicated when ABC's Prime Time exposed the mean-spirited nature of the accusation and embarrassed then-HISD superintendent Joan Raymond on national TV.

At the heart of the accusation was a curriculum battle that still divides American education: the battle between teaching the "whole language" method of reading and teaching phonics.

DISTAR teaches phonics and other basic skills through carefully scripted lesson plans that teachers must perform almost the way an actor learns a script. This requirement comes, DISTAR proponents say, not out of a desire to control teachers, but out of the discovery from years of fieldwork that the biggest problem young children have in learning is ambiguous instruction from their instructor. The scripts are designed to eliminate this ambiguity. Students are required to recite answers in unison with the teacher to monitor their understanding. Recitations are seen as a way to provide instant feedback to a teacher, who can then tell at a glance whether a child is merely mouthing an answer or lagging behind in response. Homework is graded daily (something that doesn't always happen in other programs) and students are evaluated on a weekly basis.

With its emphasis on teaching basic skills, DISTAR was competing with curriculum trends that emphasized less easily measured objectives. The competing models were labeled "cognitive-conceptual" and "affective cognitive." Some of these models stressed developing objectives based on the individual needs of each child; others emphasized the development of positive attitudes toward school, and letting children self-schedule their own activities. Yet other programs were designed to reach subjective goals such as positive self-image, creativity, self-respect, openness to change and imagination. In the late 1970s, a federally funded study called Operation Follow Through found that students who were taught with direct instruction tested better than students taught by the other models. As a result, DISTAR enjoyed a brief spate of popularity. But it was soon overwhelmed by the latest curriculum trends.

One of those was "whole language," a theory that says children learn to recognize words on sight, and that they become good readers by plunging into reading, skipping over words and mastering them by context and repetition rather than sounding them out and looking them up. Under Joan Raymond's administration, whole language became the preferred method for teaching reading in HISD.

Whole language seems to work best with children who already have a firm foundation in language and reading at home. A middle-class child might come to school with several thousand words of vocabulary, while children from less advantageous backgrounds might come to school with a vocabulary of only a few hundred words. Still others will have a few hundred words in Spanish and a few hundred in English. Fallon says many of her teachers believe that phonics, and the use of direct instruction techniques such as those found in DISTAR, should provide the foundation for learning to read, and that it can then be followed with whole language instruction. The intelligent approach, she says, is balance.

"I was a cryptographer before I got into all this," she says, "and you've got to break the code before you can get the message. Direct instruction teaches children to break the code. It baffles me how anyone can expect a child to learn to read by memorizing an entire sight vocabulary. Yet we have people in the curriculum department who will tell you how evil direct instruction is rather than figure out how it's an essential component in any reading program."

Rose Hicks, HISD's deputy superintendent for educational programs, believes that most of HISD's elementary schools do strike a balance between phonics and whole language. She also says that since she took over the curriculum department in 1991, whole language hasn't been pushed as strongly, and principals and teachers who want to use direct instruction and phonics aren't criticized or pressured to change. But she also said she really didn't know how many schools were using phonetics-based programs for teaching reading.

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