It is remarkable to me how many IEPs provide for reading programs that are not individualized to the student’s needs and do not produce meaningful results. A one-size-fits all approach simply doesn’t work for students with reading disabilities. What may be an otherwise perfectly acceptable reading curriculum often is inadequate to meet the individualized needs of a particular student. More and more frequently I am finding myself attending IEP meetings for students who are repeatedly failing to meet their IEP goals and am confounded by the insistence of the IEP team to continue implementing a program or curriculum that is clearly not working for the student. This posturing is denying the student access to FAPE, or a Free Appropriate Public Education. In many instances, students with specific reading disorders, such as dyslexia, are slotted into a specific reading program for intervention that isn’t even designed to address their needs. What is provided to the student is based on expediency, availability of programming in the district, and not the needs of the student.
School districts are wedded to many of what I call a “big colorful box at the back of the room” reading curricula for a reason. These are scripted programs that work for the teacher and the district but often fail the student. Perhaps the development of these curricula was inevitable. The National Reading Panel (NRP) study in 2000 identified the specific components necessary to teach reading, and the subsequent passage in 2001of the No Child Left Behind Act and its accompanying Reading First initiative mandated that schools be accountable for providing scientific, research-based reading programs (with financial block grants to states that adopt such curriculum). These scripted programs provide accountability by which schools can measure the progress of their students and provide educational consistency among schools.
Many of these programs and curricula are good as are the teachers who implement them. I’m not trying to bash teachers or even particular curricula. But according to the program publishers, the effectiveness of these so-called “scripted” programs, which provide everything needed by the teacher, including in many cases the actual verbiage for the lesson and the accompanying computer technology that adjusts to the needs of the learner, must be delivered with fidelity. Fidelity means no deviation from the “script.” When a child fails to progress, therefore, it is the teacher’s fault—he or she has failed to deliver the program appropriately.
There are some obvious problems with this assumption. Critics of these curricula claim that teachers are being “de-skilled” and used as robots within their classrooms. The Read 180 program is an example of this “automation” of the classroom. The curriculum must be delivered in two 45-minute sections per day. Only 20 minutes per day are allotted for the computer-driven portion of the curriculum. The curriculum, when implemented per publisher guidance, completely fills the two language arts blocks each day. Educator Suzanne Whitford, who has criticized Read 180 in an article titled Read 180: Policy Gone Wrong, says that Read 180 trainers encourage teachers to use buzzers to alert students to transition times between stations, even to the point of interrupting a student who is curled up with and enjoying a good read.
Thus, teaching becomes like following a recipe. We know, however, that good teaching is not about following a recipe but rather about making thoughtful adjustments in the face of a student’s learning needs. In many instances inexperienced teachers are modifying the scripted program, perhaps inappropriately, in an effort to help the student. I find that in some instances teachers are so wedded to the program that if the program data is good, even in the face of obvious deficits, the teacher report is positive, even though he or she can readily see that the student is not reading well. Regardless of how the curricula is used, it is stunning to sit in an IEP meeting for a student who simply is unable to master a certain concept in a sequential reading curriculum and who remains at the same lesson in the reading program for weeks at a time—making absolutely no progress--all in the name of fidelity. Alternatively, the student is moved on to show progress when essential concepts are still missing but the class has moved on so the student must move on as well. Schools then get very defensive and try to defend their program and its implementation.
A reading specialist that I work with prefers an overall Socratic method to teaching reading, where the student is guided to a correct answer. She is concerned that by virtue of being scripted, students are not taught this critical thinking, and she has seen teachers struggle to teach when they are locked into the “script” and unable to modify to meet the student’s needs. Additionally, she is also concerned about the error analyses done by these programs, which schools frequently decline to share with parents. Ms. Whitford believes that the quiz questions for Read 180 are neither inferential nor analytical and relate very little to overall comprehension. Overall, a computer lacks the ability to reflect thoughtfully or to evaluate a child's mistakes and subsequently remedy them appropriately.
Deborah Duncan-Owens, who is a critic of the scripted reading programs, cites the old Chinese proverb about giving a fish to a hungry man to meet an immediate need rather than teaching him to fish, leading to empowerment and self-sufficiency. So are the big box curricula—they provide accountability and may solve the immediate needs of ineffective or new teachers yet fail to develop teachers professionally, enabling them to make informed selections and adjustments for their students.
The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) is concerned that teachers are simply not adequately trained to teach reading, particularly to students with reading disabilities, including dyslexia. According to the IDA, the current state licensing and professional development practices are “insufficient” to provide teachers with the knowledge and skill to help students who are having difficulty with reading. The IDA feels that special education teachers have no clearer idea of what constitutes research-based effective practices than do general education teachers. The IDA’s examination of teacher training programs in reading revealed a “pervasive absence of rich content and academic rigor in many courses that lead to certification of teachers and specialists.” In response, the IDA is in the process of developing certification programs to teachers as well as providing standards for reading instruction.
So how do you know if the curriculum your school is using is a scientific, research-based curriculum or not? The 2000 National Reading Panel identified five components necessary for an effective reading program: phonemic awareness; phonics; vocabulary development; reading fluency, including oral readings skills; and reading comprehension strategies. Despite the clarity provided by the NRP report, educators still argue about what is research-based and what is not. Just because a curriculum uses these terms in the description of the program doesn’t necessarily mean the concepts are adequately incorporated into its delivery.
Likewise, how do you determine the effectiveness of your child’s proposed reading curriculum? You can always do internet research yourself, but please be aware that many of the research studies out there may be associated with or funded by the publisher of the curriculum. It doesn’t mean that the curriculum isn’t good; it may just raise questions about whether the study was biased or not. You also need to consider the type of student who is being examined in the study: struggling reader, English language learner, or student with a learning disability. For instance, many schools are using Read 180, which is designed for students with fluency and comprehension issues. For students with decoding issues, the publisher offers a different program--System 44. Yet I have students with dyslexia who are locked into Read 180.
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) from the Department of Education is one source parents could use to determine the efficacy of the proposed curriculum being offered by their district. The caveat is that the standards for review used by the WWC, including study protocols, are so stringent that the WWC declines to draw conclusions about the efficacy of many popular and well-regarded programs, including such gold-standards as the Wilson-Reading System, which I often advocate for on behalf of students with dyslexia.
The proof of the effectiveness of your child’s program or curriculum lies in the proverbial eating of the pudding. Is your child making progress? Is your child meeting IEP goals? What does the progress monitoring show? Is your child regressing, maintaining, or actually closing the reading gap? If not, something is not working for your child and the IEP needs to be re-visited to increase the level of intensity or find a new program or even placement for your child. Your child’s education needs to be individualized for his or her unique learning needs. Again, I'm not bashing teachers or even these reading programs, many with which my students have done well. Please realize, however, that even a good reading program may not be the right fit for every child. At the end of the day always evaluate the program and the data in light of your real world experience, as to whether your child is in fact reading and understanding text, inferentially and at a more in-depth level.