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Lessons We Learned in Washington, D.C. Schools

By: Linda Butler
The NICHD Early Interventions Project was designed to increase reading achievement in nine low-performing schools in the District of Columbia. This article describes the experience of one researcher working with these schools, and makes recommendations for policymakers and administrators.

Lessons from the NICHD Early Interventions Project in the District of Columbia public schools

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) funds an extensive research program to understand how children learn to read, why some children fail to learn to read, and what can be done to prevent reading failure.

We have been working in nine low-performing schools for more than three years under one of the NICHD grants. Dr. Barbara Foorman in Houston and Dr. Louisa Moats in DC are the directors of this project. Dr. Moats and I work daily to instruct and support teachers as we gather extensive data on the causes of reading success and reading failure.

This has been very hard work. In the beginning, teachers were frustrated, demoralized, and skeptical. They blamed the children, their families, their instructional materials, and each other for the fact that over 70% of the 4th grade children in DC scored below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We had to prove to the teachers that we were offering them something more than superficial ideas, empty promises, or worthless gimmicks. Indeed, we had to persuade teachers to learn a lot of new and sometimes challenging information and to try out new methods.

Over these four years, teachers have risen to the occasion. More than half have taken graduate courses with us; those who study and learn tend to get the best results with their students. Many teachers have seen immediate and dramatic improvement in their classes when they apply research-based methods.

A very important focus of coursework has been in-depth study of phoneme awareness, phonics, and the structure of the English language. Another has been role-play and rehearsal of new teaching strategies, including questioning strategies designed to deepen comprehension. We have provided books and materials to them. Teams of teachers have collaborated with each other. Observers and coaches have been in classrooms, to help and instruct. Principals have been involved and informed.

We knew when we began that with well-designed materials, effective building leadership, and strong professional development based on reading research, we could reverse the tide of reading failure.

Now, in year four, we are proud of the changes we have accomplished. Seven of the nine schools have met all or most of their improvement targets. The first grade at Seaton Elementary School, whose lead teacher is with me today, showed an average reading achievement score above the 70th percentile on the Stanford-9 Achievement Test last year. Only 5 to 10% of children are below basic in grades where the instruction is strong.

In many schools, teachers have commented that they see the difference in students who are now going into third and fourth grade. They can read!

Our research data are showing that at the end of the second grade in 1999, our students on the whole were achieving slightly above the national average in reading comprehension. The students who had received the most explicit training in phonological skills were well above average in basic reading and spelling.

Once again, the research is showing that students who are taught early (in K and 1st) about the speech sounds in words and who are taught phonics, reading fluency, and comprehension, make better progress than children who do not get the best instruction.

Recommendations for policymakers and education leadership

As national leaders seek to implement standards-based reforms and raise student achievement, it is important to give attention to the specific literacy needs of children and the training needs of their teachers. Following are recommendations for policymakers to consider as they focus attention on adequate support for teacher training and professional development in the area of literacy.

  • Maintain the goal of ensuring that all children will read at grade level and promote the importance of research-based reading instruction
  • Align policies for teacher preparation, licensure, and professional development with principles of effective reading instruction
  • Align textbook adoption policies, student performance standards, assessment priorities, and curricular policies with principles of effective reading instruction.

Research has confirmed beyond doubt that good instruction can prevent or limit serious reading and writing difficulty. Most children will learn if instruction includes critical components beginning in kindergarten. Referrals to special education will decline if children are properly screened and taught in the regular classroom beginning in kindergarten and grade one. Struggling children will be more likely to maintain momentum if they are placed in tutorials with trained specialists even before a special education referral occurs.

When schools abide by these principles, very few children fail to read. Policymakers can help schools focus attention on the issues and can provide the necessary support for effective teacher preparation and professional development.

Excerpted from: Butler, L. (September 26, 2000). Lessons from the NICHD Early Interventions Project in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Testimony before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives.

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