A Suggestion for Helping Teachers Help Students

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In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared America a “Nation At Risk.” We still are. The country has had almost a decade of “No Child Left Behind”, but a large segment of our school population is still being left behind. Now we have the “Race to the Top,” but too many kids at the bottom have not left the starting line.Making slogans for large programs may be human nature, but, slogans aside, most federal and state programs have been missing something very important – plain old, common sense, concrete, see-it-with-your-own-eyes results.

This editorial is not intended to belittle politicians, although they make an easy target. We actually appreciate our leaders’ commitment to improving education, and the country needs both this commitment and the funds that are being invested in it. Nor do we mean to demean the educators who work on these large policy initiatives. Many recent trends in education have been very helpful. For example, research in the area of reading has delivered some very useful insights. However, somewhere between THE BIG IDEAS and the actual teaching of actual students in actual classrooms, something is being lost – flexibility.

In recent years, policy-makers wanted to be sure that administrators and teachers were held accountable, so they created detailed standards with frequent standardized testing, constant progress monitoring and voluminous data collection. The policy-makers also wanted research results incorporated into curriculum, although anyone familiar with research knows that there is a ton of it, and even the most scientifically based research is frequently inconclusive. Big publishers took advantage of these trends churning out tests, revising materials to meet state standards and hiring researchers. Now any administrator who wants to keep her/his job makes sure that everything teachers are asked to do is standards-compliant, research-based and progress-monitored. It sounds great, but there is a flaw. Students are human beings. Not every student learns the same thing at the same time in the same way, and testing is not always accurate.

You can’t really raise the performance of the students who are now at the bottom with only a top-down approach. You need to empower the teachers who work with these pupils to do something basic and simple: try something, if it doesn’t work, try something else, then keep trying until something works. This is a very basic, age-old strategy for human progress, but it is scary to many policy-makers, probably because it means trusting teachers. It is true that some teachers really are not cut out for the job, and those teachers need to go. But most teachers are sharp, empathetic and dedicated, and they know perfectly well when something is working and when it isn’t. And when something works, the results will become apparent, even if it takes a little time for a standardized test to show it.

That is where the Stevenson Language Skills Program comes in. Over and over teachers have told us that they had students who were not learning to read or spell even after they had tried many different approaches – that is, until they found the Stevenson Program. We are not saying the Stevenson Program is a panacea for all struggling learners. It is, however, a vital option which schools with struggling readers need to consider. We are not suggesting that a school has to drop everything and use only the Stevenson Program. Quite the contrary. All schools should have multiple options because not all students are the same.

School systems cannot succeed if they ignore that population of pupils who go through two, three or even four years of school without showing meaningful reading progress. Most schools have at least a few such students, and some schools have many. These students are not going to suddenly start succeeding if the school continues to use the same method year after year – even if the method fits all the standards and reflects the research and even if the teachers test the students constantly. Stevenson is research-based, it covers standard basic skills, and it offers ample progress monitoring. However, the Stevenson Program, with its mnemonic clues and unique sequence, is truly DIFFERENT from most other methods. If you use the program, you know what we mean. If you do not use the program, visit www.StevensonLearning.com, check out “The oa friends in Action,” or read about sandwich and cake words. You will see what we are talking about.

While policy-makers have been trying to “fix” American education, schools and teachers have lost some valuable flexibility. The teacher is the person on the front lines with the greatest impact on students, yet most of the policy initiatives have come from outside the classroom. The current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has made some remarks that indicate he might appreciate the need for more flexibility on the front lines. Let us hope so. The “Race to the Top” cannot be won without raising the bottom. Allowing the teachers of struggling students to keep trying different things until they find what works could be an important piece of the educational puzzle. Maybe this simple idea just needs a catchy slogan and some government officials to use it!