Imagine going to the hardware store knowing you need to fix the mould in your bathroom. You look for ‘mould products’ and discover a wonderful looking bottle of mould killer that promises to eradicate all of your bathroom problems. You take it home, spray your bathroom liberally and regularly and the problem seems to clear up (you can forgive the bleached areas of paint on the untiled sections of your bathroom. After all, the mould is gone). Except, that it hasn’t. Your tiles look lovely and clean, but when you stop spraying your bathroom, you discover that the mould has come back. The spray was only ever masking the problem. What you didn’t know, was that the mould in your bathroom was caused by poor ventilation and the resulting humid environment. If you had asked some questions and done some research, you would have discovered this and taken a different course of action. Instead, you have spent money on an ineffective treatment that has actually damaged some areas of your home. So it goes with reading instruction programs.
Programs, projects, initiatives and reforms. In education, we are presented with these in a seemingly non-stop merry-go-round of attempts to improve outcomes. I say merry-go-round because in a twist of history the next ‘big thing’ often seems to be a reinvention of a program, project, initiative or reform from 10 years ago that was okay, but didn’t result in the miraculous growth and achievement that everyone had hoped for. Copious amounts of taxpayer’s dollars are spent on a new program, which is supported with training and resourcing for a set time period. After a few years (and a change of government later), it is evident that the first (really the 10th) program hasn’t ‘worked’ and so a newer, shinier program is selected. This program often has all of the hallmarks of an old program with added ‘innovations’ and is now packaged in a more visually pleasing box with videos available on YouTube to add an air of authority to the whole thing. There is a momentary bump in some kind of result that the program is designed to measure and it is hailed as a success! Until it isn’t. After a couple of years, results still don’t stack up on external assessments and then we have to try and figure out why it hasn’t worked. Is it training? Is it teacher workload? Is it fidelity? Is it the program? (At this point educators retreat to their own corner depending on whether they loved or hated the program in the first place) Then the cycle continues as a second program (really the 11th) is selected, based on something someone saw on Facebook or heard about from a friend at another school and another bucket load of taxpayer’s money is spent.
With all of this in mind, you may wonder at the title of this post. Despite the truth of the above paragraph, I actually think that a program can be an eminently useful and valuable tool in our schools. The problems arise when we rely on the program to be the answer to our educational issues rather than building our own knowledge and capacity to understand quality research and its implications for our practice. Education sectors do indeed need to build capacity of teachers to understand pedagogy, be data-literate and invest the time to critically evaluate research. When we choose a program based on the ‘good vibes’ of other schools or flashy promotions by publishers, we are missing the opportunity to make a wise decision that will impact significantly on our students. Worse still, we may well be choosing a program that promotes practices that hinder progress or result in long-lasting damage to learning and self-esteem.
As I see it, the problem is not the use of programs, but the lack of rigor in choosing a tool to equip us to teach. I can see many benefits of a high quality program that is selected based in scientific evidence and best practice as determined by actual student growth and achievement. In the Northern Territory, we have taken on an ‘off the shelf’ program for reading instruction. The program didn’t come first. The research did. After 6 months of researching the evidence into the most effective way to teach all students to read, a team made a short list of currently available resources and programs for teachers that supported systematic synthetic phonics. Each resource or program went through the rigorous auditing process using the Evidence Based Practices Framework (EBPF) that graded it on a range of criteria. The program was then trialed with a small group of schools before being rolled out across remote schools. There is no suggestion that the selected program is the sum-total of our literacy teaching and will fix all of our problems. It is recognised as meeting a specific need (that is, teaching systematic synthetic phonics, building fluency and exposing children to a range of skills and concepts that gets them on their way to literacy). The decodable readers included in the program are engaging and help children develop confidence and fluency, but do not replace language building through more complex literature read with children, which forms the stimulus for building grammar knowledge and writing skill. The writing components are fantastic, highly scaffolded opportunities to develop fundamentals, but they do not replace the imaginative story writing or factual writing instruction to enable children to write for a range of purposes. The program is a tool. We know why we are using it. We know its strengths and its limitations.
I have taught in a range of contexts and schools of varying sizes and I can see clear benefits of using a program. These benefits include
- Providing continuity in the face of staff turnover
- Empowering support staff to build capacity through training and supported teaching of groups.
- A very quick introduction of high quality teaching when first implemented
- Scaffolded opportunity for teachers to build their own skills in teaching which can then be transferred to other areas of practice. (providing that the program has been selected based on a set of sound criteria and a solid research base)
- Opportunity to minimise disruption in learning when children are very transient, as they are here in the NT
- Significant reduction in teacher planning time as all of the time consuming planning and preparation has been done for us
- Certainty that the lessons delivered meet the criteria for evidence based instruction
- Quality ongoing training through the publisher ensures that fidelity in training is achieved
- Supporting student growth by freeing teachers up to focus on other areas of teaching
Despite the advantages that a quality program brings us, we still need to help our teachers understand the research base of quality literacy instruction. We still need to build capacity in differentiating instruction to meet the needs of a range of learners. We still need teachers to develop sufficient skills to teach well regardless of setting or context. After all, it will always be the quality and capacity of the teacher that makes the biggest different to student outcomes.
So, what is the value of a quality program? As far as I’m concerned, if a program can help my team deliver high quality reading instruction that results in children becoming skilled and confident readers AND help us all get home to eat dinner with our families on time, then I will gladly embrace it.
Have you had an experience of teaching with a program that you think would help others? Share it in the comments below.