Sharman Burson Ramsey
The time has passed when rhetoric and "current wisdom" will
suffice for research and results in judging the validity of an
educational program. Too many Alabama school children have
fallen victim to the tragedy of compassionate child-centered
education and the agendas of high-priced consultants with costly
solutions for the problems produced by the last wave of
high-priced consultants. We are now beset with a new batch of
consultants riding the high tech wave into those states with
large numbers of disadvantaged children who translate into more
One such high tech panacea is the IBM Writing to Read
programs that Dr. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University
reviewed in an article for Phi Delta Kappan entitled
"IBM's Writing to Read: Is it Right for Reading?"(1)
Slavin reports that the first year cost is between $20,000 and
$24,000 per lab. This does not include aides to manage the lab,
or costs of maintenance, security, insurance, or consumable
materials. Despite the cost, the program is being adopted by
those that seem least able to afford the program, such as:
Atlanta, Baltimore, Tulsa, Nashville, Dallas, Fort Worth,
Washington, D.C., Mississippi, and now Alabama.
Unfortunately, the test results continue to prove that high
expenditures do not translate into high academic performance.
There has not been a perceptible increase in the reading scores
of those localities since publication of the article in 1990. My
own school district, Dothan City Schools, installed IBM
computers two years ago when 27 percent of second graders could
make only a minimal or no measurable response on the Reading
Comprehension portion of the Alabama Integrated Reading and
Writing Assessment. Now after two years using the IBM Writing to
Read, 30 percent can make only a minimal or no measurable
response, a continuing increase in illiteracy and an expensive
mistake as our board now faces over a $1 million expected
shortfall in funds.
While the IBM Writing to Read program claims to be a phonics
program, its lack of direct, systematic instruction in phonics
and follow-up of the rules of our language, as well as its use
of inventive spelling betray its Whole Language reality. The
teacher's instructional manual for the IBM Writing to Read
program dispels any doubt as to its being Whole Language.
Blatantly spouting the Whole Language philosophy, it reads: "The
transition to standard spelling does not need to be specifically
'taught.' Rather, it is a natural process similar to the speech
refinement we observe in children as they progress from babbling
to speaking with correct pronunciation."(2)
With IBM's Writing to Read, children are encouraged to spell
the word "face" as "fas." Children are not taught that the "e"
at the end of the word turns on the long sound of the "a," and
the c uses its second sound (s) because when "c" comes before e,
i, or y it sounds like an "s." Rather, the IBM manual states,
"Premature insistence that students use standard or correct
spelling inhibits their desires and abilities to write."(3)
Contrary to that assumption, when Dr. Sylvia Farnham-Diggory
reviewed direct instructional, phonics intensive Spalding
Writing Road to Reading, she found eager students who developed
early analytical skills through phonetic analysis. She
discovered they applied those skills to math and scored higher
in math as well as reading.(4)
California has acknowledged the devastating effects of Whole
Language on their state. They recently tied for last in the
nation in reading on the NAEP. "And the NAEP found that at least
30% of students who have spent from four to 13 years in school
aren't even semiliterate."(5) Yet, Alabama continues to
use its own scarce education dollars for another expensive
educational gadget based on failed theory.
Slavin's evaluation of the IBM program states that while an
effect size of .25 is considered significant, the IBM Writing to
Read produces only a .00 effect. The same study shows the
systematic, intensive, and direct phonics program, Alphaphonics
(now Kite), scoring consistently with a .89 effect and costing
only $130 per classroom to train the teacher and equip the
class. One wonders at administrators' eagerness to spend great
sums on an ineffective gimmick. But, grants and federal funding
make this tempting technology accessible to impoverished school
districts. Then, in spite of gleaming new computer labs, they
are no better off academically than before. In fact, with the
high cost of upkeep putting demands on scarce local funds, the
new technology actually prevents districts from contracting with
those companies with successful methods to produce literate
children. As one principal put it, "We've got too much invested
in this to change."
The tragedy is we have known for years what works. While
Secretary of Education, William Bennett reported on a
comprehensive study of what works in elementary education in the
government publication, First Lessons. But, as John
Stossel reported recently on "20/20," only one percent of
America's schools use the method supported by research.(6)
Slavin's exposition of the IBM Writing to Read program
reinforces the research findings of Project Follow Through, a
competition of methodologies involving 70,000 low IQ,
disadvantaged children over a four year period. The results are
reported in Making Schools More Effective: New Directions
from Follow Through. (7) The most effective program
entered in the competition by far is Distar, developed by
Siegfried Englemann, who was featured in the "20/20" segment
done by John Stossel.(8)
Ironically, as we face skyrocketing juvenile crime, Distar is
reported in Advances in Clinical Child Psychology to be
"distinctively prevention oriented." Its authors go on to report
that it "minimizes the possibility of individual problems
arising in the first place"(9) by displacing "the reading
performance of disadvantaged children from the lowest
percentiles to the norm on standardized reading test."(10)
This is confirmed by studies conducted by the Justice
"60 Minutes" revisited Marva Collins' West End Preparatory
School after 16 years to follow up on the 34 students they had
originally featured.(12) Those methods considered
preventive for potential psychological problems in Distar have
brought Marva Collins' "at risk," "disadvantaged" students
academic success and personal fulfillment. . .and have confirmed
their usefulness as a preventive for juvenile crime. Her
students score consistently in the 99th percentile, police have
never been called to her school, and there has not been one
teenage pregnancy.(13) The Justice Department
acknowledges the effectiveness of this type of education as a
deterrent to crime by supporting Marva Collins' School.
Yet, in spite of the amazing results of Distar in Project
Follow Through, in 1984 the Department of Education ignored its
own study and gave sociologist William Spady a mandate to put
Outcome Based Education in schools across the nation. Since that
time our colleges of education have promoted self-directed
learning, individualized instruction, and social intervention,
building blocks of Outcome Based Education. These concepts are
the basis for the current politically correct, but factually
incorrect, assumption that children are illiterate because they
are victims of society and therefore society must be fixed so
that "all children can begin school ready to learn," a basic
premise of Goals 2000. In fact, Project Follow Through proved
that "good will, people, material, the Hawthorne effect, health
programs, dental programs, and hot lunch programs do not cause
gains in achievement. All Follow Through sponsored programs had
these components, but all models did not achieve similar levels
of success in basic instruction."(14)
It is little wonder the results of Project Follow Through
have been ignored by the NEA and its alter ego, the Department
of Education. It does not fit their agenda as set forth in the
1995 NEA Resolutions.
We must not continue selling our children out for the paltry
federal funds that bind us to experimental educational theory
and destructive social engineering. We must confine the mission
of schools to academics, look to what research tells us works,
and demand accountability from our schools in producing what
parents expect: children who graduate culturally literate and
able to read, write, and calculate.
Politics, profits, position, power and prejudice must no
longer manipulate this dialogue. Our future is too much "at
risk" for another ten-year education mistake.
Sharman Burson Ramsey has been a teacher in public and
- Robert Slavin. "IBM's Writing to Read: Is It Right for
Reading?" Phi Delta Kappan. November, 1990. Vol. 72, No. 3.
- The Writing to Read Teacher's Manual, 1986, p. 11-8.
- Id. at p. 1-4.
- Dr. S. Farnham-Diggory is H. Rodney Sharp Professor of
Educational Studies and Psychology, and Director of the
Reading Study Center, and of the Academic Study and Assistance
Program, University of Delaware.
- Mathew Robinson. "Last Rites for an Education Fad?
California Blasts Progressive Reading Methods. Is Whole
Language Dead?" Investor's Business Daily. Vol. 12, No. 119,
September, 28, 1995.
- "20/20". An ABC presentation. October 13, 1995.
- W.C. Becker, S. Englemann, D.W. Carnine, and W. R. Rhine.
Direct Instruction Model". Making Schools More Effective: New
Directions from Follow Through. W. Ray Rhine (Ed.). Academe
Press: New York. 1981.
- "20/20." An ABC presentation. October 13, 1995.
- Benjamin B. Lahey and Alan E. Kazdin. Advances in Child
Psychology. Plenum Press: New York. Vol. 4, p. 271.
- Id. at p. 251.
- Michael S. Brunner. Retarding America: the Imprisonment of
Potential. Halcyon House: Portland. 1993.
- "60 Minutes". A CBS presentation. October 8, 1995.
- The Marva Collins Teacher Training Institute, 4146 West
Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60651. (312) 227-5995. See
also: "Spreading the Paradigm of a Master Teacher: The Great
Expectations Initiative in Oklahoma" a paper presented at the
Annual Research Conference of the Association for Public
Policy Analysis and Management, in Washington D.C., October,
- W.C. Becker, et al, p. 144.