By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"By the end of third grade, it's over. The teachers in fourth through sixth grade are teaching social studies and math. There is stuff to memorize and be tested on. The teachers are not there to teach basic reading."
So what happens to the 41 percent of black students who can't pass the reading TAAS test in DISD at the end of third grade? The 38 percent of Hispanic students? The 22 percent of white students?
Russell Fish says, "They're toast."
They can't read. They can't understand any of their textbooks. They sit there. The way they avoid the humiliation of not being able to read is by being disruptive. They endure until they are old enough to drop out. They drop out.
So why can Houston teach them to read?
After the defeat of a major bond proposal in May 1996, Houston schools superintendent Rod Paige put into motion a number of reforms designed to show voters that his district was effective and responsible. A centerpiece of those reforms was Houston's own voluntary version of the rule George W. Bush wants to make state law--a no-TAAS, no-pass rule.
Paige's rule, like the Bush rule, is designed not to flunk kids, but to force teachers to get them ready for the third-grade TAAS reading test. A major component of no-TAAS, no-pass in Houston--as would be true with the Bush proposal--involves spending money to teach teachers of kindergarten and first and second grades how to teach reading, and specifically how to teach it to poor kids.
It's huge, and it's hugely expensive. The cost for teacher training in Houston this year alone will be almost $2.7 million.
Dallas also has a teacher-training plan, called the Dallas Reading Plan. It costs more than Houston's, $3 million a year, even though Dallas' pre-K through third-grade student population is only three-fourths the size of Houston's, and Dallas has more kids per teacher in elementary school classrooms than Houston.
In two years of emergency semi-seat-of-the-pants operation, Houston's reading program has taken HISD from the doldrums to the very pinnacle of major urban-market performance in Texas. Houston's pre-K through third-grade TAAS results are even crowding suburban school districts like Plano.
In one year of a districtwide reading program here, Dallas' overall pre-K through third-grade performance has dropped slightly.
It's not the programs. The man running the reading program in Dallas, Dr. Robert Cooter, is the author of one of the nation's most respected teacher-training texts. Cooter's program probably encompasses an even broader and deeper mix of all the available wisdom on early reading for poor kids than the Houston program, which relies heavily on phonics "drill and kill" techniques.
The issue isn't money--Dallas spends more--and it's probably not technique.
The Houston reading program for kids is massive and mandatory. Every single teacher, kindergarten through third grade--that's almost 4,000 teachers--has been required to take intensive training over the last two years. They attended two weeks of training the first year of the initiative, and one week this year after the reading staff was able to condense its program.
Phyllis C. Hunter, the reading czar in Houston, admits that her management style is tough and that her program taxes teachers heavily. "I'm hard, let me tell you that," she says. "But I have to be sure that the people we are training to teach reading are able to go out there and get the kids to read."
Hunter's sense of urgency is not merely personal. Beginning with this year's first-, second-, and third-grade students, a student in HISD will not be able to advance to the next level unless and until he has:
1. Passed reading tests in first and second grades and the TAAS reading test in third grade;
2. Scored within a year of his grade level on the Stanford Achievement Test or the Spanish language Aprenda test;
3. Achieved a 70 average in course grades.
Look at Dallas:
Cooter's reading program is voluntary. Teachers only take it if they want to. And they have to take it on their own time. After school. And they're not paid for their time.
Of the almost 3,000 teachers in the pre-K through third-grade levels, 500 are signed up for the program this year. Six elementary schools in Dallas have no teachers signed up for the program at all.
Cooter says that's how it is, and he says it is his goal to keep the program voluntary. "We want to have such a positive effect that eventually people who haven't gone through the reading academy will want to do it," he says.
And what particular deadline or gun to the head does DISD impose on itself in terms of when it needs to have everybody reading by the end of third grade?
Cooter says, "We are committed to have 90 percent of our children reading at grade-level by the year 2001."
But why 2001? Why not now? And why does it have to be voluntary? Why wouldn't Dallas just do what Houston has done--call those early-ed teachers in, line them up, and give them their marching orders? This is how you teach poor kids to be reading-ready by Christmas of the first-grade year.