I am concerned about your report on the District 97 school board's inclination to adopt a computer-based reading intervention program, Fast ForWord, touted by Supt. Roberts [Is $500,000 too much for District 97? News, Dec. 28].
What disturbs me is the board's lack of attention to the reservations expressed by the teachers who piloted the software. Your report suggests that Roberts has persuaded the board, in the words of one member, "by sheer force of will," and they are directing him to perform the same rhetorical leverage on the teachers. One wonders why the board members are so spellbound by Roberts and so dismissive of the teachers who, after piloting Fast ForWord, doubt its merits.
A recent New York Times article, "Inflating the Software Report Card" (Oct. 8), casts a skeptical eye on many software education programs and the results that the companies who produce them boast. A little further research shows that the evaluation of the Fast ForWord by the Department of Education's Institute of Education Services (IES) suggests a similar pattern of questionable results, lending credence to the reservations voiced by the D97 teachers in the pilot program.
Of the 115 studies conducted on Fast ForWord, only six met the research standards of IES, and those six studies found only slightly positive effects in alphabetics and virtually no measurable positive effects in comprehension. What's even more curious is that the study groups worked with the program in addition to the curriculum, whereas the control groups in each study worked with the standard curriculum only.
It should come as no surprise that additional practice yields improved skill. Indeed, the study group's positive effects can be attributed just as easily to the additional time spent on literacy skills as to the program itself. Still, the D97 board appears ready to spend more than a half million dollars for a program that fundamentally provides reinforcement, which could be provided by other means and perhaps with greater effectiveness.
Here's an alternative: Instead of sending more than $500,000 of Oak Park taxpayer dollars to a company in California, why not develop a corps of tutors from Oak Park and River Forest (including high school students), many of whom may be interested in teaching as a career. Pay these local citizen tutors for the hours they spend reading to elementary students and coaching those students to develop their own confidence as readers. This direct interaction between tutor and student can extend far beyond the phonemic decoding that is the only measurable benefit of Fast ForWord; rather, the tutor and student can talk about what a reading selection contains, what it assumes the reader knows, and how it seeks to inform the reader with new knowledge.
These kinds of interactions, I suspect, have far more benefit to a developing reader than simply plugging him or her into a computer terminal and headphones.
A recent New York Times article, "A Silicon Valley School that Doesn't Compute" (Oct. 22), provides a fascinating counterpoint to the questionable step that D97 is contemplating. A Waldorf school in California, where the top executives of many Silicon Valley companies send their children, rejects technology in the formative educational years, in favor of old-fashioned chalk on the blackboard, books, interpersonal teaching, and hands-on tasks. How ironic that the same individuals who are marketing digital interfaces to the world, and to many of the nation's schools, support an educational approach that defers technology to a later time in a developing child's life.
Nevertheless, if Supt. Roberts and the board are so convinced that computer-based instruction is the way to go — Roberts explicitly used the word, "when" the benefits of the program are realized not "if," suggesting infallible predictive powers — perhaps he and the board members are willing to commit personal funds in order to post a surety bond for the cost of the program. After three years, if Fast ForWord has proven its value by meeting our students' needs, we can congratulate the proponents of the program for their vision, and reimburse them the costs they incurred for the bond plus interest. If on the other hand, Fast ForWord turns out to be just another digital boondoggle, the taxpayers of D97 will be reimbursed for a costly educational decision that failed to deliver results.
Larry Howe is a professor of English at Roosevelt University.
Answer Book 2018
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