Oak Park schools should take a step back from Fast ForWord

Opinion: Columns

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Larry Howe

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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.

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Reader Comments

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Carol Johnsen  

Posted: June 9th, 2016 4:39 PM

FF took my 9yr old from 10th percentile to 60th across all measurable academic levels. We did the program for 4 months. His school was shocked...I sent back a different child to them in the fall.

Primeline31 from Hicksville NY  

Posted: March 9th, 2013 10:24 AM

I meant that my school alone has 25 Kindergarten FF students. Our district has 8 elementary schools, 1 middle and 1 H.S.

Primeline31 from Hicksville NY  

Posted: March 9th, 2013 10:22 AM

T.A. here. I've been assigned to work with K & 1st Gr. FF students for the this yr and the last. In my bldg, FF has 25 K students. Teachers cheer when FF is cancelled for the day. 5-6 yr olds are forced to sit completely still & focused only on a screen for 30 min. Poss. hearing loss? Doesn't speek English? Too bad. No talking, looking away from the screen. Tears? Sorry, here's a tissue, now click. 81days on the game? Keep going until you get to 100%. This is not education.


Posted: October 4th, 2012 10:13 AM

Why do the FF proponents remind me of defenders of multi-level marketing? Thou dost protest too much.

Charles Walters from Wagram NC  

Posted: October 4th, 2012 9:33 AM

I am on the East Coast, and they use Fast Forward here also. It is a useless program. I have spoken to several teachers, and they have said this program is mainly for autistic children, not for those who can read or have some difficulty. Computer programs are fine as a tool, but to replace teachers who have years of training is just stupid!!! $500,000 is a lot of money to spend on a program that will be scrapped when something else comes along. Quit wasting money, let the teachers teach.


Posted: May 9th, 2012 4:47 PM


I just love this...  

Posted: January 11th, 2012 2:26 PM

Of course, there is no irony in mistyping Fast ForWord's name in that last post.....

I just love this...  

Posted: January 11th, 2012 2:24 PM

@Kelly: I know reading is a skill, all I said about FastForward was that I did not know about it. My point dealt with the other issue raised -the push to keep tech out of classrooms. The cited study dealt with utilizing tech with kids who are not as responsive to traditional teaching methods. Do you really think kids have changed that much over time? We know the tech has. Of course, most parents around here do not care that low income kids are over 20% of D97's student population.

Hey New YUK  

Posted: January 11th, 2012 10:12 AM

please don't post the FFW company website as an objective evidence tool for their own product. Krystal, a quick blurb from NCRTI with links to evidence from the company website is not much better.

Fast ForWord Advocate from New York  

Posted: January 11th, 2012 10:02 AM

There's an idea. Let high school kids tutor our young struggling elementary students. I wonder if people actually read the research, and PROVEN RESULTS that come from using Fast ForWord. Maybe they should read first then comment. Check it out - www.scilearn.com Then re-post something that makes sense. This program works!


Posted: January 11th, 2012 9:52 AM

There is some very misleading information regarding Fast Forword. I have seen it implemented and it is only 30 minutes per day and does not "re-enforce" anything, but re-wires the neurons for foundational language skills. It was also recently named the number one intervention by the NCRTI... Before having a negative opinion on something, you should research ALL of the facts.


Posted: January 7th, 2012 1:25 PM

Not Taxpayer, but I think the supt can have a stake in the program without actually being in their pockets at the present time. It seems very suspicious to me that this is supposed to be D97's golden ticket out of academic warning. I supported the referendum and am just sick that this admin thinks the answer to all our problems is to job it out.

53 Percenter from Oak Park  

Posted: January 7th, 2012 1:22 PM

Taxpayer: you answered the easy ones. Please reply to my 1st. Do you have any evidence that the Supt has a personal financial stake in FastForward?


Posted: January 7th, 2012 11:56 AM

@53 Percenter To answer your questions, yes I have met the Supt. and was less than impressed. And of course I know he provided info to support his position. So there you go.

53 Percenter from Oak Park  

Posted: January 7th, 2012 10:19 AM

Taxpayer, you can agree or disgree with spending $$ on this program, but to throw out unsubstantiated charges of corruption is chicken-bleep on your part. Do you have any shred of evidence that Supt Roberts has a personal financial stake in this? Have you ever met the Supt or attended a board meeting? Did the possibility that he believes strongly in the program and provided info to support his position ever enter your mind? Didn't think so...grow up.


Posted: January 7th, 2012 9:20 AM

I suspect Supt. Roberts has some vested interest in Fast ForWord; why else would he "convince the board by "sheer force of will." There's some $ incentive for him, perhaps he's a financial backer of the company. Fast ForWord was used in his last district, correct? Snap out of it, Board Members, come out of the spell he's put you under! Use your heads!

Don't forget  

Posted: January 7th, 2012 8:48 AM

the time required to make the fastForward a success, the study I read said it required 60 mins per day! The questions that should be racing trough our heads, What other learning activities will students be missing while doing in fF program? Who is going to administer the fF program, new staff? Do we have the computers in every school in the district to plunk the student in front of for the program? why can we find this info but he Board and Super can't? Just say no to fF.


Posted: January 6th, 2012 6:20 PM

That doesn't count teacher time.


Posted: January 6th, 2012 6:11 PM

Correction: Yearly cost of Fast ForWord after half million dollar purchase price is $4,500 x 10 schools, not $45,000 x 10 as previously stated, in error. Apologies.


Posted: January 6th, 2012 5:38 PM

@I just love this, I looked at the website you cited. The most recent citation in the bibliography was in 1994. I'd hardly call that strong support for your position. By contrast, a 2010 analysis of Fast ForWord shows that it is not effective. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3061204/?tool=pmcentrez

A Vastly Cheaper And More Effective Teaching Tool  

Posted: January 6th, 2012 5:35 PM

Thesaurus, dictionary and a Scrabble Board.

I just love this....  

Posted: January 6th, 2012 5:24 PM

Let's see the evidence. I'l start first even though I know GOPers like Mrs. Seuffert hate the Dept of Ed: Technology and Education Reform - A Research Project Sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement U.S. Department of Education - http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/EdReformStudies/EdTech/effectsstudents.html


Posted: January 6th, 2012 5:11 PM

I'm no researcher, but a pilot study of 3 schools over a summer is not the basis to make a decision to spend a half million dollars plus yearly million (est $45,000 x 10 schools). I want iron clad guarantees if my tax dollars are being spent on this. Why do the board members have no backbones to stand up to this supposed educator?

VirginaSeuffert from Oak Park  

Posted: January 6th, 2012 4:47 PM

There is ample evidence at this point that high tech educational products have not lived up to the hype. Several studies have shown that test scores remain flat or even go down when kids get more access to computers. One VA district gave every high school student a laptop. The kids were using them to check facebook not do research. There is no substitute for direct instruction from a teacher. Manning is correct.

I just love this.....  

Posted: January 6th, 2012 3:52 PM

Using an iPad, computer, iPod Touch, etc. may reach a kid who does not learn as well via regular, traditional methods. Ever think of that before you posted, Peterson? Of course not, because it is all about you and your experiences....


Posted: January 5th, 2012 6:00 PM

I must be missing something: What "personal attacks" are you talking about?

Manning Peterson  

Posted: January 5th, 2012 5:06 PM

Nice, more personal attacks from "anonymous" WJ potshot-takers. The 1% household I grew up in had no technology more complicated than dirt pies and macrame hemp, and I've cleaned houses for pay, as did my mom and grandmother. Using an iPad won't prepare your kid for a tech career. Playing video games won't make your kid a game coder. Watching TV won't make your baby Einstein. Sitting for hours in front of a screen--any screen--is terrible for adults AND kids, rich AND poor, body AND mind.


Posted: January 5th, 2012 4:11 PM

It's no wonder that this software costs so much. Look at the CEO pay of the company that makes it: http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/stories/2008/12/29/daily34.html It's not about denying children access to technology. It's about using tax dollars wisely and not buying overpriced software when low tech options might produce better results.


Posted: January 5th, 2012 3:52 PM

This isn't really tech, though. I would prefer that the district actually invest in technology rather than send hundreds of thousands of dollars on some iffy stuff that might or might not work.

I just love this....  

Posted: January 5th, 2012 3:50 PM

Don't know about this Fast ForWord, but I see that the Prof and other high-tech Oak Park parents have decided that ALL D97 kids do not need to use tech in their ed because other high-tech parents in Silicon Valley who have the stuff at home do not need it in their schools. What about the kids around here from families that are not high-tech? Ever think of them Prof or Peterson? Let's just shut the door on them as the world needs them around to clean the houses of the 1% high-tech parents..

Manning Peterson  

Posted: January 5th, 2012 3:05 PM

I agree with every word of this essay. As a high-tech parent who values low-tech family and learning time, I was beyond annoyed that D97 thinks my kindergartner needs an iPad for class instruction. He doesn't, of course; his teachers and the Irving administration are wonderful and seem more than capable of teaching him. Pairing older kids with younger kids is a great idea, keeping our tax dollars in the community and giving older kids valuable work experience.


Posted: January 4th, 2012 8:34 PM

Thanks for this thoughtful opinion piece, Larry. I hope D97 considers the points you have raised.

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