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How fashion frustrates school improvement

James P. Comer is one of the most successful school improvement experts in the country, but that doesn’t mean he gets much respect. Policy makers often resist his ideas. Take, for example, the Midwestern elementary school that went from 23rd to first in its district by using the School Development Program created by Comer and his Yale colleagues.

Did the school district leaders celebrate and recommend the program far and wide? No. They appear to have been disturbed by the results. They accused the school of cheating and insisted on a re-test, with local newspapers suggesting scandal. The students did even better the second time, but that did not win Comer’s team any plaudits. The superintendent removed the principal who had done so well with their methods and installed a new staff not trained to use them, bringing the scores back down to where the district leadership apparently thought they should be.

Comer, a child psychiatrist, has spent 40 years studying how attention to child and adolescent development—such as cognitive growth, social skills, emotional stability and ethical understanding---can improve learning in public schools. Schools using the School Development Program in Asheville, N.C., saw the portion of black fifth graders who tested proficient in reading climb from 50 to 90 percent in five years. Reading and math scores in community school district 17 in New York City and Westbury Community School District on Long Island significantly surpassed state averages after the program was introduced.

Yet, despite their successes, Comer and his colleagues have seen school districts
drop their program and foundations decline to renew their grants. In many instances, the reasons appear no more substantial than a desire to try something new.

In the music and clothing industries, ideas have a shelf life. New approaches are embraced for their novelty. Fashion rules. Changes occur often. That’s fine for those enterprises. But is it a good idea to write off successful school programs just because they have been around for a while?

Independent studies have identified other programs, such as Success For All, developed by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden in the 1980s, or Direct Instruction, designed in the 1960s by University of Oregon researchers Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, as among the most effective for raising the achievement of elementary school students, particularly those from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. But like Comer’s program, they are not mentioned very often these days at education conferences or school turnaround strategy meetings.

Still, Success for All was endorsed last month by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which completed a 13-year, $20 million study of school improvement models. Debra Viadero reported in Education Week that Success for All students moved, on average, from the 40th to the 50th percentile in reading between kindergarten and the end of second grade. The consortium report said Success for All and another program, America’s Choice, showed the greatest gains when teachers adhered closely to the program designers' recommendations.

Uh oh. Asking teachers to follow certain procedures is one of those old-fashioned approaches that have fallen out of favor. Many experts argue, often convincingly, that teachers know their students better than the program creators and should do what they think best.

That’s fine. Some of the best public schools I know encourage instructors to follow their own ideas and share results with colleagues. But those schools also demand that methods that don’t work be quickly discarded.

In 2002, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Johns Hopkins analyzed the 29 most widely implemented comprehensive school reform models. They identified Comer’s program, as well as Success for All and Direct Instruction, as the only ones that had clearly established, in various situations and study designs, that they significantly improved student test scores.

Of course, test scores aren’t everything. But they are something. I would be reluctant as a parent to trust my child to a school that did not give quantitative measures some credence.

So I applaud the rise of schools designed to let teachers do what works for them, with the understanding that they have to produce results. Such educators are less likely to ignore what works than the policymakers who turn their backs on programs like Comer’s.

[During its ten years at, this column has always taken the New Year's holiday off so the columnist can root for football teams that usually lose. We will honor that tradition once again. Go Broncos. The next trends column appears Jan. 8.]

For all the Post's Education coverage, please see

For more from Jay, go to

By Jay Mathews  | December 25, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Direct Instruction, James P. Comer, School Development Program, Success for All, child and adolescent development, school improvement  
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Next: More required P.E.--a bad idea from good people


So Jay, what do you think about my idea that the school district, far from being necessary for tax-paid education, is an actual impediment to the improvement of educational results?

When you consider the genesis of the school district, a result of a political compromise to maintain economic discrimination, the real mystery is why as inherently corrupt an institution as the school district hasn't come in for more critical examination then it has.

If the Topeka, Kansas school board had split the school district along racial lines there wouldn't have been a Brown v. Topeka decision since the basis of the decision was intra-district discrimination.

Posted by: allenm1 | December 25, 2009 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Speaking as a former teacher, I loved having a proven curriculum and almost-scripted lessons for reading and math. You don't spend the whole day on these lessons, but the time you do devote to them is demonstrably productive.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 25, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

"Asking teachers to follow certain procedures is one of those old-fashioned approaches that have fallen out of favor"

what? really??

I can't tell you how many urban schools have adopted this model in the past 5-10 years.

When I was teaching in NYC, a number of teachers in my grad school classes were unable to complete a project b/c they weren't allowed to write lesson plans for their own classroom -- they had to follow a scripted curriculum. My second year there marked the beginning of a push to spread an America's Choice program (Ramp Up to Literacy) into more middle schools.

The city of Pittsburgh has slowly standardized the curriculum of virtually every subject, first by awarding a huge contract to Kaplan and then through the central office revising and re-writing curricula. Teachers now are subject to random inspections with a checklist of things they should be doing at any given time.

I don't know about the suburbs, but "teacher-proof" curricula is possibly the fasting growing trend I've seen in urban schools.

Posted by: coreybower | December 25, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

For coreybower: an interesting question. I haven't see data on this, but will try to find some. Not much in the DC area is scripted, even in the inner city schools.

For allenm1: I am with you all the way, but politics suggest we will get nowhere.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 25, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Actually Jay, the politics are shaping up to be very interesting.

President Obama's not exactly on the NEA's "A" list and a big part of the reason is because of his support of a bunch of educational alternatives like charters. Democrats for Education reform is also very much behind a push in the same direction and the Citizens Committee for Civil Rights has chimed in so not only are there fracture lines along the issue of education in the Democratic party but also in the political left in general.

But concomitant with the disagreements on the subject among political activists is the growth of a constituency supportive of charters and, by extension, alternatives in general. That would be charter school parents who, having tasted the sweet fruit of control of their child's education are unlikely to easily submit to the whims of the ed-ocracy again nor to be particularly supportive of educational business as usual in general.

Then there are the politically opportunistic.

Mostly that'll be mayors given the size and rough outlines of school districts conforming as they do in many cases to the boundaries of cities. Some mayor somewhere will realize that by taking over a school district and turning all the schools into charters all the nice tax money that formerly went to pay the essentially useless central office staff will be up for grabs.

That mayor, if he's clever, will point to all those central office salaries and wonder out loud to the heads of various municipal unions how many of their members job's could be saved if those school district jobs, which charters clearly prove are superfluous, went away? Heck, there might even be enough in the way of savings so along with those municipal jobs there'd be could be tax cuts as well. That enlists the support of fiscal conservatives.

You still think the politics suggest we will get nowhere Jay?

Posted by: allenm1 | December 25, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

I never understand why teachers (who are always complaining about not having enough time) get all bent out of shape when the district writes lesson plans for them... It takes away like 60% of the work that teachers have to do

Posted by: someguy100 | December 26, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

I think this article is frustrating. What exactly is Comer's School Development Program? There is not a clue given about this, or about the other successful programs. Are they merely teach-to-test? There's no way of telling.

I used to write for a small daily newspaper about twenty years ago and that kind of omission would not have gotten past the editors. Why does it at the Post?

Posted by: ldudley1 | December 26, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

As an experienced--and previously very successful--teacher who changed jobs and is now teaching a semi-scripted program for the first time, I have to admit that there is a certain ease in having part of the lesson planning done for me. (The particular program I'm using gives the teacher more flexibility than many scripted programs.) And I am seeing some improvement in the students' test scores. But I have doubts. For example, are they becoming better readers, or just better takers of this program's test?

Are there any studies in which students in these programs are given OTHER reading tests to see if they show improvement? After all, if a student can read, then that should be evident on any test, not just the one toward which the program is geared.

Posted by: highschoolteacher | December 26, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Two words: teachers unions.

Posted by: tmkelley | December 26, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse


Just one word, unions.

Find one example of where unions have been willing to adapt to any change for the sake of progress, other than more pay for less work. Unions exist for the sole purpose of securing jobs for their members, which in most cases means no changes. Just think where we would be, if there were unions in the realm of technology.

Posted by: shhhhh | December 26, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you're incorrect about not much being scripted in the DC area. Prince George's County - one of the largest systems in the area, is very scripted, with teachers expected to be on a certain page of the script on any given day. From what I hear, it makes sub plans Really easy.

I welcome the idea of letting someone else do my lesson planning for me, to some extent. Where it falls apart is when my students need an extra day to grasp the material, but my script says I need to move on.

Posted by: LadybugLa | December 26, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I agree with ldudley. A program increases test scores, and the school is accused of cheating? Jay, without question or explanation, expects us to accept that the school district was evil and these accusations were unfounded. We have no idea what this program is, whether it has worked elsewhere, or what.

And Jay blames this on "fashion"? The school board deliberately lowers a school's scores and reduces learning and accuses a program that did otherwise as cheating and that's "fashion"?

Jay would have done well to focus on teacher disgust for scripted teaching. He mentions in passing that teachers can't stand it--something I can verify. At Stanford, I was talking to one of the instructors of the C&I class I took, and mentioned that scripted instruction was incredibly successful in certain contexts.

The instructor, who taught at a local school as well, was emphatic. "We have to do scripted programs, I leave teaching."

"But it actually improves learning."

"I leave teaching."

"Even if it closes the performance gap?"

"I leave teaching."

Delightful interest in exploring new strategies there.

At the same time, Corey Bower is correct, and I'm surprised Jay is writing about scripted instruction without knowing that it's a growing trend in inner cities. The Post has done many articles on it, I believe.

Either way, I'm not sure what the point of this piece is, but it ain't "fashion".

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 26, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

ldudley1 makes an excellent point. I should have explained more. The method involves a great deal of training teachers to recognize children who are slow in emotional and other kinds of development, and approaching them in certain ways. There is also an unusual emphasis on ethics and character for all students. The idea is to make sure each child comes into class with as few distractions as possible.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 26, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

There is also a great emphasis on making time for teamwork among teachers and parents.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 26, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Until or unless parents can truly choose among schools -- and take their tuition dollars with them -- we've got a gigantic nation-wide monopoly. Anyone whose studied the actions of our public BOE's, sooner or later, will discover that their number 1 over-riding concern is that they might face competition; they already know what the results would look like if the strangle-hold is loosed.

Posted by: socks2 | December 26, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher, I have several comments...

First, the elementary teachers in my district have to follow scripts. The principals check on them and expect every teacher in a grade level to be on the same page of the lesson when she walks through their rooms. I think this is ridiculous because it doesn't allow for any spontaneous learning or for any differences in the abilities of the students. It sends the message that the principals don't trust the teachers to be professional enough to cover the standards on their own.

Second, teachers hate scripted programs because most of them are bad. The people who write the scripted programs are usually people who weren't good teachers in the classroom. We've had many ideas pushed on us at workshops, and when most of them don't work, we are reluctant to try new ones.

Posted by: landerk1 | December 26, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Preparing a lesson plan is a necessary step toward teaching the lesson. Teachers are not actors. They are thinkers. If a teacher lacks the intellectual muscle to design appropriate lessons, then he or she won't be very effective in the classroom.

What teachers need are clear guidelines in the form of grade-specific learning goals and content-related materials (e.g., books for English, lab equipment for science, etc.).

Programs like America's Choice and Success for All were structured in an attempt to teacher-proof the classroom, but no curriculum can protect students from an ill-informed, dull-witted, lazy teacher.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | December 26, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

To implement a scripted program effectively, you need to study the script and do a great deal of materials preparation. So, having a scripted curriculum meant that I had the same amount of a work as when I didn't have one. And, it meant that I was faced with a lot of tough (ethical) dilemmas. Scripted curriculums like Success For All are meant to supplant traditional teaching techniques, and sometimes, traditional teaching techniques--like using leveled chapter books in homogeneous small groups, using running records to track reading progress, etc.--serve struggling students best. Should I use Success For All because it might influence my students' test scores more than having groups read Number the Stars, Hatchet, etc.? The experience of reading Number the Stars or Hatchet might create a lifelong, self-motivated reader out of a student who is ambivalent towards books, but it won't directly help him with those standardized test passages, because you can bet that I'm going to assign a research project about the Holocaust that synthesizes information and themes from the book after we're done reading it.

I'm not going to lie. It was very hard for me to get excited about any of the scripted curriculums that I tried to use. I'm only human, and try though I might, I can't fake loving whatever I teach. When teaching a book like Number the Stars, I knew that my passion was incendiary--I could see it across the faces of my students, and it was evident in the enthusiasm and interest with which they approached assignments. (And perhaps--gasp!--it wasn't just me. Perhaps there is something about that book that inspires passion in reluctant students.)

If anyone knows of scripted programs which allow teachers to use whole books treated as literature, I would love to know about them. It'd be great to hear that the lifeless, plodding programs that I'm familiar with are not representative of the whole.

Posted by: -JP- | December 27, 2009 3:26 AM | Report abuse

Scripted reading instruction is not meant to replace study of literature; it's meant to make such study possible, by building reading skills to the point where reading becomes fluent.

Posted by: jane100000 | December 27, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Since it's not explained very well in this column, there is a lot of confusion in the comments about the School Development Program. It is NOT some sort of scripted instruction curriculum. It's not hard to find out more about it on the web. Also, it's being implemented at a number of schools in Prince George's County. Perhaps you should arrange a visit to find out about the program more directly, Mr. Matthews.

Posted by: Pimms | December 28, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Jay- not sure what was happening when you wrote this column, but it is quite confusing. Are you saying that programs such as Success for All are abandoned because new programs become fashionable? From what I have heard, the issue with programs like Success for All is that teachers resent the scripting and fought their implementation. I think you ran a column sometime in the last year that was Enterprise Institute study about Charter Schools that noted that they took the lion-share of very talented teachers from high achieving ivy leagues and that it was unlikely that schools could scale up with that type of talent and there for needed to rely on programs that did not require so much talent just consistency. The issue to me is not fashion, but scale.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 28, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

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