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We've Been Waiting For This Moment... Are We Ready?

By: Donald D. Deshler (2004)

For years, policy makers have funded programs that have been focused on improving outcomes for younger children — always in the hopes of preventing problems of poor academic achievement when children move into secondary schools. Head Start and Early Head Start are comprehensive child development programs that serve children from birth to age 5. Reading First targets children in grades K-3 to ensure that they master basic reading skills. Billions of dollars have been poured into these efforts. While Title I funding is targeted at improving outcomes for all disadvantaged youth, the vast majority of this funding has historically been directed at children in elementary schools and a relatively small percentage of total expenditures go to older children in middle high school settings.

No one can argue with the potential merits of early intervention and prevention. The goals of such initiatives are laudable. However, in spite of these efforts to work with young children, growing numbers of adolescents continue to struggle in school. For example, an astounding 68 percent of eighth-grade students and 64 percent of 12th-grade students fail to attain the level of proficient reader, a goal set by the National Assessment Governing Board.

For years, the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (CRL) staff has tried to convince policy makers about the critical literacy needs of adolescents. Often times, these pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. However, some very exciting developments have emerged in recent months that signal an encouraging shift in priorities at the federal level. Namely, last spring the National Institutes for Health (NIH) announced a new research priority in the area of adolescent literacy for the purpose of determining which interventions work best for which adolescents under which instructional conditions. And, in his State of the Union message to Congress on January 20, 2004, President Bush indicated that to meet the outcome expectations of No Child Left Behind, it would be important to focus on the unique needs of older students and young adults! The next day, when visiting a middle school in Florida that had shown significant reading score gains through the use of Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) interventions, First Lady Laura Bush announced a new reading program, the Striving Readers Initiative, which focuses specifically on adolescents who struggle in reading, and an accompanying $100 million request for adolescent literacy that the President was sending to Congress in his FY 05 budget!

These long-awaited developments are most encouraging. Increasingly, as administrators are being pressured to use research-based practices to improve outcomes (based on stipulations set forth in No Child Left Behind), requests for staff development on SIM interventions have gone up dramatically. Bottom line, CRL is being asked to describe the kinds of outcomes schools can expect to achieve if they adopt SIM. We've been waiting for a time when schools would be asking us about SIM and how it relates to improving student outcomes…well, that time seems to have arrived! Are we ready to respond?

Factors that can optimize outcomes

The task of improving adolescent outcomes on critical national or state assessment measures is extremely challenging…even daunting! If SIM is to represent a promising solution for schools, it must be implemented in a way that will bring about significant changes in student behavior. During the past few years SIM implementers and CRL researchers have identified three factors that have been present when significant student gains have been made.

Factor #1: Use multiple research-based interventions over a sustained period of time. The probability of affecting student outcomes is enhanced if we use multiple interventions that are related to a desired outcome. For example, if our goal is to improve student outcomes in the area of reading, we need to first remind ourselves of what factors are embodied in being a "skilled reader." Basically, skilled readers are those who fluently apply word recognition and text comprehension behaviors in a strategic fashion during their reading. Skilled readers not only possess an array of comprehension and word recognition strategies, but they also have the necessary background knowledge, vocabulary, and text structure awareness to deal effectively with various reading demands.

In light of these realities, reading programs for struggling adolescent readers would typically include several reading strategies as well as numerous Content Enhancement Routines. Obviously, the Word Identification Strategy improves student abilities to decode the multi-syllabic words they encounter in secondary texts. Each of the comprehension strategies (the Paraphrasing Strategy, Visual Imagery Strategy, and Self-Questioning Strategy) enables students to respond to different types of texts and subject matters. (Remember, no one comprehension strategy is sufficiently powerful to equip students to deal with all kinds of text materials.)

Several Content Enhancement Routines potentially are relevant to improving reading comprehension. The Survey Routine will help students understand expository text structure and will assist them in differentiating critical from supplementary information. The Clarifying Routine and Vocabulary LINCing Routine will enhance knowledge of core vocabulary. Use of such routines as the Concept Mastery Routine, Concept Anchoring Routine, and Concept Comparison Routine by content teachers will enable students to keep abreast of critical content through class lectures that they may not be able to read about in their texts because of limited reading abilities.

This is certainly not an exhaustive listing of SIM interventions that are directly related to improving reading outcomes, but they are illustrative of the fact that because of the complex nature of the reading process and all of the factors that must be addressed to produce a skilled reader, multiple strategies and instructional procedures must be employed to change student behavior. In short, instruction in a single strategy or use of a single routine, for most students, is simply not sufficient. Rather, an array of research-based interventions, all aimed at improving the targeted outcome measures, will be required to affect student performance.

Factor #2: Teach interventions with fidelity and intensity. The overall effectiveness of an intervention is tied closely to two factors: (1) how the intervention is designed and (2) how the intervention is taught. Fidelity of implementation is tied directly to the second factor. As defined, fidelity means "…strictness and thoroughness of performance, with exactness, with accuracy." Given the problems that many at-risk students (including those with disabilities) evidence in information processing, it is critical that we carefully adhere to well-established principles of learning and pedagogy, as well as strictly follow the instructional details outlined in instructional manuals. When an intervention procedure is validated, it is taught according to a specified set of instructional guidelines. To reasonably expect similar results with a given intervention in "scaled-up" practice, it is essential to make the guidelines and principles of the intervention clear. The eight-stage instructional sequence has been found to be sufficiently powerful to enable at-risk students to learn strategies quickly and efficiently. As we know, instruction within these eight stages should be provided in the context of a learning apprenticeship in which the teacher takes an active role in describing and modeling alternative ways to approach tasks that are potentially more efficient and effective. As students begin to understand what being a strategic learner is all about, some of the scaffolding is removed, and instruction shifts from an emphasis on teacher-mediation to an emphasis on student-mediation in the later stages of instruction.

Validated interventions are generally successful because they are based on well-established principles of learning and instruction. When implementation procedures for validated interventions are varied, it is no longer the validated procedure and the results on student performance are simply unknown. In short, implementation with fidelity is imperative to optimize student outcomes.

Just as important as it is to teach interventions with fidelity, it is equally important that our teaching of at-risk students be intensive in nature. Because the amount of instructional time available to teach at-risk students is so limited, it is imperative that we use the time that we do have to the greatest advantage possible. The dictionary defines intense as "…concentrated strength, power, and force…a passionate and serious attitude or quality…the strength of a source of energy per unit of time." The dictionary defines intensity as "…involving concentrated effort to achieve something in a comparatively short time." In short, if we are to help at-risk adolescents make up for their large performance gaps, we must ensure that our instruction is highly intense and relentless in the pursuit of moving students toward the targeted outcomes.

Factor #3: Ensure that instruction is coordinated across teachers and settings. Finally, if our instruction is not clearly focused, carefully orchestrated, and precisely planned, student gains may be significantly reduced. First, an instructional plan must be conceptualized that systematically addresses the targeted deficit areas. To do so, it is generally necessary to build one skill or strategy upon another so that students' overall competence in a deficit area is dramatically improved. As an example, if a student has significant deficits in written expression, the instructional plan specified by the IEP may call for intensive instruction in a validated scope and sequence of instruction in written expression strategies. If achieving these instructional goals takes more than one semester or academic year, a high degree of alignment between instructional activities and instructional goals must be maintained.

Additionally, it is important that students receive instruction that is carefully coordinated across all of their teachers and different educational settings. This can be illustrated by considering a student with disabilities, Jason, who is in an elementary fifth-grade classroom. Jason has one teacher who is responsible for teaching all of his academic subjects and a special education resource services teacher who provides special education supports. Under this scenario, it is relatively easy for the fifth-grade teacher and special education teacher to collaborate and coordinate their instruction for Jason. The targeted skills or strategies that Jason is learning from the special education teacher should be ones that will help him successfully respond to the demands of the general education curriculum. In turn, the general education fifth-grade teacher can prompt and reinforce Jason's use of these targeted skills and strategies in each of the academic subjects and assignments throughout the course of the school day.

However, when Jason transitions from his elementary school to a middle school the next year, collaboration among Jason's teachers around the coordination of his instruction across settings becomes much more challenging. The first step will be for Jason's fifth-grade teachers to collaboratively communicate with his sixth-grade special and general education teachers. More often than not, this communication link is not well made and the work that is done with Jason in his new school is often unrelated to what occurred during the fifth-grade. Often, it is the responsibility of the special educators, as case managers, to forge strong communication links to ensure that the targeted skills and strategies in a student's IEP are continually stressed and practiced. In the case of Jason, if he were being taught a vocabulary strategy by his special education teacher to use in his classes, Jason would optimally master the strategy and see its relevance if each of his teachers would incorporate it into his or her classroom and set the expectation for Jason to apply the vocabulary strategy in all of his work in that class. When this type of collaboration and carefully coordinated instruction occurs across teachers and settings, learning, mastery, and overall student success are promoted.

Spending most of our time as hedgehogs (not as foxes)

In his best-selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes different elements that his research has found to characterize highly successful organizations. One of these factors is the fact that the best organizations seem to have the ability to "see through the complexity that surrounds them and discern what is essential and ignore the rest." To explain the power of this concept, he draws upon Isaiah Berlin's essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which Berlin divides people into two basic groups whose characteristics seem to parallel either hedgehogs or foxes: "Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are scattered and diffused, moving on all levels. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify the complex world into something simple and manageable that they can handle, and they concentrate their time and energy there."

Collins makes the point that great organizations come to understand what they do better than anyone else and what things are most important to do that will make the biggest difference in their bottom line. They concentrate very intensively on these things and don't allow their energy to be drawn off in other directions.

If ever there was a complex enterprise, it is teaching. There are so many demands and competing priorities — things that can legitimately demand our attention and energy. However, if we are to be successful in closing the huge performance gap that most at-risk adolescents face, we need to act more like hedgehogs than foxes. We must do all within our power to avoid our efforts being scattered and diffused (like the foxes). We must be singular and relentless in our mission of teaching a well-orchestrated array of research-based interventions with fidelity and intensity (like the hedgehogs).

In light of recent national developments, the opportunities that lie before us are exciting. Schools are searching for solutions to the vexing problems of low achievement that so many of their students face. SIM, while by no means a panacea, represents a set of meaningful and potentially significant solutions for schools. Nothing is more rewarding nor exciting than to be part of the solution that restores hope and opens doors to more promising futures for both teachers and students.

Deshler, D. (2004). We've been waiting for this moment…Are we ready? Stratenotes, 12(4). The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. Reprinted with permission from the author.