Corrective Reading, Math stir teacher debate

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A controversial initiative by the Ackerman administration this school year has been the introduction of Corrective Reading and Math, two scripted remedial programs which are being employed in the so-called Empowerment Schools.

Many teachers, while recognizing remediation is clearly needed, question both the content of these programs and the manner in which they are being implemented.

A full treatment of this topic is goes well beyond what can be done in a single blog post, but my hope is that this can launch a conversation in which teachers, as well as parents and students, will contribute and offer a more complete picture.

More then ten years ago my school created a special remedial class that employed Corrective Reading. We selected regular education students who were more than three years behind in reading, and placed them in this class. At the end of the year, the results were truly remarkable. Students who had stumbled and hesitated over text now were fluent and confident “readers." There was only one problem. When you asked them questions about what they had read, they were completely baffled.

The relationship between decoding and understanding text (or in the case of math the relationship between computation and grasping mathematical concepts) has been the subject of long and intense debate. But there does seem to be something of a consensus that these elements cannot be taught in isolation from each other. Critics of Corrective Reading and Math argue that is precisely what these programs do. The first two levels of Corrective Reading are devoted to decoding. Students must test out of these to move to level C, where comprehension is taught.

One teacher, in talking about Corrective Math, pointed out that the program actually contradicts what students are supposed to be learning in the regular curriculum. For several years the District has used Everyday Math and Math in Context in the elementary schools. These programs emphasize multiple approaches to problem-solving, including using different algorithms to do math operations, while Corrective Math prohibits using any algorithm other than the one it teaches.

Math concepts are dumbed down, creating serious contradictions. The same teacher gave this example: "When describing a multiplication fact family, students learn that the number in the box is the ‘big number’ and the numbers outside the bracket are the ‘small numbers.’ Students learn that ‘when you multiply the two small numbers, you end up with the big number.’ This becomes completely problematic when fractions and decimals are introduced."

Another issue is the highly scripted nature of these programs. As one upper grade math teacher put it: “Teachers must use the script and are chastised for deviating from that script. There is no room for student questions. There is no room for student inquiry. Both students and teachers must assume a robotic position during CR/CM instruction”.

In speaking with teachers, I have heard mixed reports about the degree of student engagement in this process. Some teachers say that at least in Corrective Reading students are on task and apparently enjoy the activities while others report students are bored and restive. With Corrective Math, the disengagement seems much more pronounced.

One teacher observed that ELL students, some of whom have been exposed to the program earlier, seem relatively more engaged by Corrective Reading. The same teacher also related that a significant number of students were alienated by the program and cut the classes. One student complained that the call and response mode of instruction “treated us like dogs.” Pavlov would probably have agreed.

Perhaps this is related to how the program is being implemented. In the Empowerment Schools students who may have some deficits, but can function in the regular math and literacy program, are lumped together with those who are so far behind that they need some intervention. These students are not only compelled to participate in instruction that has little value for them, they also miss half of the regular instruction.

A teacher described it this way: “Empowerment School students are getting half of what other students are getting. Non-Empowerment School students receive 90 minutes of meaningful higher-level math and reading instruction per day … Empowerment School students receive half of that… Yet, Empowerment School students must take the same standardized tests as non-Empowerment School students – the same benchmark tests, the same predictive tests, the same PSSA – and are expected to perform at the same levels as non-Empowerment School students. Empowerment Schools have been designed to fail. Non-Empowerment Schools have been designed to succeed. Philadelphia now has a two-tiered education system."

Teachers and principals as well have cited concerns about special education students being out of compliance with their IEPs as a consequence of roster shifts required by implementing the programs. In elementary schools the instructional time lost in breaking the math and literacy periods in half and cycling students between classrooms is another issue. One teacher reported the instructional time he actually had for Math in Context was 25 minutes a day.

And, once again, we have a program that was selected and implemented without any engagement of classroom teachers. Remediation is clearly a need in a system in which so many students are so far behind, but doing it right is a difficult question that demands a broad discussion.

A public process and debate might have yielded a better approach. I don’t think it could have given us anything worse than this.