Failure In Jamestown’s Schools Largely Owes To Curriculum

“It’s clear that our kids in poverty are not doing well,” said Bret Apthorpe, Jamestown’s superintendent of schools. A look at state testing for grades 3-8 should give him a huge clue: nearly ALL district children are “not doing well.” How about that 2017 grade 8 failure rate for math — 98 percent failed! Apthorpe says that he, the board, and the entire district will turn things around. We hope so! We are eager to see Mr. Apthorpe’s plan for improving Teaching and Learning in the district. We urge him to release his plan for public scrutiny prior to any purchases or implementation.

We’ve had enough of fads and untested, unvalidated programs and curricula, many of which were pushed by individuals with their own “bright idea” and/or wanting to make a buck. Think back to whole language reading inflicted district-wide upon teachers and children because a Jamestown teacher-turned-administrator became bored when he taught the traditional grade 1 curriculum. Many children ended up as poor readers. Tragically, the number of children who entered special education labeled “reading disabled” soared. There was no true reading disability, only poor curriculum causing reading failure. Or, think back no further than Common Core, implemented statewide and nationwide without a shred of research validation! Let’s hope Mr. Apthorpe has been trained in data analysis and education research, and that he has knowledge of curricula and effect sizes.

Here’s a suggestion, Mr. Apthorpe: Read the researched document sent to Secretary of Education DeVos with a copy and personal letter delivered to your office in October 2017. There is a great deal of information about Jamestown and New York state in the document. You will find the pathetic 5-year record of very high district and state failure rates for grades 3-8, but you also will find a time-tested, research-validated solution for reading, writing, spelling, language and math (pp. 33-35). Did you recognize the significance of those very high effect sizes? I would have shown you particulars to help you better understand, but I never received a response to my request for a meeting. What prompts such behavior? Indifference? Arrogance? Rudeness? I took you at your word when you wrote on the district website that “Jamestown schools are your schools and we need your involvement.” Turned out to be a lie.

I previously wrote about “Mary” (Jan 14, 2018), a kindergarten child who comes to me for tutoring. The kindergarten program is a hodgepodge, as noted by the miscellany of worksheets, many of which are very inefficient for actual learning. In many cases, they simply reflect no more than busy work. For beginning reading, Core Knowledge Skills program is used. It is chaotic and inefficient! Core Knowledge content subjects are wonderful, but stand alone programs are needed for reading and math. With Core Knowledge, children learn the sounds of letters, but those skills are left “hanging” and in danger of eroding. Learning doesn’t extend to the logical next step of sounding out (decoding) words, then sentences, followed by short stories. The program instructs children to write with crayons and markers. Sloppy writing ensues and no corrections are or can be made.

“Mary’s” guardian grandparents were given a Fry List of 85 “tricky” words to be memorized. Why memorize when 88 percent of the words are regular in spelling and easy to sound out? The Common Core math program, too, is a disaster. We were forewarned of this by a mathematics expert on the original Common Core committee who refused to sign off on the math program. If Mr. Apthorpe is serious about reducing high failure rates in math, surely Common Core math must go, replaced by a much stronger, time-tested traditional math program!

Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice-president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a non-profit education policy think tank, wrote: “Did you hear the one about a curriculum with fifty years of research that actually demonstrates its effectiveness,” that came out in January 2018? Pondiscio describes a new meta-analysis in the peer-reviewed journal, “Review of Educational Research,” that examined over 500 studies and found a “half-century” of “strong positive results” regardless of “school, setting, grade, student poverty status (Did you get that one, Mr. Apthorpe?), race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.” Wow! Isn’t this just what Jamestown children need?!

As of this writing, it is about day 110 in school. Using the reading curriculum cited in the above study (a first meta-analysis was performed nearly 25 years ago), kindergarten children read a 50-word story in their take-home worksheet for lesson 110, a 43-word story in a slim paperback reader, and answer comprehension questions. Children exit kindergarten as readers, able to read 500 words. Spelling is added at lesson 60 which facilitates performance in reading. Children learn to spell by letter sounds, not letter names. This leads to writing sentences through dictation.

By lesson 110 in math, children have learned addition, algebra addition and now subtraction. They have memorized many +1, +2, 10+ facts and like numbers (e.g., 4 + 4). Virtually all children can learn using these programs because they are carefully taught, mastery-based, and systematic-a huge contrast to what is used now in our schools.

We look forward to public release of Mr. Apthorpe’s plan.

Deann Nelson is a Jamestown resident.