18 February 2007

Teaching using REACH - Mid Year Evaluation

Last summer, I went to a couple of trainings on REACH, a program that extensively uses Direct Instruction. Direct Instruction is a method of teaching in which teachers are given a script to read, students respond to the script (whole class) and the teacher does not move on until the whole class understands the material being taught.

The REACH system is specifically geared for those students who have been identified as struggling learners. At our school site, students were identified using three types of measures: 1.) an oral reading in which errors were recorded; 2.) the CAT-6 scores (state mandated assessment) from the previous two to three school years; 3.) on grade level preassessment literacy test. Using those three measures, students were then placed in three categories: benchmark, strategic and intensive. Benchmark students are at grade level and above. We no longer have GATE classes in our school district. Strategic students may need help in either Mathematics or Language Arts, but don't require the three hour intensive class. Some of these students have two hours of Language Arts or two hours of Mathematics.

Those students identified as intensive are in a three hour block of REACH. The criteria for remaining in the class was to be based on attendance and behavior. The District assured teachers that those students who were behavioral issues would be removed from the program. Furthermore, those students who have chronic attendance issues will fail and again, we were reassured that they would be removed.

My three hour block is set up in this manner: first hour is devoted to decoding; 2nd hour is reasoning/comprehension; 3rd hour is morphographs and writing. Decoding is the ability to read text fluently. As most teachers know (or should know), if a child cannot decode reading material fluently, they will not be able to comprehend the material they are reading. Overall, I've seen some of my students make great strides in decoding. Some have admitted to me that they now enjoy reading, where before they hated it.

At the beginning of the school year, the majority of my students were not able to read 100 words per minute. Some barely made it to 60 or 70 words in a minute with several errors in decoding. Now, I have students reading 150 to 160 words per minute with virtually no errors. They are excited about their progress and I'm excited for them. Two of my students have tested out of the program and have been placed into the strategic block. The hope for them is that next year, they will be able to move into a benchmark placement.

I think that this program works well for those students who are struggling learners, but have the desire to do better. I also think that when placement is correct, then students will be successful and will thus, try to improve. Finally, I believe that if a district promises its teachers that certain criteria would be in place that they need to follow through.

That being said, my criticism of the program has more to do with my district than the program itself. However, my main gripe with this program is the lack of creativity. For instance, right now I'm reading Bridge to Terabithia to my students. This is not in the program and if a district person were to come into my classroom, they would probably question me as this is "not in the script." However, my students love this book and next year, I'm going to seriously consider getting class sets of a few books to read with my REACH students.

I'm doing this for a couple of reasons. First, my students are 6th graders and I believe strongly that they should be exposed to literature that their peers have been exposed to. Second, my students are still expected to take the District assessments every quarter and the CAT-6, which tests them are on 6th grade standards, such as conflict, plot, theme, metaphors, and the like. The REACH program does not teach this and I have a problem that my students are being held accountable for something I've not taught them.

The other shortcomings have nothing to do with the REACH program, rather it has to do with my Districts reluctance to abide by the criteria set forth for maximum results. Students who have been behavioral issues have remained in the program because the District does not want any class to be too small. (In fact, one of my students who had tested out of the program was only removed after I fought very hard to have him removed.)

Class size number has also been a factor for those students who placed below the level that we had the most students place in. In REACH, students are placed according to their reading level. So, for instance, the majority of our students placed in B2, which is what we started teaching out of at the beginning of the school year. We had a handful of non-special education students place in A (lowest level) and B1, who were put into a B2 classroom. This has meant that these students have struggled all year. In a program that is built upon rewarding points for achievement based on whole class learning, this can cause great frustration for those students who are placed appropriately, but are being dinged for points due to misplacement of other students. Again, this all came down to class size numbers. The District was unwilling to create a classroom for a small number of students who did not place in the B2 level.

(Right now, a co-worker and I are considering making some changes to help those students who were misplaced by either going ahead and creating a new class or doing something after school to help these students.)

So, overall I've been impressed with the growth I've seen in most of my students. Like I said before, some of them used to hate to read and now, they enjoy it. They understand what they are reading and are able to apply it. Much of my criticism has nothing to do with the program itself; rather it has to do with my District's reluctance to do what they promised to do.