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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Ensuring Early Literacy Success

Ensuring early literacy success is a wise investment because literacy skills are essential to success in all school subjects ---literature, social sciences, natural science, and mathematics. There is a strong research base for how children learn to read, how to prevent failure, and how to intervene when reading difficulties occur.

The Basics and Beyond: Aspects of a Successful Literacy Policy

A popular view of what is required to teach children to read is known as the Simple View of Reading, which states that reading comprehension is the product of the interaction of decoding with listening comprehension. Many people believe that once a child has mastered the way the alphabetic principle works to spell out words, understanding written language is not so different from understanding spoken language. This view suggests that early reading teachers should focus on teaching children how to "decode" letters to form spoken words --- and that the ability to understand what is written will occur naturally because almost all children already know how to understand spoken words and sentences.

However, research over the past three decades has provided a more complex view of how to ensure reading competence. Decoding is important, but we now know that systematic early attention must be paid to developing oral language skills if children are to be assured a "right to reading competence." Children will also need extensive practice in reading texts of increasing complexity for initial reading skills to blossom into full competence.

Beginning To Read

Knowledge of phonological structures. Skilled readers are able to segment speech into its underlying phonological structures --- the individual sounds that make up words. For example, we can recognize that "sat" consists of three speech segments, or phonemes, by contrasting it with "bat," "sit," and "sad."

Knowledge of the alphabetic principle. Skilled readers now how written symbols connect with spoken units. In English, the majority of these correspondences are one to one, but many are not so transparent, such as the "longa sound in "lake," "rain," "great," "baby," and "vein."

Fluency in decoding. Students must be able to quickly map letters to sounds, and then into words, extremely fluently so they do not forget the early words in a sentence before they have gotten to the end of the sentence. This fluency is essential for understanding and becomes more important as sentences become longer.

Many students who struggle with reading have difficulty with the basic elements of the alphabetic principle. This difficulty is the defining characteristic of the majority of students identified with reading disabilities (often called "dyslexia"), a large group of students in special education.

Effective interventions for very young struggling readers usually consist of explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle with scaffolded practice in reading connected text and instruction in vocabulary and writing. When problems are identified and addressed in the early grade, the vast majority can be successfully remediated.

Developing Oral Language

The assumption that most students have oral language skills they can transfer into print understanding is ---according to current research ---not accurate. There are large differences in the extent and type of oral language experience that children have outside school.

A classic study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 1995 documents how early the gap in oral language skills begins. The researchers made monthly home visits to 42 children from 10 months old until 3 years old. Three types of families were included: professional, working class, and welfare. During each visit, the researchers videotaped the interaction between the child and the adults for one hour and transcribed and coded the data.

By age 3, children from professional families heard a total vocabulary of more than 30 million words compared to 10 million for children from welfare families. Working class children heard about 20 million words. Thus, students enter school with different exposure to language upon which to build literacy teaching and learning.

One way to close this gap is to provide language-intensive preschool programs aimed at mitigating the language gap created by poverty in the home. However, it is not just the amount but also the kind of oral language instruction in preschool that is important.

Catherine Snow and her colleagues studied 80 children from preschool to high school and found three distinguishing characteristics of preschool classrooms that predicted vocabulary and emergent literacy skills in kindergarten. What's more, kindergarten word reading and vocabulary skills predicted reading outcomes in the primary grades as well as reading comprehension skills through middle and high school. The critical characteristics are:

*Preschool teachers' unfamiliar word usage
*Teachers' ability to listen to children and extend the conversation, and
*Teachers' ability to engage children in cognitively challenging talk.

Reading a Lot Begets Reading Skill

Written language usually is not just a print transcription of everyday oral speech; it is typically more formal than spoken language. The written language of school is often called "academic language" to emphasize the importance of learning the specific vocabulary, grammar, and text structures required for academic success. Special techniques of teaching vocabulary that embed words in important academic content produce gains in academic English as measured by state and standardized tests.

Another important way to learn academic language is to have children do a lot of reading. A classic study by Richard Anderson and colleagues in 1988 described the number of minutes per day that fifth graders reported spending on a wide range of out-of-school activities. The activity that related most strongly to reading proficiency and growth in reading from second to fifth grade was book reading. Average students, those who scored at about the 50th percentile on tests of reading achievement, read less than five minutes a day --- roughly 282,000 words per year. In contrast, students at the 90th percentile read a little more than 20 minutes a day ---about 1.8 million words per year. Top-level readers, in other words, read five times more words than students in the middle of the pack ---and almost 30 times more than students in the lowest group, who read for little more than one minute a day ---about 106,000 words per year.

Thus, the amount of reading children do really matters in developing their skills as readers. Anderson's 1988 study showed that time spent reading books was the best predictor of a child's growth as a reader from the second to the fifth grade. This finding was confirmed by Cunningham and Stanovich a decade later using a somewhat different methodology.

Reading begets reading skill. And reading skill produces more reading practice. Scholars have termed this snowballing the Matthew Effect in reading after a quote from the Book of Matthew in the Bible (25:29), often paraphrased as "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer."

Reading more has a large payoff, but few children will read more on their own. Schools will need to directly encourage and find time for increased reading during the school day. Indeed, as Stephen Raudenbush suggests, inequality in academic achievement can be reduced only by increasing the amount and quality of schooling.

An important step in providing the reading experience children need to move beyond the assumption that difficulties in upper grades require more phonics and fluency instruction. For those who need such help, provide remedial work. For others, possibilities include:

* Provide an hour or more in each school day, or in structured after-school programs, for students to read materials that challenge them but are "within range" of what they can understand with effort and some help.

*Directly teach students to infer the author's meaning as they read.

*Include Internet and other new media reading.

*Set up incentives for out-of-school reading and visibly keep track of and celebrate the amount of reading each child does.

*Use classroom time to discussreadings under teacher guidance. Many programs have shown the effectiveness of such discussions.

*Use improved readability formulae, measures of semantic complexity, and measures of coherence to help teachers match readers to text.

What Should Policymakers Do?

First, establish policies in which schools are encouraged to organize primary grade instruction with a target of 90 percent of children being fluent decoders by third grade. Help schools use formative and diagnostic assessment to place K-2 children who are not on track in early interventions taught by qualified teachers.

Second, from third grade forward, focus instruction on comprehension, writing, and continued language development.

Third, treat oral language development and vocabulary enhancement as major functions of preschool, elementary, and middle school literacy development.

Fourth, ensure that school leaders, working with their communities, set up programs in which children read more and read increasingly challenging materials on a daily and weekly basis.

"Copyright AERA 2009"
Note: You may review the full article in Research Points,Winter 2009, Volume 6, Issue 1, published by the American Educational Research Association.

Do the Math: Cognitive Demand Makes a Difference

Extending high expectations to ALL students in mathematics is a relatively new idea. Even the 1960s movement to improve U.S. mathematics education, which was based on the argument that an excellent scientific education was necessary for a strong economy and national defense, largely was limited to "college-capable" students.

Today, mathematics education faces two major challenges: raising the floor by expanding achievement for all, and lifting the ceiling of achievement to better prepare future leaders in mathematics, as well as in science, engineering, and technology. Although these goals are not mutually exclusive, this Research Points tackles the challenge of ensuring that whole groups of students are not excluded from higher mathematics learning.

In our global economy and democratic society, limiting math education to select students is unacceptable. A recent ACT study provides evidence that college and the workforce require the same levels of readiness in mathematics. One implication: All students require a greater level of "cognitive demand" in mathematics than once was considered appropriate. In other words, high school students need learning experiences in algebra, geometry, data representation, and statistics whether they are planning to enter college or workforce training programs.

The term "cognitive demand" is used in two ways to describe learning opportunities. The first way is linked with curriculum policy and students' course-taking options --- how much math and which courses. The second way relates to how much thinking is called for in the classroom. Routine memorization involves low cognitive demand, no matter how advanced the content. Understanding mathematical concepts involves high cognitive demand, even for basic content. Both types of cognitive demand are associated with student performance on achievement tests, but they are not substitutes for each other.


Large-scale assessments have found that mathematics achievement can be predicted by the number of mathematics courses taken and the amount of time spent studying advanced mathematics. Generally, these predictors are inter-related.

Course-taking options in the United States are organized according to curricular and ability tracks. Most students are sorted into tracks involving specific course sequences and, ultimately, different opportunities to learn mathematics. Traditionally, high schools have had three curricular tracks---college preparation, vocational, and general education. The college-preparation track has top status and provides greater opportunity to learn more demanding mathematics.

Although many schools have done away with such three-track sorting, hidden forms of tracking persist. In one common situation, students are divided by perceived ability under the same course label. For example, an algebra course might sort students into fast and slow speeds of learning, so that by the end of the year students in the same class have not had the same opportunity to learn. Another sorting strategy offers different entry points into college-preparatory course work (e.g., freshman versus junior year). For students who enter the college-preparatory track late in high school, it might be too late to learn enough mathematics to pursue higher-level college courses.

Signs of Progress

Despite continued overt or concealed tracking, there has been progress---students who in the past might have been left out of high-demand courses increasingly are being placed in higher-level mathematics. For example, the 1980s saw striking increases in the percentage of African American students earning credits in college-preparatory courses. These increases largely reflect many states' new standards and graduation requirements for more mathematics credits. Such policies, and their encouraging results, have overlapped with steady upward movement in the percentage of African American students earning undergraduate and master's degrees in science and engineering.

In theory, tracking helps all students by providing instruction suited to their ability and learning styles. However, research strongly suggests that not all students are benefiting. Instead, the positive effects of tracking on overall achievement are associated most with a small minority of students assigned to high-status tracks. We still need to prepare many more students in elementary and middle school to handle high-demand courses in high school, and we need to figure out how to keep the positive trends moving forward.

Quality of Mathematical Thinking

In a review of school impact on the test score gap between African American and white students, Ronald Ferguson concluded that the basic problem is not tracking per se but the expected quality of instruction--- the second form of cognitive demand.

Traditionally, American mathematics teaching has emphasized whole-class lectures with teachers explaining a problem-solving strategy and students passively listening. The lecture usually is followed by students working alone on a large set of problems that reflect the lecture topic. In contrast, high cognitive demand mathematics programs generally deviate in important ways from the "normal" approaches to mathematics instruction and classroom practice.

The 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study looked at the ways that mathematics instruction differs among seven countries. It found that although effective teaching varies from culture to culture, the key difference between instruction in the United States (the lowest performer in the study) and the other countries was the way teachers and students work on problems as a lesson unfolds.

While higher achieving countries did not use a larger percentage of high cognitive demand tasks compared to the United States, tasks here rarely were enacted at a high level of cognitive demand. High-performing countries avoided reducing mathematics tasks to mere procedural exercises involving basic computational skills, and they placed greater cognitive demands on students by encouraging them to focus on concepts and connections among those concepts in their problem-solving.

Other research found that in classrooms in which instructional tasks were set up and enacted at high levels of cognitive demand, students did better on measures of reasoning and problem-solving than did students in classrooms in which such tasks were set up at a high level but declined into merely "following the rules," usually with litter understanding. In successful classrooms, task rigor was maintained when teachers or capable students modeled high-level performance or when teachers pressed for justifications, explanations and meaning through questioning or other feedback.

International comparisons also have shown that some top countries teach fewer concepts in greater depth, while U.S. math curriculum is "a mile wide and an inch deep." To focus the wide scope of topics presented to U.S. students, new curriculum, guidelines from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics emphasize key mathematical ideas on which to build deep understanding and connections.


Learning math can be tough. Not learning it is tougher. Many students lack access to higher-level mathematics courses and teaching at all levels of precollege schooling. This is unacceptable in the face of the ever-expanding technical demands posed by higher education and the 21st-century job market. Research reveals that strong academic experience is needed for both college and the workforce. Raising the cognitive demand in the curriculum is necessary for enhancing students' career prospects.

Recent trends show progress, such as growth in the number of minority students taking higher-level mathematics classes and earning degrees in mathematics. Still, there is much work to be done. Curriculum policies that limit course options restrict opportunities to learn for traditionally underserved students. This problem is compounded by the sorting of students according to ability within the same mathematics classes and the low quality of some mathematics instruction in elementary and middle schools.

Bringing less advantaged students into higher mathematics study and preparing our future leaders in mathematics and science are not mutually exclusive ends. If we teach math at a higher level of cognitive demand, even in the early grades, we can look forward to a future in which high mathematics achievers better reflect the country's diverse population. TO accomplish this, schools need to be staffed by well-prepared teachers, and high curriculum standards should be a priority. Teaching in high-performing schools requires a learning environment that supports sustained student engagement on both basic skills and cognitively demanding conceptual mathematics tasks.

What Should Policymakers Do?

First, embrace high expectations for all students in mathematics. Informed civic engagement and a competitive, global economy demand higher levels of technical skill.

Second, institute curriculum policies that broaden course-taking options for traditionally underserved students. This includes avoiding systems of tracking students that limit their opportunities to learn and delay their exposure to college-preparatory mathematics coursework.

Third, raise cognitive demand in mathematics teaching and learning in both elementary and secondary schools. Elevated thinking processes come into play when students focus on mathematical concepts and connections among those concepts. High cognitive demand is reinforced when teachers maintain the rigor of mathematical tasks, for example, by encouraging students to explain their problem-solving.

"Copyright AERA 2006"
Note: You may see the full article in Research Points, Fall 2006, Volume 4, Issue 2, published by the American Educational Research Association

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jonathan Livingston, Ph.D. - Gifted Education and African American Children

Closing the achievement gap between African American and European American children has become of increasing concern for educators in the U.S. Currently, African American children score significantly lower on standardized tests than their white counterparts, and although there have been gains in many urban centers, the graduation rate for African American males continues to lag behind that of white males (McWhorter, 2000). Although there have been a number of new programs and curricula to address low performance among African American children, only minimal gains have been achieved. Thus, much of the resources and intellectual energy used to address the academic needs of African American children have focused on those who under-perform. According to a number of school performance researchers, African American children who excel in school have been grossly underserved and neglected (Boykin, 1983; Ford, Harris, & Shuerfer, 2002; Harmon, 2002). Due to the focus of "closing the achievement gap" and probable systemic and cultural biases due to negative stereotypes about African American children's academic and intellectual functioning, many children are neither placed into gifted programs nor provided the contextual support to sustain them (Ford, et al., 2002). What are some factors that may impede the likelihood of identifying African American children for academically gifted programs? What recommendations might be made to aid educators and parents in sustaining children in these programs?

Definition of Gifted and Talented
Identifying gifted children has been an issue of considerable debate. Educators and intelligence testers have largely been unable to develop consensus on a definition of intelligence or what is considered to be high intelligence, which makes developing a criteria for gifted children in the U.S. a difficult task. To identify the most promising students in U.S. schools, the following definition was developed by Congress in 1988 (Title IV-H.R.5):
The term gifted and talente youth means children who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such capabilities.
Consistent with that definition, Kirk and colleagues (2006) noted that gifted children possess a surplus of ability or talent in certain areas. The outstanding abilities of the gifted and talented have attracted attention to their needs and individual differences. Much of our understanding and increased concern about identifying gifted and talented children in the U.S. was motivated by Cold War tensions in the 1950's, particularly the launching of Sputnik. This era played an important role in identifying talented students in the areas of science and technology, placing great emphasis on educating the most able minds to meet the needs of a progressive society.

Gifted Education and African American Children
In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of gifted education programs across the nation for public school children. Currently, although African American children comprise 16% of the children in public school systems in the U.S., they only make up 8.4% of the children in gifted programs (Huff, Houskamp, Watkins, Stanton, & Tavegia, 2005). Educators, psychologists, and academic researchers have cited a number of reasons why African American children are not appropriately represented in gifted education classes. Negative stereotypes about academic performance,teacher attitudes, lack of referrals of African American students to gifted education programs, and culturally biased tests (Baldwin, 1987; Gould, 1995, Menchaca, 1997; Ford, et al., 2002) have all been reported as possible reasons. According to Ford and colleagues (1998; 2002), the inclusion of African American students in gifted programs has not kept pace with rates for other groups. As reported by the U.S. Department of Education (2005), between 1978 and 1997, Hispanic students identified as gifted increased from 5.2% to 8.6% nationally. During that same period, black students identified as gifted dropped from 10.3% to 7.3%, even as the overall black student population increased from 15.7% to 17.0% (U.S. Department of Education, 2005).If this gap continues to widen, the effects will be enormous, especially since by 2020 children of color are expected to represent 46% of the students in U.S. public school systems (U.S. Department of Education, 2005).

According to Harvard's Civil Rights Project (2004), African American students are half as likely as whites to be placed in Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) English or math classes and 2.4 times more likely than whites to be placed in remedial classes. Even when African American students demonstrate equal ability with their white counterparts, they are less likely to be placed in accelerated classes. Students who take AP courses in high school are eligible to take the corresponding AP examination and may earn college credit for scores above a minimum threshold. Given the importance of being academically prepared for college coursework, many African American students have not been exposed to the curriculum necessary for them to be successful in college.

Although there may be a number of structual barriers (e.g., biased testing, lack of referrals, etc.) that prevent children from being identified as gifted, it may be necessary to address multiple factors to sustain children in gifted programs.

Sustainability and the Role of the Teacher

According to Frasier, Garvia, and Passow (1995), the success of gifted African American students depends on the attitudes and behaviors of teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Of key importance in sustaining any child in a gifted program is the interaction between the child and the teacher.Gifted children, like any other child, require attention, support, and a nurturing environment. Professionals and laymen alike have often reacted ambivalently to these children, while appreciating their special qualities, some still doubt their right to special educational enrichment on the grounds that it enhances "elitism" (Perry & Hillard, 2003).School district administrators and educators must provide a nurturing environment that is inclusive for all children, but especially African American children who have been identified as gifted. Many African American students enter gifted programs and do not see children who look like them. Immediately, they try to "hide themselves" from other students.They feel inferior and tend to withdraw from classroom activities (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Ford et al., 2002). Ford-Harris and colleagues (1991) also suggest that gifted African American children bring a unique set of challenges to the academically-gifted context. Many of these children experience problems in terms of identity development and often experience more emotional and psychological problems than non-gifted African American students. Pressure from peers and inconsistencies in values and expectations between school and communal contexts may cause many academically-gifted students dissonance (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Kunjufu, 1986). Thus, there may be pressures on them to under perform due to the stigma or threat of being perceived as acting white when they excel in school.

Given the complexities and challenges facing African American children, educators must develop positive attitudes toward gifted students and focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Students who feel they are part of the class tend to interact better with both teachers and students. In order to sustain African American students in gifted education programs, educators should encourage and support African American students to be academically successful in and outside the classroom (Ford, et al., 2002).Moreover, African American students learn best when teachers develop differentiated curricula to meet their needs (Ladson-Billings, 1994; Ford, 1996). Academic success is a salient part of the African American culture, school administrators and educators must realize that family members are very influential in the academic lives of African American children (Borland, Schnur, Wright, 2000; McAdoo & McAdoo, 2002). Therefore, strategies must be implemented to engage parents and garner community support for students.

Parental and Community Support

Parents of gifted African American children can play a significant role in assuring that their children remain in gifted programs (Tavegia, Houskamp, Huff, Watkins, & Stanton, 2005). Given the economic and structual impingements that disproportionately impact black people, African American parents have a more difficult time dealing with issues facing all families (e.g., work, family, childcare, etc).This can limit the involvement of many African American parents in the early stages of the identification process.African American students who live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods have additional pressures that can deter them from participating in gifted education programs. To address these concerns, educators must encourage parents to become knowledgeable about the procedural process of Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) programs in an effort to become advocates for their children.Ford (1996) suggests that black parents need to use effective strategies in order to help their children cope with peer pressures while maintaining high academic achievement.

Students who experience parental absence and poverty can present a considerable challenge for many educators; nevertheless, one should not assume that poverty, disorganized families, or a lack of resources equal poor performance or intellectual deficiencies. Children from low-income communities, especially African Americans, can be very resilient. They may have support from extended families and/or faith-based communities to aid them in overcoming obstacles and excelling in school.To assist these children and establish congruency among home, school, and community, educators and school administrators need to adequately assess the resources that are available in the respective communities.  Moreover, they will have to establish partnerships and collaborative efforts among parents and community stakeholders that will nurture and positively reinforce a standard of excellence for academically and intellectually gifted students.

Identifying gifted children of color is a challenging task. Whether it is teacher perceptions, systemic bias, or negative stereotypes which impede placement, fewer children of color are entering gifted programs. Given their low numbers in these programs, many students may experience isolation as they attempt to negotiate this foreign context. In an effort to adequately identify gifted and talented children in the African American community, PreK-12 educators, administrators, and researchers have to begin to shift their thinking in terms of research, practice, and policy.


Although studies exist on underperformance among African American children and those barriers or factors that influence underperformance, very little research has focused on high achieving African American children (Fordham &Ogbu, 1986; Flowers, Zhang, Moore, & Flowers, 2004). Ford and colleagues (2002) suggest that the focus of research should be on recruiting and retaining African American children in gifted programs. Factors found to limit access to and remove African American children from such programs have been negative stereotypes about African American children's academic performance, as well as testing and assessment issues that may act as gatekeepers (Ford, et al, 2002). Thus, they propose that school systems need to begin to focus their research on high achieving African American students and investigate both those factors that may be barriers to and those that are conducive to academic success for gifted African American children. Moreover, there may be school system policy and practice that deters teachers' abilities to correctly identify African American children for gifted programs (i.e., lack of referrals, overemphasis on standardized tests, and subtle forms of classism and racism) (Ford, 2007). Addressing the aforementioned challenges will require bridging the gap between research, policy, and practice by conducting evaluations of the AIG identification process and enhancing those factors that increase the likelihood that African American children will remain in gifted programs.

Policy and Practice

Although more funding will be needed to implement research-based policy that can aid in identifying gifted African American children throughout the U.S. school districts, Ford and Moore (2004) suggest that school teachers and counselors play a major role in identifying students for academically-gifted programs and assisting these students in succeeding in such programs.& Ford and Moore recommend continued professional development in terms of cultural competence for teachers and counselors who work with children of color or in socially or economically challenged communities (Ford & Moore, 2004).Moreover, they suggest that educators develop research to ascertain the specific needs and interests of the students and limit their focus on outcomes such as so-called objective tests. Educators need to employ an ecological approach to assure that gifted children of color have the necessary support and contextual reinforcement to stay in gifted classes (Livingston & Livingston, 2006), particularly low-income, inner-city African American children.Counseling interventions that include aiding African American children in establishing trusting relationships with other gifted African American children as well as offering family counseling may be apropos (Ford, Harris, & Shuefer, 1993).

All criteria for gifted and talented education programs should be carefully examined and defined to meet the needs of children in all school districts. Moreover, given that "giftedness" is defined to include areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership capacity and/or specific academic areas, contemporary gifted programs should reflect current policy and be more inclusive of diverse children with the capacity to accomplish great things if given a chance. Employing these practices among African American children will greatly improve educators' ability to nurture and support the best and brightest children and assure that they are adequately utilizing the intellectual resources needed to maintain and sustain the African American community.

With permission. Dr. Jonathan Livingston, North Carolina Central University