The school or the community? In the 1960s educators went through a depressing time as social scientists suggested that even in very effective schools, local community variables, such as poverty, were more important than education variables. This finding countered the vision of public education and the neighborhood public school as a vehicle for equality of opportunity for all children. The Coleman Report, released in July 1966, delivered this bad news with congressional authority. What mattered more in determining children’s academic success, concluded authors of the Coleman Report, was their family background. This assumption was later refuted. Recent research findings document the nature of quality education that allows students to crash though the ceilings set by poverty-related variables. Effective instructional practices use highly aligned systems of instruction. Ongoing student assessment, the curriculum, and instruction work together to systematically and progressively improve outcomes for all students.
Research and the role of prerequisite skills. When we examine educational interventions that allow low-performing students to close the gap with peers, we encounter a very important variable: the diagnosis and explicit teaching of critical prerequisite skills. This important variable was exemplified by the role of phonemic awareness as the gateway skill to reading. During the past 10 years many failing students from kindergarten to 12th grade have learned to read because caring, competent teachers tested for a students mastery of phonemic awareness, and, where necessary, provided immediate and intensive instruction in phonemic awareness before providing beginning reading instruction. The research demonstrated, rather dramatically, that virtually no one becomes a fluent, competent reader without mastering phonemic awareness.
A research-based approach with broad applications. With the increasing recognition of the role of prerequisite, skills instruction, came increased recognition of the role of educators guided by the research. One of the best analogies from medicine would be the discovery of penicillin. The investment in timely, targeted, and intensive, phonemic awareness instruction is a comparatively modest one. Approximately 15 hours of phonemic awareness instruction gives the student access, with success, to beginning reading instruction and the positive lifelong consequences literacy brings to the individual. Given that instruction in critical prerequisites is one of the major tools used in closing the gap with peers, the research concludes that the importance of instruction in prerequisite skills increases with a student’s increased risk of school failure. The penicillin analogy has two major implications. In medicine, penicillin addressed the major concern of death from infection, and it emphasized new variables to address in the problem-solving processes in medicine. In education, the prerequisite role of phonemic awareness addresses a major problem in education: the failure of reading instruction. Educational Researchers have suggested this finding is the most important finding of the past 20 years. Also, we have changed our problem-solving focus in many curricula, including literacy and math instruction. Additionally, and importantly, we have have brought more hope and instructional competency to those students once considered “non-educable” by some educational observers.
Bumps in the road. The increased recognition of the importance of effective instruction did not come without some bumps in the road. Too often, student failure was attributed to the student alone. Twenty years ago it was not uncommon for teachers and their teacher educators to attribute student failure to a “development lag” or a lack of readiness in the student’s cognitive and physiological maturational processes. There certainly are student problems that will increase the instructional challenges. Explaining instructional failure as a “developmental lag” in the student suggests a lack of instructional accountability and the lack of a need to progressively improve instruction. The research of the past 10 years strongly indicates that most academic failure is best explained by a lack of specific prerequisite skills, a skill deficit, rather than a “developmental lag” in the student. A skill deficit presents an opportunity for instruction. A “development lag” suggests a physiological or neurological cause that may not be addressed by instruction. For educators the presence of a medical basis for a problem only increases the need for instructional interventions. Regardless of the success of the medical treatment, a student who is three years below grade level will require an extensive instructional intervention to close the gap, because peers continue to move ahead. Recent neurological research findings on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) only increases the need for educational and medical interventions to work concurrently.