Thursday, September 11, 2014

Questions I Wish We Were Asking About Istation

Dear Teachers,

Let me just get my biases out on the table early. I'm a librarian down to my toes. I believe in letting kids self-select reading materials for pleasure, and I don't care if they pick fiction, non-fiction, comic books, magazines, or the phone book. I don't agree with using any kind of leveling system or Lexile scores or Accelerated Reader or any other gimmick or program that limits what children might find interesting on their own. I call this Real Reading, as opposed to Fake Reading (or, not so affectionately, an FR program).

I don't know about your district, but mine seems to be obsessed lately with a program called Istation, and frankly I am baffled by the way this program has been blindly embraced. I am increasingly concerned by the number of frantic calls I get about students not being able to log in to the program; it is as though no child has ever been - nor will ever be again! - taught to read unless they are parked in front of this program. Istation falls firmly in my mind in the FR program category.

In the area of computerized programs that allegedly help children learn to read, I often feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness, because so many people love these programs so much more than I do. I am very concerned about what I believe to be the overuse of computer programs to teach reading, particularly Istation. I am so very curious about why no one seems to be asking any questions at all about whether Istation is really a good thing or not.

Here are some questions that I wish decision-makers in my district would ask.

1. Who is conducting the research that Istation claims to have about its product? While at first glance the number of studies listed on Istation's website might seem impressive, if you look a little closer you will see that almost all of the studies were conducted by the same entities, and/or by someone with ties to Istation. Almost all of the names on the studies are associated either with Southern Methodist University or with Istation, and the SMU figures seem also to be employed by or on the board of Istation. Should we not be suspicious of a company that is conducting and promoting the research on itself?

2. If Istation is such a great program, why isn't the premier reading association promoting it, or at the very least, discussing it? The International Reading Association is clearly not against technology; there were over ten pages of results when I searched "technology" on their website  However, when I searched for Istation at http://www.reading.org, not a single result appeared. I found this somewhat intriguing, so I took it a step further. Using the search field on the websites of 14 different education-oriented websites, I searched for Istation, thinking that if the program really does do all it claims to do, that at least one would have something to say about the program. Not a single result appeared. A 15th website, that of the National Council of Teachers of English, yielded only one PDF article that only mentioned Istation; the article did not endorse it. See bottom of page for the sites I queried.

Digging a little deeper, I did a Google search for "best practices in reading instruction" (quotations included). Again, the top results don't mention Istation or anything like it. One example is the National Association of School Psychologists/ Best Practices on Interventions for Students with Reading Problems, but there are countless others.

3. Follow the money. Who's profiting from Istation? $17.5 million spent by the Texas Education Agency in the past year and a half is a big chunk of change that could be spent on other items. Someone is profiting big time from the state's expenditure on Istation, and I'm not convinced our students are the ones who are benefitting. Also, let's think about why teachers feel the pressure to use Istation in their classrooms. Typically,
teachers push Istation because their principal expects/requires it. Principals have heard from the Curriculum department that Istation is a great program and assume that people in Curriculum have vetted it, so they insist that their teachers comply with Istation's suggestions/mandates to make students use it a certain number of minutes per week. Curriculum people hear from Istation that it's a great product; it is free to the district, completely paid for by the state, and "research shows" (see Question 1) that students who use it do better on the standardized tests. But of course Istation is the entity that ultimately profits from its own insistence that the program is great and should be used a certain number of minutes per day or week! It seems to me there is a very unhealthy circularity going on here.

I know that a lot of teachers really love Istation and programs like it, and it may do some good for some students some of the time. But I hope you'll start asking more questions about these programs. Does anyone else have concerns about Istation? Please share them in the comments section.

Fondly,
Nancy



On 9/4/2014, entering the word Istation in the search field found on each of the following organizations' websites yielded no results: Association of American EducatorsAssociation for Childhood Education InternationalASCDCenter for the Improvement of Early Reading AchievementChildren's Literature AssociationInternational Reading Association,  Institute of Child Health & Human Development, Institute of Education Sciences What Works ClearinghouseInternational Society for Technology in EducationLearning ForwardLiteracy.org,  National Association for the Education of Young ChildrenNational Education Association,  Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages.
A search of National Council of Teachers of English landed one article (accessible only by NCTE members) that mentioned Istation once, but did not endorse it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

123

If you work in a school, you know that there is a huge difference in the air at this time of year as compared with the feeling at the end of May. Right now, principals, teachers, and students are full of eager anticipation; they are positive, cheerful, and upbeat about what the coming year holds. From school supplies and new clothes to the first meet-the-teacher night, there is a lot to love about back to school time.

Today is September 1, meaning that we are two-thirds through 2014. To put it in even more tangible terms, it means that there are 123 days left in this year. How does that happen? It seems like it was just a couple of weeks ago that I was stressing out about the holidays, and now that will all be happening again in the blink of an eye. My stepfather, a math teacher who believed that just about everything could be explained with mathematics, used to say that the longer you live, each passing year gets to be a smaller and smaller percentage of your life, and that's why time seems to speed up so as we age. That explanation certainly seems plausible for me, since every year seems to whiz by a little faster.

I know that as teachers actually get into the school year, the pressure mounts, and that first-day-of-school excitement fades away to practically nothing. Maybe it has happened already, after just the first week! The seemingly never-ending assessment testing and curricular mandates take over, and it's easy to lose sight of goals that are not strictly and expressly related to state testing. Teachers are under enormous pressure these days to show proof of achievement, and so are their students. And time keeps on slippin' (slippin', slippin') into the future...

At ETSI, we asked the teachers to create an action plan for implementing what they learned, and one of *my* goals is to help those teachers discover the ways that they will achieve the goals & objectives they identified. Doing this kind of coaching is a new leadership activity for me, and I hope we will all grow from the experience. I'm so looking forward to getting to know "my" group of ETSI participants, now that our department has decided who is assigned to each school. I want to do what I can to help the brilliant ETSI participants become more effective Ed Tech leaders on their campuses.

I'm looking forward to seeing what the next 123 days will bring.

Fondly,
Nancy