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.

9 comments:

  1. And then there ia this aspect of reading digital versus print:http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/

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  2. Stephanie, this is a great article for my follow-up blog, still being formulated, on many other philosophical issues I have with online reading programs. Thanks for this link.

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  3. Love this! You raise some great questions and truths. I have to admit that I push it on my campus because that's what I've heard from the higher ups and didn't think twice about it.

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  4. Ditto what Jessica said above. This is a wonderful post and your comment about IRA really does make me wonder when iStation will get their attention. In observing the program and reading the material, the program is based upon many best practices I embraced as a reading teacher. I do believe using this program versus an underprepared T is a better option for the truly struggling reader. There are many nuances of reading that the lay teacher hasn't mastered that this program provides for children. I certainly agree that good reading and real reading instruction is best, but many teachers aren't prepared with the skills necessary to effectively do so.

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    1. Stacy, yours is good feedback and thank you. I had a long conversation with a friend Friday night, and she told me that Istation never intended its program to be used except by Tier 3 students who need very targeted instruction, but it's my observation that many Ps/Ts push it for ALL students, even those in PACE (which I have NEVER understood). Also, on the flip side of your point that lay teachers haven't mastered subtle nuances of reading instruction (which is a very good point!), I wonder if the program might make some teachers complacent if they think, "Istation will take care of that student's reading issues so I don't have to" - an attitude I have also encountered.

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    2. I am also a school librarian and am glad to hear another librarian fed up with IStation. The reading/ELA teachers in my district were told all students had to use IStation 40 minutes a week. Since my library was also a computer lab, my library became an IStation lab. If I never see that stupid screen with the rockets pointed at words or hear, "Welcome to IStation" again, it will be too soon. I, too, am a lone voice against this awful, ineffective program. Not only a lone voice, but an unwelcome one since it's viewed as a cure-all by my principal. The students are bored by the program. The ones who would benefit never move past the same screens. The students with behavior problems become unruly and loud. Teachers assign IStation instead of creating lesson plans when they have substitutes. The program is worse than useless, it undermines real library usage.

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  5. Nancy - Thank you very much for sharing your concerns. As dedicated partners in education, Istation is eager to provide more information to answer your questions. Please email the best way to reach you at traininginfo@istation.com. Your concerns are very important, especially when it comes to helping students succeed. The opportunity to discuss how Istation supports educators is greatly appreciated. All the best for you and the school year!

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  6. "...frankly I am baffled by the way this program has been blindly embraced...": This statement ALONE exactly encaptures my long years of experience with NCLB and any and all following school "reforms."

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  7. Completely agree!! Thanks for writing this.

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