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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 01 > Article

Reaching Out to Kids
by Michael Childs

I f all students learned the same subjects, the same way, at the same pace, developing a plan to teach them would be a snap.

But as any teacher — or parent — can tell you, kids don’t come with uniform, cookie-cutter abilities. For that reason, neither should their classroom instruction, said Joe Wisenbaker, an associate professor of educational psychology and director of the UGA Academic Computing Center.

And that’s why Wisenbaker now is praising an innovative program that two Gwinnett County teachers, April Cooper and Denise Vandament, developed four years ago to deal with the diversity of achievement among their students.

Their new approach revamps the delivery of basic instruction in reading, language and math to second-, third- and fourth-grade students. And Wisenbaker minces no words when he discusses its potential.

“In nearly 30 years of working with educational research and evaluation, I have never seen a program as profoundly effective or with the potential for so fundamentally improving educational outcomes for children,” he said. “The effects of the program on standardized test performance were nearly as large as an extra year of instruction, depending on grade level and content area.”

More importantly, students — both high-achievers and low-performers — shared benefits from the program equally.

“Using [traditional] whole-group instruction creates difficulties for both teachers and students. If a teacher directs her instruction to the middle, students at the upper end will have to endure the repetition of what they already know,” Wisenbaker said. “At the same time, students at the lower end will be exposed to instruction for which they are not yet prepared. Students in both situations are, in effect, neglected.”

To deal with this challenge in regular classrooms, the Gwinnett teachers adopted an approach known as “flexible, small-group instruction.”

The program consists of six elements:

  • Teachers collaborate to identify instructional material they want to emphasize in each grade.
  • They work together to organize units requiring two to three weeks of instruction, devise pre-tests and post-tests for each, and create small-group activities.
  • Students within a grade are placed into small groups based on their performance on the pre-tests. Teachers create groups whose needs are as similar as possible.
  • “Helpers” — parents, school business partner volunteers, classroom paraprofessionals or college students — are trained to provide extra hands to staff small groups.
  • The instructional day is organized with small-group staffing and the students’ schedules in mind. Students cycle through a number of activities, working with teachers, with classroom helpers and independently.
  • At the end of each unit, students take tests to assess their mastery of the material. Students continually are remixed in different small-group situations depending on what they have learned.

“I kept trying to put into perspective just how effective this approach was,” said Wisenbaker, who served as program evaluator for the Georgia Department of Education grant that enabled the teachers to try the approach. “I became convinced that if it were implemented in grades one through five statewide, it would make Georgia’s students among the very best in the entire nation.”

To build this case, Wisenbaker convinced a group of first-grade teachers at Fowler Drive Elementary School in Clarke County to use the model, focusing exclusively on reading achievement. UGA students in elementary education and educational psychology served as classroom helpers.

“Having seen their students’ performance on [standardized] testing and seeing what is happening in their classrooms, I am blown away by what is going on there,” Wisenbaker said. “Student gains are 125 [percent] to 130 percent of what might otherwise be expected. Next year, we should see enormous impact.”

For more than a year, Wisenbaker has been on a personal crusade to bring the program to the attention of state policymakers. He has met with legislators, state education staff, school board members and the Governor’s Education Reform Commission. Discussions have focused on funding pilot programs at four more schools in the 2002 school year, Wisenbaker said.

“If the money becomes available,” he said, “we’re going to be on a clear path to revolutionize what happens in our public schools.”

For more information, e-mail Joe Wisenbaker at joe@coe.uga.edu.

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