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Education Desk: April 30, 2014

Brad Syth Retires After 38 Years With SCUSD

The biggest news at last Thursday’s Santa Clara Unified board meeting was that the district office will lose almost its last store of institutional knowledge when Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Brad Syth retires at the end of this school year. Not only did he serve 38 years as a district employee, Syth is also a graduate of Santa Clara schools.

In fact, you could say that SCUSD is part of his family’s DNA. His wife Michele is also an SCUSD grad, as well as a retired teacher and special education coordinator. And the couple’s two daughters teach in district elementary schools.

During his tenure in SCUSD, Syth served as a high school athletic administrator, a high school vice principal, principal at his alma mater Santa Clara High, and finally as Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources.


“Education is all about people,” “Syth said. “I have fabulous memories of students, staff, and the community they created. Retiring was a difficult decision, given my association with so many incredibly dedicated educators with whom I had the opportunity to associate with on a daily basis.”

However he says that retirement will give him an opportunity for travel, and “a revival of my somewhat neglected golf game and a renewed effort toward a regimented fitness program.”

Academic Support Services and Reading Culture Wars Revisited

The other big topic Thursday night was Academic Support Services – specifically the district’s Reading Intervention Specialist (RIS) program, and its use of Reading Recovery (a one-on-one method that is one of the tools used by the RIS program) – first presented in a study session and then making a return appearance during the regular meeting. Although the item was informational – the board had no action item on the table – the topic provided the opportunity for some board members to renew their attacks on the district’s methods of teaching reading.

That opening was supplied by a discussion about restoring in-classroom specialists to work with English Learners that had been eliminating during the years of budget cuts. However, with the state’s new funding structure, control of these services would devolve to the schools, so it was confusing what action the board should or could take.

“It would seem to me in this case, if we’ve got students that need language support, that shouldn’t be left to site-level support,” said Trustee Andy Ratermann, “I think that’s one of those ‘equity’ issues, a word that’s been used a lot. What I really care about is what’s best for our kids for the whole district. Am I seeing this incorrectly from the standpoint of what’s best for the kids?”

“They [schools] can’t choose not to do it – these funds are highly restrictive,” replied Assistant Superintendent for Education Services, Tanya Fisher.

“So the only thing we can use this for is EL. So why are we having this discussion?” asked Ratermann.

“They may provide additional English learning supports in another way,” Fisher answered. To which Ratermann replied, “I don’t agree, but I understand.”

That should have been the end of the matter that evening, but instead it became a springboard for renewing their opposition to the RIS program, and Reading Recovery (one of the methods in use in the district, but by no means the only one).

Trustee Ina Bendis began by observing that every presentation about Reading Recovery to the board has highlighted the progress of individual students. “But I have repeatedly asked…for cohort data about how students who have had Reading Recovery have progressed.” Bendis has opposed Reading Recovery as ineffective and expensive – a program “which has continuously failed us” – since it was introduced in the district in 2011.

“I have had input from teachers,” she continued, “that they are afraid to express negative views about Reading Recovery because under previous administrations that were very supportive of these programs, they were afraid of retaliation.” This is also an assertion Bendis has made since 2011 although these nay-sayers have yet to come forward – even with an entirely new district administration.

“I notice that all of the materials [at the previous study session] we were provided were pulled off the website of the RRCNA, the company that sells the RIS programs, or else were created by personnel who, because they are trainers in RIS, they were believers in RIS. With very little effort I was able to find material that described Reading Recovery as very ineffective.

“In my research, the RIS program is one of the programs promulgated by the Reading Recovery program,” she continued. “I would like to see real data with cohort progression that looks at the other side of the issue… to see both sides of the issue and not why we should continue the program from its advocates.

“There were two [studies] that I found…I was hoping they would be a starting point for Tanya’s office to look at the other side, programs that take different approach….The materials I found that weren’t published by Reading Recovery were very critical.”

Board President Christine Koltermann voiced her concern that the district’s entire core curriculum for reading, not just its remedial programs, was seriously flawed; noting that her children learned to read only after attending a Sylvan Learning Center.

Finally Trustee Albert Gonzalez steered the meandering discussion back on course. “How many board members have gone to any of the RIS classes?” he asked. None except him, as it turned out. “I was there for about an hour, and in my observation I saw improvement in the children within half an hour.”

Reading Recovery: Its Critics and Supporters

Reading Recovery is a short-term reading intervention, serving children five to six, who are at low literacy levels after their first school year. The program includes all components of literacy – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, oral reading, vocabulary, and comprehension. Assessments and classroom teacher observations identify at-risk children, who then work individually with a specially trained teacher daily for half an hour, from 12 to 20 weeks – until the student’s reading performance level reaches the average class level.

Although Reading Recovery includes both phonics – and whole language-based teaching, for some reason it has become ground zero for the phonics-vs.-whole language culture war. (Perhaps its combination of approaches tells zealots on both sides something they don’t want to hear).

Although Bendis didn’t share her sources, she was likely referring to a 2003 report, “Reading Recovery: Distinguishing Myth From Reality” by William Tumner and James Chapman. (Reading Recovery was developed in 1985). Quoting studies from the 1990s to 2000, Tumner and Chapman did not find that Reading Recovery produced any better results than other one-on-one reading programs, and that it didn’t serve the lowest level children well.

Another critique is a 2004 study by Tim Potter, Research & Planning Analyst for the Madison, WI Metropolitan school district, who criticizes the program principally for its cost-per-student and only demonstrating results with students who reached proficiency and left the program – not across-the-board for all students in the program.

More recent studies include a 2013 research study by the independent Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), “Evaluation of the i3 Scale-up of Reading Recovery,” and a 2011 Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education (CDDRE) report “Effective Programs for Struggling Readers: A Best-Evidence Synthesis.” Both show positive results from the program.

Statistical data can also be found in the Reading Recovery International Data Evaluation Center (IDEC) at Ohio State’s 2012-2013 Reading Recovery Statistical Abstract.

The CPRE’s study reported that students who participated in Reading Recovery across the board posted an average increase of 18 percentage points over the control group of students who didn’t participate. The CDDRE report cites a 2007 British study using the country’s National Curriculum of tests found that low-achieving students who participated in Reading Recovery, 83 percent were reading at grade level, while only 57 percent of control low achievers were.



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