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Education Reporter
Houston's Unique Charter Schools Get a 'Lott' of Results
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HOUSTON, TX - Four charter schools in one of Houston's poorest areas are turning out high achievers due to the leadership of an educator who believes children should be taught basic academic skills combined with discipline and high expectations. Educator Thaddeus Lott also believes in testing students frequently to determine their level of ability, and in training teachers to reflect his philosophy.

Lott's disdain of trends such as School-to-Work and computer technology, along with his use of practices like tracking (grouping students by skill level) and ranking teachers by performance, has kept his success from being widely replicated. Despite the fact that in 1996, 100% of the 3rd graders at Lott's Wesley Elementary School passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) in reading, the direct-instruction programs he uses (including phonics-based reading lessons) are still not part of the state's approved curriculum.

Thaddeus Lott's roots in the Acres Home section of Houston, where his charter schools are located, go back to his childhood. It was a largely rural community when he was growing up, and families looked out for each other's children. Lott wanted to raise his own family in the neighborhood, despite the area's descent into drugs and violence.

A graduate of Texas Southern University, Lott became principal at Wesley Elementary in 1975. At that time, only 18% of the school's 3rd graders were achieving grade level scores in reading comprehension on the Iowa Basic Skills tests. By 1980, the total had risen to 85%, and reached 100% in 1996. Statewide, only 70% of 3rd graders in schools with similar demographics achieved passing scores.

Lott did this by developing a strong curriculum, now known as Reading Mastery and Connecting Math Concepts, training teachers to teach it, and requiring that students be disciplined enough to learn it. For example, practice drills are routine. Students must walk the halls quietly with hands folded. Children learn at what Lott calls their "instructional" level, and self esteem comes from achievement.

Before the charter system was developed, Wesley Elementary held candy sales and refused technology upgrades in order to afford the direct-instruction curricula that Lott prefers, but that was not approved by the state. His counterparts in education had all adopted whole language reading methods, and the state-approved curricula reflected that theory.

With students at Wesley consistently achieving superior results, Acres Home residents eventually petitioned the Houston school board to allow Lott to preside over three neighboring schools, creating a separate district of charter schools. In 1995 the board agreed, and the charter school system became the first of its kind in the state of Texas. Lott's position is equivalent to a district superintendent, and he reports directly to the superintendent of Houston schools.

Lott's direct instruction program (originally developed at the University of Illinois in the 1960s and known as DISTAR) has worked so well that only 3% of Wesley's students need special education, compared with 10% of all Houston students. Labeling students "special ed" can mask a school's poor performance because those students do not count toward a school's average TAAS scores, and they are more costly to educate. Thaddeus Lott's students need so little remediation that the cost to educate them is $1,000 less per student than the district average. Wesley's graduates are typically snatched by magnet schools or private schools seeking high-achieving minorities.

Lott is making progress with the two additional elementary schools he now supervises through the charter system. His greatest challenge is the lone middle school, M.C. Williams, where results have been slow, primarily because most of M.C. Williams' students came through elementary schools other than Wesley and lack basic skills. One of Lott's solutions has been to use textbooks from Wesley at the middle school, and the new principal has taken an important first step toward academic improvement by regaining control of the school for administrators and teachers.

What is Direct Instruction?

Direct Instruction is a form of basic skills education that requires teachers to explain directly to students what they need to learn and then demonstrate and teach the material. The goal is for children to acquire skills through direct active instruction and help from the teacher. This method requires structure and planning, and teachers need special training to do it properly.

Studies have shown direct instruction to be much more effective in helping children learn than such strategies as active learning, cooperative education, student-centered learning, and whole language programs.

While the current Houston superintendent of schools, Rod Paige, is supportive of Lott's charter district, other schools that want to use his programs must either seek charter status or purchase materials with scarce discretionary funds. Rather than adopt Lott's programs and philosophy as a roadmap for successful education, the Houston School District has focused on the man himself as the reason for the schools' success, and Lott has become a hero in the tradition of Joe Clark of New Jersey and Jaime Escalante of California. While Lott certainly deserves acclaim for his achievements, it is his methods that have enabled his success. Paige's response as to why the Houston School District has not tried to replicate direct instruction in other schools, which appeared in the Jan./Feb. edition of Policy Review, speaks volumes. "The error in your premise is that it's the methodology that makes Lott succeed," Paige told Policy Review. "If I had to choose any single foundation of his success, it is his intense desire to cause children to learn."

But Lott disagrees, maintaining that children learn from teachers who have been given a solid curriculum, the training they need, and the encouragement to go the extra mile to help their students. So, while the bulk of Houston's public schools continue to struggle with failed "reform" initiatives, some Houston parents continue to falsify their addresses in order to get their children into one of Lott's schools. They know that his common-sense approach to basics will help their children acquire the knowledge they need for a successful future.

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