Scientific Learning Offers New Hope to WFISD Strugglers

Scientific Learning Offers New Hope to WFISD Strugglers

Groundbreaking new program launched in late September


Misti Spear

Misti Spear, director of elementary curriculum



Scientists no longer describe your brain as an inanimate vessel that must be filled with knowledge. “Rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise,” writes Norman Doidge, M.D., in his book, “The Brain That Changes Itself.”


And the best part: It’s never too late to feed it well.


Such exciting possibilities are at the core of Scientific Learning, a new program priced at $660,000 that was generously purchased for Wichita Falls ISD through a grant funded by Jim McCoy through The McCoy Foundation.


The program helps students actually rewire their brains through specific brain exercises. It exercises every basic brain function involved in language: decoding sounds to comprehension. It’s like CrossFit for brains.


The average child improved by 1.8 years of language development in six weeks. That’s fast by all standards.


This program is now in all WFISD elementary schools – and at Kirby Middle School – and being used by all kindergarten students and some of the the District’s students in grades 1 through 5.


Curriculum Director Misti Spear wrote the grant that brought it to our students. Communications Specialist Ann Work Goodrich asked her why she’s pinning the District’s hopes to this program and what results she expects to see.


Q: How did you choose the Scientific Learning Program?

A: The program we had in place was just not working for some of our kids in the bottom 5 percent. With time and specialists, they should have been moving up, back into their classrooms to keep pace with the rest of their peers. They didn’t qualify for special ed, yet they were not advancing. We needed something else. We had exhausted our resources.


Q: Will this program help with reading? Math? Behavior?

A: Initially, it’s to help them with reading and math. RTI (Response to Intervention) only analyzes those two content areas. Scientific Learning’s two programs, Reading Assistant and Fast ForWord, will work on brain processes. The Reading Assistant program will focus solely on literacy and language components. Fast ForWord will work on sequencing, memory, processing time, and mathematical reasoning.



Q: Who will use it?

A: Our plan is to use it with various students in 1st through 5th grades. Its "Fast Forword" program is computer-based, and students will use it about 50 minutes per day until completion. Because it requires an extensive amount of time every single day, we will rotate kids through the system during the course of the year.


We will also run every single kindergartener through the program to see what results we get. That will be our baseline for sequential order and processing time. That will give us an entire grade level – with every achievement level of low, medium and high – to use as a data point.


Q: When you put the kids in this program, what are you hoping to see?

A: We want to give kindergarteners a leg up in their reading skills. We want them working on brain processing. We want the increase in processing speed to pay dividends as they learn to read.


If we can get them at grade level at the end of kindergarten, they won’t start their school career with a deficit.


For kiddos in 1st through 5th grades, we want to see exponential growth in all students using the program. We want to close the gap so our struggling students are back on grade level. Some are one or two years behind. We have heard that kids make multiple year gains in one year in reading with this program. For us, every content area is reading.  You have to read to solve math problems; you have to read in science; you must read in social studies. We’re hoping that it will pay off across the board.


We want this to be the one program that will finally work. Everything else we have used has been content based. It hasn’t focused in on the brain.


Q: What do you particularly like about the program?

A: Teachers have difficulty giving struggling kids the one-on-one reading time they need. Many teach their lessons, then have kids rotate one-on-one to read with them. It’s time-consuming.  The Reading Assistant program will allow kids to read to the program. If they struggle with a word, they get a visual cue. If that doesn’t help, it pronounces the word for them. They can record their reading. The teacher can go back and analyze that. Kids get immediate feedback from their reading. This is something we have not had with other programs.


Q: Brain research shows that the more children concentrate and use their brains, their brain maps will grow.

A: Correct. Marcia Tate wrote a book called, “Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.” Teachers use worksheets because that’s easy. But it doesn’t stimulate kids or help their brains grow.


Recently we overhauled the way we provide professional development. We replicated best practices from brain research. We introduced instructional coaches. We stress creating activities that require students to think critically. We want teachers to challenge kids. With time constraints, we tend to give them the answers and not allow them the time they need to figure things out. What’s great about this program is that it individualizes for each student. Kids work at their own pace until they get to the processing time they need.


Q: If it were to work the way you hope, and you begin to see real progress, and everybody gets on grade level, what would that do for the District, teachers and the kids?

A: Oh my goodness! First, everything we do is for our kids. It would give students the confidence they need to see they can do it! None of us enjoys doing anything we struggle with. I’m not going to run a marathon because I’m obviously not in shape to do that. We don’t practice doing things we’re not good at.


For our students who have struggled in the past, it will pay huge dividends for them to experience success, to see they can read and understand.  Because, in a sense, every test is a reading test. Everything they do in life will revolve around reading and comprehension and analysis. It will go on to benefit them in STAAR testing, End of Course testing, SAT and ACT college prep testing, Advanced Placement testing and more.


It will also help our teachers. They provide interventions and supports for kids who are one, two or three grade levels behind, and for those who operate above grade level. Some are looking at five grade level spans in their classroom every day, trying to hit every one. That’s the reality of being a teacher. If we could get all our kids at grade level, then the teachers could teach at grade level and work to do the extension piece.


Q: Will the program be at every school?

A: It will be at all elementary schools and at Kirby Middle School, too.


Q: May we use it indefinitely?

A: We bought a perpetual license, so we have it forever. There is an annual fee to continue with it. Most districts buy these types of programs one, two or three years at a time. That was going to cost a great deal more. With a perpetual license, we have it now until eternity, as long as we pay a renewal fee for each campus. It’s affordable enough that the District can continue to pay that.


Q: Are we the only District in North Texas to offer Scientific Learning?

A: We are the only one offering it in Region 9. Some schools in the Metroplex use it. It is cost prohibitive for many. That’s why we were very blessed to get a grant to help pay for it. Looking at the research, Scientific Learning has the best track record. That’s why we wanted this program.


Q: When will the data begin coming in?

A: We started the year by providing training for our instructional coaches. Then they trained others. The children began using it in late September. By the end of October, we will have our first data point. We will see if our kids are progressing and by how much. I’m so excited. By Christmas break, some will have finished the first component of the program, and we will know even more.