GWEN IFILL: Now: a program designed to help elementary school students become better readers by retraining their teachers.
Special correspondent John Tulenko from Learning Matters has our report.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN, literacy coach: and proud. Right. So, you can say your sound? How many sounds are in this word, boys and girls? Let's count, brat. There's four sounds in that word, right?
PAUL SOLMAN: Just four sounds, simple enough for these beginning readers at Betances Elementary in Hartford, Connecticut. But watch what happens when literacy expert Dr. Linda Bronstein switches the letters R. and A. in the word brat.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: And let's see how many sounds are in there now, everybody. Let's see how many sounds. Look at that. What happened? Now we have only three sounds. You cant say ah anymore, because now your sound is R. This R. is bossing you and making a new sound, which is R.
PAUL SOLMAN: When the letter R. comes after a vowel, it changes the vowel's sound. Bronstein calls this the bossy R. And that's just one of the many rules early readers need to remember. There's also:
JACLYN NARDI, teacher: Vowel teams? You need to know, like, if you see two vowels together, the first one does the talking.
FAITH KURECZKA, teacher: Diagraphs. So, like, S. and H. say shh.
JACLYN NARDI: E-R says er, er, er, like ladder.
WOMAN: Which also almost sounds like the I-R in bird.
AMANDA KUSHNER, teacher: If it's a consonant, vowel, consonant, you sandwich the vowel, and it's then closed, and it's going to make a short sound.
FAITH KURECZKA: So for cat, cat, cat.
JACLYN NARDI: But cake says A., "ake."
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: See how complex it is? There's a lot to teaching reading.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: Bart.
JOHN TULENKO: In the United States, learning to read is a major challenge.
National tests showed two-thirds of all fourth-graders score below proficient. There are many reasons why, but one in particular may come as a surprise.
When you were in education school, how much training did you get in teaching children to read?
JACLYN NARDI: Very little. Very little.
JOHN TULENKO: Like many teachers nationwide, Jaclyn Nardi started her career in the classroom unprepared for the complexity of teaching children to read.
JACLYN NARDI: A lot of college, I feel like, was lesson planning. It was a lot of the paperwork side of it, not as much as the hands-on teacher experience.
JOHN TULENKO: She was weakest in teaching one essential reading skill, decoding.
JACLYN NARDI: Phonics was my issue. In college, we did a lot of let's read together and talk about what we have read. But it wasn't really breaking down parts of a word. So I didn't really have the skills, how to get them from point A. to point B. I was never taught anything like that in college.
JOHN TULENKO: A recent examination of course work at hundreds of colleges of education found 60 percent give just passing attention to decoding, memorizing common words by sight, and other skills critical to reading. Critics question the methodology, but concede that training needs to improve. To address that, in 2010, Hartford turned Betances into a model school where teachers learn to teach reading.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: And curly is ur, U-R.
JOHN TULENKO: A key component is an approach similar to the residencies used to train doctors. Most new hires at Betances begin as associate teachers and come straight out of college.
FAITH KURECZKA: Coming here, I learned more strategies and actually hands-on things I can do with the students.
JOHN TULENKO: Associate teachers, like Faith Kureczka, are paid a standard salary and work the same hours as regular teachers. However, instead of being thrown into a classroom to fend for themselves, here, they spend a year or more co-teaching with experienced instructors.
You really need to come in each day and have conversations with your colleagues and really learn the job, so you're ready for your own classroom. And I think, for me, it was very beneficial, because now I have all this knowledge, and I can use it.
JOHN TULENKO: The other key element to the Betances model is a strong mentor. Dr. Linda Bronstein's full-time job is to improve reading instruction at the school.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: I'm in and out of classrooms all day. I do modeling where I'm responsible for the lesson.
CLASS: What is the author trying to tell us?
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: Coaching is where the teacher is doing the lesson, and I might jump in and give some tips.
JOHN TULENKO: Even when she's not in the classroom, Bronstein is watching.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: We have two cameras in every room, and I can watch instruction from my office.
JOHN TULENKO: Teachers receive instant feedback over the phone, by e-mail, or in person.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: I'm known to be a person who has to correct something right away. And the teachers, I don't think that they -- they have gotten used to it.
JACLYN NARDI: Any minute, Dr. Bronstein could be watching you, or just walk into your classroom and observe, so you're always on your A-game. But I'm glad that we have -- as much as I dislike the cameras, that we have them here, because you're always getting feedback from Dr. Bronstein and from each other.
JOHN TULENKO: Teachers at Betances work on lessons together at least once a week, often reviewing videos of themselves and their colleagues.
What's it like to have a camera recording your every movement?
AMANDA KUSHNER: I mean, I do get a little nervous every time they turn on, but I know that it is the best way to quickly improve to watch yourself on video and see what you're doing effectively and what you need to improve on.
JOHN TULENKO: After two years learning this way, associate teachers will be reassigned to other schools. Hartford spent $400,000 to create the model at Betances, in hopes of substantially growing the number of reading experts district-wide.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: The bottom line is, teacher quality is important. But you have to put your money behind it.
JOHN TULENKO: It seems to be paying off. In its second year, 87 percent of third-graders achieved proficiency on the state reading test. That's more than double the year before. But is it too good to be true?
Over the summer, the state began an investigation into what it called potential irregularities in the school's test scores. State officials aren't saying what that means. On our visit, made prior to the investigation, we brought up the possibility of cheating.
Some people might say a jump from 42 percent up to 87 percent, that looks suspect.
DR. LINDA BRONSTEIN: I know. Well, but I know what we did. I know what we did. We worked intensively. We did small group instruction with those children. We taught them the strategies they needed. And it worked.
JOHN TULENKO: Bronstein insists the scores are accurate. Further evidence the approach works comes from countries like Finland and Singapore that use similar methods of training teachers, and whose students outperform their counterparts here in the United States.