Reading Reform

The answer for many districts: staff development and more staff development by Donna Harrington-Lueker

When it came to early literacy, Superintendent Eric Newton knew his Green River, Wyo., school district was leaving children behind. After all, until two years ago, the district's only intervention for young readers was the pullout program in its two Title I elementary schools. Teachers and students at the district's other schools operated largely without a safety net.

After careful research and months of ongoing professional development, though, the 3,400-student rural school district today has the ability to intervene early and often to help children who are struggling with learning to read. "We just knew it was important to intervene when problems started, not when a child was in the 3rd or 4th grade," says Newton.

Working with a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, the district has adopted an approach to early intervention that targets 1st-graders and draws on the work of New Zealand literacy expert Marie Clay, whose research helped to develop Reading Recovery.

Using surveys and techniques, some of which were developed by Clay, teachers at the beginning of the school year assess every 1st-grader's ability to identify letters, recognize vocabulary words or demonstrate basic concepts of print, such as where the top and bottom of the pages are. Children who score lowest on such assessments then work one-on-one with teachers for 30 minutes each day, five days a week, until they're reading on grade level with their peers. During these sessions, teachers track the child's progress and identify specific problems he or she may have, such as difficulty sounding out a word using phonics or figuring out the word from context. They then tailor their sessions to meet that child's needs.

The result of the new intervention: By the end of the year, nearly all students who have received the extra help have caught up with their peers, says Jan McIntosh, the Green River district's Title I director. And the K-2 teachers who have been trained in the intervention say they have begun to use the new strategies in their regular classrooms as well, reaching even more students. (Twenty of the district's 30 K-2 teachers have completed the training.) Teachers also have developed a common vocabulary for talking about reading, and that consistency is a plus for Green River's program, says McIntosh.

It's the reaction of 2nd-grade teachers, though, that has convinced the district that its commitment to early intervention has been on the mark. "They're telling us that the children are so much more prepared," says Joyce Hart, a K-1 teacher in the district.

High Hopes

Nationwide, districts like Green River are looking critically at their reading programs, and they're doing so for good reason: At a time when children are being asked to work harder and smarter and when high-stakes assessments carry significant consequences for schools and teachers, reading scores remain stagnant.

According to results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading scores among the nation's 4th-graders haven't improved since 1992. More disturbing, experts note, the gap between white students and minorities, rich students and poor, persists and appears to be growing. White students had an average score of 226 points on a scale of 500 on the most recent NAEP test compared to 197 points for Hispanic students and 193 points for African-Americans. Overall, too, slightly less than 40 percent of students failed to meet even a basic level, the lowest ranking on the NAEP scale. At the same time, the gap between the students who score highest on the test and those who score lowest continues to increase.

International assessments are also troubling. While U.S. 4th-graders rank near the top in reading scores in such assessments, by 11th grade students' scores put U.S. schools near the bottom of the pack.

"It's just a great concern with our districts," says Paula Egelson, literacy project director for SERVE, a federal education laboratory working with states in the Southeast. "If you're talking about student achievement, you're talking about reading."

States share that concern. According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, several states have passed significant literacy initiatives in the past few years. Among the steps they've taken are requiring schools to assess the skills of young readers, improving professional development opportunities for teachers and imposing consequences, such as summer school or extra reading classes, for students who don't meet state standards.

This year, too, Congress is expected to keep the national spotlight on reading by passing President George W. Bush's $5 billion Reading First initiative—a federal program that could leverage significant changes in the nation's classrooms, especially in Title I schools. At the heart of that bill, many say, is a commitment to making phonics an explicit and systematic part of reading programs in the primary grades (see related story).

Training Teachers

What steps have school districts taken to improve their reading programs? Some have opted for midcourse corrections. They've kept their basic approach to reading but invested in additional training or techniques that help them reach more children. Others are making wholesale changes and starting from scratch with new reading series, new training sessions, new approaches to reading. And all are finding that the effort involves considerable commitment, especially to ongoing staff development.

Take the Burke County Public Schools, a 14,400-student district in western North Carolina. Several years ago, says David Burleson, who is in his second year as Burke County superintendent, the district took an initial step toward improving reading instruction when it reduced class sizes in its primary grades to 15 students. With classes that small, teachers have time to assess a child's reading skills daily and then use that information immediately to fine-tune instruction, says Susan Wilson, the district's director of elementary education

In the last three years, too, the district has required all primary schools to spend at least 2½ hours a day teaching reading—a recommendation the district adopted after reading the National Research Council's influential 1998 report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children."

To make the most of that time, Burke County also has invested heavily in training teachers to teach reading. In addition to offering ongoing workshops on reading skills and children's literature, the district encourages its primary school teachers to earn a master's degree in reading from nearby Appalachian State University.

As part of the program, university professors offer classes in the district every semester, and teachers are required to complete an internship in a reading clinic at the university. About 20 teachers take classes each semester, and at least 60 already have earned their degrees. (To minimize the cost of master's classes to teachers, the district subsidizes the tuition, using federal Title VI professional development funds.) In addition, all the district's Title I teachers have master's degrees in reading, Wilson says.

In the last two years, too, Burke County has trained all its K-2 teachers to use so-called running records. Developed by New Zealand literacy experts as part of the popular Reading Recovery program and used in school districts nationwide, running records involve tracking an individual student's reading progress by having the student read aloud while the teacher notes specific errors. The teacher then tailors the next day's instruction for that child, correcting problems as they arise.

For Wilson, a former principal, the intervention is a powerful one. "We've just made a commitment as a system that this is best practice," she says.

The combination of training and method provides something else as well. It gives teachers a sound and consistent way to individualize instruction.

"Too often we've lumped students in classes and expected them to learn the same thing at the same time," says Burleson. But with individualized instruction and small classes, teachers can monitor a child's progress more closely and intervene early.

"You can figure out where the frustration's coming from and deal with it before kids turn off to reading," the superintendent says.
The three-pronged approach has paid off, district officials say. In 1992-93, 60 percent of 3rd graders and 70 percent of 8th graders were proficient in reading on state tests, Burleson reports. This year, 81 percent of Burke County's 3rd graders and 90 percent of 8th graders scored at the proficient level in reading on the North Carolina state assessment.

That increase came despite a significant increase in students who do not speak English as their native language. In 1992-93, the district had virtually no ESL students, says Wilson. Today, there are nearly 1,700—about 1 percent of the district's enrollment. In addition, Wilson says, two of the district’s schools have received national recognition for their reading programs.

But such success takes commitment, especially to teacher training. "What's the key?" asks Burleson. "It's staff development, staff development, staff development."

Embracing Phonics

For the Sacramento City Unified School District, the answer to low reading scores wasn't fine-tuning the district's existing program. Four years ago, with about 20 percent of its students reading at grade level, the district jettisoned its existing reading program and adopted an approach that stressed phonics first.

For Superintendent Jim Sweeney, the selection of the proper reading series was crucial. When he arrived in the district in 1997, he says, the district's 60 elementary schools were using at least 15 different approaches to teaching reading. "We had just about everything imaginable going, and none of it was working," the superintendent says.

To complicate matters, a large number of Sacramento's students were at risk of academic failure. Nearly two-thirds qualified for free- and reduced-price lunch, and one-third did not speak English as their native language. And like students in other large urban school districts, students in Sacramento moved frequently from school to school. That meant a child could start the school year in a school that used one approach to reading, then transfer to one using an entirely different approach in midyear, Sweeney says.
To make sure all children learned to read by grade 3, the district needed a common reading curriculum in all its elementary schools. And it needed an approach to teaching reading that matched the research that was emerging on the importance of phonics, especially for students at risk, says Kathi Cooper, the district's associate superintendent for instruction and learning.

To meet both those needs, the district chose Open Court, a reading series that incorporates intensive, systematic lessons in phonics and phonemic awareness, in sounds and the ways children learn to decode them. Highly structured, the series also requires teachers to move through the chapters at a prescribed pace—another way to promote consistency, the district reasoned. As part of Sacramento's plan, too, every elementary school in the district would use the series, and every school would be required to spend a minimum of two hours a day on reading instruction.

To minimize the financial crunch of adopting a completely new reading program, Sacramento handled the changes in stages. The first year, teachers in kindergarten through grade 3 began to use the series. The next year, grades 4 through 6 followed.

Some teachers welcomed the changes; others were reluctant to abandon their own approach to teaching reading. And many were concerned about the pace of the lessons, some familiar with the transition say.

According to district officials, though, the choice paid off. When the district tested 2nd-graders at the beginning of the first school year to obtain baseline data, the youngsters scored in the 28th percentile. "That's pretty much an indication of where our 1st-graders were," says Cooper. At the end of that year, though, those 2nd-graders scored in the 35th percentile.

Perhaps more tellingly, that year's 1st-graders—the first children to learn to read with Open Court—scored at the 54th percentile at the end of the year. And the next year, those scores increased to 62 percent. Currently, going into its fifth year using Open Court, the district reports that its 2nd-graders score in the 56th percentile.

A Role for Principals

Like Burke County, though, Sacramento found that such increases aren't possible without a substantial commitment to training teachers. In Sacramento's case, teachers received the new materials in May, says Cooper, giving them time to review the series over the summer and plan their instruction. The district even delayed the start of school for four days so that it could provide additional days of intensive training. Just as important, the Packard Foundation, headquartered in Los Altos, Calif., gave the district $2.5 million a year for three years to provide schools with reading coaches.

Given the district's emphasis on literacy, principals had to change as well. At Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Principal Norman Tanaka went to the same workshops his teachers did. ("I became a student," says Tanaka.) He also spent more time in classrooms observing how his teachers worked with the new program and keeping tabs on whether the program was being properly implemented.

The principal also became part of the school's safety net for children who fell behind. Every six weeks, teachers assessed their children's reading levels using a districtwide assessment. If a child fell behind, volunteer tutors stepped in to help after school or during reading blocks. Tanaka became a volunteer, too.

Such efforts made a difference. Nearly 65 percent of Thomas Jefferson's students qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch and had scored at the 20th percentile in reading before the district adopted Open Court, Tanaka says. A year later, they scored in the 50th percentile, and a year after that, their scores hit the 60th percentile, according to Tanaka.

This past year, Tanaka says, 80 percent of the school's students scored at or above grade level in reading.

The change wasn't easy. "It was really a lot of pressure," says Tanaka. "But there was also a lot of support."

Other Age Levels

Increasingly, too, districts are looking beyond grades 1 through 3, where they've traditionally focused their reading instruction.

Knox County, Tenn., for example, has set its sights on its kindergarten program. For more than a decade that program had emphasized children's social development and avoided pushing children into academics before they were ready, says K-5 reading specialist Theresa Wishart. So while kindergartners learned the alphabet—often through activities like the letter of the week—teachers didn't expect the children to master any letter-sound combinations. "The focus was on social skills, not on actively teaching children to get ready to read and write," says Wishart.

Two years ago, though, a committee of kindergarten and 1st-grade teachers, principals and some central-office staff members reviewed the research on early reading and decided that kindergarten classes needed to be explicit about a number of reading-readiness skills.

Today the Knox County district has adopted an early literacy program that includes instruction on skills appropriate for 5-year-olds, including phonemic awareness, rhyme and word-blending. After a year of intensive professional development in early literacy, teachers this year also will assess kindergartners during the first week of school, using flash cards and other resources to check a child's awareness of letters, sounds and print. Teachers then will build on those skills during the school year and retest students at mid-year and at year's end, says Wishart. A record of the child's progress will be passed on to the 1st-grade teacher.

According to Wishart, the change caused concern among some teachers, especially those who feared the district was expecting too much of its youngest students. But Wishart and others assured parents and teachers that the district wasn't pushing a 1st-grade curriculum on kindergarten pupils. "What we were doing was very appropriate for 5-year-olds," says Wishart.

In Providence, R.I., high schools are getting into the act. Specifically, as part of Superintendent Diana Lam's districtwide literacy initiative, all four of the district's high schools now have full-time literacy facilitators on site. Those facilitators have received training from the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and are helping teachers master strategies for teaching teen-agers to read more skillfully in specific disciplines.

Among the skills addressed are vocabulary building, summarizing or retelling and responding critically to a text. In addition, teachers are trained to demonstrate for students the kind of thinking that goes into making sense of a text.

"It's learning by apprenticeship," says Barbara Szenes, a literacy facilitator at Providence's Hope High School. "You learn something by watching someone do something well."

A history teacher might show students how to read a primary source, such as a journal or letters, or how to evaluate two contradictory accounts of the same event. An English teacher might spend more time helping students learn to respond to an author's style or analyze a character. In Szenes's words: Every teacher becomes a teacher of reading.

Other Problems

But improving reading instruction isn't a job for classroom teachers alone, reading experts note. Schools of education are being asked, for example, to prepare new teachers to do a better job teaching reading.

And increasingly, districts are looking at literacy as a systemwide effort involving all students in all grades. That's the case for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which this year has embarked on a K-12 literacy initiative that will put trained literacy coaches in all schools. That initiative also puts phonics at the heart of reading instruction. "It'll be a strong emphasis on decoding right from the beginning," says Pittsburgh administrator Rebecca Hamilton.

The initiative also stresses vocabulary development at all grade levels and strategies that encourage students to think critically and thoughtfully about what they've read. The price tag for the initiative is $7 million, some of which the district has raised from foundations and businesses. Some funds involve redeploying federal Title I aid.

That's a price Pittsburgh and other school districts seem willing to pay.

"We're saying [reading instruction] isn't a banquet table with a little bit of this and a little bit of that," says Hamilton, senior program officer for Literacy Plus.

But as the practices in school districts nationwide suggest, it's also not a one-course meal.

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a free-lance education writer in Bristol, R.I. E-mail: dhlueker@ids.net