Secondary School Reading

Specialists in high school may be rare, but districts see great potential by Linda Blackford

 Three years ago, Principal Mike McKenzie looked over test scores at his 1,700-student high school in Lexington, Ky., and was horrified at the reading scores. In all four grades, students who supposedly knew how to read were having trouble with sophisticated texts, especially on Kentucky’s analysis-heavy test, the Commonwealth Accountability and Testing System.

McKenzie decided to hire a teacher to help students with reading skills and help other teachers address this need in their high school classes. After two years, test scores started to soar, and other schools in the Fayette County Public Schools wanted to emulate the model. So Superintendent Robin Fankhauser allocated $750,000 to put a reading specialist in all 11 middle schools and five high schools in the district.

The move—along with the rather large budgetary allocation that departed from the personnel funding formula—raised eyebrows around town. Was Fayette County admitting that high school students couldn’t read? In fact, the school district was at the forefront of a movement to hire reading experts in secondary schools that is slowly spreading across the United States.

Greater Sophistication

Experts say the change stems from two factors. While national reading test scores have remained stagnant for years, many more states are adopting high-stakes assessments as graduation requirements.
These high-stakes assessments test more complex reading and writing skills of students than multiple-choice tests ever did. Then there is also the reality of a new technological and knowledge-based economy that requires a work force of people who can read, analyze and question information quickly and more efficiently than ever before.

"We now have two problems—those who can’t read and those who can’t read well enough," says Catherine Snow, a professor at Harvard University’s Center for Language and Literacy. "We’ve come to grips with the fact that we need to go to another level."

In Fayette County, the investment in reading specialists for middle and high schoolers has paid off with increasing scores on both Kentucky’s statewide test and other standardized tests the district uses. "Things just change so fast, and literacy needs have increased," says Kim Walters-Parker, the former reading specialist who started at Lafayette and now oversees the district’s 15 reading specialists from central office. “Textbooks got thicker and students have to comprehend much more sophisticated information than they ever have."

Her budget is now about $750,000 a year, which includes salaries, benefits and training needed for the specialists.

And interest in the practice is growing. “If I spoke at the conferences I’m invited to, I’d never be here,” he says.

From Middle to High

Increased performance is potent persuasion for superintendents and school boards to spend extra money on such an initiative. Funding usually comes from cobbling together local money with Title I funds.

Some administrators may place a reading specialist in a middle school only to realize the effort needs to expand to upper grades as well. Judy Tobasco started as a reading specialist in the Volusia County, Fla., schools 15 years ago, assigned to Galaxy Middle School. She designed a program that turned a scheduled elective class into a reading class for below-level students. There were no special education or English-as-a-second-language students, so Tobasco didn’t have to teach basic literacy. These were students who, to put it simply, weren’t reading on the level they needed to. "They were just lost out there," she says. "They didn’t have any idea how to approach texts."

So she focused on better comprehension skills and expanded vocabularies. The students were tested several times a year. By the time the program, which now is called Intensive Reading, spread to other middle schools, about 2,000 students saw gains, not just in reading but in other subjects, too, because their comprehension was better. So district officials expanded it to the high school.

Today, some 30 reading specialists are employed throughout the 70,000-student district. At the high school, reading is a required class for many struggling 9th- and 10th-grade students. Some of them might have been in the Intensive Reading program in middle school, while others found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of reading required in high school.

The class is now crucial for another reason: Starting this year, Florida high school students must pass the reading and mathematics portions of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to graduate.

"It’s mushroomed," says Tobasco, who now oversees the program from Volusia County’s central office. "Our kids are being tested differently, they need higher-order skills like analysis and inference skills, and it’s tough."

Still Tobasco emphasizes that part of any reading specialist’s job is to help other teachers learn reading strategies that will help their students. "Reading is everybody’s job, not just the reading teacher’s."

An Elective Offering

The Howard County, Md., Public Schools started assigning reading specialists to all 118 middle schools in the 1980s. But three years ago, the district added specialists to each of the 11 high schools.

The middle school reading program is a required class for all 6th graders, which focuses on concepts like reading interpretation, test taking and reading for pleasure. By the 7th grade, students can continue with the reading program or move into foreign language classes. The middle school program has proved to be a powerful tool in helping children bridge the gap between elementary and middle school, says Sharon Stein, the instructional facilitator for secondary reading for the Howard County schools. That’s why the district decided to expand it to high school, where it is an elective class for 9th and 10th graders.

“Principals and teachers felt there was a need to catch kids who were having problems and give them a leg up,” Stein said. “We feel fortunate to have this kind of program.”

The high school initiative depends heavily on a computer program called Autoskills, which offers students reading and comprehension exercises with ascending difficulty. Stein says she expects to see more and more school districts choose to put their personnel resources in this direction.

“It seems to me there is a national trend to help secondary readers,” she said. “Students may have learned to read, but they aren’t reading to learn.”

The Stroudsburg School District in eastern Pennsylvania designed a reading program that reached out to all students in the 1,000-student high school. Two reading specialists hold workshops for students having reading trouble, and the reading room serves as a place where students can study, work on a computer or simply read.

A Team Approach

Texas also is facing an assessment upgrade as the state moves from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills to the more analytical Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to begin next year. Tanya Fitzhugh, dean of instruction at Lancaster High School outside of Dallas, says many schools in Austin, San Antonio and Houston are looking into adopting the same kind of secondary reading program that has worked so well for her school.

In Fitzhugh’s school reading program, a reading specialist teams up with a subject-area teacher to help students who have fallen behind. So as a language arts teacher works through a reading or writing exercise, the reading specialist can work one on one with students in that class. "It’s turning out to be a very, very valuable tool,” Fitzhugh says.

This year, Lancaster was a "recognized" campus in the accountability program of the Texas Education Agency, which meant that 80 percent of all ethnic and economically disadvantaged students achieved mastery on the statewide TAAS test.

In Durango, Colo., the two middle school reading specialists split their time between working with groups of students and collaborating with teachers. Judy Michalski, Durango’s director of secondary school achievement, says reading scores on Colorado’s statewide test have jumped in the two years since the program started.

Supply and Demand

While school districts soon may realize the benefits of putting reading specialists in middle and high schools, they may face a rather immediate problem. Plenty of elementary teachers are trained as reading specialists, but fewer high school teachers have the same forte. English teachers are not necessarily prepared to teach reading.

That’s what Fayette County faced when it decided to place the specialists in secondary schools in 1999. It was an unusual dilemma for a school district that usually has an ample supply of educators but no money to hire them. The reverse was true this time.

School districts turned to their hometown University of Kentucky for help. They asked professors at the College of Education to design a short-term program for secondary teachers that would train them to address the unique reading problems in middle and high schools. The district paid for 18 teachers to take the classes.

To gain this endorsement, the reading teachers needed to complete a minimum of 18 hours of classes, including reading research, diagnosis of reading difficulties and reading remediation.

Mary Shake, an associate professor of education who helped design the program, says that most of the demand is still from the Fayette County schools, but she expects more teachers from outlying districts.

Part of the supply problem stems from the fact that nationally many reading specialists were laid off in the 1980s, said Vicki Jacobs, associate director of Harvard’s teacher education program. But in recent years, she’s seeing more students train as reading specialists and get jobs in middle and high schools.

In Texas, the supply may start to meet the demand, thanks to a legislative-funded program that encourages reading and language arts teachers to take a series of courses that allows them to become master reading teachers who can be hired at all levels, with the added inducement of a $5,000 salary bonus.

“It’s an effort to raise the reading scores of all Texas schoolchildren, at all grades,” says Carolyn Smyrl, who directs the Master Reading Teacher Program for the Texas Education Agency.

Shake, too, expects the demand for specialists to grow slowly as more educators realize how much help students need with reading. “Vocabulary, comprehension, the reading-writing connection—time and again, people are saying that students get to high school without these kinds of skills to be successful and that’s having a dramatic effect on performance,” she says.

While some critics want to blame elementary schools for not instilling those skills, Shake says that educators must accept that reading education must continue past elementary school. “We cannot make assumptions that students know everything they need to know about literacy by the time they finish 5th grade. We don’t make that assumption about any other subject.”

Linda Blackford is an education writer with the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky. E-mail: