Adopting a Districtwide Reading Program

An 8-step process that asks essential questions and articulates answers for anxious staff by Jerry Miller

 Last Labor Day weekend, as I drove around the school district on Saturday morning, I noticed cars in each of the parking lots of the 12 elementary schools in Issaquah. Inside the buildings, teachers were unpacking boxes of anthologies and peeling the cellophane from the stacks of leveled readers that accompany our newly adopted reading program.

The teachers pored over spiral-backed teacher manuals. They examined assessments in various formats and tried to decide which of the plethora of available lessons and activities merited the use of their precious instructional time.

Admittedly, a few staff members were angry about our district’s decision to adopt a published reading program. Issaquah is an affluent community with a history of high test scores so teachers viewed the change as a negative commentary on their own teaching and an infringement on their professional freedom.
Though they were aware of the process by which we chose the program, some staff members’ participation, for whatever reason, had been minimal. As one 3rd-grade teacher commented: “I just thought it would go away.” Their initial assessment was that we were taking a step backwards by reverting to a basal program.

This is just another swing of the pendulum, many assumed. Why can’t we move forward and stay there instead of always going back and forth?

Changing Emphases

A quick glance at a comprehensive published reading program does take the teacher back to a time, perhaps 15 years ago, when students were taught to read exclusively with basal materials. However, a careful examination of the best of today’s published programs reveals content that was sorely missing in earlier basals.

The phonics element is still there, but pre-phonics skills like phonemic awareness have been added. Practice in decoding and accuracy have been augmented with a focus on fluency. Literal comprehension has been expanded to include higher-order skills such as interpretation, analysis, synthesis and questioning. Most significantly, our greater understanding of the role of metacognition has led to the inclusion of these strategies as well.

The basals of 15 years ago focused on lifting the text off the page and on literal comprehension. Many published programs available today expand that earlier focus so that readers not only have the skills and strategies to accurately and effortlessly read the words, but to also systematically and strategically make meaning from what is read. I am convinced that the philosophical and instructional pendulum has not swung through empty time and space these past 15 years. Rather, it has swung through the buildings and classrooms throughout our country. Along the way it has picked up the best practices that have evolved there. These practices have dramatically changed both the face and the structure of reading instruction.

A few of our teachers were elated to have sequential lessons to follow after a decade and a half of teacher-developed reading curriculum. They felt overcome by the pressures of education reform, accountability and an often unsupportive news media. They hoped this new reading program would take the heat off by providing just the right recipe for success for their students. After four months they have come to appreciate the structure provided by the program, but they realize, more than ever, the heat is still on.

The vast majority of our teachers, though, were expectant, hopeful, curious and cautious. They are justifiably confident teachers. They have high expectations for their students as learners and for themselves as educators. They want what is best for their students and for the community as a whole. These teachers see the new reading materials for what they are: tools. They represent a framework of skills and strategies and instructional materials that, if intentionally, selectively and effectively used, will lead to solid reading development for their students.

Careful Adoption

We came to last September’s implementation through a careful and precise adoption process. During each of the eight steps we followed, essential questions were asked and answers articulated. Every step led us closer to a decision that could be supported by the vast majority of stakeholders throughout the district.

Our initial process included data collection, research analysis, philosophy clarification, program review, material review, field testing and final selection.
Our literacy review committee consisted of class-room teachers from all grade levels, building and district administrators and teachers of special programs. Through a careful application process, participants who represented stakeholders in our elementary system were selected. As the district’s director of instructional support, I was chosen to facilitate and lead the committee.

We are all prisoners of our own perspective. The world ends at the borders of our particular horizon. For the teacher, these borders are defined by the four walls of the classroom, for the principal by the floor plan of the school building for which he or she is responsible, for the district administrator by those lines that separate one particular set of K-12 buildings from another or by a flow chart whose lines and squares define an organizational structure but often overshadow the people they are meant to represent.

When making a decision that affects every part of the system, one must negotiate all of these perspectives simultaneously.

We raised questions for ourselves about data collection, research, philosophy clarification, current practices, available materials, field-testing and implementing our new program. For each of these essential questions, a process of information gathering, discussion and group consensus led us closer to our ultimate decision.

The following briefly examines our experiences at each step in the process of adopting new materials.

Data Collection

What do we feel about our existing reading curriculum?

It goes without saying that each member of the system must feel valued and respected for his or her contribution and opinion. When surveying stakeholders, ask questions in a way that the maximum amount of relevant information can be gathered and evaluated. We launched our adoption process by asking parents, teachers, educational assistants and building administrators three questions:

• Which elements of our existing reading program have been the most effective?

• How could we improve the elementary reading program throughout our district?

• What advice do you have for us as we begin the review process?

As we examined the responses to these questions, distinct trends became evident. Basically, everyone felt good about the fact that most students in Issaquah read well. At the same time, both the community and the school acknowledged that we weren’t meeting the needs of all students. The lack of consistency from school to school, from grade level to grade level and even from classroom to classroom within the same grade level was identified as a common frustration.

For parents, this lack of consistency caused confusion. Expectations and instruction seemed different for each child depending on who the teacher was or which school their child attended. For teachers, the lack of consistency meant they could not assume all of their students were coming with similar experiences or a common vocabulary to discuss reading. With few guidelines to follow, they were insecure in their decisions about which skills and strategies to teach and how to assess them.

For building administrators, this lack of consistency meant radically different expectations, experiences and student outcomes from classroom to classroom. Finally, from a districtwide perspective, the inconsistent program lead to confusion when attempting to offer staff development that met the needs of all teachers and furthered the mission of the district: All students learning well.

These common themes evolved into the charge to the literacy review committee: identifying a common, consistent, comprehensive reading program that would meet the needs of all students and teachers within the district.

Research Analysis

• What does the research say comprises a consistent, comprehensive reading program?

Richard Allington, professor of education at the University of Florida and author of numerous works on reading, research and education reform, has made convincing and credible pleas for caution when examining research data on reading instruction. He advocates for a focus on converging evidence from studies that have undergone the rigor of peer review.

As a committee, we took Allington’s words to heart in Issaquah. We gathered research syntheses and reviews from several sources and looked for patterns. In doing so, we identified the five major components of a comprehensive reading program as pointed out by the educational research. These seemed to include a focus on alphabetics (phonemic awareness, phonics, blending, decoding, etc.), comprehension, a variety of text forms and features, intensive and careful vocabulary instruction and a focus on moving students toward fluency in oral reading.

Skill Tracing

What do we believe about effective reading instruction in Issaquah?

Coming to agreement about educational research in reading was relatively easy. Taking those findings to heart and examining classroom practice and philosophical beliefs in light of those findings was more challenging. Over the course of two months of questioning and probing, committee members gradually came to articulate the beliefs that underscored our screening process.

Which specific skills and strategies do we want students to acquire?

As with most other states, Washington has identified in broad brush strokes the fundamental skills and strategies we wish students to acquire as a result of our reading instruction. These Essential Academic Learning Requirements, or ELARS, describe the general boundaries of reading instruction.

As our state assessment system emerged, the ELARS were further clarified by identifying benchmark skills and strategies to be tested at grades 4, 7 and 10. These benchmarks better define our expectations of what students should know and be able to do at the three grade levels, but they still do not paint the whole picture.

The committee members divided into “expert groups” to investigate how instruction in skills and strategies should look. Each group focused on one aspect of reading instruction identified during the review of research. The five groups (alphabetics, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and text forms and features) wrote screening documents they could use when examining published programs.

How do the available published programs compare to our understanding of educational research, effective instruction and our articulated beliefs?

Anyone who has looked through the promotional material accompanying a reading program knows that each publisher promises, “This series has it all.” Most publishers can even hand you a brochure that shows how exactly your state’s standards are met through the use of their program.

The literacy committee set aside all this puffery and examined every program thoroughly, using the screening documents they had created. Through a scoring process, teams compared one published program to another and eventually identified which program most closely met their description of a truly comprehensive and balanced reading program.

What do we currently do to meet the needs of our students throughout the district in each of the areas identified as a crucial component of a comprehensive reading program?

In the meantime, we began to wonder if, in fact, we already had most of the components of a comprehensive reading program in place in our schools, so we examined existing classroom practice throughout the district. With a mountain of Post-it notes and an enormous wall chart, committee members helped teachers assemble a picture of the reading curriculum in their individual buildings. For each area identified as essential by research, individual teachers identified how they currently taught and assessed these skills and which materials they used to do so.

This process yielded several important discoveries. Teachers realized they were not focusing on all components of a comprehensive reading program. Some spent more time on alphabetics. Some spent more time on fluency. Some assessed fluency but did not teach specific comprehension skills. Still others assumed skills were being gained, but were not assessing students to ascertain if this was the case.

We lacked a common vocabulary around reading instruction. The same activity and materials appeared under vocabulary for one teacher and under fluency for her teammate across the hall. Our discussions about reading instruction were limited by this lack of common understanding.

Field Testing

Of those programs that most closely match our philosophy and expectations, which one will work best for the teachers and students in this district?

The committee identified two programs that most closely matched their expectations for a districtwide reading program. Neither was perfect, but both outshone all the others.

We sent both of the finalist programs out for a month of field-testing in classrooms throughout the district. Since the contents of the two programs already had been thoroughly examined by the committee, classroom teachers were asked to try each program and determine which one would work best for themselves and their students. All interested teachers were encouraged to participate in this process, and responses to each program were gathered via field testing evaluation forms.

Field testing isolated one program as most closely meeting the needs of most teachers in the district, and the committee put it forward for approval by our school board.

Conscious Consumerism

Though simple, this process helped a committee with diverse views and experiences come to solid consensus. Yet, in the end, the true cause of success for our students in gaining reading skills will not have been the purchase of our present program. It will have been the skillful implementation, modification, and intentional and ongoing evaluation of the materials, instruction and assessments we selected. It will be the result of our collective conscious consumerism in selecting just the right pieces and delivering them with just the right panache.

At present, we are implementing and evaluating our adopted materials. Initial response from the classroom is positive. Teachers are finding the new materials and instructional components helpful and effective.

Naturally, some concerns exist. Teachers are adjusting their instruction and managing their time to meet the demands of the program and adjusting the program to meet the needs of their students. We are moving from an era of building-level decision making on curriculum matters to a more coordinated districtwide focus.

Early in the process, the committee realized the essential role of ongoing staff development. Our ultimate success as a district hinges on our commitment to routinely assess our program and to provide support and training at every juncture. Programs do not teach children to read. Teachers do.

Must it be a published program? No. As the late reading authority Jeanne Chall of Harvard University stated decades ago, there are individual teachers and classrooms throughout the country whose results would be the envy of any publisher. It is possible to take the information provided by research and to develop a homespun yet consistent reading program for an entire district. It is possible to have individual teachers come together and write curriculum and select materials to teach that common program.

It is possible, but for most districts, and certainly for Issaquah, it is not an efficient use of time and resources. We have chosen, instead, to begin by selecting a published program and then to monitor the success teachers have in using it. In the end, we will have made the best published program we could find better—by taking it as a foundation on which to build.

Jerry Miller, a former state reading specialist with the office of superintendent of public instruction in Washington, is director of instructional support with the Issaquah Public Schools, 565 N.W. Holly St., Issaquah, WA 98027. E-mail: millerj3@issaquah.wednet.edu