Our Goal: 90 Percent Reading

With ambitious goal set, Kennewick, Wash., moves from isolated efforts to districtwide coordination by Paul W. Rosier

 In the early spring of 1995, a few school board members and a handful of administrators in the Kennewick, Wash., schools, were reviewing a report of the number of freshmen students who were failing high school classes. We noticed one interesting trend: The grade earned in English predicted the grade in most of the other academic courses.

English teachers had told us that poor reading skills were the primary reason for the number of students failing their classes. We further discussed the disappointing results of remedial reading programs in U.S. education. After much deliberation, we concluded that for students to be successful in all subjects, we must get all children reading independently by the time they leave the primary grades.

Soon after, all reading teachers from the primary grades were invited to meet with the school board and district administration to discuss how to improve the reading proficiency of our primary school students. Nearly half of the 200 invited teachers attended; for more than two hours, we talked about reading.

Teachers reported that a significant number of children were already unprepared for school entering kindergarten. The lack of parental support, in general, was a primary reason many students did not learn to read. Regardless of the reasons for poor reading skills, we all knew we had to find a way to help our students become better readers.

At some point, someone proposed we establish a goal against which we could measure our district’s progress in improving our students’ reading abilities. People liked the idea until one board member said, “What if the goal was to have 90 percent of our students reading on grade level by the end of the 2nd or 3rd grade?”

The room went dead silent. You could have heard a pin drop. I doubt there was one believer among the educators that such a goal was possible. But the die had been cast. This was the birth of the 90 percent reading goal for the Kennewick School District.

All-Inclusive Effort

That summer, more parameters of the goal were worked out during our annual review of the district’s strategic plan. The teachers on the strategic planning committee proposed that the 90 percent not include special education students, but community members believed all students should be included. They countered with a proposal to lower the goal to 80 percent for everyone. Teachers responded that any lowering of the goal would be a political mistake since the idea of a 90 percent target already had been made public at a school board meeting.

At the same time, the teachers expressed their concern that parents needed to be more engaged if the 90 percent goal was to be achieved. School board members on the committee accepted this challenge and with that, the goal stayed at 90 percent and included all students. The group set the goal at the 3rd grade because this is where the transition from learning to read to reading to learn occurs.

Next to be addressed: how to measure the goal and what would be the standard for grade-level reading? The district had worked with the Northwest Evaluation Association, based in Portland, Ore., to develop a set of tests in math and reading. Kennewick teachers used test-item banks and parameters from NWEA to build tests using the district and state content standards. After much discussion among teachers and administrators, we determined that the grade-level standard for the test would be a score that reflected reading at the midpoint of 3rd grade.

Flexibility Required

A review of the research on successful, high-achieving schools and districts reveals the existence of many such schools, but few, if any, successful school districts. One of the principles we used to design our approach to achieve the 3rd grade reading goal districtwide was that we would create a district culture where all schools could become high achieving.

Like many communities, Kennewick, which is located in southeastern Washington, has a wide range of school populations. In our 13 elementary schools, the range of students eligible for free and reduced price meals varies from 9 percent to 85 percent. Therefore, we decided that each school would need to have as much flexibility as possible to reach the goal.

From a district standpoint, our role would be to hold all schools to the same standard, same measuring instrument and same reporting format. The district also would support the schools by directing an additional $500,000 annually for staff training and extra materials, while allowing them to determine what approach and materials to use.

In 1995, the war between whole language and phonics proponents was still very much alive. We decided that professional educators at the building level were in a much better position to determine what approach was best for the children in a given school so no one method was imposed by the district administration.
We recognized that to change the results and get more students reading at grade level required in-depth staff development. We established criteria for selecting training programs, all of which had to have a strong research base. Four such programs were identified at the outset with two of them emerging as ones to consider implementing.

Rather than picking which was the best, we gave each building’s staff the right to choose. This allowed them to own the decision—an essential component for an effective school. Subsequently, eight schools chose to use the Consortium on Reading Excellence, located in Oakland, Calif., as their primary staff development program, while the other five schools picked First Steps, a subsidiary of Heinemann Publishers.

Pushing Parents

In spring 1996, the school board determined that the best approach to engage parents in helping to meet the 90 percent goal was to establish an independent foundation. One school board member, three leading citizens and I formed a small committee to create a private foundation, whose primary goal would be to get parents to read 20 minutes a day with their children from birth. We believed a private organization could preach a message and sponsor activities that a school district could not do. Also, we thought we had a better chance of people accepting the message.

We created The Reading Foundation with a board of leading citizens, and the response has been overwhelming. After all, who can be against promoting reading?

The focus of the foundation in the first two years was to spread this message: The most important 20 minutes of your day is reading to your child. The local media has been highly supportive, donating more than $180,000 of television and radio time to the effort. The local newspaper provides space for the foundation’s message on a regular basis and sponsors a phone-in read-aloud program for parents who may not be literate. The foundation created a bank of 15- and 30-second audio and video announcements in both English and Spanish.

The foundation developed a new program with the local hospitals, where parents of newborns receive a first reading book, a bib that says “Read to Me,” a library card and a brochure on reading to one’s child for 20 minutes a day. We intentionally made the idea of reading to preschool children a moral issue in our community because we want parents to feel guilty if they do not read to their kids.

Finding Focus

Prior to establishing the reading goal and implementing individual school reading improvement plans, about 58 percent of our students were reading grade-level material at 3rd grade. Schools were what Richard Elmore of Harvard University describes as “atomized.” That is, individual teachers did what each thought was best for their students, but unfortunately little collaboration or focus resulted.

The reading goal has focused the Kennewick district. Although not many people believed the 90 percent goal was realistic in the beginning, few could openly oppose the idea of promoting better reading ability. The basic skills are not equal. Reading is the gateway skill and every educator knows that reading is the key to success in school and life.

Last spring, 78 percent of the students in the district met the 3rd-grade standard. In three schools, more than 90 percent met or exceeded the standard, and two of them have student poverty rates of 50 percent. One of those, Washington Elementary, has met the goal two consecutive years and set a new district record this spring with 96 percent of all students meeting or exceeding the standard.

Washington was an atomized school six years ago. Today, it is one of the most focused and collaborative schools I have been associated with in my career. The school has built an internal accountability system where at least one adult is responsible for every child’s growth and specific interventions if they are needed.

Since its beginning in 1996, The Reading Foundation has been successful in getting the 20-minute message out. We have surveyed parents on two different occasions and more than 99 percent report that they have heard the message. Still only 75 percent reported they regularly read with their children.

Our Discoveries

We have learned many lessons during the past six years. One of the first was that we needed to move our assessment system down to kindergarten. Even though it was generally understood that the goal was a primary K-3 goal, the teachers who were on the line were the 3rd-grade instructors.

We saw great student growth from the pre-test to the post-test in the 3rd grade, but the students coming to their grade had not shown similar growth. Now, with the assessment system starting at kindergarten, we are able to measure improvement at all grade levels from K-3.

At first, teachers were not receptive to the assessment tests at each grade level. However, having as much data as possible is vital to the program’s success. Eventually, as they became familiar with the data generated and used it to diagnose students’ needs, they wanted more and more. Most schools now use additional assessment instruments, above and beyond even those required by the district.

Another lesson we’ve learned is that goals are not achieved overnight. For about 40 percent of our students, reading is a difficult process, requiring teachers to adjust strategies for them and find ways to help them overcome the complexity of learning to read. Training for teachers also takes longer and has to be more focused than we anticipated.

We do know that teamwork and collaboration are essential for a school to meet the goal. Teamwork depends on the relationships in the building, and it takes only a few people in a school to make a team ineffective. Collaborative teamwork on the scale necessary to be a high-achieving school runs counter to the culture of isolated, independent providers. The concept of “let me go to my classroom and teach” is not the culture we need in high-performing schools.

Also essential is having a strong principal in every school. Teachers, no matter how good or collaborative, have a difficult time rising above the leadership of the principal in their building. Distributive leadership requires a skillful principal who knows how to build leadership throughout the organization. Principals do make a difference in the culture and focus of schools.

Limited English-speaking students present a particularly difficult challenge. These children have to learn English faster than we have presently been able to achieve. We are seeking the most effective and promising strategies to ensure the success of these children.

We have learned much as we progress toward the 90 percent goal, but we have more to learn. Each year, we get closer to the goal, and we learn more about how to get there. I would not be any place else than in Kennewick School District. We know reading is the key to getting all students to high standards and our commitment is to leave no student behind.

Paul Rosier, co-author of The 90% Reading Goal, is superintendent of the Kennewick Public Schools, 524 So. Auburn., Kennewick, Wash. 99336. E-mail: rosipa@ksd.org