In all the hoopla over the newly mandated Reading Street and EnvisionMath curricula, parent and teacher reaction, and the subsequent flexibility guidelines, several important ideas are getting lost. It seems like parents and administrators are citing research, talking about numbers, and talking past each other, and I think it’s important to back the conversation up a bit and establish some common ground.

Here’s the first idea that is important: the path to literacy and reading begins at birth. Babies come into the world programmed to listen to speech sounds, words, and phrases, and learn what they mean. By the time a child has a few words, she or he comprehends most everything in their environment. Babies and toddlers see printed materials through board books, signs, traffic signs.

The first five to six years of life are spent building a vast vocabulary store, not just of labels, but of actions, descriptions, emotions, colors, number concepts, and more. Neurologically speaking, young children are primed to soak up more information in their first 6 years of life than we can imagine. They are learning about the world, the people and creatures in the world. More importantly, they learn that something symbolic, like a random-sounding combination of phonemes (e.g. d-o-g) represents a concrete thing (e.g. the furry animal with four legs and a tail that barks). There are a number of ways that youngsters learn vocabulary, through reading books with caregivers, through talking with caregivers, but most importantly, through play opportunities. The stages of play include cause-effect (0-12 months), functional (12 months-2 years), solitary-symbolic (2-3 years), associative-symbolic (3-4 years), and collaborative-symbolic (4 years and beyond). Given some adult guidance and scaffolding, age- and developmentally-appropriate materials, children are playing collaboratively and imaginatively by ages 3, 4 and 5. Now they are using their vast store of vocabulary to make friends, ask for help, join in a game, recount an experience, and tell how they are feeling. They are, if all goes well, negotiating for a favorite toy, bargaining for a lollipop, and taking turns on the swings. One  might think: what does this have to do with literacy and reading?? Here’s my response: everything!! From early on, given a secure attachment to a caregiver, opportunities for developmentally appropriate play, and exposure to children’s literature, children are paving the way towards print recognition, sound-symbol correspondence and rich vocabulary development.

But here’s some alarming news from a report entitled Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) (Halle, Forry, Hair, Perper, Wandner, Wessel, and Vick, 2009). The report’s key findings were that “Disparities in child outcomes are evident at 9 months and grow larger by 24 months of age; these disparities exist across cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional and health outcomes; the most consistent and prominent of these risk factors are low income and low maternal education; and, the more risk factors a child has, the wider the disparity.”

So, we have these children with lots of delays due to all kinds of socio-economic factors. They’re not just delayed cognitively and behind with their vocabulary. They have, due to a variety of factors, difficulty with impulse control, limited attention span for focused work, and (by age 4) significant attachment issues. They have not learned how to play cooperatively, take turns or negotiate with peers. And what is happening to them under NCLB, and specifically in Durham (now) with the new Reading Street mandate? They are being brought into Kindergarten at age 5, 6, and 7, and they are expected to sit for 150 minutes of “guided reading.” They are expected to know how to engage with a teacher, identify letters, numbers and sound out words. And, in some cases, many of them do. But what happens if they can eek by with good sound-symbol correspondence skills until second grade when the vocabulary is more interesting and there are more exceptions to the rules than there are spelling rules?

I have a good friend, who we’ll call Hannah. Hannah works in the public schools as a guidance counselor, and before she was a guidance counselor she helped out as a substitute teacher in a school with a high number of children from reduced socio-economic backgrounds. She recently shared an anecdote with me about trying to help a child read a passage in a second grade class. The passage involved a wagon, and Hannah remembered going over the story again and again with the child, and she finally realized that the child did not know what a wagon is. Hannah drew him a picture of a wagon and explained what a wagon does, and then they read the passage again and the child began to understand.

One of my colleagues, now a medical resident at UNC Chapel Hill Hospital, worked for 2 years in New Orleans as a teacher of severely behaviorally impaired adolescents with Teach for America. I asked her for an opinion on scripted curricula, and she told me that she believed that the scripted curricula that she used with her students taught them a set facts through rote memorization. The curriculum that she used brought her kids’ test scores and literacy skills beyond their baseline; however, she stated that this type of curriculum did not teach rich vocabulary or critical thinking skills, and that it only addressed some of the educational needs of the mediocre students. It “left behind” the learning-challenged children to the left of the bell curve, and it did not challenge the children with academic gifts and strengths.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that a more effective method for closing the achievement gap is to adopt a rigorous core curriculum and remediate (through EC services and evidence-based remediation such as Reading Recovery) for students who need extra help. Children who are capable of higher achievement, despite their socio-economic status, end up flat-lining with a curriculum like reading street because it is not interesting enough and it does not have enough authentic literature to hold their attention. There are also lots of data to support having more opportunities for physical exercise and outdoor play, with statistically significant differences in cognitive development, critical thinking skills, and overall wellness.

In 1959, the UN issued a Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Article 7, paragraph 3 states, “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavor to promote the enjoyment of this right…” Hmmmm…..Play and recreation as a basic human right. That’s a new concept for some administrators. Joan Almon (Coordinator of the U.S. branch of the Alliance for Childhood), in The Vital Role of Play in Early Childhood Education (2007), states that, “creative play is a central activity in the lives of healthy children.”

All this by way of saying:

1. Scrap the Reading Street mandate. Identify teachers and schools that need extra support and continuing education and hold everyone accountable for results. Leave the teachers that are doing so much with very little alone!

2. Scrap the push-down approach to academics in Kindergarten. There are successful teachers in DPS who have play-based kindergartens that allow for movement, multi-sensory learning, and authentic literature. Those kids develop sound-symbol correspondence and number concepts, but they also love books, love school, and know how to play with their friends.

3. Screen children for vocabulary deficits in Pre-K and K, and refer them to language-based classrooms, EC and Speech Pathology services. Vocabulary is the main problem with comprehension. Decoding is not reading.

4. If we hope to work towards reducing these early childhood risk factors, we may find as a community that we want to move towards universal preschool. However, the term universal preschool means different things to different people. What we are advocating for is a model that incorporates authentic experiences, hands-on learning,  small teacher-student ratios, exposure to developmentally appropriate literature, targeted at developing social skills and vocabulary. This is a whole other blog entry, but worth mentioning here in brief.

I asked my son’s preschool teacher (teaching preschool for over 25 years now) what is the most meaningful way to develop critical thinking skills in the early childhood years, and she responded very simply, “Let them play together.”

We are a growing group of informed, empowered parents who are advocating for a broader, bolder approach to education for all DPS children. Join our yahoo! list serve, for more information.

Dear Members of the School Board, Dr. Harris, Dr. Mozingo, Ms. Wilson-Norman, and Ms. Thomas,

Too many students in Durham Public Schools are not achieving at desired levels. The problem is particularly acute for our children of color and low income children. To address this problem, Durham Public Schools has mandated full implementation of the Reading Street curriculum for all teachers. We understand their goal in doing this but believe this approach is wrong for several reasons.

1. The Reading Street Curriculum is not effective. The publisher, Scott Foresman, contracted for an independent 2-year study of the efficacy of the Reading Street Curriculum. The study found that students in Reading Street classrooms performed worse than students in the control group classrooms. According to the report, “whether a student participated in the Reading Street program did not have a significant effect on reading performance measured by the GMRT-4 or DIBELS gain scores. While students in the control classrooms gained more than students in Reading Street programs did, it is important to note that the effect sizes for these analyses were extremely small, -0.003 and -0.06, respectively, and represented less than one- and three-point percentile differences” (Magnolia Consulting, 2007, p. 49—emphasis added).

2. The more teachers used Reading Street, the worse students performed. In the same study, classrooms that had higher implementation fidelity with Reading Street did overall worse than classrooms with lower implementation fidelity. According to the study, “higher implementation fidelity was associated with lower posttest performance on the GMRT-4 across [all] grades and higher performance on the DIBELS PSF test for first-grade students” (Magnolia Consulting, 2007, p. 38—emphasis in text).  Since the study did not experimentally test different levels of implementation, we see a couple of possible reasons for this. One reason could be that using Reading Street more frequently caused test scores to decline. The other reason could be that better teachers used Reading Street less frequently.

3.  The implementation of this initiative has been done in such a way that failure will be very hard to avoid. School reforms fail for a variety of reasons including lack of buy-in from teachers or from parents and the broader community (Edmunds, 2005). The short notice given teachers, the lack of professional development for teachers and coaches, and the mandated nature of the reform make it highly unlikely that this effort will be successful. Richard Allington (2005) wrote that “relying on a one-size-fits-all curriculum – even one found to be ‘evidence based’ – was not one of the characteristics of the nation’s most effective teachers. Instead, we observed these teachers selecting and experimenting with multiple instructional approaches, always driven by the responses of their students” (Allington, 2005, p. 1).

Based on the above reasons, a forced mandate of Reading Street will almost assuredly not have the desired results; however, we agree that the district needs to do something to ensure that all students are literate at high levels. Going back to way things were is not acceptable.

Evidence indicates that it is not adherence to a specific package or curriculum, but utilization of best practices, regardless of the curriculum, that has the greatest impact on achievement and teacher success (Allington, 2005). We therefore encourage and will support the district in efforts to implement the following evidence-based best practices (most of which are consistent with the districts’ literacy audit):

Obtain funding to support expansion of pre-school programs to expose more children to developmentally appropriate early literacy activities;

Work with teachers to help them incorporate the core components of reading development including phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, and comprehension, which includes helping students develop their vocabularies through hands-on, multi-sensory learning activities (National Reading Panel, 2006). For some teachers, using the Reading Street curriculum may be the best way to incorporate these components. Other teachers may already have successful strategies in place.

Work with principals to help them support teachers in literacy instruction and help them monitor instruction effectively. One particular model may be the observation protocol developed for the Chicago Reading Initiative by one of the consultants who did the literacy audit.

Differentiate professional development for teachers. Use student data to identify teachers who are not successful in literacy instruction and provide them with more intensive professional development. Explore opportunities to challenge teachers who are already being successful.

Assist teachers in implementing formative assessment strategies (not more formal testing) to determine where students are and how they can be moved forward.

Ensure that all students have access and opportunity to read rich, interesting, authentic texts on their level. The use of the Lexile framework to identify books at the appropriate level is promising.

Provide an evidence-based intensive intervention, such as Reading Recovery, for the students who read substantially below grade level.

Help teachers integrate comprehension instruction into the content areas. As teachers have students read science or social studies texts or primary sources, they should purposely instruct students in how to comprehend these texts. Professional development in strategies like Visualization and Verbalization (Bell, 1991) and Story Grammar Markers should be available for teachers.

Provide a structured opportunity for teachers within a school to engage in vertical planning to ensure that each grade level appropriately builds upon the previous one and is not repetitive. This could easily happen during part of the time dedicated to Professional Learning Communities.

Reduce the class size to a maximum of 15 students in Kindergarten through second grade, and a maximum of 17 students in second grade through fifth grade, as the evidence has shown good effects for literacy development and math achievement in at-risk, minority, and ELL children with small class size (Arias, Walker, Douglas, 2004, and American Educational Research Association, 2003).  Researchers provide the following recommendations for policymakers to have maximum effect on achievement: “First, early intervention is important. Start in kindergarten or first grade. Second, the number of students in a class should range from 13 to 17. Third, if resources are scarce, target implementation by focusing on at-risk students. Fourth, maintain intensity by ensuring that students experience small classes every day, all day. Fifth, small classes should last at least two years for initial benefits and three to four years for longest-lasting benefits after the small classes are over” (American Educational Research Association, 2003, p. 4)

Maximize the amount of time teachers can spend on instruction. This can be done by reducing unnecessary paperwork and unnecessary testing that serves little to no instructional purpose.

We hope that Durham Public Schools will take advantage of the passion and energy that has been uncovered as part of this effort to improve literacy instruction for all of our students.


Allington, R. (2005). A Special Section on Reading Research – Ideology is Still Trumping Evidence. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappan.

American Educational Research Association (2003). Class size: counting students can count. Washington, DC.

Arias, Walker, Douglas (2004). Additional evidence on the relationship between class size and student performance. Washington, DC: Journal of Economic Education.

Bell, N., (1991). Vizualization and Verbalization for Language Comprehension and Thinking. Nancibell, Inc.

Edmunds, J. (2005). Learning from failure: a discussion guide on high school reform.

Greensboro, NC: SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Magnolia Consulting, LLC. (2007). An efficacy study of Pearson Education’s Reading Street curriculum: Year two report. Louisa, VA: Author.

National Reading Panel. (2006). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read. Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health.

Dear Dr. Harris and Members of the School Board,

Too many elementary students in Durham Public Schools are not able to read and write at the levels they will need to do well in further schooling and after they leave school. Durham Public Schools has chosen to address this enormously important and very real issue through the mandated implementation of the Reading Street curriculum. A group of concerned parents has gathered to examine this effort. With the information we have from DPS and from our own research, we do not believe that this strategy will work and that it may actually exacerbate the problem.

Attached please find a document that presents questions and concerns we as parents have relative to the Fact Sheet DPS issued regarding the Reading Street Curriculum. While the document is fairly lengthy, I would like to call your attention to some specific questions and concerns in the document: (a sample is below but this can be edited to reflect personal concerns)

1. The Fact Sheet did not address issues associated with the roll-out of the program, including the late notice given to teachers who have spent the entire summer planning their activities for the year.

2. Research commissioned by Reading Street’s publisher found that students in Reading Street classes did worse than students in control classrooms not using Reading Street. In addition, the study also found that higher levels of implementation of Reading Street were associated with lower test scores across all grades examined. This indicates that implementation of Reading Street is likely not to have desired results.

3. The content of the Reading Street curriculum does not appear to reflect best practices in terms of grouping students or in terms of the literature included. In particular, the inclusion of portions of books, instead of full books, does little to promote the higher levels of understanding students need.

4. The grouping required in the curriculum does not meet the needs of the really struggling or the really advanced readers.

5. Implementing the reading framework as mandated does not allow time for instruction in social studies and science. The texts in the curriculum do not appear to allow for an integration of those topics as required by the North Carolina Standard Course of Study into the literacy block.

6. The use of coaches is a good idea; however, we would like more information about their responsibilities and also their training. If coaches are operating without sufficient training, they will end up only looking at the page of the curriculum the teachers are on.

7. We look forward to hearing DPS’s plans for assessing the implementation and impact of the program.

As a group, we recognize that there must be changes in our schools to ensure that all of our students can achieve at high levels of literacy. We look forward to engaging in a dialogue around ways that we can achieve that goal.


DPS Parent Advocates for Literacy and Achievement for Every Child


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