A Path Forward for Literacy in DPS
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.
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Tags: best practices, literacy, Reading Street