The Ogden, Utah, schools have used the mandates of the federal Reading First grant program to fine-tune instruction districtwide, and students’ scores are way up.
In 2002, big dreams were infectious in this small manufacturing city where the Wasatch Mountain Range provided the backdrop of some of the ski events of the Olympic Games.
That year, educators in Ogden’s schools set their sights high as well, when they turned to a federal grant program to transform reading instruction and student achievement in low-performing schools.
But officials envisioned a broader goal for the 12,300-student district, with its growing Hispanic population and widespread poverty. If they were going to make a commitment to improve reading, they would have to spread the Reading First model—including intensive professional development, research-based instruction, and monitoring of student progress—beyond the four schools participating in the initiative to all K-5 classrooms.
Over the past several years, schools in this manufacturing and tourism hub have dramatically changed how they teach reading, and built a more knowledgeable teaching corps in the process. Steady improvements in student test scores—and a dramatic leap at two schools—have followed.
“The superintendent said that we will only apply for this grant if part of our time is spent on dissemination of the Reading First model to the other schools in the district,” Greg Lewis, the district’s Reading First director, recalled recently. “I’ve been involved in a lot of reforms, but they never made any difference in the classroom. But now instruction has changed, and, not surprisingly, performance has changed.”
Reading First was approved by Congress in 2001 under the No Child Left Behind Act to bring scientifically based reading methods and materials to struggling schools. The $1 billion-a-year initiative has been plagued by controversy over how it was implemented by federal officials and consultants, including charges of interference in state and local decisionmaking and of favoritism toward certain reading programs. ("E-Mails Reveal Federal Reach Over Reading," Feb. 21, 2007.)
The program has found favor, though, in many of its 5,700 grantee schools. While the grants go to districts only for specified schools, the federal initiative allows states and districts to use part of the funding to provide training in the Reading First model to teachers in all schools.
A federally commissioned report and a 2006 survey by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy found that Reading First schools are devoting more time to reading instruction, conduct more substantive professional development in the subject for teachers, and are more likely than nonparticipating schools to use assessment results to inform instruction.
Those changes are evident in Jenny DeCorso’s 2nd grade classroom at Gramercy Elementary School, where rows of desks have been replaced with tables for small-group instruction, shelves are stocked with books sorted by genre and reading level, and centers allow students to tackle a variety of literacy activities designed to build their fluency and comprehension.
Lessons are punctuated with explicit and carefully sequenced skill-building drills, and opportunities to practice what students have learned. Vocabulary words such as “strategy” and “unexpected” are posted on the window next to a cover illustration from the latest book selection, Annie and the Wild Animals. Punctuation rules and other writing conventions adorn the walls.
Ms. DeCorso, an 11-year veteran of teaching, remembers when she and her colleagues each followed their own daily plans for teaching reading, and struggled in solitude to figure out how to reach students who weren’t learning from them. “We closed our doors and did our own thing,” she said.
“It used to be more commonplace to have kids who could read nothing when they came to 2nd grade,” she added. “Now, there are only a few who can’t read at this point.”
Of the 435 students at the school, more than half are Hispanic, and 87 percent are poor.
After completing a number of graduate courses in reading—a requirement for teachers in Reading First schools here—Ms. DeCorso says she is now more knowledgeable about how to teach the skill, and better equipped to carry out the structured curriculum and to provide supplemental lessons where needed.
She and the other 2nd grade teachers meet regularly to refine lessons, share insights and strategies for helping struggling readers, and analyze data from regular student assessments. On a recent Tuesday morning, a reading expert from Utah State University observed the teachers at work, as he does at schools here each week, and gave detailed feedback on how well their lessons and classroom structure reflected research on effective practices. The critique, while harsh at times, prompted the teachers to justify their approaches, or hash out how to improve them.
In the 2nd grade classroom next door, Shannon Cook follows a similar structure as other teachers here for the three-hour reading and language arts block each morning. In one corner, Ms. Cook sits with just a handful of her 25 pupils, helping them pronounce in rapid succession words with the “long e” sound, a lesson out of Harcourt Trophies, the text used in Reading First schools here. She holds up a slick card with an illustrated eagle and turns it over to reveal the spelling as the children say the word in unison. Next is a leaf, then a bead.
It’s evident that all five pupils can decode the words, and have grasped the sound. They move on to a poem and highlight words with the “long e” sound in a clever verse. They complete several other related activities before Ms. Cook, who is in her third year of teaching, calls together another group to work on a more challenging set of drills.
In the far corner of the room, several pupils are getting a quick course of phonics drills from a teacher’s aide.
The rest of the children are working diligently at the literacy centers set up around the room. Lissete Landaverde is sorting cards with words that include the “long e.” Monica Sanguino is finishing a popular chapter book before she answers questions about the author she has been studying, and Alexia Lopez is thinking of descriptive words to include in her story about her favorite summertime memory. Other students are sitting on the floor with headphones for a listening exercise.
“I read really well,” said Ibrahim Njie, who looked up from the story he was writing to boast about his improving fluency. “I’m reading faster than ever … 95 words a minute the last time I went to computer lab.”
Teachers in Ogden have that kind of information, and other data, at their fingertips and receive continuing advice on how to use it to target their lessons to students’ individual needs.
• Ninety minutes of the K-3 school day is devoted to the Reading First program. An additional 90 minutes for language arts is used for small-group intervention, oral language, and writing.
• The Harcourt Trophies reading program is the core curriculum. Teachers use approved supplemental and intervention texts.
• All teachers in Reading First schools have received a reading endorsement after completing graduate-level classes in reading. Many are pursuing a master’s degree in reading. Graduate classes are offered at the district’s headquarters.
• The reading time block includes small-group instruction for K-3 pupils, with skills-based lessons geared to each group’s reading level.
• A teacher’s aide leads intensive scripted lessons in phonics and word recognition to help students build foundational skills. Teachers work with the lowest-performing students.
• Classrooms include centers where students do literacy activities designed to strengthen reading and writing skills. The centers promote reading different genres, writing, listening, studying antonyms and homonyms, learning letter sounds, and reading science and social studies texts.
• Teachers give regular assessments—including Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or dibels—to students to determine reading strengths and weaknesses.
• A reading coach at each school meets with grade-level teacher teams each week to review data and discuss instructional strategies and materials for addressing students’ needs. The coach visits classrooms to demonstrate lessons and to advise teachers on how to improve instruction.
• A Utah State University consultant visits the district three times a month to offer technical advice, critique classroom instruction, and help teachers apply research findings to practice.
• The district is disseminating the Reading First model to other schools in the district through a state-financed program called Performance Plus.
During planning time at Dee Elementary School, for example, the 2nd grade team held its weekly meeting with reading coach Margaret Young to analyze test scores and figure out which specific skills students were having trouble mastering.
Those sessions have helped teachers pinpoint pupils’ weak spots and find better instructional strategies for strengthening their skills. Teachers at this school, which until recently was rated as the most challenged in the state, never had Olympic-size dreams before. Their goals for raising reading proficiency, however, are no longer considered unattainable.
“During my first year here at a parent-teacher conference, I had no clue what to tell the parents. I had no data about how they were doing,” said Stephanie McGaughey, who has taught at the school for eight years. “Now, I can show them where their child is compared to the class average and benchmarks, and explain why we are concerned about their progress.”
Before she attended the reading classes and workshops through Reading First, “I just taught the children the same way,” Ms. McGaughey added. “If they got it, they got it; if they didn’t, I still moved on.” Now, she said, she has an arsenal of strategies for helping each student master all the essential skills, and support from a coach to help her use them.
Throughout the district, teachers are drawing on the lessons learned at the Reading First schools to improve instruction more broadly. A state-sponsored initiative, Performance Plus, allows the district to offer some of the same professional development and support services to the schools that aren’t part of the federal grant, albeit with a fraction of the funding.
Convincing administrators and teachers of the benefits of the voluntary program has been a hard sell at some schools, according to Reed Spencer, the district’s executive director of curriculum and assessment. Some 80 percent of the 125 teachers in the district’s non-Reading First schools have signed on to the program, which requires that they attend workshops and classes after school hours and on weekends.
But now, all teachers are bound by contract to adhere to the principles of effective instruction outlined in the Reading First plan, whether they’ve participated in the additional training or not. That means they are expected to teach, explicitly and systematically, the five components required of grantees’ programs under the federal law: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. In addition, the state directs them to develop students’ oral-language and writing skills, as well as several other areas that influence reading comprehension.
“We reserve the right to speak to any teacher at any moment about the explicitness of their instruction. That’s a direct outgrowth of Reading First,” said Mr. Spencer. “And principals understand that they can’t supervise things that they don’t know about.”
Principals and reading coaches throughout the district get the grounding they need in monthly meetings and periodic workshops that focus on effective instruction, assessment, and classroom observation. Administrators from Reading First schools meet as a group each week to update one another on how the program is working.
Reading First schools are making progress as judged by achievement-test results.
The intense focus on reading instruction is paying off in improved results on tests, Mr. Lewis said. And last school year, all of the Reading First schools met goals under the No Child Left Behind law for adequate yearly progress in reading for the first time.
Teachers here are celebrating those gains. But the proof of the program’s impact, they say, is in the day-to-day changes they’ve seen in their own practice and in children’s achievements in the classroom.
“I never thought a kindergartner could go beyond letter recognition, but now we’re seeing them read,” said Melissa Brock, a veteran kindergarten teacher at Bonneville Elementary School, where nearly half the 450 students are Hispanic, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Full-day kindergarten has given Ms. Brock and her colleagues more time to build a foundation for reading. Reading First, she said, has introduced a sounder instructional approach.
“Before, I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants,” she said. “Now, I actually feel more competent and capable as a teacher.”
Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Vol. 26, Issue 25, Pages 27-29