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Published in Print: May 13, 2015, as Alabama Coaches Up Literacy Lessons

Ala. Reading Intervention Stands Test of Time

Kindergartners Jaylen Rivers, Jalisha Lee, and KenmaJ Shell, left to right, practice literacy skills with
their teacher, Diane Daniel, at Southside Primary School in Selma, Ala. Educators credit teacher professional development for the state’s reading gains.
Kindergartners Jaylen Rivers, Jalisha Lee, and KenmaJ Shell, left to right, practice literacy skills with their teacher, Diane Daniel, at Southside Primary School in Selma, Ala. Educators credit teacher professional development for the state’s reading gains.
—Julie Bennett for Education Week

Multiyear professional-development effort is tied to reading gains

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Diane Daniel's classroom here at Southside Primary School is a steady hum of productive activity.

Some of her kindergartners are playing word games on computers; others are chatting as they complete an exercise on the reading rug, and a handful are busily writing, some already using full sentences that incorporate words about trains—"engine," "passenger"—that Ms. Daniel has hung up on one of her corkboards.

The teacher herself is in a small group, reading a short book out loud with her pupils. As they take turns reading, she intervenes occasionally, helping them sound out a word here and there, at other points pushing her young charges to think beyond the page—to make inferences based on context and to reason out what might happen next in the story.

"I will take that little book and have a thousand questions for them before they finish," Ms. Daniel said.

Ms. Daniel's evident skill in reading instruction, which enables her to cater to pupils' varied learning needs, speaks directly to the central aim of the Alabama Reading Initiative. The program, launched 17 years ago in response to poor literacy scores, aspires to give all the state's students an equal opportunity to learn the fundamentals of reading and writing.

In particular, the ARI aims to help students of color from disadvantaged families, like most at this K-2 school in Dallas County. As if to remind visitors of the state's history of inequality, Southside Primary sits minutes from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of a brutal 1965 attack on civil rights marchers.

Unlike many early-reading efforts, the ARI is not a prescribed curriculum package or pedagogical framework. At heart, it is a statewide professional-development initiative that uses specially selected and trained teachers, deemed building coaches, to imbue research-based reading instruction in classrooms across the state.

Alabama officials credit the initiative with dramatically boosting state scores in 4th grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card." From 2002 to 2011, Alabama's 4th graders' scores went from well below par to statistically indistinguishable from the national average on the NAEP reading scale, where they have stayed since. Racial achievement gaps in the scores have also narrowed.

"Alabama has made a huge commitment to literacy, and we feel that we've gotten a return on our investment," said Judy Stone, an Alabama education department official who serves as the state's ARI coordinator.

From a research perspective, it's difficult to link increases in NAEP scores to any one policy or instructional change. But anecdotally, the ARI's supporters say the initiative has systematically reshaped teacher practice in the early grades in a way that has had a clear impact on pupils' reading development.

Today, the ARI continues to offer lessons on literacy instruction, even as it faces its biggest challenges yet: heavier demands on the coaches, who are now also working in the upper grades, coupled with a period of financial belt-tightening.

Coaching Teachers

Teachers are the engine of the Alabama Reading Initiative. More than 95 percent of the program's current $48 million annual budget is spent to pay for some 750 coaches, all former classroom educators, who work in schools and have day-to-day contact with reading teachers. They're charged with observing teachers and modeling lessons, providing feedback, and devising plans to improve each teacher's instructional effectiveness.

In addition to the building-level coaches are the 68 regional coaches, who debrief the building coaches and craft larger-scale intervention plans as necessary.

On a day-to-day basis, the ARI is best described as a collaborative exercise in solving instructional problems in reading classrooms.

When they observe, the coaches aren't principally focused on how teachers deliver their content. Instead, they track how the students are faring, including by monitoring their levels of engagement in class activities, their verbal interactions with peers, and their work products.

One day after spring break last school year, for example, Southside's building coach, Christy Mathiews, determined after a morning's walk-through that she'd like to see better student engagement in the 1st grade classes.

Alabama’s Reading Gains

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP,  Alabama’s 4th grade students’ reading performance rose from well below average to statistically indistinguishable from the national average by 2011 and it has stayed there since. That means its students have outperformed those in other states with similarly high rates of child poverty, including California, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico.

Alabama’s black and Hispanic 4th graders have caught up with their national counterparts as well.

State test-score data from Dallas County, where Southside Primary School is located, showed strong gains as well, particularly among black students.

Alabama Grade 4 NAEP Reading Scores


Percent of Dallas County Grade 4 Students ‘Exceeding Expectations’ on the Alabama Reading Test

In a debriefing session, the regional coach for the district, Allison Kelley, gave her some advice on addressing the problem. "Pick a small number of classes to visit the rest of the week and collect data about how many are in whole group versus small group," Ms. Kelley said. Small groups are an important part of early literacy in Alabama, since they help facilitate techniques such as conversations, "turn and talk," and paired reading, all ways of ensuring all students remain engaged with language and on task.

Ms. Kelley then shared her own observation. Perusing pupils' notebooks in one 1st grade classroom, she saw evidence of student writing, but not a lot of feedback on that writing from the teacher.

"I think you may want to have that conversation with all of [the teachers]," she told Ms. Mathiews.

Ms. Mathiews will use the evidence they've discussed when meeting with each teacher—a technique that makes what can be delicate conversations about instruction more objective and, therefore, supportive rather than punitive.

As the coaches visit classrooms, they will sometimes briefly step in alongside the classroom teacher to provide a pedagogical refresher. During a separate walk-through at Reeltown High School, a K-12 school in rural Tallapoosa County, Vickie Chappelle, one of 11 ARI regional directors, watched as one 1st grade teacher conducted a read-aloud with the children in her small group.

A page or two in, Ms. Chappelle asked the pupils: "Can you change your voices a little more when you read?" She demonstrated, the timbre of her voice rising at the end of an interrogative sentence. Soon, five little voices eagerly chirped along with her. (Reading with expression, experts say, is an important aspect of fluency instruction that builds children's awareness of syntax.)

Even small issues warrant coaches' attention. During its walk-though, the ARI team visiting Reeltown noted that several teachers reviewing initial sound-letter correspondence inserted an "uh" sound known as a "schwa" in sounding out words beginning with a hard consonant—an artifact of the Southern drawl. It's a seemingly nitpicky detail, but for a struggling reader, that extra sound can get in the way of later language development, causing him or her to spell "cat" as "cu-at," for instance.

The ARI team conferred briefly, and ultimately, decided that it's a topic for the school's building coach, Regina Porter, to address at the school's next grade-level meeting.

Borrowing From Football

The ARI started in 1998 partly out of the sheer force of will of Katherine Mitchell, a former Alabama education department official who is still spoken of in glowing terms by ARI staff.

With state officials from the governor on down desperate to improve the state's reading scores, Ms. Mitchell cobbled together $1.5 million in initial support for a new instructional initiative from both conservative philanthropies and the Alabama Education Association, among others—enough to finance implementation in 16 initial schools.

Possessed with a politician's knack for generating appeal, Ms. Mitchell carefully avoided the term "literacy" in favor of the more approachable "reading" in naming the program. And to describe the role of the teacher trainers, she selected a term dear to Alabamans' hearts—one that has since become nearly ubiquitous in K-12 education.

"Frankly, I chose 'coach' because Alabama is a football state," said Ms. Mitchell, now retired, from her Atlanta home. "I think it is the key. These teachers have got an advocate for them in the building."

Lawmakers from both political parties threw their support behind the program, and for the 1999-2000 school year, the legislature set aside funds to begin expanding it statewide.

The ARI predates the influential 2000 National Reading Panel report, but its foundational elements are similar. They include systematic and explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, alongside vocabulary and comprehension.

The early days of the ARI were rocky, Ms. Mitchell acknowledged. With schools still reeling from the "reading wars" over the appropriate balance of instruction in word-level alphabetics with less systematic, so-called whole-language approaches, she found just one professor among the state's teacher colleges who had a background in phonics. And because of variations in curricular quality—Alabama permits districts to choose their textbooks—reading coaches dragged suitcases of their own materials to their schools.

Teachers were initially resistant, demanding to know why they were being observed. "I can't tell you how many days I came home crying," said Ms. Kelley, the Dallas County regional coach.

Today, coaching still isn't uniformly embraced, but it has gained currency with the state's teaching force, partly because all the building coaches have teaching experience, usually many years of it.

Southside's Ms. Daniel said the program has been invaluable to her. When she entered teaching, kindergarten literacy rarely went further than ensuring pupils could recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet by the end of the year.

Nearly every technique she uses now to teach more advanced reading and writing skills was honed through the ARI's coaching system.

"I get to look at the children's strengths and weaknesses, and I'm driven by that," Ms. Daniel said.

If the ARI remains obscure outside the state, that may be partly because its features have been extensively copied elsewhere.

After Alabama began using reading coaches, many other states followed suit, with varying degrees of success, under the $1 billion-a-year federal Reading First program. Alabama was also among the first states to use a 90-minute reading block in K-3 schools and to require use of a tool to gauge growth in students' decoding skills and oral fluency.

Evolving Focus

Even today, the program's structure remains influential. An early evaluator of the ARI for the state education department, Ed Moscovitch, now runs the Bay State Reading Institute, a nonprofit that uses a similar teacher-coaching model to improve reading in 44 schools in Massachusetts. When holding meetings to discuss student data, for instance, principals and coaches both celebrate the gains of students who have improved and strategize to help those who are still struggling.

"The approach we take to the meetings comes right out of their script," Mr. Moscovitch said of the ARI. "You can't be successful changing adult behavior if you're looking down on teachers. You have to get them to trust you, to like you, and to have confidence in you."

Alabama's consistency of approach seems to be one factor in the ARI's success, even as attention to reading in other states has varied or waned. The ARI's staff has maintained the program's core features, while working to keep its curriculum current and responsive to lessons learned.

There's a general consensus, for example, that external pressure initially caused some schools to focus too heavily on discrete skills such as oral fluency. Local newspapers had a habit of printing schools' performance on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, the progress-monitoring tool that until recently all schools in the state were required to use.

"We focused a lot on the system of print," said Timothy Cobb, a regional coach in Tallapoosa County. "But we didn't spend as much time on the system of language and the system of meaning."

Nowadays, DIBELS—which had come under criticism for its focus on such skills as nonsense-word fluency—is no longer mandated, and some schools have adopted monitoring tools with more-sophisticated comprehension measures. Program materials are incorporating insights from literacy scholars like E.D. Hirsch that emphasize the importance of content-rich reading materials to build students' background knowledge and comprehension.

Take vocabulary instruction, which at one point was taught largely in isolation.

"We used to throw words on the board, and kids would study them," said Daphne McClendon, a coach in the 11,000-student Elmore district. "But the vocabulary needs to be relevant to what they're talking about, so it's not a random list of words they need to know for a test."

The ARI has also become the state's front-line approach to providing professional development on the Alabama College & Career-Ready Standards for English/language arts, its version of the Common Core State Standards. In recent months, the ARI coaches have worked with teachers on key elements of the standards, including text complexity, evidence-based writing, and focusing on greater content rigor.

Meeting New Standards

"Teachers in the lower grades tend to simplify, so that students can understand the concept," said Ms. Stone of the state education department, "but that doesn't pay off for us if they don't acquire the language to talk about those concepts."

As the ARI begins to approach its 20th year, its supporters are doing some soul-searching about where the initiative needs to go next.

Partially in response to the demand of the new academic standards, the state education department, in 2012-13, expanded the reading coaches' work to include secondary grades as well. There are some benefits to the new arrangement, Alabama officials say. Since the coaches are working across subject areas in secondary schools, it gives currency to the idea enshrined in the new academic standards that literacy development at the secondary level is the responsibility of all teachers, not just those teaching English/language arts.

But there are legitimate worries, too, about whether expanding the initiative's scope risks overtaxing the instructional coaches.

"I'll be honest with you: It can be overwhelming. When I was in K-3, I could get in there, and I knew my babies," said Ms. Porter, the building coach at Reeltown. Coaching secondary-level teachers requires a different approach, she said: "I don't go in and pretend in any way to be an expert in their content, but I do work on how to incorporate small groups and boost student engagement."

The demand on the coaches is increasing even as resources are scarcer. Funded at a height of $64 million in fiscal 2008, the program was scaled back after the state was badly hit in the Great Recession. Each building once had its own reading coach; most now are split among schools.

State officials underscore that they are grateful to the state legislature for a continued appropriation for the ARI, but acknowledge that a fresh infusion could help balance the weight of all the new responsibilities. And they're on tenterhooks waiting for the results of the most recent administration of the reading NAEP to appear this fall. In the 2013 administration, Alabama's 4th grade scores dropped slightly—not enough to be statistically significant, but enough to be concerning. This fall's results will be closely watched.

As Ms. Mitchell notes, literacy is a moving target: There will always be next year's entering class, many of whom will need sustained support.

"We are not at the national average with wealth in our state, or with students' experiences, or with exposure to language," Ms. Mitchell noted. "It is very hard work."

Vol. 34, Issue 30, Pages s4,s6,s7

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