New Orleans in July may not seem an ideal venue for getting 6,000 educators excited about professional development. But teachers, administrators, and literacy coaches from around the country danced to a roving jazz band and joined in Mardi Gras-style revelry at the opening of the second annual national Reading First conference here late last month. The participants, all representing schools sharing in the $1 billion in annual grants from the federal initiative, applauded the program for pumping what recipients say are sorely needed resources into instructional materials, teacher training, and support services for struggling elementary schools.
The conference included 46 sessions on topics related to implementing research-based reading instruction, using assessment data to inform teaching, and meeting the stringent requirements of the law. The sessions were led primarily by officials and staff members of the three regional Reading First Technical Assistance Centers at Florida State University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Texas at Austin, but included practitioners from several states.
The 3½-year-old Reading First program now serves more than 4,700 schools in 1,400 districts.
By many accounts, the program has been intense and challenging for schools and districts. Despite the hard work, the program has been well received, said Rachel Woodrich, a literacy specialist at Spencer Math and Science Academy in Chicago.
“There has been a lot more professional development and a stronger focus on reading instruction,” she said. “The testing has been very hard, but we’re able to monitor student progress more regularly. … We’re building an endurance for it.”
Ms. Woodrich and the other attendees were treated to a bit more levity in the Big Easy, particularly from the federal education officials running the show.
Chris Doherty and Sandi Jacobs, who oversee Reading First for the U.S. Department of Education and are known for holding participants in the initiative to demanding standards, kicked off the program here with their version of “the top 10 ways to know you are in a Reading First school.”
No. 9 on the list: “Using explicit language in front of the children is encouraged,” referring to the program’s requirement for explicit, systematic phonics instruction. No. 7: “People can say ‘dibels’ over and over without laughing,” a nod to the widespread use of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills test, also known as DIBELS. No. 4: “People understand that the five essential components of effective reading instruction are not phonics, phonics, phonics, phonics, and phonics.”
Officials have been reinforcing the need for schools to focus on five elements—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—after what they say were misconceptions that the initiative was primarily pushing more phonics instruction.
No. 1 on the list struck a more serious tone, pointing to the hard work and dedication of teachers and administrators in such schools, a comment that drew cheers.
At another session during the July 26-28 gathering, LaGaylis Harbuck, the principal of Alabama’s Calcedeaver Elementary School, got a similar response when she shared her school’s story of success.
After setting the ambitious goal of finishing first among Alabama’s 74 Reading First schools on the state reading assessment, teachers and administrators at Calcedeaver went to unprecedented lengths to help all students reach grade-level proficiency, she said.
Of the more than 230 students at the school, in rural Mount Vernon, 93 percent are from minority groups and 90 percent qualify for federally subsidized lunches. But this year, the school indeed met its goal.
Ms. Harbuck attributed the success to the Reading First resources the school received, the hard work and collaboration among teachers, and even the contributions of custodians and lunchroom workers in reinforcing the importance of reading. Staff members and students at the school also cheered each other on at pep rallies and other celebrations.
There was another factor, according to Ms. Harbuck.
“Divine intervention,” she said, referring to her religious beliefs. Ms. Harbuck described how she called on a prayer group and her own appeals to God for those children who continued to struggle.
“You need to get your vision” of what you want to achieve, the principal said. “You need to pray for it or wherever you get it from.”
Ms. Harbuck received a standing ovation from thousands of colleagues in attendance.
After the session, one participant commented on how inspiring Ms. Harbuck’s story was and expressed surprise that she had spoken so candidly about her belief in the power of prayer. The principal’s remarks raised at least one thorny question: if that approach has been proved by research, in light of Reading First’s requirement that instructional materials, methods, and assessments be shown as effective in scientific studies.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week