pushing proficiency

Landmark Colorado reading law draws kudos, concerns from teachers three years in

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Kim Ursetta works with a student in her classroom at Denver's Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy.

For Cassandra Ewert-Lamutt, seeing some of her young students crumble from the relentless push to become better readers is heartbreaking.

One little girl—a second-grader whose first language is Spanish—recently broke down crying during a reading test.

“She said, ‘I just know I’m not as good as the other kids. It’s because I speak Spanish, too,’” recalled Ewert-Lamutt, who works with English language learners at Parr Elementary School in Arvada.

To Ewert-Lamutt, the student’s tattered emotional state is an extreme case, but reveals one way the nearly three-year-old READ Act—which has also garnered plenty of positive reviews—can impact Colorado kids.

The law, passed with solid majorities in 2012, is a stronger version of the state’s previous literacy law. It requires schools to identify struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade and create special plans using a list of state-approved approaches to help them improve. Starting next year, the law allows but doesn’t require administrators to hold back third-graders who still struggle with reading.

The READ Act is the only major Colorado education reform of recent years for which the legislature provided funding to districts for implementation.

As with many education policies, how things play out in the trenches depends on a host of factors ranging from district leadership to student demographics. Based on Chalkbeat’s interviews with a half-dozen teachers in urban, suburban and rural districts, educators often see the law as a mixed bag—promising, or at least well-intentioned, but not perfect.

Some educators argue that the READ Act contributes to the culture of overtesting, creates time-consuming paperwork and data entry for teachers, and offers too few resources for helping English-language learners. They also worry the retention provision could be misused.

Others say the law, which has counterparts in about two-thirds of states, has brought more urgency to the plight of struggling readers, helped schools more tightly focus reading instruction and provided critical new funding to help pay for it all. It’s also received plaudits for better informing parents about their children’s reading status and including them in the improvement process.

Part of the reason Colorado and so many other states have passed reading laws in recent years is because third-grade reading proficiency plays a big role in future success. Children who can’t read well by the end of third grade are more likely to drop out of school, which can lead to other problems like unemployment and criminal activity.

“The data is there that shows that third grade reading proficiency is huge,” said Bruce Atchison, director of early learning at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks research and advises state education policymakers.

Overall, he believes the READ Act is a good approach.

“Is it the silver bullet? We don’t know that. We haven’t found the silver bullet.”

Looking at the numbers

Last year, nearly 14 percent of K-3 students in Colorado had a “significant reading deficiency”—READ Act terminology for struggling readers who get reading improvement plans under the law. That’s down from 16.5 percent in 2012.


This decrease—celebrated in a report issued by the business group Colorado Succeeds last summer—comes with a couple caveats. State officials say about 9,000 special education students weren’t initially tested under the READ Act—a factor that may have led to greater gains than if that population had been included. In addition, some districts have been slow to switch from the less sensitive tests used under Colorado’s old literacy law to the ones approved under the READ Act.

Starting July 1, all districts will have to use one of seven READ Act-approved tests.

Alisa Dorman, executive director of the state education department’s Office of Early Literacy, said there’s no similar deadline for including special education students in the testing, but as the state has provided training on the topic districts have been including them more each year.

Dorman said the initial reduction in struggling readers is an early indicator of success, but not definitive because of the data discrepancies.

Even after such wrinkles get ironed out, it’s not clear how much time it will take to see major changes in third grade reading proficiency.

“The truth is we really don’t know if these state legislative efforts are helpful or not because we don’t have enough data over long enough to be able to figure that out,” said Nell Duke, professor of literacy, language and culture at the University of Michigan.

She said when states do see positive results after the passage of laws like the READ Act, it’s hard to isolate which of their many components made a difference.

Grappling with testing

So what’s the READ Act experience like for the five- to nine-year-old students who’ve been living it out for the past few years?

It depends on their school, but frequent assessment—maybe 10 or 15 minutes every week or so—is par for the course for students with READ Plans. For some children, it’s a chance to have one-on-one time with teachers or paraprofessionals—sometimes with the extra bonus of working on an iPad. For others, like Ewert-Lamutt’s tearful second-grader, it can be a regular ding to self-esteem.

Duke said while such state-approved assessments can be useful for certain skills, they typically don’t cover the range of skills needed for reading success. For example, it’s much faster and easier to test whether children knows the ABCs than the thinking strategies they use to make meaning from what they read.

Every student in Kim Ursetta's class regularly checks their personalized reading progress charts. The black line shows where they're supposed to be each month.
Every student in Kim Ursetta’s class regularly checks their personalized reading progress charts. The black line shows where they’re supposed to be each month.

“An important piece for Colorado to grapple with is are we assessing and providing instruction in all the skills?” Duke said.

The meat of the READ Act are the tools used to help kids catch up. Sometimes, these don’t feel much different than the usual school fare. For example, all kids may head off to reading groups for a half-hour in the morning. Other times, the extra help is more obvious— computer-based reading activities, extra literacy groups, tutoring or summer school.

Dorman said finding the right kind of instruction is where schools need the most help.

“They need to know what to do next to really impact the change,” she said.

These charts show how many high-frequency words kindergarteners in Kim Ursetta's class know. For some, it's dozens and others a couple.
These charts show how many high-frequency words kindergarteners in Kim Ursetta’s class know. For some, it’s dozens and others a couple.

But teachers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on that goal. Students themselves often know what marks they have to hit to stay on track.

Kim Ursetta’s Spanish-speaking kindergarteners at Denver’s Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy monitor their monthly reading progress using small charts tucked inside red folders. On a recent afternoon, when Ursetta asked how many sight words they’d gotten correct that day, each quickly piped up with their personal best. One little girl in pigtails said two, the boy to her right said 15, and the boy to her left said 52.

At North Elementary School in Brighton, kindergarten teacher Rachelle Matossian tells her students to visualize a red, yellow and green stoplight to understand their path to reading success.

“We’re trying to get to the green zone,” she’ll tell the children, most of whom started the year far below grade level—in the red zone of a common reading test.

Teacher views run the gamut

Teachers’ feelings about the READ Act vary widely. For some, it depends on the path their school or district was on before the law.

Micah Evans, a first grade teacher in Greeley, said the READ Act didn’t require a major shift in practice because her district had already overhauled its elementary literacy program years earlier after it was placed on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance. Many of the district-initiated changes aligned with those in the READ Act.

“I think the READ Act is a positive thing for kids,” said Evans, a self-described data freak. “For us, it’s the normal way of life.”

For other teachers, the law feels more onerous—adding a new degree of chaos to daily schedules, requiring teachers to hit certain compliance marks and cutting into instruction time.

Matossian, who has seven students with significant reading deficiencies, estimated that she spends two to three hours a week giving some type of assessment, though not just for the READ Act.

Ursetta, who has about 10 students with reading troubles, has similar worries, both about testing time and the extra work she does to record the data—sometimes in four different places.

“I do think that there needs to be some sort of accountability,” she said. “It’s just a lot on your plate.”

Discrete skills versus the joy of reading

One blessing-and-a-curse aspect of the READ Act seems to be its emphasis on determining the very specific reading skills  students struggle with and targeting instruction to those skills.

Ten of 27 students in Kim Ursetta's classroom have major struggles with reading. Seven of them are boys.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ten of 27 students in Kim Ursetta’s classroom have major struggles with reading. Seven of them are boys.

Some teachers said they appreciate the intentional and systematic approach favored under the READ Act, but others fear it fragments the reading experience and sucks the joy away.

“I just don’t want the skills to kill the desire to read….I guess that would be my one worry,” said Rita Merigan, a reading interventionist at Gunnison Elementary School. “Reading is so much more than these targeted pieces.”

Ewert-Lamutt, from Jeffco, has related concerns, worrying that few of the state-approved strategies address the literacy needs of English learners.

“Most of the interventions really focus on discrete ideas: This is a ‘t’ and it makes this sound ‘ta, ta, ta ta’….It’s not going to do it for them,” she said. “They need connections to real text.”

Dorman agreed that finding good materials for English learners is a challenge, but said it’s a supply and demand issue.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of selection in the market for that,” she said.

The specter of retention

In the first couple years of the READ Act, relatively few schools recommended that struggling readers be held back—a controversial strategy because some research suggests it’s ineffective.

State READ Act data reveals that just over 3,000 students—or 1.2 percent of the K-3 cohort—were recommended for retention and only 927 of them, or .4 percent, were actually retained in 2013-14.

“That is not an intervention strategy or a path that very many have chosen,” Dorman said.

A few teachers said they’ve recommended holding back students who were chronically absent or had across-the-board problems, but in the end it’s been up to parents.

That changes next year for third-graders. Although parents can still request advancement to fourth-grade, principals or other administrators will make the final decision. Exemptions from the provision are available for students who’ve already repeated third grade and some English learners and students with disabilities.

All told, 16 states and Washington, D.C. require holding back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade, according to a 2014 report from the Education Commission of the States.

While the READ Act doesn’t go that far, some educators are nervous about the stricter retention provision.

“It kind gives you pause to wonder what that will look like,” Merigan said. “I don’t want to see a bunch of children held back.”

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report. 

big debut

Memphis is about to open a major pre-K center. Advocates hope it’s just the start.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Porter-Leath's Early Childhood Academy readies for its grand opening on Friday. The center features a state-of-the-art preschool and teacher training institute.

Even the hallway walls of Memphis’ glowing new pre-K center are designed to engage 4-year-olds. Rows of textured blue grooves, symbolizing the city’s mighty Mississippi River, beg to be touched.

Classroom windows are positioned at eye level for small children to peek through. And an array of sturdy new props supports an environment for both learning and play.

Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy will open Friday as the first of its kind in Memphis. With 32,000 square feet of space developed with $9 million in private funding, the center will serve some 220 kids through Head Start, a federally funded program for the nation’s poorest children.

But equally important, the South Memphis center will become a hub of teacher training in an effort to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath serves children 5 and under in Head Start classrooms.

Porter-Leath has served the city’s poorest children since its founding in 1850 as an orphanage. Its offices are in the former orphanage building on land donated by Sarah Leath, a widow and mother who took the lead in organizing the charity. Today, the nonprofit organization has emerged as the lead provider of early childhood education in Memphis. In partnership with Shelby County Schools, it provides Head Start classrooms across the city and wraparound services such as special education screenings and health care.

Pre-K advocates are calling the new academy — and especially its focus on training quality pre-K teachers — unlike anything else in Tennessee.

How to define and measure “quality” pre-K has been a source of debate, especially since a Vanderbilt University study concluded in 2015 that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. The surprising findings prompted a reexamination of the quality of early learning programs across Tennessee, and state lawmakers responded by passing a 2016 law designed to improve pre-K classrooms.

The new Memphis academy represents a major investment by Porter-Leath and its supporters to determine what practices are most effective in its own classrooms and to share those lessons across the city through teacher trainings. Speakers and highly ranked teachers will be brought in to share their expertise.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
An observation room allows teachers in training to peek into a classroom.

“Thanks to the classroom observation rooms, educators who just came from a seminar will be able to see that skill they just learned about in action,” said Rob Hugh, the organization’s development director. “Before they leave, they will have to go into the classroom and practice for themselves. We see this as a chance to raise the quality of our staff and the staffs of daycares throughout the city.”

Porter-Leath will provide “relief teachers” for those who can’t afford a substitute to encourage Memphis daycare operators to let their teachers take advantage of the training.

Tennessee has a three-star evaluation system for early childhood providers, but it focuses more on safety and health than quality of instruction, said Daphanie Swift, early childhood director at PeopleFirst Partnership, a coalition of business, government, academic and civic leaders.

“The vast number of child care providers in the city have a long way to go with providing quality education,” Swift said. “This new training academy is a new concept for early childhood, and we hope will raise the bar for rigor in instruction.”

Hughes said all of Porter-Leath’s 300 classrooms across the city, which serve almost 6,000 students a year, have three stars. However, only 15 classrooms reach the level of instructional quality required to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which Porter-Leath views as the gold standard.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A worker assembles toys at the new academy.

The 16 classrooms added under Porter-Leath’s new academy are significant as the city searches to provide more pre-K seats, especially in low-income areas.

The academy is located next to Alton Elementary School, a strategic move. The hope is that its pre-K students will feed the Shelby County school, which serves one of Memphis’ poorest zip codes.

Memphis has a shortage of quality pre-K seats, and the academy already has a wait list of 144 families. Estimates of how many income-eligible children lack access to quality pre-K range from 2,200 to 5,000.

Swift said that PeopleFirst Partnership will continue to push for more quality pre-K seats — and philanthropic support to pay for them. The coalition organized a pre-K summit last summer to discuss what impact a recent $70 million federal grant has made on Memphis pre-K so far.

“I think a light bulb has finally come on in the city that pre-K is a needed investment,” Swift said. “We have to pay attention to those critical years of 0-5. So much of what we’re trying to address, from crime to low third-grade reading levels, can be warned against in those early years.”