anchors aweigh

Even with no model middle school, city expands literacy push

Greg Linton, an 8th grade humanities teacher at M.S. 266, takes notes on his school's literacy data.

Nearly a year after beginning their search for an exceptional middle school to lead a push to boost literacy in struggling schools, city officials have concluded that no school is good enough.

After the city launched its Middle School Quality Initiative last year, it selected two dozen underperforming schools to receive special training and thousands of dollars in program funding. Then it picked more successful schools to be “anchors” that would teach them. Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School became a model for teacher collaboration, and schools were sent to M.S. 244 to learn about using data to detect signs that students are at-risk.

The city also wanted to push the 23 schools on literacy, where their students especially lagged. But officials said they could find no middle school strong enough to use as the emblem of the literacy initiative.

“There isn’t an anchor we could turn to to say, ‘Show us the magic of how it’s all done together,'” said Nancy Gannon, the department official overseeing MSQI.

Nonetheless, as MSQI expanded from 24 schools at first (six with only partial funding) to 49 this year, the department also expanded the initiative’s literacy program. The schools are getting extra funds and monthly trainings focused exclusively on literacy, in a program that officials consider it the most significant part of the citywide initiative.

The initiative to boost literacy takes inspiration from the recommendations of the Carnegie Corporation’s 2004 Reading Next report on elementary and middle school literacy best practices. The report calls for schools to assess students’ reading abilities more frequently, and offer students more strategic tutoring, intensive instruction on writing and reading comprehension instruction. It also calls for teachers to collaborate more in grade-level teams.

Many schools already use these strategies, but Gannon said they will see more gains from using them all at once, after combing through the results of students’ assessments.

It’s a departure from the way the department has handled professional development in the recent past. For the most part, the Bloomberg administration has left principals to choose the strategies they want their teachers to use, getting advice and sometimes strong recommendations from the networks they have chosen to support them. But the schools participating in MSQI are being told exactly which strategies to adopt.

In one major change, all of the MSQI schools are administering a standardized assessment called the “Degrees of Reading Power” three times this year to their sixth- and seventh-graders. Some city schools, particularly those in the Urban Assembly network, have already used the assessment to get details about students’ reading levels. But it has never been required.

Officials said they turned to the DRP assessment because it is a national exam that can diagnose students’ reading levels more consistently than the state’s reading exam, and with more detail.

Earlier this month, nine educators from six schools gathered for a training session. In pairs or alone at computers, the teachers hunkered down to pore over spreadsheets of data from their schools that included students’ names, their performance on the most recent state reading exam, and their “Degrees of Reading Power” scores.

On the spreadsheets, many of the middle school students’ rows were shaded red, meaning their performance was at or below a second-grade level. Chumney said she wanted to help the teachers draw meaningful conclusions from the data in front of them that afternoon without becoming overwhelmed by the number of underperforming students.

“When people open the screen they’re completely immersed in it, but it’s an emotional thing for them. Their child’s name is in red,” she said. “For many of our schools that’s a significant number of people. when they see it for the first time it can be really jolting.”

With that data, Gannon said the participating schools are learning how to help students at the high and low ends of the achievement spectrum. To do so, they are studying the areas where their students struggle, whether it is comprehension, coding, or fluency, and then giving them different supports, either through guided reading practice or use of a remedial program called the Wilson Reading System.

Among the schools that participated in MSQI last year, seventh and eighth graders’ literacy proficiency increased, from  36.5 to 43.3 percent for seventh graders, and from 35 to 39 percent for eighth graders, on the state’s annual English tests. But Gannon downplayed the gains, which were very slightly steeper than those seen across the city, noting that the state tests change every year and will become much more difficult in 2013, making the scores less useful than the DRP results.

At M.S. 22 in the Bronx, which participated in the literacy initiative last year, teachers adopted different supports for students just above and below proficiency on state tests, according to Omolade Otulaja, a special education teacher who sits on M.S. 22’s literacy team.

“With extra targeted instruction we were able to help the 2.5s move to a 3. And we were even able to move the 3.25s up a little,” Otulaja told the group of teachers at the training session. “We felt the students already had a tool box of skills, and it was just a matter of taking the kids to the next level. Once the students reached that 2.5 threshold, we were able to help that group make the biggest increases.”

Last year, the percentage of M.S. 22 students who scored proficient in reading inched upwards, from 11 percent to 14 percent. That improvement roughly matched the city’s overall increase in reading test scores.

Donalda Chumney, MSQI’s professional development coordinator, said M.S. 22 was setting a good example of the initiative’s philosophy of getting teachers to think about what students need based on their ability levels and the particular ways they excel or struggle.

“Saying we should be doing everything better with everyone all the time is a very tall order,” Chumney said. “If we can get people to the place where they chose a strategy and notice what happens in that class, then we see a lot more sustainable growth. [Teachers should be] thinking about which steps we’ve taken that have and haven’t yielded the outcomes we’ve wanted.”

To break out of a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy instruction with a limited staff, Otulaja said her school has set up “clinics” three days a week this year where students can get short bursts of one-on-one attention. “The challenge is definitely setting goals and making sure we’re creating more fluent, comprehensive readers,” she said.

According to Gannon, the literacy initiative’s secondary goal is to build the expertise of middle school teachers who teach literacy, but may not have much of a background in it.

“Many, many teachers are content specialists,” she said. “With the core group we’re building in reading expertise so students are more accurately diagnosed and supported.”

Gannon said schools would ideally use a one-on-one method, where students read aloud to the teacher to practice reading and assess comprehension skills, but “that takes an inordinate amount of time,” she said. “We’re advocating a quick assessment of what one needs to go deeper, and then looking at the subset that scores significantly below grade-level.”

At the training, Gillian Parker, a literacy lead teacher at M.S. 254, looked closely at the bars of red on her computer screen before turning to Eurgiena Douglas, her MSQI coach. This seminar was different from the typical professional development sessions Parker and her colleagues attend, Douglas explained, because she and the other teachers were working with real data from their schools, not samples.

“This confirmed my understanding that we have a considerably large amount of students reading below grade level. The next step is to address these areas of need,” Parker said, before launching into a litany of questions that, according to the department, no school has adequately answered about literacy.

“I see that there are issues, and I’m thinking how do we begin? Where do we begin? Once I get back to the building and reflect, I’ll share it with my staff and see what we need to do.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.