reading intervention

Tennessee rolls out sweeping literacy initiatives amid stagnant reading scores

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Sharpe Elementary reading interventionist Valencia Ealy works one-on-one with a student on vocabulary words last year in Memphis. Shelby County Schools has started its own program to address lagging literacy scores.

Calling Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores a “true ethical and moral dilemma,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is rolling out a pair of initiatives to boost students’ literacy skills, starting even before they enter school.

Under McQueen’s plan, educators across the state will get additional training about how to teach reading, support from a growing fleet of literacy coaches, and insights from new standardized tests. In addition, state agencies will team up to grapple with the realities that cause many poor children to start kindergarten without basic literacy skills.

The plan is the state’s response to a persistent and disturbing trend: Even as Tennessee’s steadily climbing math and science results have garnered national attention, reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged. This year, just 48.4 percent of students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar in reading, down from a peak of 50.5 percent in 2013.

“This is a true ethical and moral dilemma,” McQueen said. “Reading allows students to see the world through books, through texts, through information they would otherwise not have access to.”

Shelby County Schools in Memphis and the state-run Achievement School District have announced their own plans to tackle low reading scores. But the state’s plan — McQueen’s first major initiative since starting her work as commissioner early this year — is the most sweeping.

Under Ready to Read, focused on children from infancy to second grade, the Department of Education will partner with other state agencies to ensure that children who enter kindergarten in Tennessee are already primed to learn to read. Then, Read to be Ready will help educators prepare students in grades 3 and higher for overhauled state exams that will require stronger reading skills than ever.

The early literacy initiative — which McQueen unveiled in a meeting with teachers last month — is new for the state education department. First lady Crissy Haslam has made the issue her top advocacy priority since her husband, Gov. Bill Haslam, took office in 2011. But state education leaders had not focused on the issue until now.

Though details aren’t complete, McQueen hopes to work with other state agencies in the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which consists of the heads of the departments of children’s services, education, health, human services and mental health, to provide parents and caretakers with more resources about reading from the get-go. The Department of Education will work to create and implement higher standards for literacy in both public pre-kindergarten programs and private childcare centers, so more people are aware of what it means to be ready for kindergarten, and more children actually are.

Together, the coordination aims to ensure that students are not held back by their home environments and early experiences with literacy.

Studies have found that children who are raised in literacy-rich environments, where parents speak in complex sentences and expose them to the written word, enter kindergarten knowing more words and more ready to start reading.

Candice McQueen
PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

McQueen said such research has informed her planning. “The sheer gap of words a kindergartener knows is evident immediately,” she said.

The department also is developing tools to help schools and teachers assess the literacy skills of students who are too young to take the state’s required reading exam, which is first administered in third grade. One tool will help kindergarten teachers understand their students’ literacy skills before they enter the classroom. A second, an optional standardized test, will measure skills of children in kindergarten through second grades.

The new assessments come at a time when testing faces growing criticism in Tennessee and across the nation. But McQueen, who appointed a task force to study whether Tennessee students spend too much time on testing, said the tests are meant to give educators what they say they want.

“When I was going across the state as part of (my) tour, it was striking the number of times I heard a teacher say, ‘I really need better information about how my students are performing before they get into third grade,’” McQueen said.

David Dickinson, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education who studies early childhood literacy, cautioned that a test that actually will provide teachers with the nuanced knowledge they need — like the breadth of a child’s vocabulary or their ability to follow a story — would be hard to create and administer.

“I haven’t seen any mass-administered tests in school districts that are effective in measuring those skills,” he said.

The department has to pick a different test; its current option for testing lower grades is being phased out by Pearson this year. The department will accept and review applications for the new test in the coming months.

“This will be better in that it will actually meet the Tennessee standards,” McQueen said of the current Common Core State Standards.

Students in grades 3-8 will also begin taking tests this school year that reflect the standards, which are now in their third year of full implementation. To mark the shift, the state is renaming its testing program, swapping the TCAP acronym for TNReady, and preparing educators and families for lower scores.

The new tests — and the standards that they will assess — underlie the second prong of McQueen’s literacy initiative. Ready to Read includes a slate of strategies to help teachers prepare students for more complicated reading passages and questions that require strong comprehension skills to answer.

“We know that the reading content on TNReady will be more rigorous texts than students have had in the past,” McQueen said.

In addition to providing educators across the state with materials to help them prepare students for the new test, officials plan to expand literacy instruction courses that the state launched in 2013.

The goal, McQueen said, is to double the number of teachers participating in the courses, from 7,000 to 14,000 by December 2016.

McQueen said she envisions using literacy coaches across the state to model lessons for teachers and help them create lesson plans. Districts that don’t already have coaches will have the option to get help using their existing staff to support teachers in their classrooms, she said. Since the planning period is ongoing, the price tag of the initiative is unclear, but officials hope that by using existing literacy coaches and staff members, it will be minimal.

State officials are already at work rewriting literacy standards for teacher preparation programs, not just for the early grades, elementary and middle school teachers, but for high school English teachers, as well as special education and teachers who teach English Language Learners.

“We want more of our teachers to understand the art and science of reading,” McQueen said.

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.