Literacy campaign stresses importance of teacher training at schools of ed

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Education scholars continue to churn out best practices for literacy instruction, but these practices slowly, if ever, make their way to the hands of educators in the classroom.

This grim circumstance is connected to the 56 percent of Philadelphia 4th graders who scored below basic in reading on the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress. Sixty percent of these students were African American.

The School District and philanthropic organizations have made a pledge to more aggressively address this gap. As part of the citywide READ by 4th! campaign, over the next three years, almost every K-3 teacher will receive regular professional development, on-the-job coaching and libraries for their classrooms with books coded by reading level.

A big part of the campaign is to improve the effectiveness of training programs for early-grade teachers by ensuring that they are steeped in research-proven curricula and social justice. Although research has long been clear that students who don’t read on grade level by 4th grade find it doubly hard to catch up and succeed in school, elementary school teachers often are never explicitly trained in reading instruction.

“We need our schools of education to adopt programs of study and standards that make sure that every student who graduates with a degree in elementary education knows and understands the science of teaching children how to read,” said Superintendent William Hite at a workshop held at Drexel University.

To ensure high-quality instruction across all schools in the city, the campaign is encouraging schools of education to promote, via their curricula, evidence-based ways to teach reading. One such way is through the implementation of the International Dyslexia Association’s (IDA) Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.

“It’s hard to tell whether a program is providing rich literacy evidence-based training,” said Nancy Scharff, a READ! by 4th instructional strategies consultant. This new campaign push counters this difficulty: If a school is accredited under the IDA’s standards, this signals that its graduates are prepared to tackle literacy challenges as soon as they are hired.

“You cannot teach what you don’t know, and there are a ton of students graduating from these schools who can’t name the five skills of successful readers,” said Judith Birsh, senior fellow of special education at Relay Graduate School of Education in New York.

“Teachers with prime preparation make a difference. They can identify at-risk students in a nanosecond.”

But what makes these standards different from what’s already being taught in teacher-training programs? First, they are comprehensive. And second, they carefully specify what all teachers and specialists need to know and do to instruct students to read proficiently.

The standards address a wide array of technical knowledge, from phonology (the study of speech sounds), orthography (conventions of writing such as spelling), morphology (the study of word structure), and semantics (the study of meaning behind words and expressions), to oral and written language, assessment, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities. They also contain appendices that address motivation in children, for example.

The standards also pay special attention to the structure of language and the complexity of skilled reading, which is important for teaching English language learners, students with learning differences, and those living in poverty.

Representatives of 10 schools of education — Drexel, Penn, Temple, St. Joseph’s, Shippensburg, Relay, LaSalle, Chestnut Hill, Clarion, and Lehigh — were present at the workshop. These schools educate a vast majority of the region’s teachers.

But St. Joseph’s Urban Teaching Residency Program (UTR) is the only one accredited by the Center for Effective Reading Instruction (CERI), a subset of the IDA. There are just 17 accredited institutions across the country.

This is the first year of the accredited program at St. Joseph’s, which has six urban teacher residents. In the residency, students will take courses aligned with the Knowledge and Practice Standards and apply what they learn in a yearlong clinical experience at a high-needs host school in Philadelphia. The two current host schools are KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy (K-4) and KIPP Philadelphia Charter School.

Students take on more responsibility than they would in a typical undergraduate student teaching scenario. They have modified schedules to complete specialized coursework that ultimately amount to about 1,000 hours.

Another major component of the program is the series of social justice seminars that students must take. The courses are sponsored by SJU’s Faith-Justice Institute and led by Keith Magee, a leading social justice proponent and faith and politics expert.

“Quality education is the civil rights issue of our time," said Magee, who had a hand in developing the social justice component of the program. "We need to create a vast movement about literacy for our children. Literacy is the way up and out."

The social justice emphasis is crucial to the teacher preparation, said Cathy Spinelli, a professor of special education at St. Joseph’s and coordinator of the fellows program.

Putting reading and literacy in that context for the teachers-in-training makes them "the ideal diagnostic remedial specialists to go out into the field and be able to work with a needy population of students that is deserving of the best that’s out there,” she said.

There was some doubt among workshop attendees, however, about whether adopting these standards is enough to change outcomes for students. Several pointed out that the successful education systems of Japan and Finland, for example, have much more extensive teacher training and preparation requirements. Other initiatives along these lines have continually failed Philadelphia students, people said.

But, said Birsh, “To have a deep, robust training is a good beginning. They never stop learning, and if they can get the basics, they can ground their experience and further their knowledge.”

To make this work, READ! by 4th is going to need the continued support of those in higher education and philanthropic organizations said Jenny Bogoni, the campaign’s executive director.

And teachers from these programs can count on actually putting their expertise to use.

“The District is committed to hiring elementary-grade teachers who are familiar with evidence-based reading instruction and prepared to teach using these strategies on the first day they enter the classroom," said Hite. "Our children deserve no less.”