First Person

Commentary: READ Act a victory for kids

The heads of five education advocacy organizations extoll the virtues of the just-passed early literacy act.

The READ Act was one of the most visible bills of the 2012 legislative session and will likely go down in history as one of the most important –a huge victory for Colorado’s kids. As staunch advocates for the bill from day one, and on behalf of the students, parents, educators, civic and business leaders we represent, we applaud Colorado’s legislators for getting this right. The bipartisan amendments that have led to the current bill have made it better, and that kind of collaboration is to be celebrated. Legislators resisted the temptation to water down the bill’s core principles and passed a bold, culture changing piece of legislation.

We are grateful to Governor Hickenlooper, Lieutenant Governor Garcia, and the bill’s primary sponsors, Representatives Massey and Hamner, and Senators Johnston and Spence. They were relentless in their pursuit of a well-reasoned and research-based solution to Colorado’s early literacy crisis. These legislators identified and incorporated national best practices, while at the same time crafted a uniquely Colorado solution. The result should be cheered and welcomed by students, parents, teachers, and administrators alike.

As a coalition, we have worked on this effort for 19 months, since Colorado’s early literacy crisis was highlighted by Colorado Succeeds’ 2010 publication, “Proving the Possible.” Since that time, our goal has been to fundamentally change the culture of early reading in our state to ensure that all children read by the end of third grade, without excuse or exception. We are confident that the READ Act will successfully accomplish this overall objective because of its three core principles:

  1. Identify struggling readers as early as possible;
  2. Take aggressive action to implement comprehensive, scientifically-based reading interventions for those students; and
  3. Share accountability for reading outcomes among all stakeholders – teachers, parents, students and administrators.

This bill, at its core, is about intervening early to get kids on track before it’s too late. When the policy takes effect in 2013, struggling readers will be identified as early as kindergarten and teachers will work with those students to diagnose the root cause of their reading difficulties.

We know from scientific research and experience that there are five essential components to effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Therefore, teachers will diagnosis the student’s strengths and weaknesses in each of these five areas.

Teachers will then work with the student’s parent to create a customized intervention plan that supports their child in developing the specific reading skills that he or she is lacking. The Colorado Department of Education will provide professional development to assist teachers in delivering highly effective reading instruction and interventions. Teachers will also have access to a resource bank of proven instructional programs and strategies for improving reading skills in the five critical areas.

Teachers will frequently monitor the student’s progress and ensure that the intervention plan is updated and differentiated based on reliable quantitative and qualitative data. Throughout this process, teachers will regularly communicate with the student’s parent, equipping them with basic methods to implement at home to boost their child’s reading skills.

The legislature allocated $16 million to annually support interventions such as summer school, reading tutors, and full day kindergarten for struggling readers. The reporting requirements enable stakeholders to clearly see the return on investment and helps facilitate the sharing of best practices across the state.

If after years of supportive interventions, students still struggle with significant reading deficiencies, the parent, teacher, and principal must consider retaining the child with more rigorous intervention and remediation strategies.

In kindergarten, first, and second grade, the parent will decide if the student will advance. However, in third grade, the school district’s superintendent makes the final decision. Superintendents will be motivated to maintain rigorous standards that prevent students with significant reading deficiencies from advancing to the fourth grade. This will be most evident by the inclusion of the district’s early literacy data in the annual accreditation and improvement planning process with the Colorado Department of Education.

This policy framework provides a powerful incentive for parents, teachers, and districts to seriously engage in early literacy efforts and at the same time holds all stakeholders accountable for making progress. This is a thoughtful, practical approach and a necessary step toward ensuring all children are literate by the end of third grade.

We appreciate the legislature’s hard work on this bill and look forward to supporting the implementation process, as the work now shifts to the State Board of Education for rule-making and eventually classrooms across Colorado. 

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.