First Person

Voices: Getting serious about early literacy

Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien says we know how to help children read by the end of third grade and asks, how serious are we about doing it? Cross-posted from Education Week.

We have eight years in the life of every child to help him or her get ready for school, thrive in school and love reading by the end of third grade. The question is: How serious are we about doing this?

Child readingKnowing that reading is fundamental to learning, this year 14 states passed legislation on early literacy, bringing to 32, plus the District of Columbia, the total number of states with policies to improve third-grade reading proficiency. We know that two-thirds of fourth-graders are not considered “proficient” readers, as determined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Worse still, those children who are behind by the end of third grade rarely catch up in fourth grade, yet are expected to read textbooks and face increasingly complex material. And a 1998 study found that 74 percent of students who didn’t read at grade level by the end of third grade were still struggling academically in ninth grade.

These children were four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Retention debate comes too late in the life of a child

State leaders are searching for ways to respond to the urgent need to increase the number of third-graders who read at grade level. A quick fix — retention of failing students — has been hotly debated.

But we’re having this debate about how to intervene far too late in the life of a child. By the end of third grade, a student is halfway between birth and young adulthood. Long before we make the difficult decision of whether to retain a student, we need to ensure that our schools and our communities do everything in their power to give that child a good start in life.

Everyone who has the ability to direct resources, whether they are philanthropic grants, public funds or volunteer-based, should ensure that every young child who is likely to struggle in school has these opportunities to become ready for school: evidence-based home-visiting and parenting programs, access to primary health care and developmental services, timely and appropriate referrals to early intervention and special education, access to high-quality prekindergarten programs, access to excellent child care and Head Start, and access to high-quality, full-day kindergarten programs.

Yes, these interventions cost money, but the amount pales in comparison to the societal burdens – financial and otherwise – associated with high school dropouts and prison inmates, two groups with traditionally high illiteracy rates.

Getting the high-quality K-3 classrooms we need

The next step is to ensure that K-3 classrooms are high-quality teaching and learning environments. A report from the organization Rhode Island Kids Count points to several factors that make this transformation possible:

• Effective teacher-preparation programs with an emphasis on the teaching of reading;

• Effective professional development;

• High expectations for special populations;

• Early-warning systems to identify children who are falling behind;

• Dedicated time for program, classroom, school- and district-level planning; and,

• Policies to address chronic absences and summer learning loss.

But what do we do for students who don’t reach that critical reading milestone at the end of third grade?

Mandating retention without necessary investment in interventions

policy brief by Martin West titled “Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?,” which was released in August by the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, suggests that Florida’s use of retention as one major tool for helping students read at grade level by fourth grade has improved student achievement.

Florida’s other policy tools include state laws requiring early identification of K-3 students who are behind in reading, information to parents about the strategies that will be used to help their children, additional time during the school day for intervention, use of reading coaches to provide on-site professional development for teachers, parent training, the opportunity for every K-3 student who is behind to attend a summer reading program, and extra intervention for retained third-graders.

Florida’s focus on both high-quality instruction and intensive intervention to improve student reading, combined with extra intervention for retained third-graders, is a serious attack on the reading crisis.

But given the difficult economic times in most states, it has been tempting for state leaders to reach for a quick and less expensive fix: mandating retention for third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level, without the necessary investments in instruction and intensive intervention.

And this focus on school-based strategies doesn’t reduce the number of children who arrive at school already behind.

“Shortcuts only shortchange the vulnerable”

Shortcuts only shortchange the vulnerable children in our communities. Leaders who are serious about increasing the number of children who read proficiently will start with bold efforts to reduce the harsh impact of poverty on a child’s growth and development.

High-quality child care, for example, would make a huge difference in getting vulnerable young children ready to start kindergarten. Yet most child care for poor children is mediocre, or worse. Few cities and states provide child-care subsidies at a level that allows low-income families to pay for high-quality programs.

Similarly, 40 percent of America’s 3- to 5-year-olds were not in preschool in 2010, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And many states have waiting lists for publicly funded preschool for low-income children, despite overwhelming data on the return on investment.

The latest endorsement came from none other than Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, during the Children’s Defense Fund national conference in July. He said: “Very few alternative investments can promise that kind of return (10 percent or higher). Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families, but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits, reflecting the many contributions that skills and productive workers make to the economy.”

Will legislators and school boards have the intestinal fortitude to make tough budget, program and policy decisions to solve the reading crisis?

We know what to do – are we serious about doing it?

My home state of Colorado took a step in the right direction this year when the legislature approved the Early Literacy Act. The legislation allows parents, teachers and other personnel to meet and consider retention as an intervention strategy for struggling readers.

More importantly, the Early Literacy Act requires diagnostic assessments to shape individualized instruction; small reading groups; extra time and enrichment in high-quality summer reading programs; and increased focus on the teaching of reading in teacher-training programs. The state’s budget redirects money to support this work.

In another encouraging trend, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading — which I advise on policy — is working with 124 communities across the country to find ways to increase the number of low-income children reading on grade level by the end of third grade. The campaign promotes community-based strategies for increasing children’s school readiness and parent engagement, reducing chronic absenteeism in K-3, and increasing the availability of enriched summer learning opportunities.

So all of this underscores that we’re not in the dark when it comes to advancing early-literacy skills. In other words, we know what to do. How serious are we about doing it?

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.