bolstering literacy

Four Memphis charter organizations pilot new reading curriculum

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman / Chalkbeat

Four Memphis charter schools are piloting a new reading curriculum this school year aimed at boosting reading comprehension in a city and state with lagging literacy rates.

The Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum is in classrooms at Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School, STAR Academy Charter School, Gestalt Community Schools and Leadership Preparatory Charter School.

Created by author and professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., the curriculum focuses on students’ background knowledge of the topic, not only their formal decoding skills.

While the curriculum is free, teacher training and related resources are being funded with grants of about $10,000 from Memphis Education Fund, a collaborative created in 2014 and rebranded in 2016 in partnership with local education leaders and philanthropists.

Michael McKenna, founder of Memphis Delta Prep, said the money was crucial to making the change.

“As a small charter organization, we don’t have the ability for professional development like that in our budget,” McKenna said. “This gave us the opportunity to collaborate with others.”

The grants come at a time when local and state officials are doubling down on solutions to Tennessee’s reading challenges. The overarching goal is for 75 percent of the state’s third-graders to be reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of Tennessee students are there.

Memphis Education Fund is providing the grants in collaboration with The New Teacher Project, the Core Knowledge Foundation and Hyde Family Foundations. (Disclosure: Hyde also supports Chalkbeat. Learn about our funding here).

Lesley Brown, the Memphis fund’s director of human capital investments, said the grants are just one facet of investment in early literacy. The group also helped to sponsor another literacy curriculum pilot of KIPP Wheatley at 11 charter schools.

“We don’t prescribe what curriculum is used, but we are trying to help eliminate barriers for schools to quality curriculum and to purchase quality books,” said Brown. “Kids feel the difference between books and photocopies.”

buy-in

How to get teachers to believe in a new school program? Ask them to help design it.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during a 2017 exercise on Tennessee's revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

A veteran teacher in any school district will likely be able to tell the same story: A faddish new initiative comes sweeping in, perhaps promoted by the just-hired superintendent. Grand promises are made, and teachers get a few days of training (if they’re lucky).

Then, it slowly fades away, as teachers ignore mandates they see as unhelpful or impractical.

A new study looks closely at that phenomenon and its flip side — when teachers are bought in to programs designed to help their schools. The results, based on interviews with dozens of teachers at three high schools, aren’t so surprising: teachers are more enthusiastic if their school gets control over how a new program is designed and introduced.

Teachers leaders “were able to build buy-in from teachers in their school by customizing the design to fit the needs of their students and teachers,” write researchers Christopher Redding and Samantha Viano in the peer-reviewed study.

That involvement brings trade-offs, though. Teachers shaping the adoption of a new program often adjust a novel idea to fit into how they’ve already been working, Redding and Viano found. That could mean that promising ideas were watered down when they reached schools — or that teachers wisely avoid dramatic overhauls that would have done more harm than good.

Either way, the results hold significance for districts pushing dramatic reform efforts and wondering how to make sure they stick.

The conclusions came from talking to teachers over the course of two school years about changes at high schools in an anonymous big-city school district. The schools were all trying to increase students’ academic expectations and their levels of responsibility. To do it, schools were told to allow teams of teachers to develop ideas for ways to help students improve their work habits, understand the idea of “growth mindset,” and closely track their class grades over time.

A few things appeared crucial to winning over teachers. One was their schools not having a history of introducing and then scrapping programs.

Teachers in two of the three schools seemed enthusiastic about the new efforts, in part because their schools had recently put in place a literacy initiative that teachers believed in. But in the third school, teachers were more wary.

“We’ve seen a whole bunch of programs and it was here for like three months and it’s gone and then something else came in,” one teacher leader at the third school told researchers.

Teachers also appreciated that plans were developed by teachers within their schools.

“We had teachers to put those lessons together; it didn’t come from somewhere outside the school; it didn’t come from the district, it came from us,” one teacher said. Even in one school where a small number of teachers did most of the work to build their program, their less-involved colleagues still felt largely supportive. (In each school, though, teachers said a handful of skeptical peers largely did not implement the changes.)

A third winning pitch was framing the initiative as consistent with what teachers were already doing in their classrooms.

“That’s kind of our main pitch to them, is that this is something probably 95 percent of you are already doing, we’re just going to ask that you change your language,” one teacher leader said.

“I don’t see this as an innovation,” another said. “I see this as common sense.”

That may have made teachers more amenable to the changes, but it might have also minimized the underlying goal by suggesting that teachers didn’t have to do much differently. In that sense, “Teacher involvement risks undermining school improvement efforts,” wrote Redding and Viano. “It is conceivable that teacher leaders fail to identify more systematic changes, preferring incremental change that will be better received by the administration and their colleagues.”

A separate, forthcoming study co-written by one of the same researchers found some evidence that the program helped students, modestly reducing absences and increasing grades. That suggests the exercise wasn’t pointless.

Why did it seem to help? One of the teachers interviewed in the initial study offered a theory: consistency. By pitching the initiative as simply encouraging teachers to do things they were already doing, the school succeeded in getting teachers to commit to practices they sometimes skipped, like helping students monitor their grades.

“We should probably be doing [it] anyway,” the teacher said. “I can easily find reasons why it didn’t … but when I know that everybody is doing, you know, it kinda forces me to make sure I’m doing it.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.