Professional development that increases quality classroom instruction is a concern of school administrators and professional educators. Using survey, observation, and interview methods, four rural schools in the Upper Cumberland area of Tennessee were examined to determine if professional development supported by the Reading Excellence Act promoted, hindered, or had no effect on emergent literacy instruction. Treatment group participants were teachers from two schools within the Tennessee Technological University service area that were recipients of the Reading Excellence Act grants. Control group participants were teachers from two comparable schools within the same geographic location with similar demographics. Analysis of the self-administered surveys indicated that there was a significant positive interaction between teachers receiving REA modules of professional development and familiarity with, frequency of use of, and perceived importance of REA concepts. Observations and interviews corroborated the statistical analysis. The Reading Excellence Act professional development modules have shown promise for increasing the quality of emergent literacy instruction. Preliminary studies such as this investigation suggest that continuation of the professional development component of the grant is warranted. Implications are discussed in relation to future professional development programs.
Reading Excellence Act and Professional Development
Although federal and state literacy initiatives have been affecting stakeholders in local education agencies for years, never before has a reading proposal of the magnitude of the Reading Excellence Act (REA) been distributed. In 1998, the Reading Excellence Act was passed by the legislature as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It provided schools with direct financial assistance to improve reading instruction, teachers' instructional practices, and student performance through scientifically-based reading research (SBRR) (Goodman 1998, Mesmer and Karchmer 2003, Reading Excellence Act 1998). Large sums of money devoted to the improvement of emergent literacy for students in pre-kindergarten through third grade were channeled to state education agencies for distribution through competitive grants to local education agencies.
Local Reading Improvement (LRI) grants focused primarily on professional development with some funding for early childhood collaborations, tutoring, family literacy, and early grade transitions. Tutoring Assistance Sub-grants (TAS) provided funding for tutoring at-risk students. School systems with schools that qualified as high poverty or low performing schools could chose to apply for one or both types of Reading Excellence Act grants. The competitive process targeting the lowest performing and highest poverty schools was designed to bring professional development and tutorial assistance to those in greatest need, a unique feature of the REA legislation (Goodman 1998, Mesmer and Karchmer 2003, Roller 2000).
The second distinctive feature of the Reading Excellence Act was the precise vocabulary used (Goodman 1998, Mesmer and Karchman 2003). Never before had the act of reading been defined by the government (Mesmer and Karchman 2003). In Section 2252(4) reading is explicitly defined by the following characteristics:
1. The skills and knowledge to understand how phonemes, or speech sounds, are connected to print.
2. The ability to decode unfamiliar words.
3. The ability to read fluently.
4. Sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster reading comprehension.
5. The development of appropriate activities to construct meaning from print.
6. The development and maintenance of a motivation to read. (Reading Excellence Act, 1998, Section 2252.)
These literacy concepts of phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation form the model of professional development modules prescribed for REA recipients (Mesmer and Karchmer 2003, Tennessee Reading Excellence Act 2001). …