What Works? Administrators Are Learning That the Art of Teaching Reading Isn't Fundamental

By Sturgeon, Julie | District Administration, October 2005 | Go to article overview

What Works? Administrators Are Learning That the Art of Teaching Reading Isn't Fundamental


Sturgeon, Julie, District Administration


Sherlock Holmes would develop a migraine deciphering this one:

This spring, the Denver press jumped all over the fact that three years after the Denver Public Schools sank $13.5 million in the first year alone into a literacy program, students in the poorest schools still weren't reading or writing any better than before. Meanwhile, the wealthier kids did respond, widening the achievement gap between rich and poor.

"There's a long way to go--a lot of people have pointed that out. What would be more helpful is if someone pointed out a model that works," outgoing Superintendent Jerry Wartgow told a Denver Post reporter.

Then there is the Santa Rosa County School District in Florida, which implemented Scholastic's Read 180 program during the 2001-02 school year for its middle school and high school students reading significantly below grade level. Schools had successfully moved between 42 percent and 80 percent of these students out of the lowest reading category, according to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores at the end of that year. By 2004, every school in that district using this intervention tool and a 90-minute instructional model made adequate yearly progress in reading with every population.

The clue to solving cases like these, in Ted Rebarber's opinion, lies with applying best reading practices. "Reading is an area where we have a wealth of research and evidence that certain practices work with a much greater proportion than the practices commonly used today. For the money and time we are spending, if we use practices that consistently work, we would get better results," says the CEO of the Education Leaders Council in Washington, D.C. And in these days of No Child Left Behind requirements, educators' ears perk up at the mention of positive results for the same amount of money.

However, Rebarber admits, he's not a reading researcher. That breed tells a far more complicated story. But happily, Rebarber is dead on in one aspect: Most school districts can impact reading scores positively with the dollars at their disposal, says Timothy Shanahan, professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president-elect of the International Reading Association. As the former director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools, he engineered a literacy program that saw the biggest test score gains in that city's history. Approximately 450 of 600 schools improved during the 2001-2002 school year, with the bottom 100 schools gaining as fast as everyone else--without any new dollars in the coffers.

"If most districts reallocated a half to three percent of their budget, they could have a pretty dramatic impact," he says of the school systems he consults today.

"But the idea isn't, 'Boy, if we just fixed the materials, everything will be fine,'" Shanahan adds. "The real key is a combination of whether you teach the right curriculum, how long you teach and how well you teach it."

The Foundation

According to Robert Wortman, adjunct associate professor of language, reading and culture at the University of Arizona, 75 percent of kids learn to read no matter the program--the hoopla surrounding best reading practices centers around that 25 percent that don't grasp the skill as easily.

Eric Smith, outgoing superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Annapolis, Md., is living proof of those statistics. Reading scores across the district averaged 64 percent when the kids left for summer break in 2003, a statistic he never wanted to see again. Unfortunately, Anne Arundel lacked a defined reading strategy district wide; each school functioned as an island to apply balanced literacy and whole language tactics. Smith instead established the Open Court core reading program, and saw reading scores in his district jump to 84 percent by spring 2005. Digging deeper, black student test scores rose from 45 percent to 70 percent from 2003 to 2005. …

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