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Schools clear the decks to try step-by-step approach to teaching reading

This year, McKnight will spend $6 million on an ambitious overhaul of early-grades literacy begun in seven metro area schools in 2012.

A STEP participant at Community of Peace Academy builds literacy skills.
Courtesy of Community of Peace Academy

There is a maxim in education: By the end of third grade a child must have learned to read so he or she can read to learn. Social studies, math — whatever the subject, from there on in a student’s learning will require basic literacy.

“It’s the double-helix of schooling,” says Tim Knowles, a national expert on the topic. “It’s the core of everything.”

And it is arguably the key way that many schools are failing all but their wealthy white students. For too many of the rest, it’s a tragic watershed.

According to state testing data released in August, at Anishinabe Academy in Minneapolis just three third-graders could read at grade level by the end of the last school year.

At Bethune Elementary, six third-graders passed the 2014 reading test. Four passed at Green Central Park and three at Lucy Laney.

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The situation is so dismal that in June, an outside auditor told Minneapolis Public Schools it would not succeed in reaching its special-education students until it radically revamped its K-3 reading programming for all learners.

The picture isn’t much prettier in St. Paul. At Daytons Bluff 10 third-graders were found proficient in reading. Obama Service Learning and Paul and Sheila Wellstone each had 12 third-graders reading at an appropriate level.

Statewide, fewer than 40 percent of low-income third-graders read proficiently in 2014.

Teaching reading: a specialized art

Juxtapose these numbers with something that is only now becoming clear to education policymakers and school leaders: Reading instruction is a specialized art that should occupy two and a half to four hours a day.

Right now, it is left to elementary teachers — by definition generalists — who typically struggle to find 90 minutes a day to cover the basics. They are experts in the material taught at their grade level. Many are poorly equipped to help a student who is years behind learn missing skills from earlier grades.

In 2011 the McKnight Foundation, which had been working on early childhood education issues for more than a decade, decided third-grade literacy needed a champion in Minnesota’s philanthropic community. The foundation enlisted Knowles and the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI), which he directs.

This year, McKnight will spend $6 million on an ambitious overhaul of early-grades literacy begun in seven metro area schools in 2012. At its core is a UEI effort that has had a dramatic impact on achievement at four University of Chicago Charter School programs.

“We have learned a lot over the last couple of decades about what kids need to learn in order to be reading,” explained Knowles. “And much of what a child must master in terms of reading to learn must take place between the ages of 3 and 8.”

A short history lesson: A century-plus-old rift among educators over how best to teach reading came to a head in the 1980s and 1990s. Proponents of “whole language” instruction see language as a system of creating meaning and favor exposing children to great literature.

Others believe that children should be taught to decode words phonetically, by hearing, identifying and manipulating sounds in words. Over the years each side has accused the other of appropriating the phrase “balanced literacy” to repackage its supposedly discredited philosophy.

‘Both are true and both must be taught’

“What I think we now know is both are true and both must be taught,” said Knowles. “But we’re caught in that debate for structural reasons.”

To wit: A typical reading period might last 45 minutes, he explained. If a teacher is very lucky, he or she may get an additional 45-minute “block” for writing — an integral part of literacy instruction.

Schools with concentrated poverty probably need three to four hours to ensure everyone is reading by the end of third grade, Knowles believes. That time can encompass other topics, such as history or science, but learning in reading can’t be an accidental byproduct.

A school’s entire system must be focused on literacy. And teachers must move away from “whole group” instruction, where the entire class works on the same lesson at the same time.

“You’re just not going to get there teaching to the middle,” said Knowles. “That normally means there are inevitably kids who are left behind and fall further and further behind. And also there are kids who are ahead who are bored or worse.”

So how do you get there? “First of all, you have to clear the decks so it’s not added on to the hundreds of things the district has called for,” said Knowles. “You’re kind of being line-itemed to death by this initiative and that initiative.”

Community of Peace

This was balm to Cara Quinn, executive director of the St. Paul charter Community of Peace Academy, one of the schools selected by the foundation for a three-year grant to work with UEI. One-fourth of the school’s 800 students are learning English and 85 percent are impoverished.

The school includes a preschool, which made it a good fit with McKnight’s larger aim of trying to align early childhood education with literacy. Community of Peace staff scramble to fill gaps for older kids who come to it from schools that have failed them. What could they do by third grade with kids they could start with in preschool?

Now 20 years old, Community of Peace has drawn national recognition for its focus on character education. It was doing better than its neighbors on “soft skills,” and outpaced district schools in terms of proficiency.

But there was and remains a lot of room for improvement. From 2009 to 2012, reading proficiency school-wide increased 10 points to 54 percent. In 2013 — a year when Minnesota schools saw across-the-board decreases because a new, tougher standard was instituted — scores fell to 28 percent.

Coaches train teachers in STEP

What UEI was offering was three years of intensive training and coaching for the school’s staff — Quinn included — and the use of a University of Chicago program called STEP, or Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress.

UEI coaches would train teachers to use STEP, which includes a means of assessing frequently where students from preschool to third grade are on mastering the basic steps that underpin literacy. Unlike other formative assessments, the program supplies lessons to plug the gap as well as training for teachers.

The goal is for students to master at least three steps a year, and all 12 by the end of third grade. UEI coaches visit Community of Peace at least once a month, and school staff have visited both the Chicago schools where STEP has worked and the charter network Uncommon Schools on the east coast, where it is being implemented.

McKnight committed $500,000 to the effort. Among other things, the money allowed Quinn to hire a full-time literacy coach and to add a second dual-language paraprofessional. (The school already had a Hmong-speaking classroom aide.)

The first thing Community of Peace did upon receiving the grant was elect to take a year to plan before implementation — partly because of changes at the school and partly because its leaders grasped the scope of the change contemplated.

At the same time Quinn was taking over from the founding director, there were numerous changes in the teacher corps. And Quinn, a longtime administrator at the school before assuming the top job, knew the staff was weary of “the constant windstorm of silver bullets.”

Learning to use the data

“We knew we had to be data-driven,” “We’ve always been data rich, but we’ve never known what to do with that data …. What I need is help figuring out what to do with that data.”

Without that second component, one more data stream showing a student is lagging can just be demoralizing. “So you’re just pounding a kid with second-grade reading,” Quinn said by way of example. “Well, if that second grade kid is in kindergarten in terms of phonemic awareness, the second grade teacher is like, ‘I am going to cry because I don’t know how to teach that stuff.’”

Implementing STEP was likely to feel like asking teachers to expose their failings. Collecting and sharing such detailed information on what was happening in each classroom would require tremendous courage on the part of the teachers, Quinn and UEI knew.

“It starts highlighting the difference between classrooms, between teachers,” said Quinn. “For a school like us, that’s hard. It’s forced us culturally as a school to have conversations about the fact that we need to be honest with students and parents.”

“The assessment is like a Trojan Horse,” agreed Knowles. “It creates a common language for all teachers in the building about where kids are. It enables teachers to communicate to families. And it enables principals to have evidence-based conversations with teachers about where students are.”

Last year Community of Peace implemented STEP with a vengeance. Staff met for 70 minutes of common planning twice a week in addition to their usual teamwork. And UEI coaches were seemingly omnipresent. Every teacher was observed at least once a week.

By the end of the year, all but one preschooler was on track for kindergarten. Of 209 students in grades K-3, 29 students took five or more steps, 40 students made four steps, and 63 students took three. But 81 students took fewer than three steps and overall 64 percent were below grade level.

Quinn and her staff were crestfallen at first. But their counterparts at the four Chicago schools where Knowles’ team helped teachers outpace their neighbors cheered. Community of Peace had climbed the first rung of a familiar ladder.

“They were like, ‘Yep, that’s where we were,’ ” said Quinn. “It was great, because we were like, ‘We have so far to go.’”

Support to continue

The support from UEI will continue for another two years, at which point the school will be close to having a cohort of third-graders that should include lots of kids that have been with the program since preschool. They will have experience with the possibilities enabled by the combination of good tools and training.

“We know from experience if we do this it will work,” said Knowles. “This is actually how you get there.”

There, of course, being able to read to learn by fourth grade. “It opens the doors for kids to become great at science, at math, at computer coding, at everything,” he said. “It’s the thing that makes us who we are. It’s the thing that matters the most.”