When Everyone Pulls Together: The Secrets of Success Academy

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

5 years ago, after the latest round of NY state test scores were released and Success Academy took 7 out of the top 15 spots in NY state, Robert Pondiscio wrote:

“What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.”

Pondiscio has put his time and effort where his mouth was, and spent a year in a Success Academy elementary school in the Bronx. The outcome is a gobsmackingly incisive and nuanced book in which he attempts to document how those extraordinary results are achieved. This is Pondiscio at his best.

I’ve always been skeptical of Success Academy (SA), but unlike some of my district school colleagues, I don’t have a sustained interest in political nor ideological turf wars against charters. I am interested in learning from what any school or network may be doing that is effective. When I saw those phenomenal results 5 years ago, just like Pondiscio, I wanted to know what the heck SA was doing. And I wanted to know whether what SA is doing is truly successful from a long-term perspective. I came up with a list of questions:

Leadership

  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?

Content

  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?

Environment

  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio ends up answering a fair number of those questions. Read it to learn more.

What this review is and isn’t

I would love to write a more lengthy expository on nearly everything in the book—there’s certainly plenty to dig into—but realized I would never end up finishing, so I’m going to focus on a few things that struck me.

I’m also not going to spend much time on the school choice argument that Pondiscio mounts throughout the book, as interesting as it is, because most other reviews—and there are many—dig into those kind of things more in full. I’m more interested in practice than in politics.

And finally, this really isn’t a proper “review.” So here’s a proper review in short: The book is well-written and thought provoking at every turn. Do yourself a favor and read it.

That said, let’s get to my takeaways:

So what’s the secret sauce?

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Let’s get something straight: SA posts amazing results, pretty much any way you slice it. But Pondiscio doesn’t shy away from reporting that a key ingredient in their secret sauce is the careful vetting and grooming of a parent population that is involved and committed enough to SA’s approach to make it sing. In fact, Pondiscio leverages that fact to underpin his key argument for school choice: “Well-intended efforts to leverage schools as a means of ending generational poverty are perversely doomed to perpetuate it—unless we allow like-minded parents to self-select into schools in the greatest numbers possible.”

They end up typically being two parent families, faith oriented, and appreciative of firm discipline, according to Pondiscio’s reckoning, drawing parallels to Catholic schools, which historically have served similarly and effectively in the poorest zipcodes.

But aside from hand selecting the parents who are most committed to SAs vision, what exactly is SA doing?

This is the key theme that emerged for me while reading this book: when all adult oars pull in the same direction—in synchronicity—around children, then amazing results can be achieved. Even if the oars or the hands pulling them are far from perfect.

“When you are surrounded by adults who are demonstrably invested in your success, who do not assume your inevitable failure or condescend because they perceive you as less than or other, who do not dwell on your deficits or perceive you as oppressed or a victim, you are pointed in a specific direction in life.”

Let me give you two examples of this from Pondiscio’s reporting of SA, one an example of great literacy practice, and the other one of questionable value.

Exemplary Literacy Practice

SA provides a rigorous balance of close reading of shared grade-level texts that are worth reading, while ensuring that each and every student reads a steady volume of texts that are more accessible. The manner in which they do this rendered clear to me something I’d been sensing but hadn’t yet been able to fully express—students need this balance to become fully literate. Yet in many schools, there is no balance whatsoever—it’s tipped completely one way or another. Either students read a bunch of mostly random books of choice at their “level,” and little else, so they build little background knowledge. Or they read a few books (or excerpts) from their curriculum that are at grade-level, but struggle to understand it and teachers receive little support on how to scaffold those texts beyond injunctions to differentiate, and their school doesn’t have the necessary expertise and resources to provide appropriate intervention.

A key lever at an SA school is that they push the preponderance of volume of independent reading onto parents, and hold parents and students accountable to it. Here’s Pondiscio:

The guidance is specific, granular, and deliverable. Parents are expected to read six books aloud to their children every week through the end of second grade; they must monitor and log their children’s independent reading and homework through high school, emulating the habits and structures associated with affluent families.

In the schools I work with, the common complaint is that many students don’t read on their own and they lack the proper environment or resources to do so even when they are motivated to do so.

The other key lever, which is more scalable to other schools, is that SA’s close reading methods are structured and consistent from grade-to-grade, starting from the very beginning. They have a list of concise and clear “thinking jobs” by genre that students enlist to guide their discussion and annotations, and teachers and students have a clear structure that guides their process of textual analysis. This is what could be called “test prep” when executed poorly and haphazardly with little connection to any disciplinary or world knowledge, but it’s also more generally what we call “close reading.” They study shared complex texts and engage in intellectual discussions around the structure, purpose, and meaning of those texts. So long as the texts selected are worth reading, this is an exemplary practice.

So I found this description of their practices highly useful to my own work, because it clarified the importance in both increasing volume of reading, while also reading shared grade-level text. I came up with a wee graphic to depict this which I now use whenever presenting on close reading:

I’d like to write more on this another time, but while we’re on it, just want to note there are now curriculum offerings that provide more of this type of interweaving balance. For example, Bookworms (freely accessible) intriguingly scales not only between texts at student level and grade-level, but furthermore read alouds of texts at above grade-level, such that it provides a tri-pronged attack for building knowledge and vocabulary alongside increasing volume (listen to Karin Chenowith’s ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast on Seaford, DE, for more on this). STARI, a Tier 2 intervention (also freely accessible), similarly scales between accessible, relevant texts and grade-level work. More to explore here!

At SA, having an abundance of resources and in-classroom coaching all centered around a curriculum and set practices is a given. There is that “educational infrastructure” around the classroom that Elizabeth Green refers to in Building a Better Teacher fully present across the SA network.

As Pondiscio notes, SA is built to run on the backs of extremely young and inexperienced teachers, and it manages to so so effectively, but this also is one of the factors that shows it can’t be done at scale and sustainably.

I’ve spoken to a few folks who’ve worked at SA before, and from what I can glean, it would be a great place to learn the ropes, but not the kind of place you’d want to stay in for long, because if you want to have a family or life of your own, you won’t have any time for it. (As a side note, this is why I think it was extremely shortsighted of the NY Board of Regents to nix legislation allowing teachers to gain a license directly from charter schools, rather than through traditional routes.)

Not-so-exemplary literacy practice

SA isn’t a guiding light in all its literacy practices. One of the most intense, which is quite revealing of SA in all its glory and its shame, is that kindergarten students may be held over if they do not reach Level D on Fountas and Pinnell running records by the end of the school year.

Fountas and Pinnell (or F&P as it is widely referred to) and guided reading is starting to get put under the microscope because though its leveled method appears scientific, it’s not based on solid science. Yet F&P is pervasive in the field, and kids across our nation refer to themselves as “I’m a level __” —even though F&P themselves state that the intent of the leveling system is to pair kids with books, not to define the kids.

SA disregards all of this and goes all in on leveling:

“Classroom libraries have book bins sorted by levels; children’s nightly reading logs have a column to record each book’s level. Data walls in every classroom indicate each child’s current reading level.”

And yet . . . in one scene Pondiscio describes the joyous celebration that occurs when a boy, who has been struggling, moves up a level. As he proudly shares this information with other adults in the building, and it becomes an impromptu parade, this suspect practice still can result in motivating kids to improve their reading ability, when their parents are firmly in tow.

When all adults pull in the same direction—even when the practices might be of questionable value—gains can be made, as SA consistently shows every single year. F&P and running records might not be based on the most solid of science, but they provide clear goals and progress monitoring, and when a school commits to a specific approach and goes all in, you will see impact.

I should also note that when I raised questions about their literacy practices on Twitter, Michele Caracappa, a former CAO at SA who is quoted in the book, clarified the science-based reading practices they do engage in. More here:

What I Think the Book Oversells

Pondiscio was surprised to find that the SA curriculum was not as knowledge based, direct instruction based, and central to SA’s success as he suspected. But he also determines that there is enough knowledge building going on across contents at SA that it warrants a general stamp of approval. He spends a chapter on his greatest hits on the importance of knowledge (great if you aren’t up to speed on it; I have been on the knowledge tip long enough to know it by heart – the baseball study, background knowledge, vocabulary, etc), but I think he oversells the fact that SA aligns with a solidly knowledge-based approach.

They pick books worth reading and they ensure science and history are adequately taught, which unfortunately are all areas many schools are deficient in. But I would argue that their coherence lies primarily in their practices and coaching, not necessarily in an explicit and sequential curriculum that builds knowledge.

To be fair to Pondiscio, he acknowledges the weaknesses in the curriculum, and gives a kind of mea culpa at the conclusion, which I’ll get into in a moment.

What I Think the Book Undersells

I’ve written a lot here about the importance of physical environment, and SA ensures that its physical environment is in top form. I think the impact of this goes further than you may think.

I work with a few schools that are colocated with a Success Academy in the same building, and it’s been endlessly fascinating to me how you can walk from one hallway to another and enter a completely different headspace. They always replace the older school doors with more modern, window covered doors that block out sound well and close quietly. Even this one simple change goes a long way towards reducing the amount of reverberating noise that speeds along down those long echoing corridors.

Their colors, immaculate spotlessness, focused bulletin boards, signage, etc all creates a physical environment that enables learning to occur, both acoustically speaking and in what is communicated to students.

What’s especially interesting about SA is that they have a dedicated leader in each building, parallel to the principal, specifically assigned to building operations!

While Pondiscio notes the attention to physical environment, he doesn’t dwell on it. Here’s what he notes:

The level of detail is exhausting, from checking hallway bulletin boards for ripped papers and making sure classroom posters stay up to ensuring that the overnight custodians who vacuum classroom rugs remembered to replace the “baby plugs” that keep children’s fingers out of wall sockets.

Walk-throughs are done nearly hourly by Fuoco or one of three staff members. While every Success Academy has an ops team and a BOM, the checklists are unique to the layout and physical condition of the building where each school is co-located.

Something else that I think Pondiscio touches on but possibly undersells is the importance of all the various educational infrastructural pieces that together SA does so well, such as PD, strategically mixing classes each year, ensuring intellectual preparation by its teachers, leaders who know the content well, systems for assessing and monitoring student data, and so on.


If the teachers are going to be teaching this lesson on the central idea of this poem, then the leaders need to be getting together two weeks before, and doing the intellectual prep themselves,’ even practice-teaching everything themselves so that they can then go lead that effectively with teachers,’” recalled Toll.

The Tiffany Test

In district schools, we seem to have committed all of our resources and attention to ensuring that even the toughest students are rarely suspended and spend more time in the classroom. A worthy goal, to be sure, but Pondiscio posits a “Tiffany test” that should give all of us strong ethical pause, based on a former student he had who sat quietly and did all that was expected of her, receiving little of the intellectual challenge she deserved due to other students’ misbehavior:

The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.

A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.

….children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient and less engaged peers.

I have worked with some pretty tough students in my time, and my heart always, always goes out to them, like most other educators I know. They are the ones that keep me up at night and who come back to haunt me. If you ever corner me in a bar and get me talking about some of my former students, I will weep. I can’t help it. But I also think back to the quiet ones, the ones who sat with their hands folded as that one student cursed someone out, or threw a tantrum for the umpteenth time, the ones who quietly and dutifully filed out of my classroom and lined up along the wall when one student would go into crisis and became violent because I didn’t call on him when he raised his hand. I had to learn to handle such crises mostly on my own. I didn’t have a coach or a behavioral team who would swoop in and ensure I could continue to teach the lesson.

So his argument struck me to the core.

And yet, I also work with tough schools where they get students who are dumped on them from charter schools like SA, and they get them shipped over to them without even getting the associated funding for that student because of the strategic timing of when the charter school dumps them.* (See updated footnote on this based on feedback from James Merriman) How is that fair? And these are often the toughest students to teach, all concentrated in that local school because we have to take them, and we do, and we serve them the best that we can, with the limited support and resources we have, because schools like SA can’t or won’t.

This is the Tiffany test, and the Adama test, and it is a tough ethical dilemma worth pondering in depth, and Pondiscio forces us to grapple with it through this book in a meaningful and provocative manner.

On the one hand, there are the students who struggle who will simply not do well at SA:

“For those who try and try and can never get out of the ‘red,’ Success Academy is not for them”

But on the other hand, SA is serving the students and parents who have committed to it and can rise to its challenge, and are raising the bar so high the entire state cringes to look directly at its achievement.

There’s no clear answers here, but I think Pondiscio has some strong medicine here that needs to be more deeply considered on all sides.

It’s the Culture, Man

Pondiscio lands in an interesting place at the finale of the book. SPOILER ALERT: He concludes that what makes SA tick is not scalable, and its not scalable because what’s really happening at SA has more to do with an adaptive, squishy thing like culture, and less to do with technical things like curriculum. And this was a hard thing to come to terms with: “School culture is freighted, hard to define, harder to impose, and nearly impossible to shape through public policy.”

Here’s the money quote for me, and I think you’ll see why:

. . . a comprehensive and equitable system of public education does not require that every school be exactly the same; it requires an ecosystem of schools that collectively can serve the need of every child.

In addition to using the word that gives this blog its name, he acknowledges the key issue that this blog has been focused on conveying for some time: schools and school systems are complex. Imposing a prescription at scale is unlikely to improve the majority of our schools, and the real work is at the ground level. It’s adaptive work, in addition to highly technical work. We need to cultivate and sustain conditions that will enable that hard work to bear fruit and thrive more widely. And ultimately, this requires we think far more flexibly beyond static divides like school district boundaries, charter vs. district schools, and private vs. public funding and institutions.

If there’s one thing we can thank Success Academy for, it is that it shows what can be done when all the adults, from the parents, to the staff, to the leadership, pull in the same direction. It’s a machine that not everyone can hold onto, and it leaves a bloody trail in its wake, but it’s certainly a sight to behold.

*Update 1/1/20: James Merriman gave me some important corrective feedback on my comment on charter schools dumping kids on district schools and keeping the money. I’ll admit I threw out that comment based purely on anecdotal information, not on empirical data, and with little of my own direct experience with this. You can view his comments here in this thread:

Applying What I’m Learning About How Kids Learn to Read

It was pretty cool to see my last post catch 🔥 and link me in to a vibrant and smart community of educators committed to the science of reading.

To review, in that post I laid out what I’d begun learning after realizing I knew absolutely nothing about learning to read:

Summary of critical points on word-level reading

The Simple View of Reading provides us with a clear and research-based model of reading comprehension

  • This doesn’t mean it’s completely definitive–no model is. But it does give us a useful map for aligning and targeting our assessments and instruction

Anyone who hears and speaks can be taught to decode words in print

  • IQ is not the basis for the ability to decode
  • Nor is it ever too late to address decoding issues

Units of sound (phonemes -> phonology) are the basis of written language (graphemes -> orthography)

  • Most word-level reading challenges are related to issues with hearing and speaking the sounds of the letters in words

We acquire new words as we read via a process called orthographic mapping

  • It is the phonological part of our brain that anchors the written word in our memory, not our visual memory
  • We learn the vast majority of words (after we have decoded them) by rapidly and unconsciously recognizing the sequence of the sounds of the letters in a word — even when they are irregular

The root cause of most struggles in word-level reading is a lack of proficiency with advanced phonemic skills

  • Students require fluency with deleting, substituting, and reversing phonemes to acquire a large stock of sight vocabulary

Since Then

Since writing that post, it’s felt like a whirlwind of learning. In the NYCDOE, I learned that there are K-2 supports in many elementary schools called Universal Literacy coaches, and they are trained in the science of reading. I spoke with a few and saw how they are attempting to bridge the various programs and curricula schools use to the science. I read Robert Pondiscio’s superb book on Success Academy, How the Other Half Learns, and struggled to square how SA consistently achieves the highest reading proficiency rates in NY state, while applying some reading approaches not fully aligned to the science. (More on that in another post; there’s a lot to dig into from that book, and I’d like to do it justice.)

I then went to a training on Equipped for Reading Success with David Kilpatrick, and got to ask him directly about the distinction between statistical learning and orthographic mapping. He views them as different processes — orthographic mapping refers specifically to the mapping of individual phonemes, and it’s far more quickly acquired (1-4 exposures), as compared to statistical learning, which is a more global pattern recognition process that requires far more exposures. He had a nifty little chart he pulled up to explain the distinctions. Either way, however, I found Marnie Ginsberg’s explanation in a comment on my last post to be a pretty good way to think of it, though with the key addition being that while proficient readers can rapidly do all of this on their own, we need to explicitly train and teach the skills required for orthographic mapping (a chart that outlines those skills below).

A graphic from Equipped for Reading Success that should be widely known in every school.

It can be hard to gain clarity on anything in the world of education, but most especially when it comes to reading. So even as I take one step forward, I often take two steps back further steeped in doubt. Yet I’ve decided to commit to Kilpatrick’s manual as my North Star for the next quarter.

The Knowledge

I’m still moving through the Equipped manual a little each day on my commute, marking it up and imbibing what I’ve taken to calling “the Knowledge” in my annotations, an allusion to the famed test for London cab drivers. The Knowledge, in this case, being terms like digraphs, blends, diphthongs, onset, and rime.

Terms like these, much like grammatical terminology, can seem unnecessarily technical and unessential to good teaching. Yet imagine a world in which it was required for teachers to learn and be assessed on the knowledge behind the terms of word-level reading! I never understood– nor was exposed to–what “onset-rime” means until I read Kilpatrick’s manual. Yet once I grasped it, it served as a threshold concept for understanding phonological awareness.

Here’s the passage from Equipped for Reading Success that expanded my mind and made me aware of a key distinction between the syllable level and onset-rime level of phonological awareness:

“The onset-rime level of phonological awareness goes beyond the syllable level because the child has to break apart the syllable. . . . Onsets and rimes can only be understood within the syllable. Not every syllable has an onset, but every syllable has a rime. This is because every syllable has a vowel.”

–David Kilpatrick, “Equipped for Reading Success” pgs. 20-21

Remember how in my last post I had the big realization that phonemes are an abstraction from our everyday experience of spoken language as a stream of sound? The onset-rime level of sound awareness is one further abstraction from hearing syllable level sounds. There are gradations of abstraction on the road to distinguishing those individual phonemes, and that progression moves from syllable level (“baseball” = 2 claps), to onset-rime level (“baseball” = 4 claps (“b” is onset, “ase” is rime, “b” is next onset, “all” is final rime), to phoneme level (“baseball” is 6 claps (/b/, /A/, /s/, /b/, /a/, /l/).

I’ve begun playing some of the “word games” in Kilpatrick’s manual with my two and a half year old son to cultivate phonemic awareness, and I’ve noticed he can’t yet isolate the second part of a two syllable word. He can identify the first part, however. Which is of absolutely no concern to me, given his age, but I found it revealing of an even more fundamental progression in terms of working memory and the awareness that we can break up multisyllabic words into smaller parts.

When it comes to foundational reading skill knowledge like this, it’s always been something I’ve wished I’d known, but didn’t consider it essential, because the expectation was that I focus on grade-level texts and content. And yet I had students reading far below grade-level. One would think that this would have compelled me to learn it at that point–and I did try, I went through some of the files from my first years of teaching, and I found a whole set of phonics related stuff I’d amassed–but the reality is that it was something else on top of many other things I needed to know and do, and I put my primary focus on grade-level texts and skills. Not a bad focus, of course, but I look back on my many students who were struggling with decoding words, and I feel like I have failed them. I have failed them.

Teaching is a hard job. But so is nursing, and I’m watching my wife as she goes through a nursing program and struggles to acquire a vast body of knowledge that must be applied on a daily basis in a clinical setting. Nurses have to acquire this knowledge and be able to apply it, their jobs demand it. People’s lives are literally on the line. And yet, when it comes to teachers, our society seems to be perfectly fine to let them off the hook.

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio has an especially wry zinger (in a book full of them) in Chapter 1 when he states, “Teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly. . . But it’s the hardest job to do well.”

We are graduating too many students who are functionally illiterate. We all need to step up our game.

My Theory of Action

My working hypothesis, based on Kilpatrick: many of the struggling readers in the schools I support are struggling with a core phonological deficit. Therefore, if I administer the PAST and identify where a student’s phonemic awareness level is (and train teachers to do so), and support targeted daily instruction in phonemic awareness until proficiency is attained, then those students’ reading levels will improve.

I’ve brought the PAST, a short phonemic awareness assessment from Equipped for Reading Success, to a few of the middle schools I work with, and have begun pilots with self-contained classrooms and students. I just administered the PAST to my 1st student last Wednesday. We selected him because we knew he was struggling with reading. But it still shocked me with just how basic his phonemic awareness level was. He was at nearly the lowest level, the syllable level, a pre – mid kindergarten level.

Let me frame the wider context of what we’re up against: in that school, roughly 40-50% of students across the 6-8th grades are identified as struggling with decoding, according to an iReady diagnostic. Of that ~50%, how many are struggling with a phonological deficit? I’d like to find out. And help to do something about it.

Finding a way to tackle something that massive, while continuing to ensure that core instruction demands grade-level expectations, is a tough challenge. Because let it be known that I am in no way suggesting that kids struggling with word-level reading should no longer be exposed to grade-level texts and content. What I am suggesting is that it is incumbent on teachers at any level (and schools) to be knowledgeable enough of foundational skills and grade-level content and skills to scale their instruction accordingly. And yes, this is a heavy lift indeed. There’s never enough time in the day.

Yet I’ve found Kilpatrick’s materials promising in this regard, because some of the phonemic awareness activities are “1 minute” practice sessions. Every single minute we have with a student is precious time, all too easily squandered.

I recognize there’s many other aspects to this, such as administering a phonics screen or oral fluency task and pairing students with different programs depending on the need. But I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m going to start small to see if my hypothesis is verified and if I can help to enact instruction that will target those needs. This is where the rubber hits the road.

I may fail. This whole thing is, ironically enough, a pet project of mine. It is no official aspect of my duties and role in the schools I support. And I take on too many side projects as it is. I’ve got a book I’m supposed to be writing, by the way, but can no longer find the time for, let alone post on this blog. But I have a hard time thinking of anything more important than getting this right. So I’m saying this publicly so the network I’ve begun connecting to can help support me, so I can better help support the students and teachers I touch each day.

If you are on a similar journey, please connect with me here or on Twitter @mandercorn and let’s work through this together. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, we just have to each individually connect the dots.

Thank you in advance, and thank you for reading. In solidarity.

Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

close up photography of colored pencils
Photo by Jess Watters on Pexels.com

I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).

So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.

Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA

Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?

While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.

Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.

Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.

This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”

Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.

A growing recognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.

What State and District Leaders Can Do

How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?

There are four moves that policy leaders can make:

  • Redefine literacy
  • Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
  • Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
  • Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments

Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy.
The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA (46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.

It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.

Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.

Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.

Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.

Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.

Anticipated Outcomes

What could we expect as a result of these moves?

Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.

MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.

Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.

Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.

Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.

Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.

References

1 Cambridge Assessment (2013) “What is literacy? An investigation into definitions of English as a subject and the relationship between English, literacy and ‘being literate’: A Research Report Commissioned by Cambridge Assessment.” http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130433-what-is-literacy-an-investigation-into-definitions-of-english-as-a-subject-and-the-relationship-between-english-literacy-and-being-literate-.pdf

2 Wexler, N. (2018) “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915/
Serino, L. (2017) “What international assessment scores reveal about American education.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/04/07/what-international-assessment-scores-reveal-about-american-education/

3 Shanahan, T. (2013) “You Want Me to Read What?!” Educational Leadership, ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov13/vol71/num03/You-Want-Me-to-Read-What%C2%A2!.aspx

4 King, K.V. and Zucker, S. (2005) “Curriculum Narrowing – Pearson Assessments.” 18 Aug. 2005, http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/CurriculumNarrowing.pdf

5 Workman, E. and Jones, S.D. (2016) “ESSA’s Well-Rounded Education.” Education Commission of the States. https://www.ecs.org/essas-well-rounded-education/

6 Kaufman, J., Lindsay, T., and V. Darleen Opfer. (2016) “Creating a Coherent System to Support Instruction Aligned with State Standards: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1613.html
Kaufman, J. & Tsai, T. (2018). “School Supports for Teachers’ Implementation of State Standards Findings from the American School Leader Panel.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2318.html

7 Whitehurst, G.J. (2009) “Don’t forget curriculum.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/dont-forget-curriculum/
Chingos, M. M., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2012) “Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the Common Core.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/choosing-blindly-instructional-materials-teacher-effectiveness-and-the-common-core/ Kane, T. J. (2016) “Never judge a book by its cover – use student achievement instead.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-use-student-achievement-instead/ Steiner, D. (2017) “Curriculum research: What we know and where we need to go.” StandardsWork, https://standardswork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sw-curriculum-research-report-fnl.pdf Chiefs for Change (2018) “Statement on the need for high-quality curriculum.” http://chiefsforchange.org/statement-on-the-need-for-high-quality-curricula/

8 International Baccalaureate (2014) “Programme standards and practices.” https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/become-an-ib-school/programme-standards-and-practices-en.pdf

9 Louisiana Department of Education (2018) “Louisiana Essa Innovative Assessment Pilot First To Receive Federal Approval.” https://www.louisianabelieves.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/07/27/louisiana-essa-innovative-assessment-pilot-first-to-receive-federal-approval.

Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

Hysteresis and the Legacy of Industrialization

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I recently shared a fascinating study on the impact of the historical legacy of a place, which found that students living in neighborhoods with a legacy of economic and residential segregation had greater odds of dropping out of high school compared to their peers in other neighborhoods.

The existing social capital of a neighborhood, in other words, is associated with the historical legacy of that particular place.

This makes a lot of sense to those of us that work in communities with legacies of poverty and trauma. And it also relates to a concept that Will shared here back in 2012: hysteresis. As explained on Wikipedia, hysteresis refers to “the dependence of the state of a system on its history.” This concept can be applicable to a wide range of systems—in our case here, we are considering socio-ecological systems.

Another recent study presents further support for the impact of the legacy of a place on people. Researchers used online surveys of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and examined them in connection to a region’s historical legacy associated with industrialization during the 19th and 20th century.

Their results suggest “that the massive industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries had long-term psychosocial effects that continue to shape the well-being, health, and behaviors of millions of people in these regions today.”

“. . . .Our research shows that a region’s historical industries leave a lasting imprint on the local psychology, which remains even when those industries are no longer dominant or have almost completely disappeared.”

The author concludes that “Without a strong orchestrated effort to improve economic circumstances and people’s well-being and health in these regions, this legacy is likely to persist.”

Granted that this study is based on data gathered from online surveys. But the “big five” survey has a fairly robust research base behind it and predicts academic achievement and parenting behavior (you can also take the survey yourself; I found my own results enlightening). But of course, further research into the impacts of the historical legacy of a place should continue to be pursued.

In the meantime, for those of us who work with children raised in communities that bear the legacies of injury, we need to be mindful not only of the individual needs of the children before us, but furthermore the history of the place within which they live.

 

Research: The Industrial Revolution Left Psychological Scars That Can Still Be Seen Today, Martin Obschonka / Harvard Business Review