Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

close up photography of colored pencils
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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.

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NY Education Officials Make the Wrong Move on Charter School Teacher Induction

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The New York state education department has filed a lawsuit to block a controversial new rule allowing certain charter schools to certify their own teachers, claiming that the regulations will “erode the quality of teaching” across the state.

New York education officials move to block rules allowing some charter schools to certify their own teachers, Monica Disare / Chalkbeat NY

I find this to be a highly questionable move by Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. And the only way I can make sense of it is that they feel threatened by charter networks and want to exert greater state authority over charter autonomy.

Let me preface my argument by sharing my view of charter schools, since it is such an apparently contentious area of our politics. I work for and believe in NY public schools, and I do not buy into the ed reform narrative that public schools are all failing and charter schools should supplant them.

But I also don’t buy into the opposing narrative that charter schools are “privatizing” education and destroying public education. Or that they only “cream” high achieving students in order to derive mind-boggling results.

There are practices and operations from the charter sector that are incredibly valuable, and there are charter networks and schools that are doing incredible work serving their communities and students that should be scaled and emulated, especially here in NYC. And at this point in the game, the research on the charter sector in general is pretty darn convincing — unless you’re only reading Diane Ravitch’s or Valerie Strauss’s blog, in which case you’re the education equivalent of Trump watching Fox & Friends.

Highly effective charter operations have built an infrastructure around teaching and learning that can accelerate student learning. In too many public schools, we leave teachers and administrators on their own when it comes to communicating and supporting what effective instruction looks like. We all too often give them vague platitudes, complex compliance rules, and abstract concepts and then say, “Here, go apply this! Good luck!” and blame them when our initiatives don’t garner the results we expect.

That’s why I believe charters have their place alongside district schools. Their relative autonomy provides them with the leeway to develop more direct and intensive on-the-ground supports. And we should be learning from the best of them, just as we should be learning from all of the best of our schools that are performing contrary to expectations.

At the same time, I believe charters should be regulated, and that it’s the state’s prerogative to do so.

So Rosa’s and Elia’s pushback makes kneejerk sense in that they feel the need to exert state control over the charter sector in order to ensure positive student outcomes—which they are ultimately responsible for, regardless of the type of school.

But in the long-term, it really doesn’t make sense when you consider that NY’s charters are already well-regulated, and that the charter networks already in operation, such as Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP, Democracy Prep, and Success Academy, have a demonstrated track record of success.

These are networks that have extensive infrastructure built around instruction and accountability. They can take a new teacher with no certification and accelerate their ability. And if that new teacher doesn’t demonstrate results, they’ll get rid of them. That’s what being a charter school provides the leeway for.

So let them take unexperienced and uncertified entrants into the profession and develop them. And then when those new entrants get tired of having all their time drained away with few benefits from the charter school they’re working for, they’ll move into the public system with some solid training and experience.

Let’s be honest. Charter networks will probably do a far better job of preparing new teachers than the majority of our state’s certified teacher preparation programs. And this will be of ultimate benefit to the learning of NY state’s children, which our state officials can then take credit for.

The real problem of teacher shortages: retention

Our research revealed no obvious, simple way to improve teacher retention. The differences in retention rates that we saw across districts are not explained by easy-to-observe factors such as student demographics or teacher salaries. But related research shows that teachers leave schools with poor working conditions where they feel they cannot have success with their students, and they stay in schools where they feel supported by their colleagues, their principals and their school culture. Working to build more supportive school environments can both help students and ameliorate the retention crisis plaguing some of our urban school systems.

Other View: America’s teacher shortage can’t be solved by hiring more unqualified teachers / Times-News

NY State passes legislation allowing dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia to be targeted

Pile of Invoices, Man Using Laptop on the Background

“Gov. Cuomo just signed into law a measure codifying federal protections permitting the words dyslexia, dysgraphia (which affects writing ability) and dyscalculia (affecting mathematical processing) to be used in determining eligibility for special education services and developing Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs.”

This legislation matters. Before, educators were discouraged from using specific terms such as these when writing IEPs, even when the evidence was clear that a child struggled in one of these areas. I think this is a step forward in better targeting children’s needs.

That said, however, I also have some hesitation about the use of these terms.

1) Many IEPs are written with few (relatively) objective data points as a reference. Most schools don’t have sophisticated enough assessments to be able to make a diagnosis that is so specific. As I have always cautioned parents at an IEP meeting, we are making an educational diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis. But when people start throwing around terms like “dysgraphia,” it sounds officially sanctioned, like it’s the pronouncement of a doctor, when it’s really just a supposition made with little background nor training on assessing and supporting these specific disabilities. And it may also end up promoting some learned helplessness on the part of both teachers and students when they start labeling general academic difficulties with these terms.

2) Another problem with such terms is their lack of specificity. There’s debate about whether dyslexia even exists. Having worked with students with all three of these conditions, I can assure you it definitely does. But you shouldn’t have to take my word for it. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to uncover more knowledge about such conditions. For example, it appears that dyslexia is related to trouble with phonological processing which stems from a reduced plasticity of the brain.

The difficulty, however, is that even when we apply more specific terms like “dysgraphia,” it’s still not very clear about what exactly needs to be done to address the issue. We know that early intervention is essential, but what does one do with a dysgraphic student in 8th grade? Teachers (and parents) would love to know what that medicine should be.

3) What if a student demonstrates all three of these things (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia)? We often end up just labeling them LD (a “learning disability”) and leaving it at that. But this begs the question of whether it is then even a disability at all. It may be a compounding of socio-economic factors, environmental factors, and a lack of access to early interventions and support.

But at the end of the day, whatever the cause, and whatever the label, is all less relevant than what is being done once the label has been applied.

What will we do to support children identified as struggling mightily with reading, writing, and math? And is what we’re doing actually helping? That’s the most important thing.

Finally getting serious about educating kids with dyslexia, NY Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon in the NY Daily News

Smorgasbord: Unity, Faction, and Learning

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Don Shalvey calls for more learning, rather than competition, between charters and districts

“Let’s leave crushing the competition to the National Football League and not act like it’s the reason educators create and work in charter public schools.”

Sounds good to me. I think the fractious debates between charter and district are largely a distraction from the real work of how to best serve families and educate kids. And I will happily learn from and collaborate with any of my colleagues working in the charter sector.

It’s important when such collaborations do occur to frame them as a two-way street, rather than one sharing “best practices” to another. We all have things to learn from different contexts, structures, and approaches.

Shalvey: Dramatic Support for Educators Rather Than Political Drama, The Alumni

Or maybe districts need to be a little more competitive with charters

“In their rush to score cheap political points, both camps sidestep the reality that districts and charters are in a high-stakes competition for students. The truth is that unilateral opposition to charters has never stopped them from growing, just like it hasn’t stopped thousands of parents from enrolling their children in private schools or finding ways to get them into neighboring school districts. The futures of local charters and districts hinge on the same thing—the decisions parents make for their children.”

Don’t Complain About Charter Schools, Compete With Them, Education Next

Celine Coggins advises teacher leaders to be willing to push policymakers for disagreement

“Most educators’ natural instinct is to keep the peace. Your average local politician won’t be as impolitic as the President. They’ll say they care about equity, meaning a great education for all kids. You need to get beneath the hood on that.”

Good point. I’ve met with a number of policymakers to advocate for better policies, and the tendency for these conversations is typically for teachers to share, policymaker to nod and then politely push away any accountability, everyone to get photo ops. The best conversations are when you can have a reasoned argument about something that helps to clarify where everyone stands.

Also good tidbit here from Coggins:

“Which are the policy problems and which are the relationship problems? The battle for greater equity for disadvantaged students is a war on two fronts. Some parts of the problem are best solved at the individual-level through relationships (i.e. influencing a leader’s thinking, getting invited to the decision-making table). Some parts of the problem are best solved at the system-level through formal policies (i.e. who has access to certain support services and programming; how funding gets allocated across schools). Separating the two types of problems, will help you get clear on the issues you can tackle next on each front.”

Equity is Everything (and Nothing), Eduwonk

Diana Senechal asks, “What is a civics education?”

“Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements.”

“This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.”

What Is Civics Education?, Take Away the Takeaway

A notable lack of transparency from De Blasio’s DOE

“Let’s talk about the New York City Department of Education,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which oversees open meetings and public records laws. “Terrible. Terrible. They’re terrible. They’re terrible.”

De Blasio, before becoming mayor:

“The City is inviting waste and corruption by blocking information that belongs to the public,” de Blasio said at the time. “That’s the last thing New York City can afford right now. We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers.”

485 Days and Counting: NYC’s Education Department Stymies Public Records Requests, Both Big and Small, The 74

Remember I said to watch how people spin NY state test results? Chalkbeat rounds up official reactions so you don’t have to

Ranging from “meaningless” to “delivering on the promise of closing the achievement gap.”

‘Virtually meaningless’ or ‘steady progress’? New York City reacts to this year’s state test scores, Chalkbeat

What makes math unjust?

National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and TODOS: Mathematics for All are “calling on math teachers to assume a “social justice stance” that “challenges the roles power, privilege, and oppression play in the current unjust system of mathematics.”

If assuming a social justice stance means developing greater coherency in what and how a rigorous, sequential math curriculum is provided to all students, then sure.

Math is unjust and grounded in discrimination, educators moan, Campus Reform

Speaking of math, here’s sage advice from an 80 year veteran math teacher

The key to teaching math, says Miller, boils down to one thing — repetition. “Repetition is one of the foundations of learning.”

Repetition and rote memorization aren’t exactly cutting edge these days, but it’s hard to disagree with the advice Miller gives teachers who are just starting out: “Be sure that you know your subject.”

Paul Miller Loved Teaching Math So Much That He Did It For Nearly 80 Years, NPR

But it can’t be all memorization. At least when it comes to learning a language

Do not use flashcards! Do not emphasize memorization of the characters (bùyào sǐbèi dānzì 不要死背单字). Learn words in their proper grammatical and syntactic context. Learn grammatical patterns and practice them in substitution drills (that was one of the best ways Chang Li-ching used to train her students, and she was extremely successful in getting them up to an impressive level of fluency in a short period of time).

For examples of the kind of drills that would be really beneficial to all kids in teaching them grammatical patterns, refer to the Hochman Method.

Learning languages is so much easier now, Language Log

Speaking of learning a language, why is the US so bad at producing bilinguals?

“…it’s ironic that we have students walking up staircases at one end of their school building to attend Spanish foreign language classes while at the other end of the same building native Spanish speakers are being taught English and content in ways that lead to their loss of Spanish.”

The true failure of foreign language instruction, The Conversation