Lost amid the debate over early literacy and the celebration — by some — of the governor’s signature on legislation placing greater emphasis on third-grade reading, is strong evidence educators can dramatically improve student performance without government intrusion.
In just three academic years, West Michigan districts focusing on the reading proficiency of at-risk students — those in poverty or who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch — have nearly quadrupled the margin by which the region exceeds the state average.
Leading the way is a growing number of building administrators who are making reading Job 1. They’ve instituted extended reading periods each day, they are using data to drive performance and they’re working with staff to develop extensive classroom libraries of reading materials that appeal to the interests and aptitudes of all students.
How, you may ask, did this happen? Did principals and teachers just wake up one day and decide to do things differently? No, but their superintendents did.
Frustrated with legislative intrusion into school operations that most felt had more to do with politics than performance, superintendents throughout West Michigan came together in 2012 to call for educators — the professionals hired by communities to lead their schools — to develop a student-centered agenda. The centerpiece of their work is the Reading Now Network, which was adopted by 100 school districts in 13 West Michigan counties and is now extending into other parts of the state.
Reading Really is Fundamental
Why reading? All felt early literacy is so essential to student success, so fundamental to the mission of public education, that every school district, building principal and master teacher who is coaxing extraordinary performance out of students who struggle elsewhere should share their expertise with others so they, too, could help children read at grade level.
A field study sparked by state data identifying five of these outliers — buildings far outperforming their peers with similar student demographics — found there was no silver bullet, no program purchased off the shelf, that was responsible for outstanding performance. Instead, there was among all five a relentless focus on reading. All teachers were evaluated on student reading performance. Every student knew his/her reading scores today and where they needed to be tomorrow to meet achievement goals. Students read books in extended blocks of time in the classroom and everywhere else — in the hallways, waiting in line for the water fountain, everywhere.
The results of this study were shared widely among participating districts. Intermediate district instructional experts brought the findings to local district leaders; a symposium was held to celebrate and validate the results; and videos were made to illustrate their successes and help others replicate them in their own buildings and classrooms.
Now, four years later, we learn this focus on reading increased the region’s positive performance margin on the M-Step for at-risk students from 1.6 percent above the state average to 5.9 percent, and much higher than that in some buildings and districts.
If Reading Works, Why Not Math?
The job isn’t done. There is much left to do. Additional resources are necessary to help elementary teachers become reading experts; more time on task — extended school days and school years — is needed by many students to reach and maintain desired proficiency levels. But it’s a strong start, and a strong foundation upon which to build.
Some may ask if this increased achievement achievement in reading comes at the expense of math and other content areas. The answer, rewardingly enough, is no. Early elementary students who are confident in their ability to read perform well across the board, validating the oft-repeated axiom of learn to read in grades K-3 and read to learn in grades 4-12.
The Reading Now Network is working.
Look for this same group of collaborative educators to soon tackle math, as there is ample evidence students must be proficient in math before they enter high school if they are to be considered college and career ready in the areas of science, technology and engineering.
Math may be a bigger challenge, but the results of the Reading Now Network suggest it will add up to success in the near future.