Schools: Why Reading Is Job #1

As educators, our first academic responsibility is to teach our students to read well by third grade. It is Job #1. Here's why.
Up through third grade, children learn to read. After third grade, they read to learn. If they read poorly, they learn slowly. Academic failure by a student in high school (including dropping out) is almost always preceded by academic failure in middle school or junior high. In turn, academic failure in the mid-levels is generally preceded by failing to learn to read at or near grade level by third grade.
The causal link between poor reading skills in kindergarten through third grade and persistently poor academic achievement in grades 4 through 12 (by about 25% of our students) has long been a matter of common sense, credible research, and public record. Now reform-minded educators have realized that this lowest percentile must achieve grade level reading skills by second and third grade if these students are to achieve high academic standards in middle school and high school.

What Should We Do Differently?
As local school boards and superintendents, elementary principals and kindergarten through third grade teachers, we need to take personal responsibility for the low level of reading ability in 25% of our students. When we publicly announce that we will assure that the children in our school district read at or above grade level by third grade, we create personal accountability. There is a role for each of us in creating reading accountability.
Only superintendents and school board members control policy and budget. They must establish the policies and district-wide plan to set the reading goal, set the reading standards, provide the district-wide assessments, establish the reports and modify the accountability systems to assure that students read on grade level by third grade. Only they can readjust the budget parameters.
Only elementary principals can create flexible building level teams of teachers and para-professional staff to deliver reading instruction to students with huge disparities in their prior language and literacy training.
Only kindergarten, first, second and third grade teachers can acquire and provide the extended repertoire of skills, knowledge, diagnostics and interventions to assure that these children from such diverse backgrounds receive excellent initial reading instruction, and thereafter, the right kind of intervention for their specific deficiency based on specific classroom assessments. Most critically, it takes us all. Elementary principals and K-3 teachers cannot do it alone without school boards, superintendents, parents and the community.

When superintendents and school boards begin creating elementary reading accountability, it is useful to understand not only the board policy process, but how this process will look to principals, teachers, and parents as well. All of the pieces must come together for successful change is to occur.
We suggest that you, as policy makers, ask for the data to answer a question that creates a brutally honest reality check:
"What is the reading level of every third grader in this district in grade level equivalents?"
There is a chasm between the public's reading expectations for their children and the actual reading performance by third grade. The power to change grows out of a public school district's willingness (the superintendent, board members, elementary principals, and K-3 teachers) to be absolutely truthful with themselves and their community about how many entering fourth graders read at a first, second, and third grade level. The resolve to be absolutely truthful about current levels of third grade reading performance is an absolute prerequisite to achieving significant reading improvement.
The next steps of the process mirrors the NSBA Key Work of School Board's 8 step model for systemic change [[]. For proven strategies and techniques that allow boards and superintendents to made significant structural changes with minimal inputs of energy into the school system, check out the power tools section.


Decide what percentage of third graders you want to read on grade level by the end of third grade. Say it clearly. Say it in policy and in your strategic plan. Put it on bulletin boards and screen savers. Paint it on your school buses.
The mere act of setting this policy transforms the environment in which most elementary educators work. On deep levels, it announces that the adults in the K-3 system are in control of the process that teaches children to read on grade level.

Assessment Standards
Define the expected level of performance in reading and reading-related skills at kindergarten, first, second and third grade. In the most specific terms, this is setting the cut scores on the test, ie., the score on which ever test instrument being used which a student must reach to be "at standard'. Assure sure that the standards set at kindergarten, first, and second grade gradually and logically ramp up to grade-level skills at the third grade.

Determine your elementary reading goal, put it in policy, and put the reporting format in place. Set your third- grade reading goal for the next three years. Make sure that the numerator reports the number of students reading at or above grade level and that the denominator includes all students.
Numerator: Students reaching the standard
Denominator: All students

Other forms of accountability besides reporting by district and by each elementary school can include principal evaluation, peer review of building plans, and annual board workshops with each school.
Improved Learning Environment
Identify the barriers in your district to increasing reading skills. Change them.

Staff Training
Research shows that each dollar invested in staff training results in more improvement per dollar than if the same dollar were spent on almost any other alternative. Consider K-5 staff training programs so the entire school is using the same vocabulary and consistent programs. They help create the teams and the continuity in curriculum and techniques between grade levels that are necessary for consistent student learning.

Realignment of resources:
Consider a deliberate and deep resetting of district parameters and paradigms for K-3 reading:
1. Primary planning and program change occurs building by building.
2. Primary accountability rests with building principals.
3. Realignment of resources. Each elementary school should identify and alter decade-old patterns that divert staff time and classroom resources away from reading for students with significant reading difficulties.
4. Changes in K-2. The primary approach should be intervention at grades K-3, not remediation commencing in the fourth grade.
5. Results oriented: Programs will be evaluated on the basis of whether they work.
6. Expectations: All children, including those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, will reach the reading goal.

Community Partnerships
Establish a Reading Foundation in your community to mobilize parent support. Encourage daily reading aloud from birth as an experience that every child will have.

Continual Improvement
Change will not occur overnight. Expect planned, incremental, and continuous improvement from kindergarten through third grade from each school's baseline to the goal over the next three to five years. But prepare yourselves for growth in spurts and at uneven rates as individual schools surge and fall back, and retrain, rethink and retool.
It will be a fascinating trip.

As boards and superintendents, you have three powerful change tools at your disposal. They are the policy-making power of the board, the budget-approval authority, and the use of board time in its meetings.

Board Policy
Policy-making authority is granted boards by state law. Within the district, it has the force of law. Policy can be used to set an elementary reading goal. Policy can be used to create a framework which establishes a K-3 reading assessment system, sets the gradually increasing proficiency levels at kindergarten, first, second, and third grades (standards), requires appropriate reports which establish initial baseline, and then measures the annual improvement from the baseline (initial accountability). Alternatively, policy can require the development of a strategic plan which, over several years, phases in the same elementary reading accountability system. Policy can require annual reviews and updating of the plan and the evaluation of personnel against specific strategic plan objectives. Strategic plans provide a flexible way for boards and superintendents to define relatively stable long-term objectives and gradually move a school district toward their achievement with shorter term, more specific annual objectives.
If we want to maintain local control, we must take local responsibility for solving fundamental problems like reading. We cannot not insist on local control while simultaneously asserting that the responsibility for a 25% reading failure rate in third graders lies in our state capitols or in Washington, D.C
School boards and superintendents may consider using Targeting Student Learning: The School Board's Role as Policy Maker as a resource in revising policy. This book is a policy project by the California, Illinois, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Washington State School Directors' Association, $12.00 (360) 493-9239.

Meeting Agenda
How the Board allocates its meeting time sends an unmistakable message throughout the school district and community about what's important. Many Boards rarely spend its time on improving student academic achievement, because three other agendas generally claim a disproportionate amount of time. They are:
 the sports agenda
 the social programs agenda
 the adult educators and institution agenda
A board member or superintendent can determine their actual agenda by calculating the actual time spent in each meeting on each of these four separate agendas.
When board members and superintendents think critically about these four agendas, they may realize that most of their time is spent on the agenda of servicing the needs of adult educators and the institutions with personnel matters (like approving hires and terminations, granting leaves or transfers, negotiating union contracts, providing oversight, and managing grievances), funding (state funding compliance, state and federal grant and funding compliance, bond and levy activities), spending (approving district purchases, managing payroll issue and policies, reviewing facility and new construction plans), and compliance (conforming policy to state and federal regulation, and dealing with the impact of special education regulation on the funding and safety of the rest of the students).
Within the student learning agenda, your most leveraged objective will be assuring that at least 90% of third graders read at or above grade level. It then logically follows that the board and superintendent should increase the amount of time they spend reviewing the elementary reading strategic planning process, checking the timetables, listening to reports on the process of selecting the elementary reading tests, involving themselves in setting the K-3 grade level reading standards, analyzing testing results, and fashioning increasingly effective communication processes and accountability measures.
After baselining last year's use of time among the four agendas, time spent on increasing student achievement should be increased to at least 40%--with at least half of that time earmarked for elementary reading.

Budget approval is a major power granted by state legislation which a local board and superintendent can use to focus a district on increasing student academic achievement. Most states require that the local board must approve the district budget. More and more districts have moved from a closed budget development process, in which allocating discretionary dollars occurs inside the management team, to an open budget process involving the community, board, and unions. An open budget process enhances the likelihood that spending discretionary dollars aligns with the priorities of the district's strategic plan.
Approval of a budget that funds an assessment director position, reading assessments, elementary reading staff training, and Reading Foundation dues moves elementary reading accountability from the "good idea" stage to actual implementation.

Fifteen years of research about effective elementary schools reaffirm that only an elementary principal has the position of power to make deep school-wide changes. Clearly, only the principal can make the changes necessary to assure that 90% or more of students read at or above grade level by the end of third grade.
Elementary principals who have worked with the 90% reading goal for some time have identified effective processes and sequence in working toward the goal:

1. Staff Buy In
The staff must buy into a high reading goal and you must lead. Teachers want to know if this reading goal is another educational "flavor of the month." They want to know the level of your commitment. Is this possible? Is it possible for students in our school? Will the school stay focused? Teachers have to be convinced that without major change, scores will not improve. While the goal creates a common purpose, and the assessments create an initial baseline with a clear line of sight to your target, almost all of this work must be done by building teams without waiting for outside help to come. Staff must buy into a long-term, principal-led, team effort.

2. Building Diagnostic Testing and Re-Adjusted Instruction
The district-wide kindergarten, first, second and third grade reading tests will create performance standards and identify which students are falling below the minimum reading standards. In most cases, however, these kinds of tests do not identify the specific skills are deficient in a student. Educators at each school must develop expertise in using specialized diagnostic tests which identify specific reading skills and abilities.
These diagnostic tests are generally one-on-one assessments, are almost never standardized norm-referenced bubble tests, and must occur at each building and within each class. Once a student's specific deficiencies are identified, instruction and intervention must target those specific deficiencies. Re-testing must then occur. Most teachers have never had access to this kind of testing information and diagnostics. Diagnostic testing and response must begin by the second semester of kindergarten.

3. Classroom Time, Curriculum Knowledge, and Instructional Skill Level
Many principals spend up to 80% of their time in classrooms, are current in the research literature, and are the undisputed instructional leader in their school. Other principals who were trained as managers are rarely found outside their office, are lagging in current research and have little personal competence in reading instruction. The principal's classroom contact must be increased to the point that he or she can accurately determine the curriculum and instructional strengths of every teacher and virtually every K-3 student. Third-grade teachers alone can produce a one-year jump in scores, but sustained, incremental improvement requires improvement at each prior grade level starting at kindergarten.
Identifying the reading curriculum knowledge, instructional skills, and personal practices of principals in highly effective schools is a good way to create a baseline for an elementary principal to develop a personal growth plan.

4. Staff Training
Joint K-3 or joint K-5 staff training creates a common vocabulary, a common set of expectations, and a unified method of increasing student achievement. All teachers need to coordinate teaching of the same over-all curriculum and be working towards common goals. In-service is critical and teachers need to take advantage of it. Performance pressure needs to lead to determination, not to blame or excuses. Reputable staff training organizations offering K-5 wide training include the following:
Success for All

5. Matching Needs and Successful Programs
Thousands of elementary schools may physically look alike and have similar staffing ratios, but each school's personnel, skills, training, curriculum and ability to work as a team vary immensely. So does the range in students' needs in these schools. Most successful elementary schools have shaped programs that match their adult resources to their students' needs. Care needs to be taken to assure that programs that are being replicated have actually been successful.

6. Parent Involvement
For better or worse, your students' first and most significant teachers are their parents. The best way to confront the erosion in the skills of beginning kindergartners, which has been report by most teachers over the last decade, is to involve parents in providing pre-literacy experiences to their child from birth. Click on the Join Us link to discover a successful, low-cost, effective way to create cultural expectations that proper parenting includes reading with children from birth.

7. Deal with Mobility
Most elementary schools identify mobility as a major problem with uniformly reaching high reading standards. No elementary school has been successful in making up 18 months of reading deficiencies in third graders between January and June. The slippery problem of mobility generally marches with the problems of lack of significant parenting, lack of pre-literacy and literacy experience, and lack of opportunity associated with poverty. Some districts are developing a mobility statistic but a better understanding of the problems' dimensions may not move us further toward solutions. Components of an action plan include an information campaign to inform parents about the negative effects of frequent moves on their children, landlord incentives to discourage mobility, exploring with state agencies the effect of direct pay to landlords where low performing children are involved, and awareness of the Courts of the impact of mobility when creating parenting plans.

There are two levels of assessments. There are district wide assessments which measure individual, classroom, building, and district growth over time. It is the board and superintendent who must budget for and hire an assessment director--or in smaller districts, clarify exactly who has this major responsibility. An excellent and economical test bank is available from Northwest Evaluation Association [ ].
The second level of assessment is diagnostic testing to tailor specific remedial classroom instruction. Developing building level assessments must have board support as well. An extended example of how the two systems work together can be found in Chapter 2 of Annual Growth, Catch-Up Growth The example features Washington Elementary, (Kennewick, Washington) a school with 50% free and reduced lunch count and a 21% minority, where 94% of their 3rd grade population in spring of 2000 read at or above the reading standard.
By the second year of assessment, principals and teachers have enough data to see what is working and what is not. Assessment not only creates significant realignment in curriculum and use of time, assessment also eliminates "trying hard" as a major criterion in evaluating effectiveness. Without assessments, conscientious teachers who prepare thoroughly and execute their lesson plans carefully assume that what they are doing is effective because they are working so hard. With assessment, these same conscientious teachers and principals begin to realize that what they have done for decades may not be working for a significant number of their students.
The continued use of assessment indicates that the answer is not a different "silver bullet" curriculum. The answer is diagnosing specific reading problems and expanding the teacher's repertoire of interventions—commencing as early as the second semester of kindergarten. The results of the diagnostic testing should result in an immediate change of program to address that student's needs.

After safety, the most important job of K-3 teachers is to assure that children read at or above grade level by third grade. You are the reading delivery team. Children whom you teach to read early and well generally excel in school.
Teachers deliver 85% of their curriculum using black boards, computers, and books, and we expect students to understand all of it. Yet, the 1 in 4 students who enter fourth grade reading on a first or second grade level understands less than half of that curriculum. Lacking the fundamental skill of learning, these students fall further behind every year in every class that requires reading.
Classroom teachers who have worked with high reading goals for a while generally make the following observations:

1. Expect significantly more focus on coordination. To successfully teach the lowest 25% of students, elementary teachers must function as a team with a common purpose and well-defined roles. Anticipate increased contact with the rest of the staff as well as peer accountability. Each person on the team is dependent upon success of the others. No elementary school can assure that at least 90% of its students read at grade level if their teachers, no matter how individually excellent, work in isolation or as individual providers.

2. Prepare for more training. The first solid element of any building reading plan is to assure that the classroom teacher is trained and skilled. This means not only more staff training, it generally means school-wide training.

3. Expect increasing focus on reading. This translates into a school-wide reading focus, includes the greater use of displays by librarians, charts at home to measure family reading, and increased use of volunteers.

4. Anticipate an increased emphasis on "learning." This requires a willingness to re-teach and re-test in tighter cycles, expanded repertoires of assessments, more nimble instruction, and softening of rigid schedules. For some students, 90 minutes of direct reading instruction must increase to 180 minutes and 270 minutes. Schedules must accommodate it.

5. Prepare to cut heretofore sacred things. We cannot continually add. Pre-school, ESL and kindergarten teachers may have to significantly decrease time spent on social skills to focus on academics. Pet projects may have to go. For some students, doubling or tripling the amount of time spent on direct reading instruction means cutting time spent on other academic subjects or classroom projects.

6. Expect moves out of the silos. Music teachers can teach reading.

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