The Ghosts of Reading First

This week, the Center for American Progress released a new report, “A Look at the Education Crisis: Tests, Standards, and the Future of of American Education.” In it, the researchers at CAP take a look at recent NAEP data to see if the state of public education is as bad as some say or on a rocketing upward trajectory as others say (guess it really depends on who your friends or online trolls are).

USA Today’s Greg Toppo has a great summary of the report here. We’ve all seen that high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. But it is hard to celebrate such a statistic when we still see that only one in five low-income fourth graders achieved reading proficiency on NAEP. Or that only 52 percent of “nonpoor” fourth graders were able to hit that proficient mark.

It doesn’t get better for eighth graders in reading. Only a third of them are proficient in cities like Charlotte, Austin, Miami, and San Diego. Boston comes it at only 28 percent proficient. NYC 27 percent. Chicago 24 percent. Philly 16 percent. Cleveland 11 percent. And Detroit at only 7 percent.

So why do these eighth grade numbers matter so much? Most of the students in the eighth grade NAEP sample never attended school when Reading First was law of the land. Sure, they may have benefited from textbooks that were developed to meet RF requirements years prior. And some of their teachers may have utilized the PD and supports they received during the height of RF. But each of these kids has now gone through eight or so years of public school where scientifically based reading instruction was not demanded nor expected.

These latest NAEP numbers, and the analysis from CAP make one thing very clear. We need scientifically based reading instruction in the classroom. Our teachers need to be prepared for it. Our elementary schools need to be based around it. Our students need to be instructed in it. And our families need to know it when they see it (and know when they aren’t seeing it in their community schools).

Yes, Reading First had implementation issues. Yes, at times it was more steel hammer than velvet glove. But can we really say we shouldn’t be using what is known to be effective in teaching kids to read? Can we really say, with all the data that we have, that early reading instruction based on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension isn’t the correct path? Can we really say a a philosophical approach to reading trumps and research-based instructional approach? And can we really say we should’t be using what is proven effective in the classroom?

For those who condemn the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts, it is ridiculous to assume that a low-income eighth grader can read the rich literature sought when only a third of them are reading proficient in the first place.

When scientifically based reading instruction became the law of the land in 2002, it was an approach that was embraced by all comers. The teachers unions. The principals groups. The superintendents. The teacher education community. The business community. All saw the value in using proven-effective approaches to instruction. All saw the need to do something to improve literacy, particularly with low-income learners. All embraced SBRR.

We need to find that solidarity again. The most recent eighth grade NAEP scores show us that taking a different path has failed too many kids … again. We need to remember that literacy is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a political issue. Whether we want all kids to pass a high-stakes, state-based, standards-aligned exam or we want all children to find a love for learning and literature, the ability to read is a non-negotiable.

While Reading First has now been relegated to the history books for the past decade, we cannot and should not ignore the hundreds of thousands of research studies that showed the effectiveness of scientifically based instruction. We cannot and should not ignore the reality that, when SBRR was in full effect in the early to mid 2000s, reading proficiency rates were on the rise, both with the low-income students the program targeted and other learners who benefited from the focus on SBRR-based instructional materials and PD. And we cannot and should not ignore that far too many kids — particularly those that are black, brown, or low-income — are struggling when it comes to reading … and we know just what should be done to help them.

 

The New NAEP Scores Are Here! The New NAEP Scores Are Here!

Yes, it is that time of year again.  This morning, EdSec Arne Duncan officially released the reading and math scores for “The Nation’s Report Card.”  The results?  Recent trends continue.  Overall scores continue to tick up.  Reading scores for fourth graders continue to frustrate.

The good folks over at Education Writers Association are aggregating coverage on NAEP over at Ed Media Commons.  Check out EWA’s initial analysis, along with its roundup of coverage here
What does it all mean?  The highlights and analysis and opining will continue to pour in during the coming days.  But a few immediate points come to mind:
* The overall rise in student performance over the past 20 years signals that efforts to focus on accountability, student achievement, and teacher quality are having real, positive impact.  Sure, we aren’t seeing huge jumps in scores, but the trends are clear.  We are improving.
* We are largely seeing improvement across the board.  Unfortunately, that means we aren’t getting closer to closing the achievement gaps.  While African-American and Hispanic/Latino scores are getting better, so are the scores of white students.  On the whole, it is terrific to see all students learn and improve.  But we still have to figure out how we address the shortcomings historically disadvantaged students have faced in the classroom.
* Fourth grade reading scores continue to trouble.  These scores were flat.  We are now six or so years from when we pulled the plug on Reading First.  Like it or not, our investment in scientifically based reading instruction had impact.  We saw it in previous fourth grade scores, and we are seeing it in older kids who benefitted from the emphasis on SBRR.  Now we are fourth graders who aren’t benefitting from what is proven effective, and it can be seen.
* We need to spend more time and effort focusing on proficiency, and not just the gains themselves (yes, ironic based on the first three bullets here).  True, it is great seeing the steady rise in overall scores.  But we spent far too little time focusing on the reality that only 42 percent of our fourth graders are proficient in math, and an even lower 35 percent are proficient in reading.  And despite what some want to believe, we don’t make it up in the later grades.  Only 36 percent of eighth graders are proficient in both core subjects.
In a nation that has set a collective goal to have every child college and career ready by 2020, nearly two thirds of our eighth graders aren’t yet doing eighth-grade level reading and math.  That is a reality that affects everyone, regardless of race, family income, or zip code.  And it is a reality that demands far more attention than it receives.

Wow, We Did Put Reading First After All

Five or eight years ago, after Reading First (and NCLB ) had been the law of the land, districts were implementing scientifically based reading research, and publishers were revising their curricular materials to meet the new rigor of RF, we started to see an uptick in student reading performance.  Test scores were on the rise, and they were on the rise for all students.

At the time, RF haters declared that any bump in student achievement was the result of kinder, gentler instructional policies implemented in the mid-1990s.  There simply was no way we could see the results of Reading First in a matter of years.
A few years after that, we again saw modest upticks in student reading performance for all demographics.  This time, the haters declared that it was further proof that RF was a failure, as it hadn’t closed the achievement gaps yet.  Forget that we saw increases for Black, Latino, and white students.  RF was about closing the gaps, not boosting the performance.
So what is going to be the argument this week?  The latest NAEP scores are out, and what do we see?  Reading performance for both 9 and 13 year olds is up.  For those students who have only been taught reading in the public schools since RF has been the law of the land, we are seeing an improvement in reading scores.  And we are seeing the gaps close.  The Washington Post and USA Today have the full story in today’s editions.
Without question, there are a lot of people who opposed directing the public schools to teach young children to read through methods that were proven effective.  People resisted doing what works when it comes to literacy.  But these latest numbers from The Nation’s Report Card don’t lie.  Like it or not, Reading First worked.  As a result of ensuring that curriculum and PD and instructional materials and assessments and interventions were all tied to proven research and were all based on what was most effective in teaching children to read, we are seeing improvement in student reading performance.  And we are seeing it across all demographics, as we actually begin to narrow our horrific achievement gaps.
Do we still have a lot of work to do to eliminate those gaps and get the third of fourth graders unable to read at grade level up to par?  Absolutely.  But clearly, we are headed in the right direction.  Educators across the nation have invested the time and resources to utilizing the proven effective and getting kids reading.  And out nation’s middle schoolers are now better for it.
Haters will continue to hate, and point out that RF is essentially dead and classrooms have moved on from it.  But we can’t deny that SBRR (until Common Core comes on line) continues to drive the development of instructional materials, the supports offered teachers, and the standards we set for our schools.  And that these students — today’s third and seventh graders — are the products of the NCLB environment and an SBRR focus.  
Who’da thunk?  We actually did put reading first, and we are no seeing the results of all of that hard work.

Applauding Public School Successes and Progress

In education reform, it is often easy to focus on the negative.  A third of all kids are not reading proficient in third grade.  No coincidence, the high school dropout rate is also about a third.  We have stagnant test scores, even as state standards were reduced.  We are slipping in international comparisons.  And even the U.S. Secretary of Education says four in five public schools in our nation are likely not making adequate yearly progress.

But today I am here to praise some of our public schools, not bury them.  In schools across the nation, educators are recognizing there are serious problems and there are real, productive solutions for addressing those problems.  And in those schools and those communities that are fortunate enough to have superintendents, principals, teachers, and other educators enacting those solutions, the kids are reaping the benefits.
Today’s case in point is up in the Nutmeg State.  Yes, Connecticut has the largest achievement gaps in the nation.  But we are seeing pockets of success and progress in elementary, middle, and even a few high schools across the state. 
Today, ConnCAN (or the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now) released its annual report cards on the state’s public schools.  For the last six years, ConnCAN has provided a simple, yet effective, report card for grading every school and every school district in the state.  Using state test scores, ConnCAN ranks all public schools on how they are doing with regard to four measures — 1) overall performance, 2) student subgroup performance (low-income, African-American, and Hispanic), 3) performance gains, and 4) achievement gap.  Each school receives both a ranking (relative performance) and a letter grade (absolute performance).  The complete set of 2011 ConnCAN report cards can be found here.

In addition to scoring more than 1,000 schools this way, ConnCAN also provides a list of Top 10 schools (elementary, middle and high school) based on many of the above measures.  And to top it off, the not-for-profit offers up a list of 2011 Success Story Schools.  Each of these Success Stories are at least 75 percent low-income and/or minority.  And in each of these schools, at least one subgroup (low-income, African-American, or Hispanic) outperforms the overall average for the state at that school level (elementary, middle, or high school). 
While the staff of ConnCAN deserves real credit for undertaking this effort each year, the intent of this missive is not a self-congratulatory pat on the back.  No, the purpose is to put the spotlight and the plaudits where they belong — on those schools that are making real progress, particularly when it comes to addressing the achievement gaps.
So here’s to the Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, where 86 percent of low-income students are at or above goal.  To Jefferson Elementary in Norwalk, where 67.5 percent of African-American students are at or above goal.  To the Mead School in Ansonia and the Ralph M.T. Johnson School in Bethel, both of which have more than 80 percent of their Hispanic students at or above goal.  And to the AnnieFisher STEM Magnet School and Breakthrough 2, both in Hartford, and Fair Haven School in New Haven, all three of which posted improvement in excess of 20 percentage points from last year.
These — and all of the others on ConnCAN’s 2011 Top 10 and Success Story Schools Lists — are examples of what is possible.  They signal that change, while difficult, can happen.  They show that all students — regardless of race, family income, or zip code — can have access to great schools.  And they demonstrate the power and impact truly great educators can have on the achievement of our young people.
These schools also teach us there is no one solution, no one magic bullet, and no one enchanted elixir for improving our schools.  It takes hard work.  It demands commitment.  It requires a true student focus.  And it calls for learning from and modeling after schools like those recognized by ConnCAN on this year’s lists.
So congratulations to those public schools on ConnCAN’s Top 10 and Success Story Schools Lists and to other public schools posting similar progress in other states across the country.  Kudos to those administrators, teachers, and staff who are making it happen.  And applause to those students and their families who are making clear that terms like dropout factories and achievement gaps can become nothing more than urban legend.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack not only works with ConnCAN, but he also runs the organization.)


Some Nutmeg on the NAEP

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest round of NAEP scores, offering the most recent snapshot on how our nation’s students are doing when it comes to reading and math.  The results were downright depressing, with the majority of kids still failing to post proficient scores and the achievement gaps growing in far too many areas.

National Journal is running its weekly blog on those very same NAEP results.  You can check out Eduflack’s post on the scores, their impact in Connecticut in particular, and how if these latest scores don’t signify an urgent call, I don’t know what will.
We often think of Connecticut, the Nutmeg State, as the land of plentiful budgets and bountiful student success.  But the numbers tell a vastly different picture.  While Connecticut is indeed in the top 10 when it comes to per-pupil expenditure, it is tops when it comes to achievement gaps.  From my National Journal post:
For those looking to strap on the pom-poms for number one rankings, Connecticut did score first in seven of the 16 disaggregated categories. Of course, that’s a first place for largest gaps. And we’re in the top 10 for every single one of those 16.

As always, this week’s debate is worth checking out, as are the actual reports, breakdowns and official government statements on the 2011 Nation’s Report Cards on reading and math, as released by the National Assessment Governing Board.

Downright Uncivil!

The new NAEP scores are here!  The new NAEP scores are here!  This morning, the National Assessment Governing Board released the Civics 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12.  While trying to put a good spin on the data (civics knowledge for fourth graders is creeping up), the overall results were disappointing.  For the age group that such an assessment is most important — 12th graders — scores have slipped since 2006.

When it comes to civics knowledge, only 27 percent of 4th graders scored proficient or better.  For eighth graders, only 22 percent scored proficient or better.  And just 24 percent of 12th graders hit that magic proficient level.  So less than a quarter of all students surveyed are able to demonstrate a proficient knowledge of civics, at least as the NAEP measures it.
What does that mean?  According to the information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, a proficient fourth grader is able to identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution.  An eighth grader should recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court.  And those 12th graders should be able to define the term “melting pot” and argue if it applies to the United States.  To put it in further perspective, an advanced eighth grader should name two actions citizens can take to encourage Congress to pass a law, while an advanced 12th grader should be able to compare the citizenship requirements of the U.S. to other countries.
Clearly, we are not getting enough Schoolhouse Rock into our K-12 institutions.  Or maybe ED needs to rotate out Conjunction Junction from its hold music and start playing some of the civics segments from the legendary series.
Seriously though, the new NAEP scores offer up a few lessons that our policymakers and practitioners must consider:
* Is it adequate to measure civics education just once every four years, particularly when most states don’t have civics or social studies state assessments? 
* If it is adequate, then do we consider civics a priority?  At the end of the day, does it matter if a junior high student knows how a bill becomes a law?
* As the Common Core State Standards Initiative comes on line in the states, will its strict emphasis on English/language arts and math further marginalize civics education in the United States?
* Will we treat social studies as a core academic subject (as we do English, math and, usually, science) under the new ESEA?
No one questions the importance of English or math in getting our students college and career ready.  But at the end of the day, civics education helps make students “life ready.”  Without a “proficient” knowledge of history and government and related social sciences, how do we expect today’s students to participate in tomorrow’s representative democracy?  How do we boost voter participation rates, particularly of knowledgeable voters?  How do we develop a more participatory citizenry?
Then again, sometimes a trend line is just a trend line.  It’s not like we need to ride between Lexington and Concord (Massachusetts, of course) shouting about NAEP scores, do we?

“Much Superior” Virginia?

For weeks now, we have been hearing about states that have decided they will not pursue Race to the Top, Part II.  Over at Politics K-12 , Michele McNeil has a dozen or so states that either have decided not to apply or are dangerously close to not applying before next Tuesday’s drop-dead date for the final taste of the $4 billion pot.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  More than 40 states put in hundreds upon hundreds of hours of work and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to prepare their Phase I apps.  Two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won in the early round.  Those remaining states were left with detailed judges’ scores to help guide a redo due June 1.  But some states simply don’t have the stomach for it, offering a host of reasons not to pursue.

Perhaps one of the most interesting reasons for declining was offered yesterday by Eduflack’s home state of Virginia.  According to the Washington Post, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is not entering the Race because of the Common Core Standards.  The chief executive of the Old Dominion claims that Virginia’s current academic standards are “much superior” and he doesn’t see the need of tinkering with 15 years of work to establish the current Standards of Learning.

I understand a state like Massachusetts, which is known for having some of the top performance standards in the nation to be wary of common core, but Virginia, really?  When discussions turn to state standards and the leaders and laggards, one really hears about Virginia’s SOLs being at the top of the class.  

Earlier this month, Eduflack wrote about the dangers of states that have reduced their standards to show performance gains on AYP.  Unfortunately, we see far too many states that tout impressive records of student acheivement on their state exams and measured against their state standards, only to see that performance plummet when compared to a common yardstick like NAEP.

So let’s take another look at the data offered by Gary Phillips, a vice president at American Institutes for Research and the former acting commissioner at NCES.  How does Virginia stack up?  According to the SOLs, 82 percent of fourth graders in Virginia were proficient in math.  But when we look at the NAEP scores, that number drops to the low 40s.  It is even worse for eighth grade math, where the SOLs put proficiency at 79, but NAEP puts it under 40.

Why is this important?  The NAEP is a common measure.  It lets Virginia see where it stacks up compared to other states.  And the numbers there are startling.  In fourth grade, we are in the middle of the pack, far behind states like Massachusetts, South Carolina, Missouri, Washington, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  By eighth grade, Virginia is near the bottom of the pack in such performance, only posting better numbers that seven states.

Is that really “much superior?”  Are we really declaring “mission accomplished” when we are mediocre at fourth grade and drop to the bottom quartile by eighth grade?  The bar we’ve set on academic standards is … at least we are better than Oklahoma?