Page-turn­ing progress

A read­ing pro­gram drops con­ven­tional rules and helps teach­ers who want more struc­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY NICK AN­DER­SON IN GRA­SONVILLE, MD.

With fin­gers and pen­cils, Destiny Wal­lace-Jenk­ins and Ai­den Priest took turns prompt­ing each other to pro­nounce what they saw on the page. K-i-n-g — king. S-l-a-m — slam.

“Don’t cover it up, Ai­den. Let her see it,” teacher Al­li­son Tor­rence said one De­cem­ber morn­ing at the ele­men­tary school here. “Destiny, you get ready and point for Ai­den. Okay. Put it to­gether.”

Letters were be­com­ing sounds, sounds were be­com­ing words and these first-graders on the East­ern Shore were be­com­ing read­ers through a pro­gram that has won a ma­jor grant from one of Pres­i­dent Obama’s sig­na­ture ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tives. The money will help Suc­cess for All, as the pro­gram is known, ex­pand across the coun­try. Prince­Ge­orge’s County of­fi­cials are strongly con­sid­er­ing it for some of their low-per­form­ing schools.

Spon­sored by a Bal­ti­more foun­da­tion and used in about 1,000 schools, the pro­gram of­fers a case study not only in meth­ods used to teach the most cru­cial aca­demic skill but also in the shift­ing fash­ions of ed­u­ca­tion re­form.

Suc­cess for All trains teach­ers to fol­low a de­tailed play­book, with an em­pha­sis on phon­ics at the start. The pro­gram stresses stu­dent col­lab­o­ra­tion, oral ex­pres­sion and fre­quent as­sess­ment to move chil­dren as fast as pos­si­ble from one level of read­ing to an­other.

Stu­dents are as­signed to teach­ers based on read­ing abil­ity rather than age. When quar­terly tests show the stu­dents have mas­tered a given level, they move on. Of­ten they move to an­other room with an­other teacher.

That ar­range­ment sets the pro­gram apart from the com­mon prac­tice of di­vid­ing stu­dents within a class into small groups of vary­ing skill lev­els.

In an­other de­par­ture from the norm, Suc­cess for All lays out what ed­u­ca­tors call un­usu­ally ex­plicit, step-by-step guid­ance for lessons. That means, for in­stance, that the al­pha­bet chant for be­gin­ning stu­dents and the “fast-track” phon­ics lessons are likely to sound the same from room to room. Schools are also re­quired to show staff sup­port be­fore they adopt the pro­gram. At least 75 per­cent of teach­ers must ap­prove it through a se­cret bal­lot.

“ The po­ten­tial at­trac­tion is, it gives you a proven struc­ture to de­liver read­ing in­struc­tion,” said Duane Ar­bo­gast, chief aca­demic of­fi­cer for Prince Ge­orge’s schools. “When you have a staff that’s strug­gling with struc­ture, Suc­cess for All pro­vides that.”

Grover J. “Russ” White­hurst, a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion scholar who over­saw

ed­u­ca­tion re­search in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, said Suc­cess for All has been ex­ten­sively stud­ied. “ The ev­i­dence is that it im­proves read­ing achieve­ment for chil­dren in younger grades,” White­hurst said.

Launched in 1987, Suc­cess for All spread across the coun­try in high-poverty schools dur­ing the first Bush and Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tions as a model for what was then known as “com­pre­hen­sive school re­form.” Its growth stalled some­what in the past decade when Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush pro­moted an ini­tia­tive called Read­ing First that steered fed­eral aid to­ward other pro­grams.

Suc­cess for All’s co-founder, Johns Hopkins Uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion scholar Robert E. Slavin, con­tends that Read­ing First was bi­ased to­ward cer­tain cur­ricu­lum providers. Bush of­fi­cials, who faced nu­mer­ous com­plaints about the man­age­ment of Read­ing First, de­nied the charge of fa­voritism.

Un­der Obama, Suc­cess for All seems poised to take off again. Plans call for dou­bling the pro­gram’s foot­print, to more than 2,000 schools, through a fiveyear, $50 mil­lion grant it won last sum­mer from a fund cre­ated un­der the 2009 eco­nomic stim­u­lus law.

The $650 mil­lion In­vest­ing in In­no­va­tion fund re­flects Obama’s ef­fort to pro­vide ven­ture cap­i­tal for ed­u­ca­tion. Rarely has the U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment dis­pensed so much seed money for school re­form.

Other ma­jor re­cip­i­ents in­cluded Teach for Amer­ica and the Knowl­edge is Power Pro­gram char­ter school net­work. Mont­gomery County schools won a $5 mil­lion grant for cur­ricu­lum devel­op­ment.

James H. Shel­ton III, an as­sis­tant deputy sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion who over­sees the fund, said the aim is to “ take the pol­i­tics out of any de­ci­sion-mak­ing about what pro­grams we put in front of our kids. Per­for­mance and ev­i­dence ought to speak for them­selves and drive de­ci­sion-mak­ing from the fed­eral to the most lo­cal level.”

Some ed­u­ca­tors say the train­ing re­quired for Suc­cess for All is too costly — an is­sue the grant seeks to ad­dress. Oth­ers say it is too scripted. Slavin re­jects that crit­i­cism. “What we’re try­ing to do,” he said, “is to ap­ply, ev­ery day with ev­ery teacher, prac­tices that are proven to be ef­fec­tive.”

Detroit, one of the nation’s low­est-per­form­ing school sys­tems, plans to start the pro­gram in four ele­men­tary schools. Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett, the city’s chief aca­demic and ac­count­abil­ity au­di­tor, said she hopes it will help spark “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cul­ture change.”

At Gra­sonville Ele­men­tary School, where about 30 per­cent of the 475 stu­dents come from fam­i­lies poor enough to qual­ify for meal sub­si­dies, Suc­cess for All is cred­ited with help­ing stu­dents achieve peren­ni­ally strong read­ing test scores. The Queen Anne’s County school, just east of Kent Nar­rows, be­gan the pro­gram in 1997. Vet­eran teach­ers re­call that at the start it seemed reg­i­mented, down to the minute.

“ They walked us through ex­actly what ev­ery com­po­nent should look like,” Tor­rence said. Now, teach­ers say, they have more flex­i­bil­ity.

Still, a walk through sev­eral class­rooms in mid-De­cem­ber found a high level of or­ga­ni­za­tion. Stu­dents in first through fifth grade shifted, at in­ter­vals, from their home­rooms into 90minute lit­er­acy classes. Be­gin­ners (gen­er­ally first-graders) were in classes called “Roots,” the rest in “Wings.” Each class was tai­lored to a given skill level.

De­tailed de­scrip­tions of daily ob­jec­tives were posted out­side the rooms. Ex­am­ple: “Use el­e­ments of nar­ra­tive text to fa­cil­i­tate un­der­stand­ing. . . . Iden­tify and ex­plain char­ac­ter traits and ac­tions.”

Be­gin­ners, in­clud­ing Destiny and Ai­den, paired off to help each other on the teacher’s cue. They spent half an hour on phon­ics and then shifted to lessons geared to sto­ries, story telling, retelling, com­pre­hen­sion and the­matic writ­ing.

Teacher Deb­bie Sparks guided more ad­vanced stu­dents — all fifth-graders — through anal­y­sis of a non­fic­tion text on di­nosaurs. Stu­dents formed groups of four for “ team talk” to dis­cuss sci­en­tific the­o­ries on why the di­nosaurs died out. Then they gave their find­ings to the class — an­other of many ex­am­ples of the em­pha­sis on oral lan­guage devel­op­ment — and were awarded points for the qual­ity of their pre­sen­ta­tions.

A ma­jor ad­van­tage of the pro­gram, teach­ers said: It en­ables them to work di­rectly with stu­dents for long stretches of time. That would not nec­es­sar­ily be the case if teach­ers were jug­gling small groups of vary­ing abil­ity within one class­room.

“When it stops be­ing suc­cess­ful for us, we will look for a bet­ter tool,” said Roberta D. Leaver­ton, the prin­ci­pal. “So far, it’s been suc­cess­ful.”

an­der­sonn@wash­post.com

JAMES A. PARCELL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Al­li­son Tor­rence works with first-graders Ai­den Priest, left, and DestinyWal­laceJenk­ins at Gra­sonville Ele­men­tary, which uses the Suc­cess for All pro­gram.

PHO­TOS BY JAMES A. PARCELL FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

TiaraHoff­man-Rhoades reads to Gra­sonville Ele­men­tary stu­dents as part of the Suc­cess for All pro­gram, used in about 1,000 schools.

Al­li­son Tor­rence teaches first-graders. Suc­cess for All has also been used to help low-per­form­ing schools.

Gra­sonville fourth-and fifth-graders Sierra Teasley, left, Kim­srun Lim, Katie Sta­ley and Gre­go­ryMohr work on a team ex­er­cise.

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