Dear Mr. Henderson,
Before I get to the heart of the matter, I want to open by saying that I’m a big fan of your work. I’m a daily reader of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, I listen to Detroit Today on WDET, and I watch both of your shows on PBS (American Black Journal and MiWeek). What I like most about your work is your willingness to talk about all sectors of education (public schools, charter schools, home schooling). Don’t get me wrong, I like the other topics you take on, but, my profession makes me most interested in the way you grow the conversation around education.
In recent weeks, you’ve talked with legislators and people who report on education. The goal of my letter is to offer some thoughts I have on what many of the pieces you write come back to, literacy. Literacy is critical for college and career readiness. At the secondary and post-secondary level, I’d argue that most classes are simply reading classes. My experience tells me that there are some things that good schools (ours included) are doing that should be considered by policy makers.
1. Pick a measure and stick with it.
Simply put, state tests are in a state of transition, and it will take time for proper piloting to determine how effective the new M-STEP measures student reading progress. There are standardized choices, such as NWEA, iReady, DRA, DIBELS, Fountas & Pinnell, among others. While there are cases to be made for any of them, districts should pick one to use to measure reading fluency (the ability to read with speed, accuracy and proper expression) and reading comprehension (the ability to read a text, process it, and understand the meaning). This should be measured 3 times per year in the fall, winter and spring.
2. Move from “data” to “information.”
Education is famous for data collection and measurement. We’re not as known for using the data properly. Educators need to spend time in the fall, winter and spring analyzing the data collected by the universal measures mentioned above. This analysis should identify what interventions/remediation is needed and who it is needed for. Keep in mind that interventions are needed for struggling students, as well as those who have test scores far above the target.
3. Require reading.
The only way to improve reading skills is to read. Beyond instruction on phonics, talking about text, or analyzing someone’s approach to books, the act of simply sitting down and reading for a stretch of time will have a positive impact on a student’s ability. During reading units in English Language Arts classes at our middle school, students have 24 minutes to read a day. Elementary students in our district read every day. District policies can, and should require time for students to read.
4. Provide ongoing professional development to teachers and principals.
Teachers need training on the reading assessments selected by districts, as well as on reading instruction. Principals need training on what kinds of questions to ask teachers about reading instruction, and how to offer specific encouragement to teachers around literacy. Another key idea here is what to do with new staff. As new teachers and new principals are hired, training on reading measures, as well as reading instruction must be offered.
5. Make the measures stick.
State law requires educator evaluations to have a student growth component. These standardized reading measures can and should be part of teacher and administrator evaluations. Accountability will make sure the assessments are given with fidelity, and that students are given the proper time to practice reading.
6. Educate parents and community.
Whatever the measure a community chooses for reading, that information should be shared in a user friendly way with parents and with the local library. Uniting all stakeholders with a common vocabulary around reading will empower everyone involved in a child’s education to ensure he/she can read successfully.
In the growing conversation about education in the media, many are calling for “literacy,” but few offer specifics on what schools can do and what stakeholders should be asking for. Here’s hoping the above points can be part of the next wave of thoughts on the nuts and bolts of “what can be done.”
I remain a reader, listener and fan of your work,