I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

How Do We Improve Elementary Level Reading Achievement at High Poverty Schools?

One of the essential programs developed during the early years of the No Child Left Behind act (2002) was an immense federal program ($6 Billion) to improve elementary reading achievement in every state. Florida has received tens of millions of dollars in Federal funds through this “Reading First” program.

In 2007, a scandal rocked the Bush Administration’s handling of this program—with accusations being leveled that certain education companies and textbook manufacturers may have benefited unfairly from this program. This did not help Reading First’s cause.

Then, in May of 2008, an initial Impact study on the effectiveness of the Reading First program was released. The findings were not well received. In December, 2008, the full $40Million study was made public. The results, disappointingly, did not show any measurable difference in the achievement levels of students in schools that received the Reading First funds compared to the students from similar schools that did not receive the funds. This was a devastating finding, and subsequently Reading First funds began to dissipate rapidly.

Now, local districts with shrinking budgets are facing the dilemma of having to choose whether or not continued funding of these Reading First positions (primarily school based reading coaches) makes sense. Many districts in Florida are making the difficult decision to eliminate these positions. From the Bradenton Herald Tribune:

"Sarasota County last month cut reading coaches from all but 10 schools for next year, saving $2.8 million. Manatee County cut 12 coaches this school year and may cut 18 more, saving $1.1 million more." "Across Florida, 200 coaches were cut last summer, and more positions may go as districts grapple with falling state funding. State officials expect to lose $35 million in federal money that paid for 600 coaches at struggling Florida schools."

Read More here.

In our district, precious, non-recurring Title I stimulus funds are being identified as a source of funding for “Reading First” reading coaches—to keep the program afloat for at least the next two years.

I do not know how I feel about this; I’m wrestling with the notion of how to support this if I'm not sure it is the BEST utilization of these limited federal Title I stimulus funds.

On the one hand, I do not see data that points to a clear, long term, and sustained positive benefit from having these reading coaches. The expensive Federal Study shows no significant improvement difference between students from “Reading First” schools and students from schools that did not participate. In our district, the FCAT reading results from the sixteen most poverty stricken elementary schools are flat over last year, and only show a sight increase over four years. This concerns me given the resources allocated to these schools-- But…

On the other hand, I would like to find a way to fund these types of reading coach positions perhaps on a limited basis at some schools that continue to struggle in reading. This year in particular, several schools (particularly our district's highest poverty schools) have regressed in reading achievement on the FCAT test, most strinkingly Holm, O.J. Semmes, Warrington, and Montclair.

I would like to find creative/different ways to spark reading achievement gains in the most challenged schools in our district. I believe we MUST get parents of students involved, and this in and of itself could be a major boost in performance at some of these schools. We have to try new strategies and ideas. I have devised a “Reading Ambassador” concept—which would reward teachers and site based administrators IF significant gains in reading occur. Other ideas are out there, and I'm open to any that challenge the status quo and have a shot of success.

Perhaps a combination approach would be the best solution. I’d like to look at new, fresh approaches to driving elementary reading achievement, because I fear doing the same things over and over that have only provided marginal successes in the past (nationally and locally)does not seem to be the best way (or only way) to tackle this complex issue.

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