If you had asked one of Lisa Hepburn’s fifth-grade students to pronounce the word “pandemic” not too long ago, he’d try “pandora,” “pandemonium” or “just kind of guess whatever.”
But more recently, Hepburn, a reading specialist at Randall Elementary School, watched that same student “who’s reading at a second-grade level as a fifth-grader chunk out words like ‘tranquility.’”
She credits the “science of reading,” a literacy teaching method the Madison Metropolitan School District is shifting toward as it confronts low reading proficiency rates among its students. It’s a move away from the “balanced literacy” approach the district has had in the past, in which literacy is taught through a variety of readings and word studies, to a more phonics-focused format of teaching students how to read.
“I’ve taken the time to really teach how you look at a long word, how to chunk it out, what parts to look for, how to say those chunks, how the vowel sounds might be different sometimes,” Hepburn said.
Currently, it’s a method employed by some individual teachers, but only systematically at two schools. There, teachers are testing out new curricula the district could adopt as it acquires new instruction materials and rethinks teacher training.
The need for something new is clear, as many consider literacy a key driver of the gaps in academic achievement between the district’s white students and peers of color. It has spurred a new collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and MMSD, as a task force announced Monday will investigate the best practices for teaching literacy.
In MMSD, 34.9% of students in grades 3-8 scored “Proficient” or “Advanced” on the statewide Forward Exam in 2018-19, the most recent year the exam was given. If the overall number isn’t bad enough, the results were worse for every non-white group of students other than Asians, who had the same percentage as the district as a whole in those two categories.
Just 10.1% of Black students taking the exam scored above “Basic,” with 58.9% scoring “Below Basic,” the lowest level. For Hispanic students, meanwhile, 16% scored “Proficient” or “Advanced,” with 46.9% scoring “Below Basic.”
Even before his hire, superintendent Carlton Jenkins signaled his intent to focus on changing those numbers. In his June 30 public interview, he said he believed in following the “science of being able to teach reading.”
“I do wholeheartedly believe that literacy itself is a fundamental right, and we should be pushing that all children should be able to read,” Jenkins said. “It’s just the gateway to everything else you are going to do.”
That focus has continued as he began the job this year, even as he has acknowledged his former role as “the champion of balanced literacy.” In a Nov. 2 discussion on the district’s early literacy strategies, Jenkins called the district’s new approach “bold,” especially for Black children, and said he’s “willing to die on the cross over it, period,” if it helps more students learn to read.
“There’s no reason that all children should not be able to read,” Jenkins said.
The years-long process got a boost from local voters Nov. 3 with their approval of the $33 million operating referendum. It adds $6 million to this year’s budget, part of which will allow the district to move more quickly in its implementation by adopting new materials and curriculum this year rather than spreading it out over this year and next, which was the plan if the referendum failed.
Hepburn, one of the 14 members of that new task force, sees now as the right time for change.
“I’m really optimistic,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be a teacher. I might actually postpone my retirement.”
Behind the science
Melissa Hernandez taught third-grade at Elvehjem Elementary School for six years.
By the time students reached her classroom, they were supposed to be ready to follow guided readings and use their reading skills to learn other subjects. But she knew some of her students were not ready for the work expected of them.
When she moved to first-grade two years ago, she “started really digging into, ‘how am I going to teach reading?’” and discovered the science of reading, one of two camps in the ongoing reading wars over what philosophy is best for teaching literacy.
MMSD has fallen on the side of balanced literacy in the past, mixing foundational skills and phonics with group and individual work on reading and word study. Hernandez explained in such an approach, a small group reading exercise could involve a text that is “very predictable,” with repeated sentences like “the ‘blank’ is in the garden.”
“It’s just a pattern,” she said. “So the kids will figure out the word ‘garden’ because it’s continuous. They might know the word ‘butterfly’ because they see a picture of the butterfly, but they’re not breaking down the word and actually sounding out the word ‘butterfly.’ They’re just figuring it out through the context and through the pictures.””
That can lead students to develop coping strategies detrimental to their long-term success, MMSD assistant superintendent for teaching and learning Lisa Kvistad acknowledged at the Nov. 2 meeting with the School Board, including “cueing,” or using pictures to determine what the word is rather than understanding the word itself.
“We tell kids, ‘If you don’t know a word, guess,’” Kvistad, a former principal at Elvehjem Elementary School, said. “The teachers that we have in MMSD, including myself as a principal, we (believed in) ‘balanced literacy.’”
Some community members have pushed for years for more of a focus on explicit phonics, a position that more closely aligns with what Hernandez and Hepburn had found through their own research in the science of reading. It also brings work on concepts like working memory and auditory processing that can help students in other academic areas.
The phonics approach asks teachers to devote time with students to sounding out words and understanding the letters that make up those sounds, as Hepburn did with the fifth-grader mentioned previously. Hernandez said small group reading lessons using the new approach incorporate books that focus on a specific literacy concept they’re learning in a given week.
“There’s no guessing,” she said. “We break down words; we sound them out.”
Materials are key to any change in teaching reading in the district, and part of the funding for adopting a new curriculum will go toward acquiring new materials. Beyond finding books that will allow the students to challenge themselves with new words and phonemic concepts, the district has also stressed the need for books that represent all students through characters and plot lines.
As UW emeritus professor and education consultant Gloria Ladson-Billings said, students still “need good stuff to read.”
“Now what we’re hoping is to combine what we know about phonics and phonemic awareness with an enriched vocabulary, with something substantive to teach, so that the comprehension is worth something,” she said.
A long-lived 'crisis'
Ladson-Billings has known early literacy is a major issue in MMSD for more than two decades.
In the late 1990s, she and another researcher undertook a three-year project at Lowell Elementary School that culminated with publishing a journal article titled “Just Showing Up.” By the end of their project, Ladson-Billings recalled in an interview, all of the school’s third-graders passed their reading test — the first time there was such widespread success.
“What we did in that project is we made teachers show up for the kids who were struggling,” she said. “First of all, we had them identify who are the kids in the class that you’re currently concerned about (who) will not be successful in reading and literacy? They had no trouble telling us who those kids were.”
Ladson-Billings, who will consult with the district to ensure its new curriculum is culturally relevant, recalled noticing early on that the students teachers identified as struggling readers were overwhelmingly Black and brown kids, many of them boys. But she and the other researcher did not point that out to the teachers, and instead let them realize it on their own, which they did as spring came around.
Enough of the students were doing well that, as Ladson-Billings saw it, teachers “didn’t pay much attention” to those that were struggling “as long as they didn’t make a fuss.”
“You’ve got enough kids who come in with parents who have gotten them the little games or toys or whatever. Those kids were good,” Ladson-Billings said. “It was the kids whose parents did not think to do that or did not know to do that who were just slipping behind.”
While they soon saw success with a focus on those struggling students, specifically on their phonemic awareness, Ladson-Billings said they couldn’t move it far beyond the classrooms they were working with. They had planned a “teachers helping teachers” model, but ran into trouble finding time for the teachers to train their colleagues at other schools.
“Our dream was not to be running around from school to school to school … but our dream was to coach these teachers through this and each of us was to take one teacher from Lowell and choose another school to go to,” she said. “The problem was we could not get the teachers to commit to the coaching.”
Since their small success, not much has changed in the district’s overall results for teaching young students how to read. Ladson-Billings called the ongoing struggles “frustrating,” citing an inability to distinguish between what’s important and what’s a priority in the district.
“The superintendents have been so bogged down with stuff like the (school resource officers), too many fights at Cherokee — whatever’s made the newspaper has been where all the energy has gone,” she said. “The assumption was that the people in the classroom knew exactly what they were doing, and we don’t need to be on top of that.”
Jim Kramer first learned about the science of reading approach through a “groundbreaking” 2000 National Reading Project report. The Simpson Street Free Press executive director has been using a phonics-focused approach at the student news outlet ever since, and said he’s glad to see the focus on the topic from Jenkins, as he believes an improvement in literacy would improve other academic outcomes.
“So much of what we talk about in Madison in terms of disparities stems from the crisis of literacy that we have,” Kramer said. “When students don’t read at grade level, they are much more likely to become disengaged at school. If they get to middle school and they’re reading below grade level, it’s so easy to become disengaged, to be discouraged.”
Teaching the teachers
Any change within MMSD’s classrooms will likely require change in lecture halls.
“Most teachers are hardworking and they do what they’re told to do, they follow the training they’ve gotten,” said Hepburn, the Randall Elementary School bilingual resource teacher. “We were trained to do something different.”
Hepburn began learning about the science of reading two years ago, and said what she learned there inspired her quickly.
“When it really hit me, I was like, ‘I’m going all in,’” she said. “It changed my life. I’m a huge science reading nerd. I’ve even set aside my part-time pottery practice to just go all in and learn as much as I can.”
She is confident other teachers will feel the same once they are exposed to the method’s successes and the research behind it. But the way a teacher knows to teach reading is somewhat based on what they’re exposed to even before their career begins.
That’s where teacher preparation programs come in. UW-Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess acknowledged that, “Literacy is a big part of our teacher ed. programs because it’s such an important part of our education.”
Hess and Jenkins talk every two weeks about various partnerships between the two entities, and are specifically considering ways to partner on literacy instruction. Monday, they announced the formal new partnership: a task force with seven UW faculty and seven MMSD representatives to strengthen reading instruction in MMSD and teacher preparation at UW-Madison.
Jenkins said the time is right to address a serious challenge for the district’s students.
“This is the perfect time to begin to think about how do we not only go through COVID-19, but how we come out of it better prepared,” Jenkins said Monday in the press conference announcing the task force. “It’s right for the education department, it’s right for MMSD and it’s right for the children and our community.”
He hopes the group will make a difference well beyond Madison, pointing out that reading disparities are statewide.
“It’s not just Madison,” he said. “In Wisconsin, we have the number one disparities in the country. In Madison getting it right, it’s going to help Wisconsin get it right.”
The task force members are: John Diamond, Mariana Castro, Beverly Trezek, Mark Seidenberg, Dawnene Hassett, Melinda Leko, Ashley White, Gabi Bell, Hepburn, Angie Hicks, Kvistad, Jaclyn Smith, Chan Stroman and Jorge Covarrubias. Kvistad and Diamond will co-chair the group.
The group will hold its first meeting in January, and Hess said they hope to have recommendations by June. She is hopeful that UW can get past the rhetoric of the reading wars and settle on a method that is best for students.
“What we should want is to craft the very best ways of teaching kids how to read,” Hess said. “What we shouldn’t want is to get trapped in an ideological battle that’s just going to be time-consuming and quite frankly I think not very productive.”
Message from the top
Even before his hire, Jenkins made an impression on advocates for his interest in changing MMSD’s early literacy practices.
Laurie Frost, who is part of a group of Madison residents that has pushed the district on the subject in recent years, said “our ears really perked up” during his interview.
“He easily talked about the science of reading,” she recalled. “He doesn’t just know what this is, he has a deep understanding of it, a deep familiarity. For me at that point, hands down, that was my choice for new superintendent.”
Kramer said he and SSFP believe “it took somebody like Dr. Jenkins to recognize this needed and long-overdue pivot.”
“I think many of us who have been pushing for this for years have often felt like a voice in the wilderness,” he said. “It takes a long time for advocates of change to affect in meaningful ways Madison’s status quo. Madison’s status quo tends to be very entrenched.”
In Hepburn’s view, change “has to be top-down as well as bottom-up,” requiring buy-in both from Jenkins and those who have to implement it: staff.
“I think we are primed right now for all of that,” she said. “With the arrival of Dr. Jenkins, we’ve never had a superintendent that was so clear and passionate and precise about the goal for everyone to be reading. That’s happening in tune with a national movement.”
Those who will be directly working with the district from the outside had similar praise for Jenkins, with Ladson-Billings saying, he “has a laser-like focus on early literacy.”
Hess said his leadership style gives her confidence he can lead the district to better literacy outcomes for its students. Even as “he’s really taking time to learn what’s happening in the district,” Jenkins isn’t waiting around to push for change, Hess said.
“He understands that there are things that we need to really work on and we can’t take forever to do it,” she said. “My sense is he’s the kind of leader who listens and leads quickly enough so time isn’t wasted without coming in and just telling people, ‘This is what you need to do.’”
For Kramer, it’s a relief to see actual movement on the issue.
“It’s easy to pay lip service to a fundamental change like shifting toward research-backed literacy methods, but Dr. Jenkins is doing much more than paying lip service as near as we can tell,” he said. “This feels real, it doesn’t feel like Madison’s usual talking about it and forming a task force and having a series of meetings and producing a report. We’ve had decades of that kind of inaction.”
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