Reading initiative expands, stumbles

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The Chicago Reading Initiative was first out the gate when CEO Arne Duncan took over the district three years ago. Today, the signature program has expanded substantially, now encompassing three distinct efforts, 365 schools and more than 600 literacy teachers who coach classroom teachers in reading instruction.

All told, district officials argue the program is worth its $52 million pricetag, citing test score improvements at 65 percent of the schools participating last year, 78 percent of those on probation.

However, a Catalyst analysis of test scores found only 45 of the 109 schools that have participated in the reading initiative since it began posted gains higher than the districtwide average, and scores at another 41 schools declined. (See chart.)

“We wouldn’t expect these schools to turn on a dime,” says Lizanne DeStefano, associate dean of research at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, who is monitoring reading instruction at some CPS schools.

Also, a revolving door in top leadership and an internal audit critical of some aspects of the effort point to an initiative that is stumbling.

One finding of the audit, which was conducted last spring, noted that there were not enough certified reading specialists to staff schools that needed them. Since then, CPS more than doubled the number of schools with literacy teachers and stipulated that schools on probation hire a second reading specialist with their own funds. To ensure enough people would be eligible to fill those positions, the district had to water down the credentials required for the job.

The lowered bar was immediately apparent to some experienced reading specialists at this year’s first training session. “Some of the new specialists didn’t know basic [literacy] terminology,” says Susan Kajiwara-Ansai, a reading specialist at Henson Elementary.

And yet, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, who oversees the literacy program, remains upbeat. “Arne and I met with the new literacy team a couple of days ago and we are very pleased with their plans for this year,” she says.

Coaching teachers a new idea

When the reading initiative was launched in 2001, the idea of school-based reading specialists “coaching” classroom teachers and providing ongoing professional development was entirely new in many schools. (See Catalyst, April 2002) More traditional features of the program were a mandate for two hours of reading instruction daily and using research-based instruction.

Since then, the district added two more literacy programs: Reading First, a federally funded early literacy program for pre-kindergarten to 3rd grade, and the Advanced Reading Development Demonstration Project, a privately funded effort that partners middle-tier schools with local universities to support literacy instruction.

This year, the Board placed 212 schools on probation—only 82 were on probation last year—and required each of them to hire two literacy teachers and pay for the second one using their own discretionary funds. This requirement also applied to 17 more schools that have high student retention rates.

Meanwhile, the latest administrator named to lead the district literacy initiative is former area instructional officer Audrey Cooper-Stanton. She is the third director in as many years, and her appointment is a departure from her predecessors, both of whom were academics affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Connie Bridge, a retired professor of education at UIC, took control of the program in January 2004 and ran it until August, when she took early retirement. Another UIC professor, Tim Shanahan, was tapped as the district’s first guru of reading when the initiative was launched, but he, too, left after less than a year. In the interim, the program was shuttled between various CPS department heads.

Speculation about the reasons behind the revolving door in the Office of Literacy ranges from academics being unable to operate inside a bureaucracy to power politics and personality conflicts.

Insiders say Shanahan was miffed when he was stripped of his authority over the reading specialists, and note that Bridge bristled at commandments from district superiors to pursue what she believed were ineffective tactics, such as holding mass weekend training workshops. Bridge and Shanahan declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding their departures.

When reading experts were at the helm, the initiative was widely viewed as a centrally run, narrowly focused literacy effort. Now that Cooper-Stanton is in charge, many expect it to evolve into a more decentralized professional development effort tended by area office staff.

Eason-Watkins offers a positive spin. “Each of the past directors has contributed something to the initiative that has made it stronger,” she says.

Not enough qualified reading specialists

Turnover at the top is not the literacy program’s only challenge, however.

An August 2004 draft report of the internal audit of the reading initiative notes flaws in the program’s scope, organizational structure and potential to be effective. In particular, the audit predicted that 49 percent of the positions for reading specialists would go unfilled because there were not enough fully qualified reading specialists in the system, nor was there a pipeline to develop them.

Since then, the district renamed the position “lead literacy teacher,” waiving a previous requirement for specialists that they hold a reading endorsement or state certification in reading.

Instead, lead literacy teachers have until July 2006 to earn one of the reading credentials.

Board officials say changing the job title and qualifications was not a response to the audit findings but due, rather, to a change in state certification policy that put even some current reading specialists out of compliance. Even so, CPS legally could have stuck with higher standards.

Former literacy director Bridge explains differently. “CPS was unable to find enough teachers with [endorsement or reading specialist] qualifications.”

Not surprisingly, the change made it easier to fill the increased number of literacy jobs in the schools. As of mid-November, more than 82 percent of the positions in elementary schools and 60 percent in high schools had been filled, according to board officials.

Board officials say the district attempted to pair those hired under waivers with experienced reading specialists. The district is also considering how to reimburse tuition fees for lead literacy teachers who are pursuing reading certification or endorsement. As of November, 149 literacy teachers were working under waivers.

Some educators are concerned that less-qualified new hires will be working on their own with classroom teachers. Typically, literacy teachers divvy up primary grades (K-3) and upper elementary (4-8).

The possibility that some schools may have two inexperienced literacy teachers is problematic, says Barbara Radner who, as director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, has worked with schools and their literacy teachers.

Still, two literacy teachers, whatever their credentials, are better than one, says Diana Sturtevant, one of two literacy teachers at Reilly Elementary. “Are you kidding me? It’s so much better to have two of us,” she says

Blanche Kimble, a reading specialist at Dumas Elementary, says the job is more defined now than it was when the program began four years ago.

In the end, however, literacy teachers—no matter how qualified—may not be enough to raise reading levels in some schools. High student mobility rates and a decline in reading readiness among primary students at Henson have worked against literacy efforts at the school, says reading specialist Kajiwara-Ansai.

One plus, she notes, is improved instruction. “Six years ago, we had teachers who couldn’t tell you what good instruction looked like,” she says. “Now, most of our teachers can demonstrate effective literacy instruction. We can actually tell you where our kids are.”

Editor Veronica Anderson and interns Alejandra Cerna Rios and Sunny Xiang contributed to this article.

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor.

E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.