Reading curricula narrowed to two

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This fall the district has launched an initiative to standardize reading curricula in hopes of curbing the negative impact of mobility on reading instruction and achievement.

The initiative has begun with 150 elementary schools that volunteered to be part of the first cohort. Over the next three years, 150 schools will be added annually, adopting one of the two reading programs the district has selected.

“We are doing this to create some cohesiveness [in teaching],” says Xavier Botana, chief officer for instructional design and assessment. Schools in the federally funded Reading First program under No Child Left Behind are not required to participate because that program has its own curriculum.

The district has not yet decided whether schools in the Autonomous Management and Performance Schools program will participate.

The new program takes the Chicago Reading Initiative a step further by prescribing curricula that the district adopted after a pilot program last year. The Reading Initiative focused on teacher and principal training and included a mandate for two hours of daily reading instruction for students but schools were free to choose their own instructional materials. As a result, curricula varied from school to school and sometimes even within schools, so reading instruction lacked continuity from one grade to the next and even across grade levels.

Using too many different curricula makes it hard for teachers to collaborate or receive the same professional development, says one expert.

“Six hundred schools were using 700 different things,” says Timothy Shanahan, former director of the Chicago Reading Initiative and now director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “You could find nine different programs in one school because teachers were allowed to choose what they wanted.”

Under this new plan, schools will choose instructional materials for kindergarten through 5th grade from one of two publishers: Harcourt or Scott Foresman (see textbox). CPS chose the curricula based on a survey of teachers following a pilot program last year. Teachers reported these two publishers were the most useful out of the six the district piloted; for instance, by providing ample teacher training or more material for struggling readers.

Schools also will receive assessment materials, online resources, small school libraries, training from CPS literacy coaches and professional development provided through publishers. The curricula will mirror the goals of the Chicago Reading Initiative, which aims to improve reading performance in four areas: word knowledge, comprehension, writing and fluency.

In recent years, the district has launched other efforts that have scaled back schools’ power to choose their own curricula, including the Chicago Math and Science Initiative and the High School Transformation Project. Both require participating schools to choose curricula from a limited approved list.

Not the whole solution

CEO Arne Duncan justified the new reading program at the School Board meeting in March by explaining that, given the district’s high student mobility, “having a more consistent curriculum is an important strategic initiative.”

Shanahan says the move is a good one, but it won’t completely solve the learning problems created by student mobility. Students who move from school to school still may have to adapt to a new curriculum.

“It will cut down on the amount of variance, but it won’t cut it all the way. You still will have different programs,” says Shanahan. “What might help is if schools that are close [to each other], where kids shuffle back and forth, buy the same curriculum. Let the faculties of the schools get together and choose the same one. Then, when a child moves, he will be ready to deal with it.”

Before rolling out its own program, CPS looked at school districts in San Diego, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and New York that implemented similar plans and saw reading performance improve, says Botana.

Two years ago, the district launched a pilot program involving 60 schools and six publishers: Hampton-Brown, Harcourt, Houghton-Mifflin, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, Scott Foresman and RA/McGraw-Hill. Each publisher partnered with 10 schools for two years.

After the pilot, CPS surveyed each principal and 300 teachers to find out which curricula were the most useful. They also conducted focus groups with special education coaches, bilingual lead teachers, reading coaches, librarians and other literacy experts.

Woods Academy in Englewood participated in the pilot and used the Harcourt series. The new curriculum has more instructional material for the “middle-of-the-road child and the struggling reader,” says Principal Roslyn Armour. Harcourt also provided supplemental materials, such as workbooks, assessments and information on how to use the materials with computers, she says.

In addition, Armour adds, Harcourt trainers came in at least once a month to team teach with teachers. Sometimes, the trainers taught the lesson themselves.

Beryl Guy, principal at Hay Community Academy in Austin, chose Scott Foresman because “it had all the necessary components for a solid program.”

“Every month, we had professional development,” Guy says. “Sometimes we met off-campus at a restaurant and they helped us learn data—how to assess and what do with it. Everyone really liked that.”

Ana Martinez-Estka, principal at Avondale Elementary in Avondale, says the cost savings provided by the district’s bulk buying power is one of the best things about the program. The district used its bulk buying power to negotiate a better deal for schools, and is picking up about 20 percent of the cost. Schools end up paying about one-third the usual cost, Botana says. (Schools buy their own textbooks and materials from funds allocated by the district.)

“Any time you buy new books, that’s a lot of money,” says Martinez-Estka. The school used the savings to buy a new math program.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail williams@catalyst-chicago.org.