Turning a new page on literacy

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A  week after the Board of Education voted to close 50 schools this coming fall, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett told an audience at the City Club that it was time to leave behind the acrimonious battles that have marked this school year.

“Whatever has happened this past year is done,” Byrd-Bennett said. “It is a new beginning. … It is time to turn the page.”

Sadly, it’s unlikely that the storms of this tumultuous year will dissipate easily or swiftly.

Closing dozens of schools is a monumental task, and the district will be under a microscope as it tries to accomplish the job without major problems. The teachers’ strike, too, has left scars and sown seeds for future conflict. Many teachers went from marching on picket lines during the strike to marching in demonstrations against the closings. The union leadership filed three lawsuits to try and stop the closings and is gearing up to try and unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015.

It won’t be easy to resolve the distrust between closings opponents on one side and the district and City Hall on the other. But there is a glimmer of hope: More than three-fourths of displaced students had enrolled at new schools by the beginning of June, perhaps signaling that the disruption of closings will be less than expected.

Healing animosity will take time and work. But if children are going to learn, healing must happen, whatever the cost—a tarnished political reputation, a bruised ego on the part of some adults or the need to rethink assumptions that quick fixes will improve education.

If the district truly wants to improve learning and turn the page for children, a good place to focus its energy is on adolescent literacy.

The urgency is glaringly evident. Despite an increase in the graduation rate (to 63 percent, up from 61 percent last year), substantial numbers of Chicago Public Schools graduates cannot read at a college level. As Rebecca Harris reports in this issue of Catalyst In Depth, nearly 40 percent of CPS graduates who enroll in a four-year college in Illinois land in remedial reading classes.  The rate is almost 75 percent for graduates who enroll in City Colleges.

Neither of these statistics is surprising, since reading scores for incoming freshmen are generally below the level that predicts eventual college readiness. These scores don’t increase substantially by the time students are juniors.

Experts point out that with most students in the middle grades and high school, the problem is not basic literacy.

Students can “read the words” on a page. But many of them lack the skills to analyze, discuss and write about what they read—especially complicated non-fiction text in core subject areas. These skills will become even more crucial with the advent of the more rigorous Common Core State Standards.

Scores on the 8th-grade reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP, show that Chicago students already lag far behind the rest of the nation. That’s not news.

But what is new is additional evidence that more teaching alone won’t cut it. For the first time in 2011, NAEP asked teachers of 4th- and 8th-graders to report the number of hours they spent on language arts instruction per week. Chicago teachers reported more weekly instructional hours despite the lower scores.

CPS is part of a federal project that aims to develop a new literacy curriculum that will teach adolescents specific strategies for reading and understanding source documents, scientific articles and other types of text that are essential reading in core subjects. Teachers are using the strategies and believe they can work.

But gaining traction will be a major hurdle. Too often, pilot initiatives like Project READI fade into oblivion and are replaced by yet another flavor-of-the-month program.

“Right when you feel it’s making way and you’re confident in it, it changes,” says teacher Jillian Connolly of Wells High. 

Chicago won’t be broadly recognized as a “world class” city if it’s known mainly for closing dozens of schools in black neighborhoods, sparking the first teachers strike in 25 years, turning education into a media spectator sport—and raising the graduation rate without preparing every graduate for college-level work.