Literacy

Chicago schools don’t have a plan for teenagers who struggle to read

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Related: How it feels to be Javion: 16 and struggling to read in Chicago Public Schools

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.

school closures

What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.

PHOTO: Katie Kull/Chalkbeat
After Vance Middle School closed, math scores of students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School went up, while reading scores went down. (Pictured here in 2016)

Student reading test scores from three closed schools in Memphis generally improved in their new school, but math scores decreased, according to a 2017 Shelby County Schools report Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson requested the study in 2016 as the district’s model for closing schools evolved to include combining students from several buildings and assigning them to one new school, but the report was never presented publicly.

The report concluded that “overall, transferring students from underperforming to more stable schools seems to improve outcomes for transferred students, and in some cases, students attending the schools accepting them.” It went on to say that “we recommend continued, concentrated academic support for students transferring from failing schools.”

Shelby County Schools leaders have framed school closures in Memphis as painful but necessary as the district seeks to free up money to support a majority of students who come from poor families. But more often than not, students were assigned to go to schools that had similar or worse test scores than the school they were leaving.


From the archives: Here are Memphis schools closed since 2012


Hopson said the lesson from those school closures was that a new model was needed.

“You get so much backlash and it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building,” Hopson said recently. “So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money. But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.”

That model worked for Westhaven Elementary, which has boosted test scores faster than most schools in Tennessee both years it has been open. The school combined Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven elementary schools, which were among the lowest performing in the state, into one new building.

Hopson’s massive facilities plan presented last month would replicate that model in 10 more neighborhoods in what he says will prevent the mixed results seen with other school closures.


Related: The inside peek at how Westhaven Elementary became the new model for school closures


The study doesn’t include all 17 schools that have closed during Hopson’s tenure. The state canceled testing in 2016 for students in third through eighth grades, making tracking their performance over time more difficult, Hopson said. The report examined student test scores from Graves Elementary and Vance Middle, which closed in 2014, and Northside High, which closed in 2016.

Little research focuses on the effects of school closures on student achievement. However, a 2009 report suggests that Chicago students benefited when they transferred to significantly higher-performing schools. In New York City, a 2015 study found that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked schools actually benefited students forced to enroll elsewhere.

Here’s how students performed at each of the schools in the Memphis study:

Graves Elementary School

About 70 Graves Elementary students, or 35 percent, enrolled at Ford Road Elementary, the school the district assigned for them after closure. Most of the other Graves students enrolled at other schools within the district.

Reading and math scores on Tennessee’s TNReady test rose for the Graves students at Ford Road, which already had additional district resources as part of the Innovation Zone, created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest performing schools.

While reading scores for the rest of Ford Road Elementary rose about four percentage points during that year, math scores dipped at the same rate, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Northside High School

About 80 students from Northside High School, or 43 percent, enrolled at Manassas High, as outlined in the district’s plan for re-assigning students.

Of those former Northside High students, the percent of students on grade level increased by about 5 percentage points, but algebra test scores remained flat. Other students at Manassas High saw a small increase in reading scores, but algebra proficiency dropped from 4 percent to 0 percent, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Vance Middle School

Vance Middle School students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School after their school closed in 2014 saw their math scores go up and reading scores go down.

There were no middle school students to compare them to at B.T. Washington because Vance students were the first middle school class at the downtown school.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

You can read Shelby County Schools’ full report below.