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HISD’s volunteer reading army

HISD’s number one priority is, or at least needs to be, improving reading performance. I really hope this will help.

Leaders of the Houston Independent School District turned to the community on Thursday, launching the district’s largest volunteer recruitment effort in recent years – all to help solve HISD’s intractable literacy problem.

The nation’s seventh-largest school system put out a call for 1,500 volunteers – business professionals, retirees and others – to work weekly with first-graders across the district who are struggling to read.

The volunteer effort is part of Superintendent Terry Grier’s latest literacy plan, which sets a goal that all students will read on grade level by third grade. Last school year, only one-third of HISD’s third-graders hit the state’s recommended level on the reading test; about two-thirds met the easier minimum standards.

“This is a big, big issue, and together we’re going to be able to do this,” Grier said at a news conference at Garcia Elementary, addressing the business and nonprofit executives helping to fund and coordinate the volunteer effort.

Relying on volunteers to read with or tutor students is not a new concept – HISD already has a smaller program targeting male volunteers. Studies have shown such programs can be beneficial, although the quality varies.

“It sounds so wonderful – a way for people to be involved in education – but education is complicated and, especially, teaching reading is complicated,” said Jo Worthy, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

We learned from the Apollo program that focused tutoring can improve math performance, but reading has proven to be a tougher nut to crack. Given that there doesn’t seem to be one silver bullet to solve this problem, I’m fine with taking a multi-pronged approach and seeing what works best. There are other efforts going on as well, so hopefully we will see some results. If you want to get involved, the first thing to do is to go to the HISD Volunteers in Public Schools page and sign up to help. I think we’re going to need as many hands on deck as we can get.

Jay Aiyer: Consider a local option for pre-k

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here.

Pre-K education has emerged as the most hotly debated issue in this year’s race for Governor. Both Senator Davis and Attorney General Abbott have laid out competing proposals to provide pre-k education in Texas, with dueling press conferences and accusations flying back and forth.

What Pre-K seeks to do is to eliminate what education researchers have recognized as the single biggest impediment to improving public education—the literacy gap. For years we have been aware that because of income and parental education disparity, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds begin school at a significant disadvantage. We know that a child that reads at grade level by the end of 3rd grade has over a 95% chance of graduating from high school. When you consider the close correlation between high school graduation and the rate of poverty—you can see that the development of an effective Pre-K program in Texas has the potential of significantly reducing poverty in a generation.

While there are merits to both Davis and Abbott’s respective plans, it’s what they are missing that is most telling.

Funding
You simply can’t have an effective Pre-K system without a funding mechanism in place. Our current K-12 system is itself woefully underfunded and the object of litigation. The idea of proposing an expansion of education without addressing the underlying financial problems that exist in K-12 renders any plan proposed nonsense. You have to get the funding right.

Infrastructure
Private and religious schools largely provide Pre-K in Texas. Several ISDs have a limited Pre-K program, but the vast majority does not. In order to expand Pre-K through the ISD system, it would require a significant capital expenditure on a scale not previously seen. Buildings have to be built and that itself could be billions in additional costs.

Implementation
Every study that has been done on Pre-K recognizes that its impact is only significant if the program is comprehensive and structured educationally. State government has repeatedly shown that when it comes to the development and implementation of specific educational programs, they have done more harm than good. Rather than a large state program—local governments are better suited to making Pre-K work.

So what should we do?

The most effective Pre-K systems nationally, have been locally driven and locally controlled. Tulsa, Oklahoma is the national leader in Pre-K and has had the most effective program. San Antonio’s local initiative has also been widely praised for its approach. While applauding Davis and Abbott for their focus on Pre-K, I would argue that if they really wanted a program to be successful—develop a funding system through a local authorization process, and let city/county governments lead the way. Austin has repeatedly proven it is unable to solve big problems. It’s time to try a different approach.

Jay K. Aiyer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs. He served on the Board of Trustees for the Houston Community College System from 2000-2008 and served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Lee P. Brown from 1998-2000.

HISD does have a role to play in the Bush Foundation literacy effort

I learned this from a Terry Grier op-ed in the Chron.

That’s why last week’s release of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation’s “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action,” was such a welcome event.

The foundation’s plan to unite educators, government and community programs – plus human and financial capital – in a mission of wiping out illiteracy is just the kind of comprehensive approach required. We are proud to be partners in this effort.

While HISD remains committed to decentralization – and many of our schools are showing success in their respective reading programs – Literacy By 3 will be a district-driven initiative with unwavering, uniform standards and accountability. Starting this summer, a literacy leader will be trained for each HISD campus. We will employ phonics-based instruction, strict district measurements of reading levels and growth, and we will combine those with real-world projects.

At the same time, our movement toward a digital transformation of classrooms will allow teachers greater ability to personalize learning – and reading is a highly personal, developmental skill. Not one rigid method or time frame fits all, especially when you’re dealing with the challenges of multiple languages and poverty.

What is a uniformly proven asset, though, is exposure to libraries, books in the home and to people who read. That’s where you come in. We hope to create an awareness campaign that enlists thousands of volunteers who will show youngsters that reading is not only a basic survival skill, but a rewarding part of life. We will recruit community members to read with students one-on-one, to share their own favorite books and reading lists, to conduct and contribute to book drives to help enrich schools and homes.

See here and here for the background. At least now I know that there is some kind of official interaction between HISD and the Barbara Bush Foundation on this. I still haven’t found a copy of their report, but at least I know that much.

More on the Bush Foundation literacy effort

We had the preview story, now we have the rollout story about the efforts by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation to tackle the problem of illiteracy.

The nascent campaign to improve Houstonians’ reading skills got a $300,000 kick-start Thursday from the federal agency that oversees community service.

The three-year grant will fund 15 workers to assist the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, which is spearheading a local reading improvement effort.

Wendy Spencer, who leads the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C., held up a brown cowboy boot as she announced the grant.

“We are going to stamp out illiteracy and we’re gonna put boots on the ground,” Spencer said.

[…]

The year-old foundation so far has raised about $2 million and has distributed several grants, paying for training for volunteers and books for children.

The foundation has not detailed the cost of its plan or explained how it would be funded, though officials are hoping for some donations from businesses as well as to reallocate money agencies may be spending now on literacy efforts.

Despite numerous city and school district reading programs, roughly one in five Houston adults lacks basic literacy skills, as do tens of thousands of local schoolchildren.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she expects the campaign will unite and improve efforts to combat illiteracy.

“We have a very robust after-school program. We have a robust summer reading program,” Parker said. “But we can do a lot of great work and still fail.”

Across the country, more than 140 communities, including Houston, have signed onto a national effort called Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a push to ensure students read proficiently by the end of third grade.

See here for the background. My brief thoughts on this are as follows: One, illiteracy and a large number of schoolkids reading below grade level are major problems, and the Bush Foundation is doing the Lord’s work in trying to ameliorate them. Two, I still haven’t seen their report. Three, I’ve asked around but I still don’t know what if any interaction they will have with HISD or other school districts on this. And four, anything that can get Barbara Bush to wear eye-black and shoulder pads has to be good for something. That’s all I’ve got.

On improving literacy

I have three things to say about this story.

In Houston, a city known for its brilliant doctors and energy executives, adults are waiting in line for classes that teach basic literacy skills – reading, writing and speaking clearly. They can’t land jobs or promotions, can’t help their kids with homework.

At the same time, tens of thousands of students in local public school districts are failing to meet the state’s minimum academic standards, fighting to comprehend texts and straining to write essays.

Houston, educators and civic leaders say, has far too many citizens who can’t read well, the subject of a report scheduled for release Thursday by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action.”

The plan calls for educating parents of infants, making pre-kindergarten classes available to all youngsters, deploying reading specialists to low-performing schools and expanding adult education programs.

The foundation has not put a price on its ideas, but executive director Julie Baker Finck said she hopes the report serves as a rallying cry to turn more attention, volunteer support and funding toward literacy work.

“If we don’t in part solve low literacy levels for adults, then they will never be able to support their own child’s development and prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn how to read,” she said.

[…]

The Bush Foundation’s work dovetails with HISD’s latest campaign to improve literacy instruction. In a draft plan presented to the school board this month, Superintendent Terry Grier and his academic chief, Dan Gohl, set a goal that 100 percent of third-graders would meet the state’s reading standards by 2019.

Last year, 37 percent of HISD third-graders hit the recommended level, slightly lower than the Texas average.

“This is our profound crisis,” Gohl told the school board, “and we must do something dramatically different.”

The district’s plan calls for placing a trained “literacy leader” on campuses, increasing scrutiny of individual school programs, and trying to outfit classrooms with books for different reading levels.

Gohl said he plans to ask the board to approve $4 million next school year, largely to fund training. That doesn’t include the classroom libraries for kindergarten through second grade, which could cost another $9 million.

Let me preface this by saying that there’s no question that HISD needs to do a better job on reading and literacy. By every measure, HISD students perform poorly overall in reading, and this does have profound consequences for graduation rates, college achievement, and ultimately earning potential. Improving reading performance, at HISD and in many other school districts in Texas, would go a long way towards making a brighter future for many, many people.

Having said that, here are my concerns with this story.

1. More than half of this story is spent on the personal struggles of two people who dealt with dyslexia as children. One might conclude from this that dyslexia is a big part of the problem, but the story doesn’t actually make that connection. Dyslexia is something we’ve known about for a long time, and according to Wikipedia, it affects about five percent of children. The article uses dyslexia for narrative purposes, so I am unclear whether it is trying to say that dyslexia is a significant part of the problem and/or if local school districts do an inadequate job in dealing with dyslexic children. My guess is that this was for informational purposes only, as they say, and not really something that needs to be better addressed via policy.

2. More broadly, there’s nothing in the story about how these recommendations fit (or don’t fit) with what area school districts are already doing or planning to do, and there’s no reaction from any local school officials or other stakeholders like Gayle Fallon. Perhaps that’s because this story was in advance of the Foundation actually releasing their report – as of this publication, I still don’t see anything on their website about it – so I guess there isn’t anything for them to react to. Maybe this was just supposed to be a puff piece, but someone funded this study and someone took the time to write it, and from what little we see in this story they have some decent ideas – I particularly like the bit about educating parents of infants – so let’s take it seriously and see if it’s worthwhile. Otherwise, what’s the point?

3. That said, and bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the report myself, I’m disappointed that they didn’t put a price tag on anything. We’re in the middle of a policy debate in the Governor’s race about education and pre-k, mostly about funding but also about how to do it right. I understand it’s not their role to get in the middle of a partisan dispute, but nothing happens in this state without at least some understanding of the cost involved, and how to pay for it. In the absence of adequate state funding for pre-k, thanks to the 2011 budget cuts, some localities have tried to provide pre-k programs on their own; the one in San Antonio was successful, the one in Harris County was not. What approach would the Bush Foundation recommend? I for one would like to know.

What can we do to improve reading skills in HISD?

I wish I knew.

HISD students continue to struggle with reading while matching or exceeding their peers’ math performance in other big cities, according to national test data released Wednesday.

Reading scores for the district’s fourth- and eighth-graders have stagnated for six years. In math, however, the middle-school results have improved over time, and HISD ranks well against others nationwide.

The scores come from a battery of exams, typically called the Nation’s Report Card, that allow big urban districts that choose to participate to compare themselves.

“We are pleased that we continue to perform at high levels in mathematics and are concerned about the flat-line trending of our literacy rates,” said Dan Gohl, chief academic officer for the Houston Independent School District.

Gohl said he plans to present a revised plan for boosting reading skills to the school board in January. Campuses across the district use numerous programs to teach reading, he said, and the quality appears to vary. The differences also may trouble students who transfer schools mid-year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders every two years. The latest results are from exams taken in early 2013. The other Texas districts that participate are those in Dallas and Austin.

The Houston Press had a cover story the other week about HISD’s reading scores, which look better than they are on the state accountability measures. A lot of big urban school districts have problems with reading scores, though there’s been a good deal of improvement in recent years. Poverty is a big factor – there’s a lot of research out there showing that poor children start out behind their peers even before they get to school – but it’s not the only factor. As our experience with Apollo has shown so far, we seem to have a handle on getting improvements to math scores, but reading is a much tougher nut to crack. We need to figure it out, and the sooner the better. Hair Balls and Washington Monthly have more.

Focusing on reading

This sounds promising.

When HISD Superintendent Terry Grier took charge three years ago, he quickly latched onto a troubling statistic: roughly 70,000 of the district’s students were not reading at grade level.

Students who should have learned reading basics by third grade continue to enter middle and high school stumbling over words and struggling with comprehension.

As Houston Independent School District students return to class Monday, some of them – the weakest readers in sixth and ninth grades – will prepare for a crash course to catch them up. The students will take a newly designed reading class daily or every other day in addition to their regular language arts course.

“These children dropped through the cracks during their experience with us or with other school districts,” Grier said.

HISD’s approach, if it works, could serve as a national model for districts trying to help older students who don’t read well, said Marybeth Flachbart, president of the Neuhaus Education Center, a Houston nonprofit that specializes in reading instruction.

HISD has contracted with Neuhaus to train teachers for the new reading classes – refreshing them on phonics and other fundamentals, plus giving them tips for teaching basic skills to teenagers.

[…]

Grier and the school board began focusing on improving literacy last year, sending elementary school teachers to training at Neuhaus to try to keep future students from entering sixth grade with reading problems. Since January 2011, the district has paid Neuhaus more than $3.6 million – money Grier said is well spent.

I certainly agree with the emphasis on improving reading scores. As the story notes, students from lower income families, and there are many within HISD, tend to start school knowing fewer words than students from more affluent households. That puts them behind from the beginning, and presents increasing challenges every year. I look forward to seeing what effect this program has on the standardized test scores. I’d also like to hear from anyone who’s had experience with this particular program. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of it. Thanks!