Lone Star Literacy
Against all odds, Texas has enjoyed dramatic success in its implementationof Reading First. The state’s well-coordinated approach and innovativeuse of technology offer a model for others to follow.
TEXAS DOESN’T DO SMALL. No, it’s big hats, big belt buckles, big racks of ribs. But thestate’s size and expansive geography can work against it in executing large, cumbersome education programs.So it stands to reason that if any part of the country were to be challenged by the implementation ofan elaborate literacy initiative such as Reading First, Texas—with its enormous student population—wouldbe it. From driving the program effectively at the state level to introducing it successfully in the classroom,federally mandated initiatives like Reading First can be exercises in planning and coordination that provetedious and fraught with frustration. Trying to manage such a program can be administrative quicksand fora state as vast as Texas.
Yet the opposite has proved true. Texas has combined innovative uses of technology, an effective communications strategy, and a multitiered approach, and enjoyed great success in its execution of Reading First. In fact, some education leaders now view Texas as a model for other states to adhere to in their own implementation of the program.
The Planning Stage
The first step the Texas Education Agency (TEA) took after being awarded Reading First funding in spring 2003 was to team with a number of highly regarded organizations, including the University of Texas System, the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts, the Center for Academic and Reading Skills, and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics. The new partners agreed to collaborate, share knowledge, and avoid duplicating each other’s efforts under a coordinated approach deemed the Texas Reading FirstInitiative.
Since its creation, the overarching goal of TRFI has been to develop the knowledge and skills of a cadre of reading technical assistance specialists or RTAs who, once trained, provide the support necessary to bring about schoolwide and statewide improvement in student reading. Each of the TRFI partners participates in RTA development, but there is a division of duties at work. The University of Texas deploys the RTAs to schools across Texas, while the Vaughn Gross Center and the Center for Academic and Reading Skills work to improve the RTAs’ knowledge and skills in order to expand the statewide infrastructure for technical assistance and professional development. Finally, TIMES implements the statewideevaluation plan.
This collaborative model has worked well for the state, says TEA’s Kathy Stewart, manager for Texas Reading First grants and partnerships.“We felt that if we were goingto be successful, we neededto approach this on many levelsand incorporate thoseagencies that were mostknowledgeable and skilled ineach critical area.”
THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
A clash over state mandates prompts aleading Texas school district to declineReading First funding.
Though the Texas Education Agency has had great success implementing Reading First in many districts, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an occasional setback. For example, despite its accomplishments with the program, the Southwest Independent School District decided not to apply for second-year funding. “We didn’t apply because we were split with the state on a couple of issues,” says Celanie Dominguez, executive director of Assessment and Accountability for Southwest ISD.
Dominguez says the sources of the dispute were a state edict to buy materials the district doesn’t believe it needs, and the requirement that reading coaches work only with teachers and not directly with students.
“We believe strongly in [the] Waterford [Early Reading Program] and in our reading coaches working with our students one-on-one, and not just with the teachers, and I think we’ve been very successful with our approach,” Dominguez says. “As long as we aren’t using state grant money we can pursue any path we want, and we chose to continue on the path that’s working for us.”
Technology Enters the Picture
From the beginning, TEA knew it wanted to include technology as a component of the implementation. “Technology helps us manage the program more effectively,” says Stewart. “In such a large state, it really helps facilitate professional development and other aspects of the ReadingFirst program.”
Technology is employed heavily at the state level in two key initiatives of Reading First: Online Teacher Reading Academies and the Campus Leadership Online Community (CLOC). Online Teacher Reading Academies are online professional development courses distributed free on CD to Texas educators, effectively bringing reading academies to teachers’ desktops. The CDs are designed to keep teachers up to date on research-based reading instruction, and include reading academy activities, presentation notes, handouts, videos, and resource materials. In addition, via the Internet, teachers can use the CDs to obtain continuing education credits and current information, including questions asked by their colleagues andanswers provided by academy trainers.
Meanwhile, CLOC is a resource developed to provide the state’s RTAs with a Web-based technical assistance site, offering access to information and the expertise of the TRFI partners. Online-related development activities include creatingand disseminating study guides and other programs.
More innovation can be seen in Texas’ use of Palm handhelds, breaking new ground by using the devices for reading assessments in schools throughout the state. An estimated 900 schools are currently using a handheld-to- Web version of the state-recommended Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI), an assessment tool used by teachers to obtain an accurate picture of the reading development of students in kindergarten through second grade. Developed by Wireless Generation, the Palm program allows teachers to immediately collect and evaluate Reading First assessment data for each student. Teachers can then promptly target strengths and weaknesses, spot trends, and direct the most appropriate instruction. They can also perform a sync operation to move all of the progress data to a secure Web site, where administrators can view dataand analyze reports.
“The Wireless Generation initiative was launched to determine if capturing diagnostic information from those early reading assessments electronically might be something that would prove beneficial,” says Stewart. “And in fact it has. The major benefit is immediate feedback. It also saves teachers a lot of paperwork.”
Working With the Districts
Establishing a clear, definitive direction at the state level with a multipronged, technology-infused approach has helped Texas handle the administrative side of Reading First. But a huge part of the state’s success is owed to its willingness to afford districts flexibility in implementing the program. TEA knew that it needed to allow some slack between the guidelines that the state sets out, and what actually occurs at theschool level.
“The school districts have been very open to receiving the assistance, so we’ve been open to letting them drive it and determine what’s best for their student population, as long as it’s aligned with Reading First guidelines,” says Stewart.
This openness extends to the use of technology in classrooms. Essentially, it’s up to the individual school districts to decide whether they want to integrate technology into their Reading First efforts. Every Reading First grant submitted to the state is evaluated by a peer review committee that actively looks at what programs are proposed, and decides whether or not they align with the district’s core reading program and meet the scientific research requirements. As long as the technology proposed falls within those guidelines, schools are free to use it.
A huge part of the state’s success is owed to itswillingness to give districts flexibility in implementingReading First. TEA knew that it needed to allowsome slack between the state guidelines, and whatactually happens at the school level.
Currently, a number of different technologies are being used in Reading First initiatives throughout the state. The majority are being used to support kids struggling with reading concepts rather than to assist core reading instruction, according to Stewart. However, there are exceptions. Grand Prairie Independent School District, for example, uses Achieve Now and Focus from Plato Learning. “We needed a multisensory approach to reading,” says Marva Dixon, director of Curriculum Services at Grand Prairie ISD. Dixon focuses on special education students, and believes in technology’s ability to help close student achievement gaps.
Achieve Now addresses the varied needs of students with different learning styles and specific learning disabilities. Students can participate in activities and engage in interactive learning experiences at their own independent learning level. Teachers can also individualize the program for each child and involve families in the learning process.
Dixon first became familiar with Achieve Now when working as a principal years ago. With 17 different languages spoken on her campus, she began using the program to help secondlanguage learners. “When I came to special education, I was given a charge by our superintendent to move the special education curriculum closer to the general education curriculum,” says Dixon. “I created a model based on research that says special education should be the first priority, and the second-most critical things were the use of technology and parent involvement. Achieve Now became the third component of that model.”
Plato’s Focus, meanwhile, is an early reading and listening instruction system that teaches students how to connect sounds with their corresponding symbols. Dixon says she monitors each campus in the district to track how many kids are accessing Focus technology and how well they’re doing. “The benefit of the technology is immediate response,” she says. “So in addition to the direct instruction by the teacher, Focus provides additional practice with immediate feedback for students. The other benefit is it gives us another assessment tool.”
Plato Focus reading lessons are scripted, which Dixon finds useful because many of her teachers are not content-certified.“For any teacher not really familiar with the key components ofreading, the program is a step-by-step process. It guides theteacher through a multisensory, integrated approach in a scriptedformat to teach kids phonetic awareness, decoding skills, andcomprehension skills. It integrates all five components of reading,and then the technology component allows the student toindividually work on the computer to practice those skills.”
After using the program, the district no longer remediates but rather has to accelerate students. “What we see is a dramatic drop in the number of students qualifying or needing special education services,” Dixon says.
Making Big Gains
The Southwest Independent School District is also integrating technology into its Reading First implementation. The district launched Pearson Digital Learning’s Waterford Early Reading Program, and successfully integrated Waterford with its primary-level reading curriculum.
Celanie Dominguez, executive director of Assessment and Accountability for Southwest ISD, reviewed the district’s technology proposal when she first went to work there, but didn’t feel it hit the mark. Dominguez suggested the district examine some additional programs, including Waterford.
“I’d read that Waterford had some very good results despite setbacks at the Los Angeles Unified School District,” Dominguez says. “But LA’s issues had to do with implementation problems, not the program. Waterford has multiple modalities, so different instructional strategies can be used for struggling readers, and all their strategies are based on Reading First principles. I thought it was a good match.”
Southwest ISD adopted the WaterfordEarly Reading Program in 2003.Benefits were seen immediately.
The percentage of district third-graders meeting the third-grade reading standard on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills:
Southwest ISD adopted Waterford in 2003, and Dominguez says gains were noticed right away. The percentage of Southwest ISD thirdgraders meeting the third-grade reading standard on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills rose from 77 percent in 2003 to 89 percent in 2004, and to 93 percent in 2005. “The first year we had the highest-gained score in the San Antonio area,” she says.
“We’re using [Waterford] primarily for struggling readers, but the biggest thing we’ve noticed is, we now have fewer third-graders who have to use it,” Dominguez says. “They get the concepts in first and second grade, so by the time they get to third grade we can drill down deeper and accelerate them at a faster clip. That’s been exciting.”
Dominguez says the kids enjoy using the technology, which helps engage them in the materials. “The kids had had different types of technology in class before, but this one is very exciting for them,” she says. “It’s very personalized—their little screen comes up with their name when it’s their turn, and they are very proud. It puts them in control of their learning and the modality. The interaction with the computer makes it easier for teachers to facilitate reading with large groups. Students now often come early to school or stay late to use the technology.”
Keys to Success
As it moves forward with Reading First, Texas is likely to run into plenty of challenges along the way. But by sticking to a few key guiding principles, the state hopes to keep matters running smoothly betweenitself and the school districts.
“The main thing is going in and building that level of trust,” says Melanie Pritchett, the director of Literacy Initiatives at the University of Texas System’s newly formed Institute for Public School Initiatives.“The RTAs each serveapproximately 10 campuses. Theyare on those campuses if not everyweek then every two weeks, and ifthey aren’t actually on-site in thedistrict, they’re talking with thelocal campus coaches and administratorson the phone. A big part ofthis is just being there for the districtsand schools.”
If we were going to be successful, we needed to approach thison many levels and incorporate those agencies that weremost knowledgeable and skilled in each critical area.Kathy Stewart, Texas Education Agency
TEA also brings all stakeholders together periodically during each school year for training and status checks. “We wantto know where they are now and where they want to go in thecoming year,” says Pritchett.
Stewart says that once you’ve set up a support system and listened to the concerns and goals of stakeholders, it’s all a matter of keeping in touch. “The key,” she says, “is constant, constant communication.” She could have been talking about the whole of education.
Justine Brown is based in Cool, CA, and specializes in writingabout technology, education, and government.
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.