Up until a few years ago, Mountainview (West Virginia) Elementary School had little more than what principal Stephen King called cardiac assessments for primary-grade students. By that he meant teachers based their instruction on what their hearts told them was best for students. But when students posted disappointing results on their first formal reading assessments in third grade, King decided it was time to get a better idea of how and what the K-2 students were learning.
With the help of a Reading First grant and by adopting Response to Intervention (RTI), the school changed its instructional approach and began assessing students more often. Now academic deficits are addressed before students get too far behind in the basic skills. And not only have test scores improved, but fewer students need special education services.
"It's transformed the school, the special education process, and teaching," King told Education World about the reform effort. "Now we see teachers who are confident and know what to do when reading problems arise."
Principal since 1993, King said he long had a sense, but no solid evidence, that many of the younger students were struggling with reading. "We really had very few reliable assessments to measure student success in K-2 and even fewer for making instructional decisions," King told Education World. "True formative assessment -- assessment for learning -- was very weak. We relied mostly on informal assessments, like the states Informal Reading Assessment and the basal textbook assessments as measures, but those instruments were subjective and not reliable.
Any academic intervention usually did not start until after the teachers received third-grade test scores -- which were not ready until the following school year. We were waiting for children to fail before we could qualify them for special education," King said.
The school applied for and received a Reading First grant in 2004, which allowed the school to hire a reading coach and implement scientifically-based reading practices. The next year, the school adopted the RTI program as well. RTI breaks instructional approaches down into different tiers, such as Tier 1, which refers to classroom instruction. RTI also recommends frequent assessments.
A result of being part of Reading First was implementing the National Reading Panels recommendations, which are based upon a large body of research. "We used them like a recipe book," King told Education World. "You know you need to follow a recipe to make a souffle. If you don't, you get less successful results."
In addition, King asked teachers to cut back on classroom activities that did not contribute to early reading skills. "We began to reduce coloring, cutting, and pasting and began replacing them with scientifically-based strategies, teaching, and more direct instruction," he said.
For example, first-graders who were working on phonics sometimes would draw a picture of a cat, cut out the picture, and paste it next to a card with the letter C. Now that entire 15 minutes is used to support pre-reading skills, according to King. Students still engage in a lot of tactile activities, such as writing letters in sand.
Staff members also coordinated the curriculum for K-3 students, adopting a basal series. "Before that, you would see 20 different reading curricula going on in all of those 20 classes," King told Education World. Now teachers also plan together by grade level and meet to talk about effective instructional strategies. The school also adopted Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) to assess students and use data to shape classroom instruction. "My whole approach was that I was here to find solutions, not faults," he added.
After the first year, the school did not see many gains, but it also had no funding for structured, explicit intervention. The school later hired several reading interventionists to work intensely with students. Some of them are teachers who are taking a break from full-time work to raise their children. "When we had the interventionists, we began to see improvement," King said.
Soon the staff started to see their efforts pay off. The percentage of students meeting goal on the state tests in reading/language arts in third grade grew from 72.73 percent in spring 2004 to 88.17 percent in spring 2008. Back in 2004, the school had 21 students receiving services for learning disabilities and at the end of 2008-09, only 13.
"This [system] drastically reduces number of students failing and identified as learning disabled," King said. "Now we know if a student is learning disabled, we know it is a processing problem. Before, I often suspected it was an instructional problem. The school also is providing intervention school-wide to students in the upper grades who continue to struggle with reading."
Margaret VanScoy, a second-grade teacher at Mountview for 16 years, said the reforms have changed the way she teaches. "All the data allowed us to see why some students were struggling and also look at ways to meet the needs of students who needed more challenges," VanScoy told Education World. "It was like drawing a map for each child."
The variety and amount of data allowed her to look at 24 students and know immediately where students needed help, VanScoy said. "I could see the problem -- whether it was phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency -- I could see what skills the kids needed. It really clarified the deficits students had and pushed me to see I needed to challenge certain students more who had reached the benchmark."
Key to the success of a large-scale reform such as this, according to King, is the willingness of the principal to get involved hands-on. "If I had not been directly involved and become knowledgeable myself, we would not have gotten the results we did," said King. "I decided if I'm going to ask my teachers to do one more thing, I was going to be part of it. I attended all staff development meetings, attended DIBELS assessment team meetings, and devoted 45 minutes a day to walk-a-bouts.
It was a transformational thing for me," King added. "It transformed me from a manager to an instructional leader. I was there with them [teachers], spending much more time in classrooms learning how children learn."
Since everyone knew the kind of professional development on which they needed to focus, during his walks around the building, King made certain teachers were following the necessary professional development and allocating time to the required two-hour morning reading block. "I had my hand-held computer, which had the data for every kid in it," he said. "During the course of a week I visited 20 rooms and focused on making sure students were getting good instruction geared to what we needed. I also checked to see if teachers were using the basal series."
King said his daily behavior told teachers that this process was important. "Lo and behold, through all this I became very knowledgeable about reading," he added. "Teachers would approach me with questions about students with reading problems, and conversations with teachers became more curriculum-based and focused on what's best for kids."
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