MNPS Takes The Literacy Challenge

baby_reading-1It’s been a rough couple months around here as of late. Between testing issues, trying to get a new school built, and a battle over vouchers, it seems like I’ve had nothing but negative things to write.  It’s about time to write something positive. Oddly enough, inspiration has arrived from the strangest of places: the release of the proposed budget for Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).  In that budget, two areas stand out and are cause for great excitement, the literacy initiative and the English Learners proposals. I’ll talk about the English Learners programs in a future post, but right now I’d like to look at the literacy initiative.

Over the last several years, MNPS has been moving towards a student-based budgeting plan. Under student-based budgeting, principals are given greater latitude for allocating resources where they see the greatest need at their respective sites. The thought process being that nobody knows a school better than its CEO. In theory, it sounds plausible, but I think there is room for a little caution as we head down this road.

First and foremost, schools are not businesses and they are not independent entities. They are part of a system. The goal should be that all schools should be operating at a high level and serving multiple demographics. In our age of “accountability,” it is too tempting to try and get the maximum bang for the buck by favoring programs for specific demographics while neglecting others. For example, if a school has a high English Learner population, it would be completely understandable if a principal were to devote the majority of resources to those programs that will raise the performance of English learners while under-emphasizing advanced programs.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence might be the curtailing of the amount of resources needed for students who do not fall into that demographic. Parents who feel that their children are being undeserved would leave for schools that provided more perceived opportunity for their children. This would have an effect on the population a school serves. It could tilt the balance of students in a school by increasing the number of high needs students while decreasing students who are gifted, for example. This disparity may grow even further as results for the majority are celebrated giving increased justification for ignoring the needs of the minority.

We potentially could have more schools that specialize in educating children in certain demographics and less schools capable of serving all children. If the sole purpose of schools was to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, that might be acceptable, but some of us see schools as a cornerstone of democracy. In order to truly serve society in that capacity it is essential to have diverse schools. Schools that are capable of serving multiple demographics.

Secondly, not all principals are equipped to handle budgeting. The job of a principal is already a tough one without the added financial responsibilities. We are asking them to be experts in discipline, talent management, pedagogy, and now, resource allocation. That’s a tough nut to crack, and in a system made up of 157 schools, finding 157 individuals capable of executing all those tasks at a high level strikes me as being extremely difficult. Invariably, what ends up happening is that some schools get the highly competent leaders and some get the, well, not quite incompetent leaders. It’s not hard to figure out which go where.

My last caution is that in giving principals increased autonomy you are potentially giving them permission to create their own fiefdoms. Many principals will assemble teams made up of teachers with multiple philosophies and utilize them to create an environment of collaboration. Unfortunately others, as is born out in talking to teachers, will do the opposite. In empowering principals and establishing the narrative that “nobody knows their building like the principal” it is essential that the district retain its role of oversight and ensure that teachers and coaches always have an ear outside of the building. That seems like a no brainer, but as I continue to hear the term “decentralized” bandied about, I need to continue to throw out that caveat.

We do need to keep in mind as well, that just because this is a district initiative does not mean that it is a centralized program. Those teachers trained in Reading Recovery are housed at the individual schools and take direction from the schools leadership team. They do  not work out of central office nor report there. In fact, a key component of Reading Recovery is too have trained teachers share their knowledge with other teachers in the building so everyone improves in teaching reading. Reading Recovery is also not a mandate. A school can turn down central office’s overture, and some have, if they can demonstrate that they have a strong literacy initiative in place.

It excites me to see MNPS create two district-level initiatives to combat two of the district’s greatest challenges, Literacy and English Learners. Some school board members have argued that by doing so the district is operating counter to their school-based budget initiative and that principals should be allowed to choose which programs they wish to implement. I think both of these initiatives are challenges that face all MNPS schools and therefore, are best tackled on a district level. By making these district-wide initiatives rather than a possible school-based budget item that may or may not be made a priority by a site principal, the district is enforcing equity at all sites.

The district has the added benefit of having dedicated leadership in the well respected Dr. Tammy Lipsey as the Director of Literacy, and since literacy is her sole directive, the district has greater capacity to research and implement a comprehensive, far-reaching literacy program. At the center of the district proposal is the usage of a program called Reading RecoveryReading Recovery is a proven reading intervention program aimed at the lowest-performing first graders, including, but not exclusive to English learners. It consists of 1-on-1 interaction with highly-trained teachers that ensures that these children are getting meaningful reading instruction.  Research shows it to be a program tailor-made for MNPS schools.

One of the things I particularly like about Reading Recovery is its focus on creating verbal content for children and building vocabulary. There seems to be a growing realization that children don’t become lifetime readers solely by learning to decode. Even education reformers, with whom I don’t usually have much in common, have started to realize the importance of content. Reading Recovery focuses on that content, and kids learn more than just reading skills. This is a huge step forward in providing an equitable educational experience for all our children.

In making this a district-wide initiative in MNPS, we are ensuring that principals will not be researching, implementing, and tweaking ideas in a silo. Anybody who has ever worked in education will testify that implementation is probably the number one reason why a program fails. Those school board members  who argue that principals should be the ones to decide to implement individual programs are demanding that they do so without proper supports, a strategy that is destined to doom a program. But Reading Recovery, as proposed by the district, comes with training and a support staff, including a partnership with a local university with a highly-regarded educational department. By making this a district initiative, MNPS will ensure the program is being implemented well and sustained across all schools, rather than only at some sites with no oversight or guarantee that it is being done correctly.

Obviously a principal’s input will continue to be integral, but with district backing, they’ll have a support system in place. Teachers will have meaningful professional development, and modifications could be made with research-backed initiatives. By making this a district initiative, we are giving principals and teachers needed resources without diverting resources already dedicated to those schools.  Principals will still have multiple opportunities to implement ideas and programs at their sites that are needed while still having a district-wide Reading Recovery program firmly in place. This program does not diminish their ability to make site-based decisions. Some district-wide initiatives and programs are necessary for all schools to provide an equitable education for all students. I see it as a win-win situation.

In talking with elementary school principals, I was made aware of another reason for this to be a district initiative vs school budget item, cost. Reading Recovery is an expensive program and one that no individual school would be able to afford without outside assistance. Unfortunately, we have models for how that financial shortness is overcome. Wealthier schools have strong parent organizations which take on the responsibility of raising funds to tackle a schools resource shortage. Our neediest schools do not have this benefit. Therefore the program would never be purchased or a piecemeal approach might be taken that would leaden to weakened outcomes.

I’m excited that the district has taken a dynamic role in designing and implementing a literacy program with a proven track record. One that focuses on individual instruction, the importance of vocabulary, and the ongoing development of its instructors. By proposing the adoption of this initiative, the district is showing that they are not willing to sit back and wait on individual schools to develop programs to combat literacy challenges, but rather are stepping up and becoming leaders. In assuming this leadership role, the district is ensuring that all children will be given an opportunity to increase their proficiency as readers, not just the ones with the best principals.

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