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It’s Important That Kids Read Proficiently By Third Grade. Only Half Of Pittsburgh Students Do

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Police officer Karen McNeal listens to five-year-old Sade Harris read a book at Willie Tee's Barbershop in Homewood.

As students wrap up the school year and head for the pool and camp, early childhood and elementary educators hope that they also spend a good amount of time with books.

That’s not just to prevent the summer slide, the term educators use to describe the knowledge students lose if they don’t continue to practice reading.

Research shows that if a student isn’t reading proficiently by the third grade, they are more likely to remain behind and are also more likely to drop out of high school. Racial and economic literacy gaps persist and students with disabilities face even greater challenges. 

Third grade is a pivotal year. Up until that point, students are learning to read. When they return for fourth grade, students read in order to learn. Fourth grade texts teach content and skilled readers will gain knowledge from what they’re reading.

Third grade is also the first year students in Pennsylvania take a standardized test. It’s a data point that policy makers use to evaluate how schools are performing.

Kids are behind

Some educators argue that standardized test scores aren’t a great measurement for a number of reasons; they say it’s a snapshot of a single day, and not all kids are good at taking tests.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, nearly half of students scored below proficient on last year’s state standardized test.

(Graphic by Christopher Ayers)

Overall, the state’s second largest district is performing worse than the state’s average.

PPS’s Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins isn’t satisfied with their reading scores. 

It's disheartening on so many different levels because you look at your demographics and you know where our kids are going,” she said. “And so you want to just fix it. And you and you can't … And when I say fix it like that ‘magic bullet.’ And there is not a magic bullet.”

Sarah Schneider
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Laura Ambrogio's second grade class at Beechwood Elementary School

Nationally, more than 60 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. According to that data, scores haven’t changed much in the last 30 years. 

“It is going to take a litany of individuals getting together to try to figure out you know what do we do and how do we do it,” Jenkins said. “I think we're on the right path. I'm confident we're on the right path. It just takes everyone's commitment to get there.”

Jenkins also said that too many students come to school unprepared, according to internal district measurements. That deficit largely affects African-American students.

Demanding change

Earlier this year, school board member Sala Udin took district leaders to task about the low test scores. Administrators acknowledged that there is room for improvement, but that the district has seen steady growth. It boasts that more kids are entering fourth grade at a proficient level. Leaders defended the nearly $4 million curriculum tool, Ready Gen, that the district purchased in 2017.

Udin said teachers have concerns about the program.  

“They talk about the end result and the end result is that kids are less capable under the current curriculum than they were with previous curricula that were more heavily based in phonics,” he said.

Udin says he’s worried about students who remain behind.

“My concern for poor black children, especially males, is that we're talking about life and death. For many of them dropping out of school and getting involved in criminal activity to make money to survive. [That] will result in imprisonment for many of them and in death, premature death for too many of them,” Udin said.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Students at Beechwood Elementary School gather to sing songs about reading.

Pittsburgh Public Schools leaders have responded to Udin’s concerns. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet brought his leadership team to a board meeting and released a video, all to describe the district’s “balanced literacy approach.”

“Not every student learns these skills at the same time or in the same manner. A one-size-fits-all approach to reading instruction will not work. In fact it only widens the achievement gap,” Hamlet said in a video posted on the district’s website.

Hamlet said there is some “misrepresentation” that the curricula lack phonics instruction, which he says isn’t true.

That’s important, because not everyone agrees on the best way to teach reading.

The reading wars

There are educators who insist that children learn to read through context and picture clues.  “Whole language” proponents say that reading comes naturally to some children.

Others say there has to be explicit phonics instruction that teaches students to “de-code” words.

Writing is a code that visually represents speech sounds. Kids learn to read by figuring out how to crack the code. They have to understand that words are composed of sounds, also known as phonemes.

Whole language advocates argue that kids lose interest in reading when they have to break down words by sound.

Phonics supporters say, while some kids appear to have taught themselves, those students aren’t the norm.

The fight between “team whole language” and “team phonics” was so fierce in the 1980s and ‘90s that it became known as the reading wars.

“People are very opinionated about reading. I don’t know why,” said Kate Stuckey with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Stuckey trains literacy teachers in the 42 Allegheny County school districts outside of Pittsburgh. About 28 percent of third graders from those districts scored in the basic or below basic categories of 2018’s state standardized test.

(Graphic by Christopher Ayers)

“I would say no, not everyone in the county I think has the information that they need about the science of reading,” she said.

The phrase “science of reading” was coined about 20 years ago when Congress assembled the National Reading Panel in response to the reading wars. The panel was tasked with figuring out if science supported either side of the fight.  

After two years of combing through research, the panel determined that explicit and systematic phonics instruction was the best method.

Stuckey focuses on teachers who work with students who struggle with learning disabilities like dyslexia.  

“What works best for kids who struggle is what best practice is for all kids,” she said.

The panel’s report highlighted five essential components of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

Stuckey notes that more recent research also indicates that reading does not come naturally. While scans show that brains have dedicated circuits for language, they don’t have circuits for reading, Stuckey said.

The National Reading Panel’s report also helped shape a new way to describe literacy education: balanced literacy. Very few people describe balanced literacy the same way. For most, it essentially blends the two sides of the reading wars.

Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins describes PPS’s approach as a “balanced rotational model.”

The report from the panel cemented the fact that phonics, learning to de-code words, is essential. That’s how kids become fluent. Jenkins says the district’s method does not negate that.

“We ensure that the kids get the foundational skills but in multiple ways and it may not look as our traditional schools look like when I was teaching and when I was in school because our kids are in different places,” she said. “And when we think about the big picture we have to be able to support the needs of our students and they are varied”

So if we know what the components of that instruction should be, why are so many kids still behind?

For one thing, at PPS, not all teachers have been trained to teach in its balanced approach, something that’s acknowledged by the administration.

That’s where literacy coaches like Tammy Schmidt who works at Beechwood Elementary School come into play.

“Our elementary teachers, some of them do understand the concepts of phonemic awareness and word building and blending and reading de-codable books and getting into learning about vocabulary and others, that's something that as a cooperating teacher I feel that that's something that I need to teach them,” she said.

A focus on teacher prep

Many educators say they’re concerned that teacher prep courses are not training educators how to teach children to read. 

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Sue Rieg, Julie Ankrum and Lara Luetkehans work in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania's College of Education.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Julie Ankrum is the coordinator of the university’s reading specialist program. She said the college takes a comprehensive approach to getting teachers to respond to students’ needs during literacy instruction.

“So we do spend time on theory but that's important to understanding the practice. And we spend time talking about the science of reading and the development and acquisition of literacy and then we expect them to apply it in classrooms and we mentor them as they actually apply it in classrooms,” she said.

Sue Rieg, dean’s associate for educator preparation, said early literacy education used to focus on learning letters.

“When I taught kindergarten, we were still teaching colors and sounds. We weren't getting into the writing and reading. It has evolved to now … students are actually writing. Literacy has a more writing focus now than it did many years ago,” she said.

IUP teaches students assessments they can use in classrooms to identify progress. Professors also teach a variety of approaches.

“When they go into the school, they're going to have to use the curriculum that is adopted by their school. Some schools give a little more leeway than others some have a very directive approach that you must teach the curriculum exactly as it is,” Rieg said.

In the graduate program, students discuss the reading wars.

“We talk about different approaches because while I might value certain approaches that are scientifically proven to work, there are other approaches that I don't value that are also scientifically proven by other people to work,” she said.

Slippery Rock takes a similar approach in making sure students are versed in different theories.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Christine Walsh and Beth LaGamba work in Slippery Rock University's College of Education.

Christine Walsh, an associate professor at Slippery Rock, says it’s important that teachers leave understanding how to be responsive to the needs of literacy learners.

“Our program is not designed where they get this one little experience of 10 hours, go into a classroom and see what's going on and then we'll place you for student teaching. Instead we have a series of field experiences beginning in the sophomore year,” she said.

Walsh said teaching candidates learn two appraoches: Scientifically Based Reading Reasearch and Emergent Literacy. 

"If we just relied on the scientifically based, that's just skills. That's not the authentic reading and writing ... so while they're coming from different stances, both are needed," she said. 

Turning around a system

Five years ago, Kim Hoerr was asked to teach fifth grade after several years of working with kindergarteners.

She works for Propel, a system of 13 Allegheny County charter schools.  

In her new classroom, Hoerr noticed that students who had performed well in her kindergarten class were now behind in fifth grade.

One of her students was reading at a kindergarten level.  

“I needed to teach her how to read and write,” she said.

Hoerr felt helpless. She needed more training. Through word of mouth she heard about EBLI (Evidence Based Literacy Instruction). The training is grounded in the five components identified in the National Reading Panel report – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. According to the training website, teachers are given hands-on instructional practices and activities.

“Within the first week. I was blown away and felt like I had been the worst kindergarten teacher in the world and first grade teacher. Because I learned so much about how to teach children to read and the research behind it,” she said.

She says she changed the way she taught. The fifth grader who had been reading at a kindergarten level finished the year at a third grade level. Now Hoerr is the assistant director of curriculum and instruction for kindergarten through second grade at Propel. She’s working to get everyone to use EBLI.

Hoerr says it’s the difference between teaching kids to be guessers and teaching them the tools they need to be skilled readers.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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A student at Propel Braddock Hills elementary school begins a worksheet.

“It could be ‘the big blue bear kicked the ball.’ And there’s all those ‘buh’ words and you have a big blue bear picture kicking a ball. Well if all you know is ‘buh’ you're gonna guess ‘oh the ball and the bear are there,’” she said.

But guessing will catch up to students when they begin reading chapter books with few pictures. Now the instructional specialists who are co-teaching in classrooms are using the model Hoerr favors. Propel is hiring more of those specialists and next year, the system is rolling out a new curriculum plan so everyone will be on the same page.

The charter chain still has work to do, which can be seen in their standardized test scores. At the low end, only 28 percent of Propel Homestead third graders scored proficient or advanced on the state standardized test last year. At the high end, 75 percent of Propel McKeesport third graders reached proficiency.

Hoerr says part of the solution will be better engagement with parents to make sure kids come to kindergarten prepared.

Outside of the classroom

Research shows that a properly trained teacher is an essential component in helping kids learn to crack the code of reading and writing.

University and K — 12 leaders in western Pennsylvania say people outside of the classroom also play an important role.

“I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s difficult. But sometimes it’s easy to point the finger it's easy to say what we're not doing. But if you go in and partner with the teachers and partner with the district to support the child in the process we can get there together,” said PPS Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins.

There are a number of reading programs in the Pittsburgh region. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh encourages students to read all summer long with prize incentives.

A team of people from the library also works with students in classrooms throughout the year as part of the BLAST – Bringing Libraries and Schools Together – program.

“The library, we want to find as many ways to make a literate community, and not just have students thinking that reading is specifically for school. But also reading is a part of life and to kind of foster a love of learning and a love of reading,” said BLAST team member Kelly Fino.

Another early-learning advocacy group, Trying Together, hosts reading groups like Raising Readers.

Once a week, families gather at Willie Tee’s Barbershop in Homewood where community members and police officers read stories with children to foster a love of reading. Program director Cynthia Battle selects texts written by African-American authors to make reading relevant to the lives of the mostly black children who attend the program.

She also wants kids to have a space where adults other than a child’s parent or teacher encourage reading.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Taneisha Buice, right, asks her daughter Sade Harris, 5, how to spell the title of "The Cat In The Hat".

“Here you get an opportunity to make a mistake. I always tell the children that I’m the worst reader, but I’ll keep trying. But to be able to make a mistake, you see that growth,” Battle said.

Educators have been working to get kids to pick up more books for decades. But it’s challenging for a child to love reading if they’re struggling.  

There’s not one answer as to why all children aren’t reading proficiently by third grade. 

Kate Stuckey with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit says there are plenty of barriers for kids in the county that can contribute to low literacy test scores and skills. Part of the solution is making sure kids are prepared for kindergarten. Some, like PPS school board member Sala Udin, say that means expanding access to pre-kindergarten. Stuckey says better teacher preparation will help, too.

We can focus on our standards, we can focus on those five big ideas, we can focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, but we have to make sure that we’re considering those other pieces as well, too. But we can’t make those excuses as to why children can’t succeed or won’t succeed,” Stuckey said.