The architects of school decentralization in Chicago once envisioned a day when central office would have to sell its services to schools, sinking or swimming in the marketplace. Two years ago, the Office of Accountability dipped its toe into those waters by creating a reading team to compete with external partners working with high schools on probation. “The jobs of the people [on the team] depend upon the quality of the services they provide,” observes Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen. The services cost $30,000 to $40,000 per school.
Dissatisfied with the partners’ track record on high school reading scores, Accountability sold its services as an “internal external partner ” to six high schools in 1998-99. That year, the team compiled the best reading record among the partners: Three of its six schools, Calumet, Fenger and Richards, made appreciable gains on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency. (Two of the three, Calumet and Richards, also have university partners.) The team then saw its client base nearly double, to 11 schools.
Hansen says the team’s work has pushed university partners to change, too. “They have begun to focus on reading initiatives and have been changing the way they operate in the high schools,” he says. “We’ve kinda been pushing them to get in the classroom and work with reading difficulties.”
The team is led by Mary Dunne, a former reading specialist at Marist High, a Catholic school in Mount Greenwood, who had done consulting with Bowen and Kelvyn Park high schools. Other founding members are Ken Hunter, a former assistant principal at Amundsen High, who is now on loan to the Illinois State Board of Education for work in East St. Louis schools, and Ron Browne, a former social studies teacher at Kelvyn Park. New to the team this year are Pam Drymiller, a reading specialist and former assistant principal at Morgan Park, and Audrey Olson, formerly a reading specialist at Belding Elementary.
What Dunne and Company offer are a set of practices and the diplomacy, modeling and muscle to get them implemented schoolwide. The practices are based on Dunne’s expertise and the experiences of high schools, such as Amundsen, that made reading gains during summer 1998. This year, a team member also teaches a weekly course on reading strategies to a select group of students at each school.
“Much of what they try to do is restore a culture of learning in the school,” says Hansen. “I haven’t found a better way to get people to collaborate.”
When taking on a new school, the consultants encourage it to set up an in-house reading team of teachers and administrators, a required course in reading and study skills for freshmen and a set of practices to improve reading skills. This year, the only client school that deviates from this plan is Juarez, where the freshman course centers on writing instead of reading.
The reading improvement practices are timed readings, a vocabulary strategy called Word of the Day and a monthly calendar of other techniques teachers are to integrate into their regular lessons.
Many teachers and principals appreciate the team’s focus on a small set of specific changes and its willingness to accommodate individual school needs. “Some methods require an awful lot out of teachers, but this reading plan, they’re able to incorporate into what they do,” observes Nathaniel Mason, principal of Harper High School, which hired the team this school year. “It was much more readily accepted.”
Timed readings are aimed at improving what researchers call fluency, or the ability to read easily and quickly. Poor readers, they note, may read so slowly that they forget the beginning of a sentence by the time they reach the end.
“It’s been described as the most neglected reading skill,” says Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You work on words, and you work on comprehension, and there’s nothing in between. Fluency is really the bridge between those skills.”
Teaching it gets results. “Studies are clear that you can teach fluency, and it does benefit kids,” says Shanahan. Unfamiliar with the practices of Accountability’s reading team, Shanahan declined to comment on its approach to fluency, but he observes, “They obviously have a good idea.”
In Word of the Day, all teachers in a school post a single word and its definition in their classrooms each day. Students are tested on the words monthly, and winners receive prizes. The value of that practice is a matter of dispute among reading experts. (See accompanying story.) “I don’t have evidence that Word of the Day increases comprehension,” Dunne acknowledges. “But I can tell you that last year, seven of our words were on the TAP [test]. If our students could answer seven more questions, that gives them an edge.”
Melverlene Parker, principal of Hirsch High School, stresses the importance of practicing new vocabulary. “It takes something like 17 times of hearing and using a word before it becomes yours,” she says. To boost the chances students will use their words of the day, she has departments choose them with an eye on classroom topics. “It afforded an opportunity for the word to be used,” she notes, maintaining that must be done “if our objective is to improve reading, not just raise a score on a test.”
Dunne argues for Word of the Day mainly on strategic grounds: It encourages teachers to look beyond their own classrooms to broader school goals. “I use it as an initial strategy to bring all the teachers together,” she says.
Observes Browne: “We try not to be too intrusive because it turns the teachers off. What we find is usually there are a few people who are open right away. Others are hesitant. Once we show them we’re not there to beat them up, then the rest of the people open up to us.”
Lula Ford, probation manager at DuSable High, singles out the team’s professional development work with teachers as especially helpful. “It really should be a model for all those schools that have been reconstituted,” raves Ford.
She also applauds the team’s willingness to push a school’s administration, too. Initially, she says, “I wasn’t pleased with the amount of monitoring I saw. Once the administration bought in, then OK, we got started.”