It’s no secret that most large-scale efforts to change instruction in city schools die fast. Surprisingly, some elements of the Chicago Reading Initiative, launched in the fall of 2001, have had remarkable staying power. But the heavy investment in staff and training waned over time, and test scores offer no signs that the effort improved achievement where improvement was needed most.

Under pressure to boost stagnant reading scores, then-CEO Arne Duncan invested $12.5 million in the 114 lowest-scoring elementary schools. The funds brought each school a reading specialist to coach classroom teachers and new money for classroom libraries. (The district also sent an additional teacher to each school to reduce class size in the early grades, at an unspecified cost.)

To lead the initiative, Duncan tapped Tim Shanahan, a nationally recognized reading expert  based at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Shanahan kept directives to a minimum but made his bottom lines clear: spend two hours daily on literacy, divide the time among four areas (word knowledge, comprehension, fluency and writing) and use teaching strategies supported by research. He also made peace between the warring camps in reading instruction by promoting balanced literacy, which encourages teachers both to teach phonics directly and to expose early readers to content-rich literature.

Later, when district resources ran low, the Duncan administration sought to protect the program. During a budget crunch, then-Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins insisted that schools on probation hire a second reading specialist — in addition to the centrally-funded one — maintain smaller class sizes in primary grades and increase spending on professional development.

By the 2005 school year, the reading initiative cost $52 million and reached 365 schools. Yet test scores suggested an underwhelming return on investment. Only 45 of the 109 schools that had been part of the reading initiative since its inception were posting reading gains above district averages. Scores at another 41 schools declined.

Rapid turnover in top leadership and too few reading specialists for the increasing number of schools involved likely weakened the program.

See “Building a program under the gun,” April 2002 and “Reading initiative expands, stumbles,” December 2004



In the mid- to late-2000’s, Chicago Public Schools took steps to recharge its reading initiative. It attempted to bring order to the chaos of locally determined reading curricula by offering schools a vetted menu of choices. By 2009-10, more than 300 elementary schools had chosen one of the district options for a reading curriculum.

In 2010, the district created a new framework to help teachers and principals quickly determine the quality of their schools’ reading instruction. But it kept the 2-hour time requirement and the emphasis on balanced literacy.

The new guidelines insisted that every student should have daily opportunities to:

  • “Read about something I like and understand”
  • “Write about something meaningful to me”
  • “Enjoy listening to an adult read aloud”
  • “Talk about what I read and write”

At the time, teachers  expressed concern about getting enough books for independent reading.

Almost a year later, the Consortium on Chicago School Research released a report that found the district had made no significant gains in elementary-school reading over the two decades since 1990, when Chicago’s first school reform law took effect. The analysis also revealed problems with year-to-year comparisons of publicly reported test data, which had shown large gains.

Over the period, the racial achievement gap widened. African-American elementary students made no progress in reading and were concentrated in schools that made the least progress as measured by tests.

Under former CEO Paul Vallas, the system’s worst schools made some progress. But under Duncan—and during the years of the Chicago Reading Initiative—the schools that needed to improve the most performed the worst. [Recent results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed Chicago’s 4th-grade reading scores improved, bucking the national trend, but also showed wider achievement gaps by race in both math and reading than elsewhere.]

See “District gives schools four signposts for reading instruction,” Catalyst December 2010, and “Consortium says little improvement in elementary students over two decades,” September 2011



No single factor can fully explain changes in aggregate test scores, so it’s hard to know whether the Chicago Reading Initiative simply didn’t work or if it had positive effects that were outweighed by other influences. If the Chicago Reading Initiative did make a positive difference, it was because of the initial deep training and support for teachers and principals, says Shanahan. “If you make that kind of investment in people, they can do some amazing things.”

But over the years, the numbers of reading experts available to schools and the quality of their training dwindled. By 2011, the school-level position of reading specialist had disappeared. Across the district, 75 reading coaches were at work: 44 in area office and 31 who were funded by a federal research grant. The resources at hand were far too small to support the intensive training and coaching needed to make balanced literacy a reality citywide.

While the CPS Office of Literacy continues to promote the 2-hour literacy block and a balanced approach in which teachers address all four areas of literacy instruction, more in-depth efforts to boost reading are subject to the whims of grant funding. For example, last year an effort called Ready Readers provided targeted tutoring to 4,200 struggling 2nd-graders in 250 schools. Though the program got good reviews from teachers, the grant money dried up and the project was not renewed.

Shanahan doesn’t see a repeat of the Chicago Reading Initiative’s early commitment to training and supporting teachers and principals happening any time soon. “They’re not willing to concentrate that amount of resources in a group of teachers or principals,” he said. That kind of investment in school-level staff, coupled with trust in their judgment, doesn’t come naturally to districts. “It’s expensive and scary for the leadership.”

See “Reading fundamentals,” Catalyst June 2011

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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