The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Can we do it?

I'm thinking more about the USA Today article highlighting the downside of the stimulus - namely, that a lack of progress over the next two years is going to be a very bad thing for funding efforts in the future.

I recently heard Lynn Fielding speak on improvement in the early grades, and there are lessons to be learned from his work. He is chair of the school board in Kennewick, WA, and in his time on the board (20+ years) he oversaw a remarkable improvement in reading proficiency rates. Take a look at the chart below:



As you can see, they went from 57% of kids proficient in reading by 3rd grade to around 90% - an incredible improvement.

But the story behind the story is particularly interesting in light of the need for improvement within stimulus timeframes. You can see that this move from 57% to 90% took 10 years, and it came in two distinct waves: an immediate bump from 57% to 73%, then some real drift until a second wave pushed them to 90%.

Lynn's presentation at an event called Prepared To Learn, and his recent book Annual Growth, Catch-Up Growth, explain these two waves.

When they decided to take on "every child at grade level" as a mission, they did some research to see where they were starting from. And they found that kids are entering kindergarten within a span of six years of preparedness. (Conventional wisdom is that they're all fairly close together and will even out within a year or two.)

The first bump - from 57% to 73% proficiency in 3rd grade reading - came from a community engagement effort designed to promote reading behaviors in the home, such as reading to children, working with them on letter/sound recognition and the like. They had good community support and good buy-in, so the kids who were closer to grade level cleared the bar.

They were pleased with their progress and thought they were essentially done - that this big boost would continue until they hit their mark. But instead they drifted around that level for the next several years. It wasn't until they found the second key - adoption of a proven reading instruction model called Direct Instruction - that they hit their second wave and reached the goal.

Two lessons from this that I can see:
  • Community engagement works. If we need to see improvements in a brief time frame, community engagement (not just parents, but all stakeholders) is a powerful and proven approach. It should be part of any district's toolkit for leveraging the stimulus funding.
  • Community engagement, by itself, is not enough. It's going to take a commitment to doing what works, and not what's easy or conventionally accepted, within the school walls in order to make it the rest of the way. Community engagement can get you partway there, but the way that a school operates instructionally has got to be on target in order to create a substantive and lasting difference in outcomes.

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