The Crisis of Chronic Absenteeism

This week, in recognition of National Attendance Month, we are pleased to share an interview with Leslie Cornfeld, who in 2010 was appointed Chair and founding Director of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism & School Engagement. 

Cornfeld now serves as Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education, and Director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships.

I spoke with Cornfeld about absenteeism as an equity issue, its impact on student achievement, how she’s worked to address it both at the state and federal level, and what she’s learned about how absenteeism is perceived by parents and educators nationwide.

 

When we talk about “chronic absenteeism,” what exactly do we mean—and why does it matter? 

Chronic absenteeism—missing at least 18 days of school in a year, excused or unexcused—is a devastating problem in our nation. It is a leading cause of high drop-out rates, poor college and career readiness, and criminal justice involvement. 

You’ve called it a "crisis"—how bad is the problem? 

Our [US Department of Education] Office of Civil Rights recently released the first national accounting of chronic absenteeism in our country. The numbers are alarming: over 6 million students missed 3 weeks or more of school. That’s over 90 million lost days of school. 

It starts early. Roughly 10% of students in elementary school missed 3 weeks or more a year; 12% in middle school, and 20% in high school. Tragically those numbers are higher in low-income communities, where school offers the best hope for a better future. 

The impact is devastating—on students, schools and communities. Frequent absences lead to poor academic achievement and dropping out. Absences in the early years reduce the likelihood that students will read proficiently by third grade—making those students four times more likely to drop out of high school. From eighth to 12th grade, absenteeism is a better predictor of who will drop out than test scores.

In New York City, when we looked at the data, we learned that in 79% of juvenile arrests, the student was chronically absent preceding the arrest. Those who drop out are substantially more likely to be incarcerated and live in poverty. It’s a problem that we as a nation can not afford to disregard. 

Why are kids missing so much school?

There are several myths about the causes of chronic absenteeism, including  that these kids are lazy, unmotivated or simply don’t care.

The research suggests something very different. Chronic absences are typically fueled by circumstances beyond these students’ control, including the challenges of poverty, poor health, frequent moves, caring for relatives, working to help support families or multiple jobs, bullying, gangs, transportation problems, and dangerous routes to school. And some students don’t go simply because no one seems to care whether they show up. The good news is that this is a problem we can do something about.

How do schools and districts use data to address absenteeism?

Data is a critical component of any effort to address this crisis. If used properly, chronic absenteeism is a powerful early warning indicator that a student is at risk of poor academic performance and dropping out. It allows states, districts and schools to intervene early, before it becomes easier to drop out than to catch up.

Kids don’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to drop out.” It is a slow fade. Chronic absenteeism provides an early warning flag, and opportunity to turn that around. 

How is chronic absenteeism an equity issue?

It’s absolutely an equity issue. Absenteeism rates are disproportionately higher among Black and Latino students —20% miss 3 or more weeks of school. That’s 1 in 5 students. Rates are also higher in our lowest income communities, and among our most vulnerable populations. It is important to note, however, that this is a problem nationwide, as most school districts have pockets of students who are chronically absent.

You mentioned the Federal initiative that has been launched to address chronic absenteeism nationwide. What does that look like, and what strategies are you bringing from the New York City model? 

One year ago, President Obama launched Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism as part of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative (MBK). This is a multi-agency, “all hands-on-deck” effort to address absenteeism using a comprehensive strategy driven by the White House, and Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice.

The campaign has provided tools, supports, free resources, best practice strategies, and a public awareness campaign  to encourage states and local communities across the country to reduce absenteeism by at least 10% each year. 

Why a public awareness campaign—don’t most people know attendance matters? 

Great question. There’s a huge awareness gap. A recent Ad Council study showed that while most parents recognize that attendance is important, roughly 50% thought it was fine to miss three or more days a month. That’s over a month of school. Full disclosure: as a parent, I was surprised at how quickly absences add up. To address this, we launched a National Ad Council awareness campaign called Absences Add Up, which provides outdoor and digital public service announcements, and free resources and supports. Help us spread the word, take a look at AbsencesAddUp.org. We had a similar campaign in New York City, which proved useful. 

Tell me more about the New York City model.

During the Administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, we became aware of the scale and impact of chronic absenteeism. Over 250,000 students missed a month or more of school during the year in NYC. The Mayor created an interagency taskforce to address this challenge, for which I served as chair and director.  As with the federal model, we engaged the heads of all relevant agencies: education, child welfare, health, justice, housing —and developed cross-sector strategies to address this challenge.

We piloted various strategies over a three-year period, starting in 25 high-need schools, which we increased to 100 schools in the third year, and which included new data sharing tools, an awareness campaign, and celebrity WakeUp calls.

An evaluation found that the most successful element of the effort was the NYC Success Mentor Corps, which combines big data with the human touch. It is a low-cost, scalable model that relies on existing school-linked resources, and connects them to chronically absent students.

Mentors could be anyone in the school community, from athletic coaches, teachers, security guards to college students or AmeriCorps members—people who are already connected to the school. They serve as motivators, connectors and cheerleaders, and help identify the cause of the absences, help connect the student to resources and supports, and celebrate strengths and successes. 

Johns Hopkins evaluated the model, and found that it significantly reduced absenteeism, and that the greatest positive impact was on kids who were homeless or living in poverty, and also that there was significant positive impact on dropout prevention. Those students with mentors were 53% more likely to remain in school the following year. 

So how does the Success Mentor model work?

In this model, the student and the mentor meet three days a week—sometimes one-on-one, and sometimes in a small group setting—and they continue to meet regularly throughout the year. 

Because it’s really important to start early in the year, schools begin by identifying kids who were chronically absent the prior year. That way, they are starting strong with a matched mentor who then stays with the student through the full academic year. 

The beauty of the model is that when the mentor is someone connected with the school community, they are around the students regularly, even apart from scheduled meetings.

The Department and our collaborators provide Virtual Training Summits, on site visits and/or check-in calls, office hours, White House training and network summits and other resources.

We’re now rolling out this model nationally, aiming to target a million students in 30 cities over the next 3-5 years. The goal is for every chronically absent student to have a mentor, and that each mentor will have access to infrastructure that helps them address what’s going on. 

The Washington Post called New York City’s campaign a “model of what’s possible.” Were you surprised by anything you learned?

There were three surprises. First, the lack of awareness about this problem, including among teachers, school leaders, school partners and students and parents. That’s why in New York City, and for the Federal effort, we worked with the Ad Council to get out the word about the devastating impact of the problem, and how to access free resources and support. 

Second, we were surprised to discover how few schools and districts measured this problem. Without that information, it’s impossible to know the extent of the issue, and to address it. 

Third, we were surprised by the immense power of combining data with the human touch through the Success Mentor model.

I will always remember one student’s response when asked how he managed to go from missing over 35 days of school the prior year to almost none. His response: "no one ever asked me to come every day."

His Success Mentor had done just that, plus let him know that his presence mattered. (To learn more about this model visit NationalSuccessMentors.org.)   

Any final words for our readers?

Yes, this challenge should rise to a priority level for everyone who is interested in improving the educational and life outcomes for students in our high need communities, and elsewhere. It doesn’t matter what great things are happening in our schools if the very students who can benefit the most aren’t there. 

 

In recognition of Attendance Awareness Month (September), this is the second of a two-part series exploring the impact of chronic absenteeism and looking at solutions. To read part one, an interview with Hedy Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, click here.

Guided Reading—Making It Work Right Away

As teachers, we know how important it is to get our class working and problem-solving independently so that we can effectively differentiate instruction. This includes, but is not limited to, guided reading instruction. There is a multitude of specific systems that need to be in place to successfully implement guided reading instruction starting from the beginning of the school year.

I find the following to be successful in an elementary school classroom: 

Assess right away!

Before we can even group students by level and ability, we need to assess them. Every school and district does this differently, but usually assessment involves administering and analyzing running records. Running record data is so valuable because it shows us exactly what skills and strategies our students use for both word-solving and comprehension. It also shows us data about their fluency, accuracy, and exactly how they tackle unfamiliar words.

All of this information will ultimately be essential in guided reading groups, because it is the basis for instruction! I recommend using last year’s data as a starting point for assessments. In my district, we use running record data to determine a student’s independent and instructional guided reading level. My ultimate goal is to have my beginning-of-the-year assessments done within a month of school starting. After this, I group my students according to their instructional reading level. 

Have a plan for what the rest of your class will be working on

Now that we’ve assessed and grouped our students, it’s time to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s time to think about what your other students will be doing when you’re working with your guided reading group.  It is important for them to be engaged in meaningful, literacy-based activities such as: independent reading, writing a reader’s response, e-reading, or using literacy apps on iPads/tablets. I suggest doing a combination of these activities and having some type of a daily rotation.

Explicitly teach your class how to do the activities above 

What does independent reading, e-reading, working on a tablet/computer, and writing a reader’s response look like and sound like? Students need to know the answer to this question, and it is our job to explicitly teach this to our class. I usually make a looks-like/sounds-like t-chart for each activity and brainstorm with my class what each one looks and sounds like. Then we post the corresponding anchor chart in the classroom. We do this during the beginning of the year to set the expectations immediately.  Most reader’s workshop units have “routine” teaching points like these built into the “launching the reader’s workshop” unit—don’t skip over them!

Students should know what to do when they need something

In an earlier post I explained all about how to foster independence in your students during small group instruction. Go here for ideas and strategies.

Plan ahead

First and foremost, put guided reading into your weekly lesson plans. I know this sounds obvious, but it is so helpful in ensuring that you get to all of your groups each week. Some students and groups need more support so planning in advance also helps teachers schedule accordingly. You should also think about what texts you need for each group and exactly what you plan to do with those texts. How do you know what to do? What do the kids need? Look at that running record data! Don’t haphazardly pick texts. Don’t sit with your group and in the moment think to yourself, “What should I do with them?”

Bottom line—have a plan!

Be organized

As I mentioned earlier, it is important to have homogeneous reading groups. You may also have some type of a class list that includes every child’s level and ability. This should be something you can look at with a quick glance. 

It is also important to have a system for note-taking and then filing away those notes. In my guided reading notes, I always include:

  • Text title & level
  • The names of the children in the group
  • Student behaviors before (during the book introduction), during, and after reading
  • Teaching point
  • Next steps
  • Possible follow-up work (this may include, but isn’t limited to: word work, reader’s response)

Below is a sample guided reading note-taking template.

When I’m finished, I put the notes in my “Guided Reading” binder. I keep the notes in chronological order so that I can access and review them easily. 

Lastly, be sure to have an organized guided reading area/table. Any materials you (or your students) may need during a guided reading lesson should be accessible and near you—you shouldn’t need to leave your group!

This may include, but isn’t limited to: your group notes, the binder/folder that you have filed notes into, books for each group, pencils, a table-top easel, post-its, magnet letters, mini whiteboards, and any other guided reading tools you have accumulated over the years! 

Guided reading instruction is a critical component of our reading block! It is an important opportunity for teachers to hone in on exactly what their students need, in a small group setting. In order to prepare for that very first guided reading lesson, we need to be organized, thoughtfully plan, and establish classroom routines that support effective guided reading instruction.  

 

 

 

 

Fostering Literacy for All Students

Dr. Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, will be speaking at the Literacy Leaders' Institute (San Diego, CA, September 22-24, 2016), presented by Scholastic and ASCD.

The important work of closing literacy gaps for all students yields the most powerful impact if begun before students start the new school year. Yet, engaging students with accessible, relevant texts, and bringing families into the literacy community will support students with ongoing literacy-rich experiences when reinforced throughout the academic year.

Below are some strategies that were developed for students living in high-poverty communities, but which will work for families in any environment.

Engaging Students and Families with Literacy 

Both parents and teachers should begin this work before the fall. Parents should be given information about ways to prepare students for a literacy-rich culture before the school year begins. By the same token, educators should learn as much as possible about the students they will serve and their levels of literacy before students return to school.

Below are five ways to begin establishing this community of literacy, and strategies to cultivate it throughout the year.

  1. When possible, conduct literacy assessments before students begin school. Assessments and can be part of open house events, registration events, or literacy nights for students. 

  2. Personalize learning by gaining information through home visits, calls and through reviewing past student records. Developing materials tailored to students’ interests can help them establish an immediate connection to the school or classroom. As a superintendent, I have found that effective school leaders complete home visits, and send letters to parents to learn about what kids have to read at home, as well as about students’ hobbies and interests.

  3. For families with internet access, post online resources to reach both parents and students at home

  4. Develop classroom libraries based on students’ interests, and based on the various genres and types of grade-level text students need to be exposed to. 

  5. When possible, open classroom libraries before the new school year begins to expose families to resources that students will utilize. Host a school literacy night before the first day of school and help families learn how to support their child’s literacy at home.

Making Literature Accessible and Using Print-Rich Spaces

In Jennings, Missouri, where I served as superintendent, our community did not have a public library, and families had limited access to reading materials.  

In an effort to compensate for the lack of available texts, we provided the following resources:

  • Literature—books, magazines, magnetic letters, leveled readers—were given to families and daycare centers attended by many of our students.

  • We partnered with nearby libraries and newspaper services to offer book mobiles, newspaper in education activities, field trips to the library, and library mobile stations.

  • We provided to families the literature, activities and online web resources that our teachers planned to use during the first month of school for students to read at home over the summer. The pre-exposure to literacy is essential before students begin the school year.

  • We used online resources such as free ebooks and online reading assessment resources, as well as word study and other activities that allow students to practice comprehension and fluency. 

  • We encouraged families to have students keep a journal or write, and provided families with the information and support they need to help kids to accomplish this task. Writing—and reading their own writing—supports students’ development as readers in an ongoing manner.

  • We created the print-rich environment that is so important in PreK-12 instructional spaces. Students should be surrounded by words, letters, vocabulary, decoding strategies and visual literacy in all content areas when they enter school. The connection between speech, visual literacy, writing and reading are all supported in print-rich environments, and students foster deeper levels of learning when schools are print rich.

Guided Reading: Part 2, Benefits of Small Group Instruction

The post below originally appeared in full on Scholastic's Top Teaching blog.

Both good and struggling readers benefit from guided reading. Whole group instruction has its place in literacy programs, but there are great benefits to students who are given the opportunity to have differentiated, teacher-led instruction in a small group setting. During small group reading instruction, the teacher’s goal is to assist students in developing an understanding of what they are reading, but also to encourage students to apply reading strategies they will need to become independent readers.

Why is Guided Reading Important?

Guided reading gives us the opportunity to ensure more reading in school (with instructional support). Students should also read independently during the reading workshop and take books home to read. Amount of time spent matters, and guided reading provides the following:

  • Daily experience reading a text at a level that supports accuracy and comprehension
  • Experience with a wide variety of genres so that students can develop favorite types of texts
  • Encouragement to read at their independent level as part of the reading workshop
  • Opportunity to talk and write about texts

Guided reading also provides teachers the perfect opportunity to observe and offer guidance to their students as they read aloud in a small group setting. One of my favorite aspects of guided reading is that it gives me an opportunity to be close to my students, get to know them a little bit better and more than anything, share my love for reading. I cherish the moments I get with my students as we spend time reading together. In fact, I would have to say that guided reading is a favorite time of my day!

To learn more about getting started with guided reading in your class, visit Top Teaching!

 

How to Teach Civics and not Get Lost in the Circus

Earlier this week, Elliot Rebhun, Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Classroom Magazines, was featured on the Washington Post's "Answer Sheet" column, discussing how Scholastic News covers election news at every grade level. We have permission to reproduce a portion of the column below. To learn more about age- and grade-appropriate ways to teach the election, please click here.

For educators, the 2016 election is proving trickier than most to talk about with students. From nasty debates to controversial positions on the issues, this election can be a tough one to discuss in classrooms at any grade level.

But educators across the nation don’t want to miss this chance to teach kids about how our democracy works, and to engage them in the democratic process. Teachers have only four opportunities, at best—from the time students start kindergarten until they graduate from high school—to let their kids experience a presidential election.

And the civics of this election doesn’t need to be lost in the circus. Like any controversial topic, the election can be taught as long as it’s handled appropriately for each grade level.

What follows is a look at how the content and approach to election coverage varies from kindergarten through high school. Our goal is always to engage students in the electoral process in age-appropriate ways, no matter how contentious any given election gets.

Find out more by visiting the "Answer Sheet!"

Guided Reading: Part 1, Getting Set Up

The post below originally appeared in full on Scholastic's Top Teaching blog.

Children have always come to school with a range of literacy experiences and abilities. Teachers continue to struggle daily as they attempt to meet the needs of all their learners. A one-size-fits-all model of teaching will never meet this varied range and, in fact, there is evidence that providing students with the same reading instruction can actually be detrimental to student achievement.

Differentiation

Differentiated instruction is matching instruction to the different needs of learners in a given classroom. The range of instructional needs within one classroom is vast. In order to accommodate these instructional needs, teachers need to provide small group, differentiated instruction. In a differentiated classroom, students are given many opportunities to practice and reinforce reading skills by participating in whole and small group activities. Students are given many opportunities to practice, demonstrate, and extend learning independent of the teacher during independent literacy centers. Teachers will also provide explicit instruction based on student need at the teacher-led table — and guided reading provides a perfect platform for differentiation. 

What Is Guided Reading?

Guided reading is a differentiated approach to teaching reading. It is done in small groups with the goal of preparing students to become independent readers. Guided reading gives teachers the opportunity to observe students as they read texts at their own instructional levels.

Although there are many different definitions of guided reading, Burkins & Croft (2010) identify these common elements: 

  1. Working with small groups
  2. Matching student reading ability to text levels
  3. Giving everyone in the group the same text
  4. Introducing the text
  5. Listening to individuals read
  6. Prompting students to integrate their reading processes
  7. Engaging students in conversations about the text

To learn more about getting started with guided reading in your class, visit Top Teaching!

Attendance: The New Equity Frontier

What’s the single most important word a student can say every day to boost achievement? 

Here.

The act of showing up to school is one of the greatest predictors of student success, from early literacy through graduation, with impact lasting into adulthood. Kids miss school for lots of reasons: sickness, truancy, suspension, and out-of-school barriers. Whether excused or unexcused, absent students miss instruction in equal measure. But new research has exposed just how unevenly this issue strikes our nation’s students.

The federal government has recently been shining a bright light on data that tracks students who are chronically absent, commonly defined as missing 10% or more of school days. In June, 2016, the U.S. DOE’s Office of Civil Rights released an unprecedented report on chronic absence, declaring a national crisis: one in eight students across the nation miss 15 or more days of school a year. That’s over 6.5 million students who missed more than three weeks of school during a single school year.

That groundbreaking report prompted Hedy Chang (Executive Director of Attendance Works) and Robert Balfanz (Director of Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University) to probe further. Balfanz explains, "The question we really asked ourselves is: we know there's 6.5 million chronically absent kids in the nation, but where do we find those kids? Because in order to change chronic absenteeism, we have to go where the students are chronically absent, and just a national number doesn't tell us that."

On September 8th, Chang and Balfanz released the results of their analysis in “Preventing Missed Opportunity.”

Their research yielded several dramatic findings:

  • Chronic absence strikes everywhere, occurring in 90% of our nation’s districts.

  • Although it’s widespread, the majority of cases are highly concentrated. Over half of all chronic absenteeism takes place in just four percent of our nation’s districts, and 12% of our schools. 

  • Chronic absenteeism strikes rural areas hard as well as urban. In fact, most of the districts reporting over 30% of students with chronic absenteeism are found in rural areas. 

  • Minorities, students living in poverty, and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected.

Despite those alarming statistics, there is some promising news. Chronic absence can be dramatically reduced when districts, families, and community partners collaborate using proven strategies.

Hedy Chang is one of the nation’s leading champions for increasing attendance as a lever for closing the achievement gap. We spoke to Chang to get her perspective on how families, teachers, and districts can be part of that solution. 

Districts and schools across the country have gotten the message: attendance matters. What are some key steps a district can take to prevent chronic absenteeism?

One huge step all districts and schools should take is to use their attendance data to figure out how much chronic absence is a problem. We offer a free set of tools that can help take a closer look by school, grade, and student sub-groups. Once you analyze the data, you can target your resources where they are needed most. You can look for bright spots with low absence rates, and celebrate those successes.

We’ve also found that sharing the data with school staff, health providers, civic organizations—to name a few—helps everyone to unpack and understand the barriers to attendance and work together to develop solutions.

Are there effective strategies and tools you recommend for families to use?

Yes, in many ways, families are the frontline for tackling this issue. When we emphasize the fact that missing just two days a month impacts a child’s success, that helps frame the issue in a way that’s easy to digest. We recognize that families need a support network, and need to know some ready resources for those times they need help getting their kids to school.

We’ve also found that encouraging family routines makes a big difference. For example, having a set bedtime and reading a book at night can ease the transition to school the next morning.

You mention reading a book at bedtime. We know that higher attendance is linked to higher literacy rates. But can building family literacy also be a strategy for boosting attendance?

Literacy and attendance go hand-in-hand. First of all, children with better attendance have higher reading scores—that’s a known fact. But there is a deeper cycle to look at. When students gain literacy skills and feel more successful, then they are more likely to want to go school.

In addition, we’ve seen that participation in family literacy programs is associated with higher attendance. We think this could reflect the additional boost that comes when parents have a connection to their children’s learning and have a better sense for why showing up to school, as early as preschool and kindergarten, matters so much for their learning and succeeding.

Chronic absenteeism strikes hard in areas of urban poverty, but your research also revealed a high impact in some rural areas as well.  Does the nature of absenteeism vary in different areas? 

Absolutely. The issue of poverty is one constant that contributes to families lacking the resources to address basic needs (such as housing, transportation, food, clean clothes, and health care) that are necessary for daily attendance.

But the way this plays out varies by community. For example, transportation is often a great challenge in rural communities, as well as the sense of isolation that may accompany that geographic factor. Additionally, children with health issues who live even farther away from school often miss school because gaining access to medical treatment requires driving long distance.

With the latest research, chronic absence is now recognized as a barrier to an equal opportunity to learn.  Has this national spotlight on attendance as an equity issue prompted any action at the federal level?

Yes, there’s been incredible movement on the federal level! The White House and U.S. Department of Education teamed up in February 2016 to launch the My Brother’s Keeper’s Success Mentors initiative, and an Ad Council Campaign, both aimed at ensuring students are in school every day so they can learn.   

Do these initiatives have teeth? Will they move the needle?

We really believe so, and we’re already seeing changes. Chronic absence is now a required reporting element in ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act. State Education Agencies must release an annual state report card describing how the state is meeting Title I requirements. In addition to measures such as per-pupil expenditures and student achievement, the report cards must include rates of chronic absenteeism, along with incidences of violence, including bullying and harassment. Local Education Agencies are also required to issue report cards to the public that include chronic absenteeism. In addition, under ESSA, states have the option of defining whether or not to use chronic absence as a measure of school quality and student success.  With all of these measures, along with increased funding, we think we will see chronic absenteeism decline dramatically. More importantly, we are hopeful that we’ll see equal access to learning lead to increased academic and lifelong success.

 

In recognition of Attendance Awareness Month (September), this is the first post of a two-part series exploring the impact of chronic absenteeism and looking at solutions.

 

How to Implement a Sustainable Comprehensive Literacy Program

Michael Haggen, Scholastic Education's Chief Academic Officer, will be speaking at the Literacy Leaders' Institute, presented by Scholastic and ASCD (San Diego, CA, September 22-24, 2016). If you're an educational thought leader who would like to plan and implement a comprehensive literacy program in your school or district, click here to register!

Creating a literacy-rich culture in school begins with the implementation of a strong, sustainable literacy plan. In order to achieve this, literacy leaders must develop a long-term comprehensive literacy strategy that is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to all students’ academic needs—and  which is also steeped in family engagement, learning supports, and ongoing professional learning. 

Literacy instruction “must-haves”

Although balanced literacy instruction will vary from district to district, there are five components that are essential to any program—what I call the reading and writing “must-haves.” They are:

  1. Read and Write Aloud
  2. Shared Reading and Writing
  3. Guided Reading and Writing
  4. Independent Reading and Writing

Messaging

With these elements in mind, literacy leaders will decide on what comprehensive literacy looks like in their particular school or district. Once a vision is achieved, it is crucial to share the plan not only with the central office and school community—but also with students’ families. We know that students reach their fullest academic potential when they are deeply engaged with literacy both in and out of school—and so ongoing engagement with families is essential. Once the message has been shared, the school or district can begin the work of creating a culture of rich literacy.

Building from strengths

No matter what a district’s literacy goals are, no matter what has been achieved or what challenges lie ahead, an important first step is assessing strengths and building from there. So whether a school or district is just starting, or whether strategies have been in place for several years, a flexible and adaptive plan will use existing strengths as a starting point. Going forward, literacy leaders will gather and analyze current data on student reading levels, and make necessary adjustments. In differentiated classrooms, students learn in small groups that constantly grow and change based on students’ mastery of essential skills. This literacy plan is flexible and dynamic: always responsive to current teacher and student work.

Thinking long term

Many districts want to try to implement a plan in just one year. But a strong comprehensive literacy program doesn’t just support the academic achievement of this year’s students, or next year’s—the best program will be scalable and sustainable in the long-term. I recommend beginning in the lower grades (K-2) with building vocabulary, word study, and doing guided reading. Then ideally, by third grade, readers will have already experienced several years of balanced literacy instruction—they are on their way to self-selecting books and doing independent reading with gained student skills. It sounds like a long process, but the goal is that by middle school, teachers will no longer be teaching reading; kids will have developed solid skills over a 3-5 year period.   

Professional development pulls it all together

What makes all of this come together is incredible professional development. Once the plan is implemented, coaches can stay in the district and work with teachers day-to-day, modeling the techniques that teachers need to master. With a multi-year plan for embedded professional development, teachers build expertise that is sustainable, and stays with the district.

Working Magic: International Literacy Day, September 8, 2016

Carl Sagan, American astronomer, astrophysicist, and author, was also a bibliophile who famously suggested that books are "proof that humans are capable of working magic."

On Wednesday, September 8, 2016, governments, organizations, and communities around the world will recognize and celebrate the magic of books and reading. International Literacy Day was founded in 1965 by UNESCO to showcase the life-enhancing learning power of literacy, as well as provide the global community with a "health check" of the status of literacy worldwide.

The focus of the two-day conference is to honor those who have been working to ensure that, by 2030, all youth and many adults will achieve both literacy and numeracy. Additionally, those attending the conference will launch the Global Alliance for Literacy (GAL), which aims to "promote literacy as a foundation for lifelong learning." 

Scholastic, a dedicated promoter of literacy for more than 95 years, recently released the results of the international editions of the Kids & Family Reading Report™ survey in conjunction with International Literacy Day. As those results clearly show, children across the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and India share much in common when it comes to the magic of reading. 

Students across all four countries overwhelmingly:

  • prefer to choose their own books

  • enjoy being read aloud to

  • benefit from a parent who is a reading role model

  • want to read books that make them laugh.

While we can smile in agreement with these insightful findings, we must never lose sight of the people around the world who are far less fortunate. Vast numbers of both children and adults still can’t read. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) reports that there are "758 million adults 15 years and older who still cannot read or write a simple sentence. Roughly two-thirds of them are female."

Perhaps nowhere is the life-saving magic of reading more apparent than in a secret library hidden underground, beneath a bombed-out building in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, which has been under siege for nearly four years.

Here, amidst the unfathomable trauma of war, children and adults alike seek safety and solace among the stacks of books—14,000 volumes rescued from homes and offices destroyed by the incessant shelling of the Syrian army. This secret library provides not only hours of reading pleasure in a safe underground haven, but also learning, inspiration, and, most importantly, hope. As one grateful library patron explains to the BBC: 

"In a sense, the library gave me back my life… just like the body needs food, the soul needs books."

Author, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit has written, “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” As we celebrate International Literacy Day on September 8th, let us link hearts, pledge to work the magic of books, and promote the joy and power of literacy—and, in the process, create a peaceful world in which all children have an equal chance for full lives, rich with the magic reading makes possible.  

Want to learn more about the Kids & Family Reading Report™, and kids' attitudes and behaviors around reading books for fun worldwide?

Click here to download the infographic!

Reading Roundup: Surprising (Good) News about School Readiness

In the past week, news outlets have been reporting on new, surprising research out of Stanford University regarding the narrowing of the school-readiness gap. The findings include:

  • low-income children are entering school with stronger reading and math skills
  • the achievement gap between low- and high-income kindergartners shrank 10-16%

Below is a roundup of four articles, each with their own take on the good news. 

The Good News About Educational Inequality by Sean F. Reardon, Jane Waldfogel and Daphna Bassok

(The New York Times)

The study's authors share their findings in The New York Times. Key quote: "It’s worth noting that the gap in school readiness narrowed because of relatively rapid improvements in the skills of low-income children, not because the skills of children from high-income families declined." 

Low-income kindergartners are closing the achievement gap, reversing a decades-old trend by Emma Brown

(The Washington Post)

Possible explanation for the academic increases made by low-income children: increased focus on early childhood education programs; low-income families now spend more time reading and doing educational recreational activities with their children; public information campaigns about the importance of rich educational experiences for young children. 

Surprise! Amid Rising Inequality, One School Gap Is Narrowing by Eric Westervelt

(NPR.org)

An interview with the study's lead author, Sean Reardon (Stanford University), who attributes the gains to improvements in the quality of preschool, and family and community engagement. 

Finally, a disturbing trend in education shows signs of reversal by Joy Resmovits

(Los Angeles Times)

Key quote: "Why does it matter? Better-prepared kindergartners often have more success in high school. 'The skills that kids have when they enter kindergarten can be very predictive of how they’ll progress through school,' Reardon said. 'It’s hard for schools to undo the differences.'"

 

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