Early intervention for struggling readers is the key to helping every child succeed in school and life, 2012 Idaho Teacher of the Year Erin Lenz told the Idaho Legislature’s education committees today.
Lenz teaches first grade at Winton Elementary School in Coeur d’Alene. Although nearly two-thirds of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced school lunch, 99 percent of them scored proficient or advanced on the Idaho Standards Achievement Test last year.
Lenz, whose trip to Boise was sponsored by the Idaho Education Association, said she would not talk about the “hot topics” of education reform on the Idaho ballot this year, yet she made it clear that adequate resources, teacher mentoring, and small class sizes are all critical to help at-risk readers succeed. “We agree, I‘m sure, that the ultimate goal is quality education for all our Idaho children,” Lenz said. “What I am sharing with you today would go a long way toward making that happen.”
She explained that abundant research shows the importance of early intervention, especially as technological advances make literacy skills ever more important. “Research connects illiteracy to the likelihood of dropping out of high school, being incarcerated, being unemployed, and it is a drain on national, state, and local economies,” Lenz said, adding, “Waiting to remediate struggling readers who are entering middle or high school doesn’t make sense.”
Lenz noted that intervention has to happen in the primary years, since remediation takes more time and becomes more costly as students get older. “For example, intervening with an at-risk kindergartener takes approximately 30 minutes a day. Remediating a struggling fourth-grader takes approximately 60 to 90 minutes per day and has less chance of succeeding,” she told lawmakers. “This is where the downward spiral begins. It’s a vicious cycle where students fall farther and farther behind as their peers move forward … when you work with children and understand that the life of this child will be severely impacted without the ability to read, you want to do everything you can to change the course of their life.”
Doing that takes a team, she noted, adding that Winton’s staff – led by Principal Kristin Gorringe – took these steps over the course of several years to attain the 99 percent proficiency:
- “We educated ourselves. We read the research on teaching reading and began implementing those changes in our instruction.”
- “We followed research that said intervene early. The longer you wait, the more costly and the harder it is to make a difference.”
- “We became vigilant in identifying at-risk readers and monitoring their progress until they became proficient.”
- “We worked together sharing resources and ideas and most importantly, collaborating about students and their instructional needs.” (The Coeur d’Alene School District allows its staff collaboration time through late starts for students; Lenz said they talk across grade levels to fine-tune their teaching techniques.)
- Teachers made reading fun in many ways, by singing to students, finding books they actually like to read, and having them write and read their own stories.
- “We formed partnerships with parents and the community to help us reach our goals.”
- “We made sure our paraprofessionals were well-trained to they became an extension of our teaching, not just someone in front of the copy machine.”
- “We were dedicated to learning about the culture of the students we taught in order to meet their needs.”
- “We were tireless in meeting our end goal: getting our students to read.”
Lenz mentioned several challenges that teachers face even when doing everything she described. She noted that because kindergarten is not compulsory in Idaho, children who miss it show up in first grade at a great disadvantage.
She said that it’s critical that all schools – but especially ones with poorer children – have kindergarten and first-grade teachers who are experienced and effective at teaching reading. It’s wrong to place beginning teachers in these most difficult positions, she noted, adding “we must ensure that teachers have the training and resources needed to be effective.”
“We need to get rid of the perception that classrooms with small bodies equal small amounts of learning,” Lenz said. Increased mentoring for new teachers – as well as better collaboration with college and university teacher education programs – could help achieve the goal of reading success for every Idaho child.
Finally, Lenz said class sizes do matter, and one-size-fits-all state mandates don’t take into account local conditions or class composition. For example, she said that if a class has many students who don’t get adequate reading at home, teachers must still meet their needs during the six-and-a-half-hour school day. “We've made great gains in identifying at-risk readers,” she said, but limited time and staff make it a real effort for teachers to reach every child.