A+ Releases Policy Brief on ARI

Why Support the Alabama Reading Initiative?
It’s Smart Money Well Spent –
A Proven Program with a Big Return

Difficult choices confront legislators as you consider the K12 public school budget for 2012.

Ideally, the result of your efforts will:

• Limit the impact of budget cuts on student learning,
• Limit job losses resulting from a reduction in teaching positions, and
• Safeguard and build on Alabama’s recent gains in student achievement.

Meeting these three goals will be very challenging – and many worthy programs are under intense scrutiny.

Questions have been raised about the necessity of several teacher training initiatives – including the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI), the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI), and Advanced Placement (AP) support.

The argument goes something like this: These programs are targeting practicing teachers. If they didn’t learn how to teach these subjects in college, then we need to fix the education schools. Why are we paying for all this remedial training?

We want to answer that question. To do so, we’ll focus on the reasons why our state’s investments in the Alabama Reading Initiative over the past decade have been – and continue to be – smart money well spent on a proven reform strategy that continues to yield a big return on investment.

What is the purpose of the Alabama Reading Initiative?

Remember the day that you graduated from college full of learning, optimistic and eager? Remember your first day on the job, unsure and struggling? For most of us, the real learning process for our life work began at our place of work, with our education providing the strong foundation for our maturing skills.

Remember also when the new employee came on the job filled with technical skills and computer savvy that were foreign and even somewhat threatening? Remember thinking: How can I learn this? They didn’t even have this when I was in school!

This is also true for the teaching profession. The ARI is designed to ensure that all of our teachers, new and seasoned, are armed with the skills they need to provide our children with the literacy skills they will need for our changing world.

How does the ARI work?

Alabama was one of the first states in the nation to address its reading challenge. In its early years, the ARI introduced research about effective reading instruction to teachers and principals in grades K-12 during two-week summer academies. It soon became clear that more than two weeks in the summer was needed to support and sustain continuous improvement. Capacity had to be built at the school level to implement truly effective instructional practices in reading.

Relying on national research and best practice, schools created positions for reading coaches who were trained and supported by the ARI regional staff. The coaches ensured that professional learning continued throughout the year at the school site and during the school day so that proven research and teaching became effective practice. The ARI regional staff also provided on-going professional development to school leadership teams who became more adept at sustaining change and growth at the school level. By 2006, the state provided the resources to give this structured support to all teachers in grades K-3.

Once the coaches and support were in place for K-3, the ARI began to address the task of increasing reading comprehension for all content areas (social studies, science, math, and language arts), and to expand support for intervention for struggling readers to grades 4 – 8. Comprehension materials for grades 4 and up have been developed and piloted with a variety of districts. The ARI is working to fine-tune and make them available to anyone online.

Most of the over 800 schools with a coach are currently being served school-wide whether they are K-5, K-8, or K-12. These coaches and schools are provided support by the ARI regional staff. In addition, middle schools and high schools that were a part of the ARI in the early years have participated in statewide training. Other high schools and systems are now requesting this support. In a move away from a “one size fits all approach” the ARI provides differentiated support that is developed in collaboration with local school leaders.

Impact of the ARI

Our state saw the results of this investment when Alabama led the nation in 2007 in gains in 4th grade reading achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That year Alabama increased 8 points on the composite scale score from 208 to 216 and began to close the gap with the national average score of 220. All groups made gains including an 8 point gain for black students and a 13 point gain for students receiving special education services.

In 2009, the “wave” of improvement extended to the middle grades as only three states had greater gains in 8th grade reading. For 4th grade, Alabama scored higher than 9 states, not significantly different than 12 states and lower than 30 states. These gains demonstrate that we can make progress when we focus on a goal and provide educators support. But as the accompanying charts demonstrate, we still have work to do to close the achievement gaps with other states and among groups within Alabama.

The training for middle and high schools has just begun but is already having impact. Listed below are some excerpts from the evaluations for this year’s ARI professional development and support for leadership teams in grades K-12:

• “The content was exactly what we needed, and the delivery was exactly right for the secondary administrators/teachers.” (Sandra Spivey, Madison County Schools)

• “Monday’s ARI training was wonderful! It was especially beneficial having coaches, teachers, and administrators all at the same training. The day was very productive and the content was very appropriate and useful.” (Stacie Pace, Arab City Schools)

• “Last week’s session was SO informative and interactive… I appreciate all that your team does to bring us the best in professional development.” (Jeanne Welt, NBCT, Instructional Coach, Bob Jones High School, Madison City Schools)

• “The content, facilitation, and value to participants scored a big success in all areas! The secondary schools are especially grateful for the training.” (Nancy Curry, Madison County Schools)

Why is reading such a high priority?

Reading is the cornerstone to all learning. Competence in reading is essential to all other areas of understanding – math, science, the arts, even citizenship.

Education reform expert Mike Schmoker, author of Results Now, says we make a mistake when we think of “reading” as just about deciphering words on a page. Comprehension is the key. Students have to be able to make sense of non-fiction text that’s packed with ideas and information. He says schools today must:

ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum. We aren’t
even close to that now. All students should be reading deeply, discussing, arguing, and writing about what they read every day in multiple courses.

Preparing all of our teachers – in and out of college – to teach students with this level of professional skill is a huge undertaking.

And lack of fundamental reading skills is a major economic development issue. Most high school dropouts are poor readers. Their economic impact is staggering.

• In the U.S., 1 million students drop out annually (twice the size of the U.S. Army).

• Each dropout costs about $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity over the course of his/her lifetime.

• More than 50% of these dropouts are not in the labor market. Unemployment leads to incarceration, a reliance on social services, and lack of health insurance.

• Nationally, the dropouts from the class of 2008 alone will cost the U.S. more than $319 billion in lost lifetime earnings.

Download entire brief here.