Improving Reading With Strategic Intervention (4)

(This is the fourth of a four-part series)

Even with the best of efforts in data analysis, a school can not consistently create academic success without a comprehensive strategic intervention program. Data cycles can show school-wide, grade level/content, and individual strengths/weaknesses, but it is all meaningless unless a purposeful plan of action is implemented to differentiate instruction based on student needs.

In Oakland, our community faced an inverted Response to Intervention pyramid in Reading; meaning the majority of students needed intensive support (80+ percent). The challenge was finding systemic approaches that accelerated the learning of reading. Compounding issues was high teacher turnover with three-fourths of all teaching positions being vacant. The ability to hire a highly qualified staff in the very challenging neighborhood of East Oakland was not realistic. I needed a highly-energized and motivated group of teachers to learn the necessary skills very quickly. All of the newly teachers were brand new to the profession, including six Teach For America (TFA) recruits.

Before I begin the final chapter of Strategic Intervention, lets recap the previous three steps:

  1. Short Cycles of Inquiry – Because the elementary school was using a 12-week grading cycle, I could either utilize four 3-week time frames or three at 4-week intervals. I decided to use the 3-week cycle (data analysis, common planning with “backwards design”, modeling best lessons/assessment preparation), because I wanted the staff to have as many opportunities to study reading data and adjusting instructional strategies. It was important to train the new staff in the weekly tasks, and then oversee the collaborative practices with a “learning by doing” philosophy. The teacher learning would be organic in nature, with cohorts focused on high-yield instructional strategies producing results.
  2. Use of Data Walls – The use of a comprehensive data display was at the center of all teacher Professional Learning Community (PLC) work. The presence of the Data Wall during PLC time not only supported the work, but provided a very colorful backdrop to the sense of urgency under which the school was operating. Teachers became very motivated in producing positive results. There was genuine celebration at mid-year who classroom teachers moved their stickies on the data wall.
  3. Use of Focus Students – By studying the Data Wall, teacher teams were able to identify clusters of students in the academic reading level bands. Teachers were instructed to analyze data patterns and select a handful of students, who best represented academic and demographic profiles. The intensive work was showing real growth with some students advancing as many as 5-7 reading levels in a semester.


Strategic Intervention

The above picture represents the Response to Intervention (RTI) pyramid. In a typical school population, 80-85% of all students are able to be successful (grade level or benchmark) with good classroom instruction and curriculum. An additional 10-15% need some additional support (strategic) such as small group strategies. A much smaller percent (5%) of students need one-to-one support (intensive). In Oakland, the initial numbers were reversed or inverted with 80-85 % needing Intensive support and very few performing at grade level.

The school-wide data suggested the improvement strategy required two phases. In Phase One, we had to create enough student capacity to move students up academic reading levels. We identified 6 learning bands, Advanced, Proficient, Near-Proficient, Strategic, Near-Strategic, and Intensive.  Our goal was to create a cluster of students at the Near-Proficient and Near-Strategic levels. As a second part of Phase One, we closely monitored all Benchmark and Advanced students to avoid any learning slippage. In Phase Two, we would prioritize the accelerated learning for the Near-Proficient and Near Strategic Levels to move to Benchmark and Strategic, with an additional goal of  reducing the the students at the Intensive Level by fifty percent.

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The Instructional Leadership Team was confident that such a plan would work with effective data analysis and teacher collaboration. The school was in the 2nd year of the Balanced Approach to Literacy (BAL) curriculum as a district pilot. The district provided an outside curriculum coach, and a teacher trainer for the curriculum was onsite. Most of weekly Professional Development was focused on the BAL elements of instruction, Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. During PLC time, grade level teams focused on studying individual student data, and implementing specific instructional strategies.

The next challenge was finding the specific data points that teachers could use to bring differentiated instruction to smaller groups, and intensive intervention to struggling students. The Focus Students were identified, but teachers needed to determine the individual reading skills so that teachers could provide specific support. The breakthrough came from the Fountas and Pinnell literature itself.

The Fountas and Pinnell reading program used the alphabet letters A-Z as reading levels.Though time consuming and labor intensive (20-25 minutes per individual student), teachers received meaningful diagnostic feedback. The literature provided the assessments cutoffs for each reading and level and grade. From this, the grade level teams could easily determine their instructional band cohorts.

The range began Pre-A and A levels for Kindergarten and worked their way up through the elementary years. Each level had designated skills that were measured with Running Record Benchmark assessments. The Matching Books and Readers A-Z and Leveled Prompts for Teaching Reading provided every pre-requisite skill for promotion to higher reading levels. This is a sample for Level A:

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During PLC time, teachers would refer to the F&P documents to determine the key skills to be taught as interventions. During the 3-week cycles, teachers would use the data of the Focus Students to determine the strategic intervention activities. The Balanced Approach to Literature curriculum embedded in-class intervention strategies including “conferring”. Conferring is a small group activity where students receive strategic instruction with specific skill development. In addition, the school’s Teacher on Special assignment (TSA) supported our intervention plan by providing intensive instruction for identified students.

Our year-end results were very encouraging. We had built enough capacity at the top end of the Intensive and Strategic spectrum to move students up in the RTI pyramid. We also successfully reduced a large chunk of students from the Intensive level. The results for K-1 were just as encouraging, because there were fewer students starting out in the lower bands.

As the school leader, my highlight was watching a very young staff grow and learn together. The PLC meetings were frequently a place of joy and enthusiasm. Teachers found the use of data analysis and teamwork to be a fertile place for creative solutions.

One enterprising young teacher, Ms Michelle Ching, toook the strategic intervention to a completely different level. In the Spring of 2015, Ms. Ching proposed an idea for a computer app to Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco (SWEDU). Her proposal incorporated a system that would allow teachers to track students with the Fountas and Pinnell Matching Reading Level documents and support the conferring process from the Balanced Approach to Literacy curriculum in the classroom. She deservingly won first place in the contest, and the App, Literator, has since become available to teachers. Her story is featured in the Forbes article: How Unconventional Experiential Learning is Reshaping Higher Education.

This reading intervention plan was implemented at one of the lowest performing elementary schools in Oakland Unified. It was created specifically to meet the needs of the community. It serves as an example for the use of short cycles of inquiry and diagnostic reading data. It also stands as a testament to the importance of efficacy, empowerment, and teacher engagement to maximize equitable solutions at school sites. I will be spending more in-depth time discussing the role of strategic intervention in later posts, as well as other specific plans from other experiences.

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