Finding reading deficiencies – before they are a problem
West Branch’s Hoover Elementary staff was confident that the upper-grade students were, for the most part, doing well in their literacy instruction. That changed this past year when assessments given to the students painted a different picture.
The data showed the students were underperforming in at least one area: their reading rate, which is an indication of a student’s overall reading performance because it ties together comprehension, vocabulary, and the ability to read words accurately.
“That rate was surprising,” said Hoover Elementary Principal Jess Burger. “We would’ve predicted that more of our students were reading at the grade-level rate than they were.”
But it wasn’t a moment for regrets or finger-pointing. It was an opportunity to identify and fix the problem.
Burger and her team owe this discovery to Iowa’s Early Warning System for Literacy, a new system designed to ferret out chinks in the education armor to ensure every child is maximizing his or her learning experience. The Early Warning System also is designed to find problems that may exist within a classroom, grade level, entire school or even district.
Iowa’s Early Warning System is so named because the goal is to find reading deficiencies – individual or structural – long before they become a problem.
The Early Warning System is a component of Multi-tiered System of Supports, known by its acronym MTSS, which is a proven practice to help schools identify and intervene with struggling readers early on. This is accomplished by adapting instruction to fit those students’ individual needs and then monitoring their progress.
At Hoover Elementary, the warning system found that their literacy efforts were falling short. After incorporating research-based methods into the classrooms, Burger knows they are tackling the problem.
“After that winter assessment, teachers who teach the same grade levels looked at their data as a group, and determined an instructional response to it,” Burger said. “There are specific fluency research-based instructional strategies that were incorporated into the core, as well as targeted groups of students. By the spring assessment, we saw some growth – but the work still needs to get attention. It wasn’t going to be remediated within a couple months. We were able to see the impact of our work now, and we know we are on the right strategy.”
Mary Buol, a lead teacher at Hoover who has been in the profession for 24 years, said veteran teachers in particular were initially skeptical of the Early Warning System and MTSS.
“I had a concern – was this another ebb and flow or new wave that we are on?” Buol said. “What I have seen in training and implementing here at Hoover is that it is not a new thing, but something that focuses the entire building – a focus that I have never seen before in all my teaching.
“For me, I have a renewed spirit. Teachers are working collaboratively more than ever, and our mindset has gone from ‘my students’ to ‘our students.’ Because of the data and the testing we are very specific and focused on what particular skills the students need. This drives our team meetings – how we can best meet students’ needs? It isn’t just me sitting in my classroom thinking ‘why can’t I get Susy to have more growth?’”
Buol is earnest that educators across the state embrace MTSS and its Early Warning System.
“I like to say, No. 1: This isn’t just another thing on the plate. No. 2: It is pulling together our building initiatives and making things more cohesive. And No. 3 three: It is very easy – there is nothing hard about what we are doing.”
Principal Burger agrees.
“Previously we were using other district-wide assessments that weren’t user friendly to implement,” she said. “The speed, the rate at which these assessments can be implemented, is impressive. We’re not talking about 45 minutes to implement. Instead, the lower elementary students (through first grade) take 10 to 12 minutes, and it is only three to six minutes for students second grade through sixth.”
It’s all academic, literally, to Kelley Schlitz, a mother to preschooler twins Joseph and Olivia. It was through the Early Warning System that it was discovered that Joseph was regressing a bit. The problem was identified, the intervention put in place. It worked.
“I am very impressed with their work,” she said. “The staff took care of it before we even knew there was a potential problem.”
How to ensure success in your program
About 10 percent of the state’s schools launched Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) last fall through Collaborating for Iowa’s Kids, a partnership among Iowa’s Area Education Agencies, school districts and the Iowa Department of Education.
The Early Warning System provides several assessments for pre-kindergarten through the sixth-grade levels. The assessments are integrated into an online data system that was specifically designed and built for use across the state of Iowa. A majority of the state’s districts will begin incorporating MTSS by this fall.
Myrissa Gengrich, a consultant for Grant Wood Area Education Agency, has worked closely with Hoover Elementary in West Branch in getting MTSS in place. In talking with her Grant Wood coworkers, they have found that MTSS is likely to have a successful launch if:
- There is consensus among administrators at the district level to make MTSS a top priority.
- Administrators make MTSS a professional development priority.
The schools have time set aside for professional development so that teachers can talk about their data and problem-solve together.
“Many districts see these statewide initiatives – Iowa Core, Early Warning System, leadership – as being separate,” Gengrich said. “They are not – they complement each other. That’s why the administration cannot see this as just another thing to get done. If the administration is not fully engaged in this, it isn’t going to work.”
Hoover Principal Jess Burger said the school environment has to be team oriented.
“The climate has to be safe to take risks and to own mistakes, it has to be a climate where teachers feel supported,” she said. “If they don’t feel they have the resources and support to carry it out, they will be overwhelmed and not succeed.”