Minneapolis Public Schools CDD Academic Plan Part 1: Early Childhood and Literacy

Edit, soon after publication: I’ve tried to make sure all my links work; if you find any broken ones, please comment, tweet me, or use the contact page. Thank you, readers!

Greetings fellow internet denizens! Today I will be diving deeply into the Academic Plan portion of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Comprehensive District Design (CDD). This is the part of the plan that has gotten the least attention in the press and in the district-held listening sessions. I’m hoping to do a few things in this post:

1. Provide the district’s vision for the end result of the Academic Plan (The Vision)

2. Synthesize the AP as it has been presented by MPS. Describe – staying rooted in education research as much as possible – what I see to the good and the bad of the AP. Will it move the needle for students? My basic thesis is this: making the proposed CDD shifts in the name of equity is good, but only if the shift back to community schools actually results in the type of outcomes the District is promising. (The Plan)

3. Discuss what can be done to improve the plan. (Take Action)

Before we continue, I want you to know that this post will be most useful to you if you’ve already got a fairly solid understanding of what the CDD is, as I will be skipping most of the background information here. If you haven’t read my previous post detailing what the CDD is, I strongly recommend going back and reading that before continuing. Specifically, I will be assuming that readers are familiar with the inequitable outcomes at MPS, and the specific changes (community schools, centralized magnets, boundary changes) that the District wants to make. I should also note that I will be considering the general Academic Plan here: what the District is proposing would be delivered at Community Schools. I will not be considering magnet programming in depth; my focus is on what the majority of students will be experiencing. I also want to note that the Academic Plan is in for some criticism in this post. Though I am being critical, that in no way means that I encourage or condone mud-slinging or harassment against any of the people – Ed Graff, Dr. Aimee Fearing – that I will name here. These are people who care a lot about MPS, and are trying to make it better. In turning a critical eye on the Academic Plan, I have the same goal: I want the plan to be better because I want the best for the students at MPS.

Part 1: The Vision

The Academic Plan (outside of discussions about magnets and K-8 v. 6-8 electives) has not been dwelled on at length at any of the CDD Listening Sessions. However, the area that the District has done a relatively good job of communicating is their vision or what community schools will look like after the CDD has been implemented. (Well, that and their CTE plan, which we’ll get to later).

The vision for what schools will look like after the CDD has been presented by Chief Academic Officer Dr. Aimee Fearing to the Board, as well as at listening sessions. You can see this part of the presentation on slide 9 here. I’ll list the points here, though, as they’re an important anchor for the following discussion.

“What will my students gain by going to their community school?

– Access to rigorous instruction without going to another area of the city.

– Access to highly-trained teachers, specifically in reading and math instruction.

– Access to curriculum that represents our students and builds on their cultural assets.

– Increased academic intervention and acceleration opportunities for all students.

– Access to a well-rounded education.

– Access to social-emotional learning equitably incorporating culture and values of community/neighborhood.”

You can see Dr. Fearing discuss these points from 1:08 – 1:14 here, and also from 25:00 – 28:00 here. She is quite passionate about this vision for community schools, and I think most people would agree that a school which ticked all the boxes listed above would be an excellent school. How would community schools provide this? After all, the curriculum we have now, the staff we have now, and the leadership we have now are not projected to change under the CDD (more on that later). How will sending students to their neighborhood school produce all this?

I can see three arguments, one of which has been presented implicitly by the CDD, and two of which Dr. Fearing makes in the first clip I linked to. The implicit argument is this: that by sending students to their community schools, and by making the shift from K-8 to K-5 and 6-8 schools, the district will save money on transportation and on school structure, which will allow them to put more money back into schools. Though I have some questions around the savings (mostly related to if they will evaporate if more students leave the district), this is generally a sound point. If we have more money freed up, we can spend that money on students.

The other two arguments were made by Dr. Fearing in the first video linked to. She states: 1) community schools are better for students because they are the “pillars of their community,” meaning that people have pride in that school and advocate for it. She states that some schools have that right now, as evidenced by their presence at board meetings advocating for their schools (ex: Barton). Basically, this argument says that that by having students attend their community schools, the community is more connected to that school, ergo they advocate for it more. This argument doesn’t actually mean that the district is doing anything for that school, though; it basically implies that the school will be better because the community will care about it more and will make it better. 2) If students attend their community schools, then that school has to represent the community. Staff will learn about the community they work in, they will have access to its elders and history, and the school will become more culturally responsive because it will have to learn about the community it serves. Now, I’m not saying that either of these arguments is bad. Schools that are pillars of their communities, and schools where staff are responsive to the needs of those communities, are a good thing. What I am saying is that in order for this to come about, there needs to be a very specific, detailed plan about how exactly the district would ensure this would occur. If there is no specific plan on the district side, there’s nothing that the community can use to hold the district accountable to its goals.

So: The community school vision, as presented at listening sessions and the 1/28/20 Committee of the Whole meeting, is a good vision, but it is lacking specifics. This is what most people have seen of the academic side of the CDD, since the Academic Plan itself hasn’t been presented at these meetings. So let’s dive into the plan itself in the next section, and see if some of the specifics that aren’t in the vision can be found there.

Part 2: The Plan

The CDD’s Academic Plan has not featured greatly in the District’s CDD pitch. If you go to the CDD website, you can find a few paragraphs on the Academic Plan here. This page could do with some formatting changes for emphasis, but it basically lists the CDD’s priorities as:

1)Early Childhood

2) K-5 Literacy: Balanced Literacy and Benchmark Advance

3) Math curriculum adoption, with K-2 going first

4) Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)

5) College and Career Readiness

6) Equity

7) Social-Emotional Learning

Important Note: This post began with the intention of covering all 7 focuses. However, it got long and cumbersome. So, I’m breaking it into parts: this one will focus on Early Childhood and Literacy (don’t worry, that’s plenty).

If you want more detail on these 5 priorities, the District has provided an Academic Plan PowerPoint in the CDD Document Library here. However, this presentation is abridged; the full Academic Plan can only (as far as I can tell) be found in the Committee of the Whole Board Agenda Packet from October 22nd, 2019 here. I will refer to these as Abridged Plan and Full Plan, respectively, as I go along. (Side note: I understand why the District provided an abridged version; the original is so long! However, having to dig for the full version is not a good look for transparency, even though I’m sure they are not trying to hide anything).

A note on clarity and communication before we begin: slide 43 of the Full Plan lists the “4 District Priorities” as Balanced Literacy, Equity, MTSS, and Social-Emotional Literacy. The Academic Plan overview page of the CDD site lists three main priorities: Early Literacy and Math, MTSS, and College and Career. Slide 4 of the Abridged Plan lists Early Literacy and Math, MTSS, College and Career, and Equitable Education Design. None of the three sources list the exact same priorities, though there are similarities. This is why I haven’t been able to go directly off what the district says are its priorities in structuring my analysis; you’ll notice I list 7 focus areas, whereas they list 3-4. Basically, I’m trying to make the plan clearer by hitting all the areas the district lists in different places. I am hitting everything listed in those 3 different places, plus breaking down the Early Literacy and Math category into Early Childhood, Math, and Balanced Literacy/Benchmark for clarity. In short: the plan is not laid out in a user-friendly way, and I’m trying to remedy that here.

Let’s get to the specifics! We’ll tackle Early Childhood first.

In the Full Plan (slide 46), the District shows why there’s a need to focus on Early Childhood Education (ECE). 41% of MPS “High 5” (the district’s program for 4 year-olds) students speak a language other than English. 67% are eligible for educational benefits (free or reduced price lunch); 10% are homeless or highly mobile, and 11% receive SPED services. Early intervention in this category has the potential to be a game-changer for many students who are academically at risk, so I think it’s excellent that the District is consciously addressing this area.

So what is going to be done in ECE? Slide 6 in the Abridged Plan and slide 47 in the Full Plan list three priorities: continued implementation of reading and math curriculum, implementation of Teaching Strategies Gold, and summer programming for students entering Kindergarten.

I could not find any information on what curriculum is used in MPS ECE, either on the ECE site or the Teaching & Learning Curriculum site. This is something I hope that the board and public ask the District about: what are the ECE Reading and Math curricula? On what research are they based? Of course it’s a good thing that MPS is implementing curriculum for our earliest learners: but what is it? It’d be nice to have something we can rally around in the Academic Plan, and strong ECE seems like a quick win.

I couldn’t find any information from MPS on Teaching Strategies Gold (if you have some, please correct me!), but I did find the website for a company called Teaching Strategies that has a GOLD program. It appears to be an assessment system for early child programs, allowing teachers to use data to plan instruction. It appears you can also create profiles and reports for students. I’m not sure if this is exactly what MPS is referring to when they say “Teaching Strategies Gold,” but whether it is or not, more communication is necessary.

The third area here is summer programming for students. Again, I was not able to find any information about this from MPS sources (but would love to be proven wrong). It sounds like a good idea in theory, though (continuing a pattern that won’t stop here), it’s light on the specifics.

Now let’s move on to K-5 Literacy. Here is where I think there are issues that go beyond just communication and specificity.

This area is given one slide (7 in the Abridged, 48 in the Full Plan). The main area of focus is “Continue Balanced Literacy and Benchmark Implementation.” It isn’t really explained in any CDD documents. To find that, you have to go to the Teaching and Learning Department site, here. You will find a definition of Balanced Literacy that seems fine on the surface. (Note: the confusing sentence structure is there in the original):

“In MPS, Balanced Literacy is our framework  for literacy because it includes a balance of reading, writing, and word work and foundational skills and are explicitly taught using a gradual release of responsibility.  This is built on the five components of literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension.”

Those last 5 things sound great, and they are. They are the 5 “pillars of literacy” as described by the National Reading Panel, which performed an exhaustive review of all evidence on how children learn to read. However, that’s not all that Balanced Literacy is. (If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this post).

“Balanced Literacy” actually incorporates “whole language” approaches to reading, including the “Three Cueing Method,” and “instructional level groupings” alongside these scientifically recognized reading pillars. Cueing and “instructional level groupings” are both problematic. Let’s talk about cueing first.

The whole language “cueing” method can be found in Benchmark Advance (MPS’ Literacy curriculum) and Fountas & Pinnell (makers of a leveled readers library and assessment system and the only research cited on the MPS Balanced Literacy public page). What is “whole language?” What is the “Three Cueing Method?”

Whole language: “Whole language was a movement of people who believed that children and teachers needed to be freed from the tedium of phonics instruction. Phonics lessons were seen as rote, old-fashioned, and kind of conservative. The essential idea in whole language was that children construct their own knowledge and meaning from experience. Teaching them phonics wasn’t necessary because learning to read was a natural process that would occur if they were immersed in a print-rich environment” (see here). Phonics (the research-backed practice of teaching students sound-letter correspondence) fought with “whole language,” and so “Balanced Literacy” was born, as a compromise. “We can have both,” Balanced Literacy seems to say. “We’ll teach children to read with phonics and phonemic awareness. We’ll also teach them more strategies. And who doesn’t want more strategies?”

It was supposed to be a balance between the two: but a balance between science and nonsense is not science (it’s nonsense). And in fact, MPS admits that Balanced Literacy is not science. From their website: “Balanced Literacy is a philosophical orientation.” That is not what you want a reading program to be. You want it to be based in science. So that the children will learn to read. Yes, “Balanced Literacy” teaches phonics and phonemic awareness (oral manipulation of sounds), but it also teaches dangerous practices that can undermine all the good done by sound instruction.

What dangerous practices? “Balanced Literacy” makes use of a whole-language approach called “cueing.” The “Three Cueing” idea – proposed by Ken Goodman in 1967 – asserts that good readers use different cues to figure out words. They are, quote from this article:

  • graphic cues (what do the letters tell you about what the word might be?)
  • syntactic cues (what kind of word could it be, for example, a noun or a verb?)
  • semantic cues (what word would make sense here, based on the context?)

That can all sound very reasonable, except that’s not what science tells us about how good readers reader. In fact, think about the struggling readers you know. What do they do? They look at the picture. They look at the first letter and guess. They think about the meaning of the sentence and what word would fit in it. That is not what good readers do. They read the words. Cueing actually teaches children to be struggling readers.

What is reading? Good readers learn to orally manipulate sounds, understanding that words are composed of sound units (ex: say “cake.” Now say cake, but instead of the “c” sound, say “b” [“bake”]). Then, good readers learn the alphabetic principle: that letters represent those sounds. Then, they learn phonics: sound/symbol patterns. Then, in a process called “orthographic mapping,” they map the pronunciation of a word onto its written form (we read with visual input – a word – but that word is stored in our oral memory, and the sounds are then ‘mapped’ onto the word).

This is why, in good readers, word-recall is lightning fast. It doesn’t take “stamina” (something you hear a LOT in Balanced Literacy). You don’t use picture cues, meaning cues, or “first letter” cues. The most reliable guide to reading a word is its pronunciation. Cueing is, quite simply, garbage. Yet, MPS endorses it, saying on its own site: “Cuing [sic] or phonics should never be taught in isolation, but always in combination with each other.”

This isn’t true. Cueing should not be taught at all. Here is an excellent post from Dr. Mark Seidenberg, who researches the neuroscience of reading, on why cueing should not be taught. (It teaches children the strategies of struggling readers; it ignores relevant science on phonics). Here is a very well-researched article about the issues with Three-Cueing: bonus, on the last page you can see a letter advocating against Balanced Literacy in Milwaukee Public schools from 2002 on the same grounds I’m arguing now. Here is a study from Stanford on the brain science of phonics v. whole language approaches (phonics works better). Here is an excellent – and readable – discussion of the issues of Balanced Literacy from the Right to Read Project, including the philosophy behind Fountas and Pinnell using real Fountas quotes (remember: Fountas & Pinnell is the only research cited by MPS in its Balanced Literacy public – not the staff, I’ll get to that in the next paragraph- website). Here is a post by world-renowned reading professor and expert Timothy Shanahan on how to respond to objections against science-based reading instruction. And lest you think it’s just academics sounding the alarm, the union, the American Federation of Teachers, published an excellent primer way back in 1999 about the inadequacy of teacher prep around reading, the need to train phonemic awareness and phonics, and the relevant science. Reading Really is Rocket Science! Teachers, read it. It’s excellent.

MPS is pushing “Balanced Literacy,” and has a long list of experts to try and convince teachers and stakeholders that it is research based. This can’t be found on the Teaching & Learning site; it’s on a website aimed at staff (but still publicly accessible). See it here. In fact, this list is dominated by three names: Calkins, Fountas, and Pinnell. I’ll talk a bit about Fountas & Pinnell in the paragraphs below. As far as Calkins goes, she’s a very famous edu-materials writer who has recently proclaimed that “no one gets to own the science of reading.” In the first link I cited in the paragraph above, actual reading scientist Dr. Mark Seidenberg dismantles her program and her claims. Calkins’ curriculum also recently got written up for not adhering to what we know about reading science. This is not the person to base your literacy curriculum framework on.

The other issue with Balanced Literacy is “instructional level grouping.” Again, it sounds fine on the surface. Put students in groups based on what level of text they can read. Give them instruction at their level, even if they’re not at grade level yet. This is part of the whole philosophy behind Fountas & Pinnell’s reading level system, and behind MPS’ Balanced Literacy Framework.

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. First of all, these leveling systems are not very reliable. “The Wind in the Willows” is a Fountas & Pinnell level Q, but so is “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.” Are these texts really the same level? And one might expect a level A text to be decodable for a student. Yet, if you actually look at Level A texts, you can see they are designed to be predictable, not decodable (Ex: “This is a butterfly. This is a praying mantis. This is a caterpillar”). Can a student who can’t yet sound out “cat” read this? No. They can approximate reading with this book; they can look at the pictures and guess. They can look at the “b” in butterfly and guess that the word is butterfly. In short, they can practice cueing strategies.

So, if these levels aren’t based on how hard texts are to decode, so what are they based on? Does putting students in “reading level” groups really help them move up reading levels?

Actually, no. Here is a great summary of a study in the Journal of Educational Research showing that reading grade-level text can actually help students improve more than reading at “their level.” Here is a great free webinar discussing the pitfalls of the common Balanced Literacy practice of putting students in groups at their “instructional” level instead of their grade level. Here is an excellent analysis of Fountas & Pinnell issues, including issues with “instructional level” text. This part, my friends, is especially damning:

“The company, Fountas & Pinnell Literacy, identifies two main studies that it claims validate the program’s effectiveness in grades K-2. Both are from the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis, and both were funded by Heinemann, which publishes LLI. The 2010 paper, which the company calls its “gold standard” study, found that kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd graders who received LLI made greater gains than students who received no intervention. But these gains were only consistent on Fountas & Pinnell’s own assessment, rather than an external validator of reading achievement. Results on DIBELS, a separate early literacy test, were mixed. Kindergartners and 1st graders in the treatment group did better than the control group on some subtests, but 2nd graders saw no difference.”

So a study with major conflicts of interest, with results that can’t be independently verified, is what F&P hangs its hat on. And remember: Fountas & Pinnell is the only research cited by MPS in support of Balanced Literacy.

Readers, “Balanced Literacy” is not balanced. It is a compromise between science and wishful thinking. “Cueing” and “instructional level grouping” are discredited. What’s more, MPS seems to know that it’s approach isn’t working. At Jenny Lind, they have partnered with the decidedly-not-Balanced-Literacy Groves Academy to do work based on the science of reading. Where is this work in the rest of the District? Where is the focus on research-backed reading education, the kind of students deserve?

When you implement Balanced Literacy, you create struggling readers. What happens to them? What if even your reading interventions for students who fall through the cracks aren’t based in reading science? That is the situation MPS is in. MPS currently uses Read 180 as one of its reading interventions. (This would be for children for whom Balanced Literacy isn’t working). Here is an evaluation of Read 180 from the excellent “Essentials of Preventing, Assessing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties” by Dr. David Kilpatrick:

“Read 180 lacks two of the three elements of highly successful interventions. It provides limited phonics instruction and virtually no phonemic awareness training to address the limited sight-word skills of the weak readers Read 180 is intended to help” (p. 296). In addition, this program tends “to display improvements that range from 3 to 5 standard score points. With such small gains, these children rarely catch up. However, there is ample research to show that weak readers can progress far beyond that, with a fairly large percentage developing normalized reading skills, even for students who previously scored in the bottom 2% to 3% of the population” (p. 13). These 3 to 5 standard score points are in contrast to other interventions Kilpatrick discusses that have a whopping 14 standard score point average gain on Word Identification, and some with 20 to 27 points in the Word Attack sub-area. And this is for students in the bottom 2% nationally (page 13)!

Translation: reading science has shown us how to do better. But we are not doing it in MPS. Even our programs for struggling readers, those who most need our attention, aren’t getting it right. This is heartbreaking.

Part 3: Take Action

So, what can you do? If we put students at MPS in community schools and they continue to get Balanced Literacy as their reading curriculum approach, we won’t see the needle move one iota on student achievement. This will not serve equity.

First of all, inform yourself. Take a look at this article on what to do if you child’s school isn’t teaching the science of reading. Talk to your child’s teacher. To the principal. These are good people who care about our students. If they aren’t aware of the research, don’t take it personally; many teachers actually don’t learn about the science of reading in their prep programs (see that AFT report from earlier). Share this post, or if you don’t like my style, share some of the articles I’ve linked. Ask your school if they know that there are Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (this is outside the Common Core; this goes into way more depth). Ask them if they use them. Read some of these excellent books on the science of reading (Language at the Speed of Sight is great). In MPS’s Balanced Literacy implementation timeline, foundational skills aren’t even addressed until Phase III (I believe we are in Phase I). So share these resources with your schools and communities.

If you want to go into more depth, or if you have a student struggling with reading, consider training your student in phonological/phonemic awareness (phonics’ overlooked cousin). This book is excellent. If you want to do some 1-on-1 tutoring with your child, I recommend an Orton-Gillingham based program (I like these, but there are lots of other options. Remember: Orton-Gillingham is an method, not a curriculum. It’s also only phonics: it’s not enough. You need phonemic awareness, too.). If you are a teacher working at a school, read this book.

Most of all, share your voice. If we really care about equity, if we really want to get away from the inequitable outcomes for low-income students of color, then we will jettison Balanced Literacy. We will base our efforts in science, in what has been proven to work for students. I don’t think anyone at MPS wants to squash science-based practices. I think that everyone in the Teaching & Learning department loves and cares about students, and is trying to do their best. But the approach right now isn’t serving students, and it should change. The CDD is a wonderful opportunity to do that.

So please, share this post, or other summaries of reading science, with MPS. Talk to the board, not against the CDD, but for it, for a vision of more equitable schools. I’m not opposed to community schools. I think that they could be a wonderful addition to our city. As Dr. Fearing says, they could be pillars of their communities. But only if the teaching inside those walls is based in science, only then will it actually give us the equity we want. All our students deserve to read. Let’s take this opportunity and make it happen.

<Edited for spelling. Also edited with links to MPS’ Balanced Literacy source list, with information on Lucy Calkins.>

5 thoughts on “Minneapolis Public Schools CDD Academic Plan Part 1: Early Childhood and Literacy

  1. MPS also uses System 44 as reading intervention. This is an explicit phonics program. In my opinion it is very good. We have multiple kids yearly who make more than one year’s growth. I have had many enter 6th grade with a functional reading level of around first grade and be able to go to high school at grade level. However, MPS does not start using it until middle school (with the exception of Pratt). It is for 3rd grade and up. I’m my opinion, by this time kids have been struggling with reading so long they hate it and it is much harder to get buy in. I would like to see it used in 3rd-5th grade.

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    1. Hi Alexandra! I’ve tried responding to your comment on the Dashboard, but it seems it hates me and won’t work. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad your students are doing well with System 44! I considered including it in this post, actually, but Kilpatrick notes that there are not yet (at least when he wrote) any research-based studies on it in peer-reviewed journals. However, he did note that it does seem to have a robust phonics program, which makes it better than Read 180 for sure! He does also say that, based on a cursory analysis, it “does not appear to directly address advanced phonological awareness skill deficits” (Essentials of Preventing, Assessing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, page 295). This is a shame, because in order to see large gains you need it all: phonics, phonological awareness training, and opportunities to read connected text. Read 180 delivers on one of those, but System 44 has two, so I’m not surprised it works better for your students! I agree that we need more remediation in 3rd-5th. Thanks for your comment and your engagement: I value them!

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  2. My own child is one of those kids who needs explicit instruction in phonics. She really struggles with reading. Her intervention in MPS was to read along with an audio recording in a small group (4 or 5 kids). There was disappointingly no phonemic awareness training or even phonics training. I have been trained in OG style programs, but have to admit that I lack any training in teaching phonemic awareness. And I’m a teacher!! They did not cover this at college. Does that book you recommended cover how to teach phonemic awareness or could you recommend a good program? I have heard Lindamood Bell is good.

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    1. I’m so sorry that was the “intervention” selected for your child. I agree – phonemic awareness was barely covered in my teacher training program either! I had to do a lot of reading in the field to make up for it. (Thankfully I love what many consider to be “boring” articles). Lindamood Bell is excellent! From a readability and price point, https://equippedforreadingsuccess.com/ is what I use. It explains how phonemic awareness works, why it’s important, and how to train it in teacher-friendly language. I use it every day with my struggling readers. And it works! Combined with a solid phonics program, word study, and the opportunity to read connected text. Put those together and you have one well-rounded intervention! Thanks for engaging. I hope my comment is helpful!

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