At the upcoming committee of the whole meeting, the MPS academic team will be discussing the audit of Benchmark Advance 2018 version. This is one of the items in our literacy effort we have been advocating for.
Why? The short version, educators and parents, other districts have shared with us concerns that Benchmark doesn't help kids learn to read and it isn't a culturally responsive curriculum.
Even the publisher agrees with the concerns! Benchmark has revamped the curriculum with a newer addition. Unfortunately for MPS and other districts there is no "upgrade". You need to spend another $10 million or so for the new version.
The long version.
When we first started this advocacy we wanted to know, do we have a Tier 1 (general classroom) instructional problem. It's one thing to hear your friends and neighbors express frustration and share the struggles their kids are having to learn to read in MPS, but what is the scope of the problem?
If you attend enough Board meetings you will hear frequent mentions of Multi-Tiered Systems of support or MTSS. One component of MTSS is that if you have more than 20% of your students needing interventions, you have a Tier One instructional problem that you need to make changes to your classroom instruction.
When we asked district leadership, "How many kids are receiving interventions?" The district shared they didn't know, they don't have a tool to track this data at the district level. (More good news, next year they will!) What we have heard is there are too many kids in MPS requiring interventions, a 2015 Special Education Audit called out MPS literacy instruction and called for a "Intervention for All" model of instruction. The report makes clear that MPS needs to invest significant effort to improve literacy instruction for our students.
In 2021, Minnesota passed new state legislation requiring districts to screen students for "characteristics of dyslexia". Data from this screener showed that 42% of students in grades K-3 had literacy levels so low, they were being flagged as having "characteristics of dyslexia". We know not that many students have dyslexia, but further evidence MPS needs to look at Tier 1 instruction.
MPS uses a curriculum based on what is called Balanced Literacy. Balanced literacy was supposed to be a compromise in the reading wars between whole language and more explicit instruction, but ended up to be a rebranded version of whole language with some phonics sprinkled in. Emily Hanford, an investigative journalist for APM, has shared the history of this in her podcast series, "Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong."
Colorado passed a "Right to Read" law. Legislators were frustrated with school districts continuing to use balanced literacy curriculums that were not evidenced based. They required their department of education to audit curriculum and then required districts to replace curriculums that failed the audit.
Colorado gave Benchmark Advance 2018 a "Not recommended": The review of Benchmark Advance 2018 cited "(1) Abundance of teacher and student materials were hard to manage (2) The foundational skills are introduced in an incidental manner, rather than explicitly, so sequence of skills instruction is not linguistically aligned and lacks the systematic sequential structure necessary for optimal foundation skill acquisition."
What do teachers think of Benchmark? Teachers have shared the following with us:
There is too much material making it difficult to use. MPS reported that 4 years into purchase only 1/2 of our teachers were using the curriculum.
The phonics component appeared to be an afterthought, and is significantly lacking.
The introduction of letter sounds is too slow
The phonemic awareness instruction is not included
The texts are not diverse or culturally representative
The non-fiction texts are not authentic or engaging.
Designed for kids who already know how read
Handwriting and writing portions of curriculum are weak
Uses three cueing and other strategies not aligned with research on how kids learn to read
Want to get more educator opinions for yourself? Check out the Science of Reading - What I Should have Learned in College facebook group and search for Benchmark Advance, older posts would reflect the 2018 version that MPS uses.
What do parents think? We sent 20 testimonials to the Board and District. Many parents are frustrated when they don't believe they can send their kids to their neighborhood school when their children need more explicit instruction than provided.
Nancy Young created the "Ladder of Reading and Writing", it breaks down the % of students who reading comes easy to and the percent need needing explicit instruction. An educator shared with us the percent of students proficient in MPS aligns with the percent of students who able to learn how to read without explicit instruction. When parents share with the district why they have left MPS, the top reasons are academics and climate.
Covid provided many parents a window into reading instruction in MPS and other balanced literacy districts. One parents wrote a blog post for us sharing their families experience: "Where he had started out sounding out unfamiliar words, he was now looking at pictures and guessing. It was really disappointing because our neighbors had raved about how wonderful the school was. But as I talked to more parents, with kids the same grade as my son and parents with older children, I realized that many kids were struggling to learn to read. Several parents had paid for expensive reading tutors and summer camps after first or second grade to try to catch their kids up to grade level in reading. These tutors, which cost thousands of dollars, were using methods based on the science of reading, in particular systemic, explicit phonics. It wasn’t that these kids all had a learning disability, like dyslexia. But, rather, the theme was more that the kids just needed a different method of teaching to learn to read."
A week ago we had the change to sit down and examine Benchmark ourselves. Sara Spafford Freeman shared her thoughts on our MPS Academics Advocacy Facebook group page. "I went into the audit meeting with admittedly strong feelings about Benchmark’s inadequacy – I’ve observed & interacted with it while my 3 kids went through elementary. The ’21-22 SY I saw Benchmark ‘up close’ with 3 elementary-age kids doing almost a year of distance learning. Friday I was assigned to the team reviewing Benchmark’s Kindergarten & 3rd grade curricula, including the Scope & Sequence and standards, and the classroom materials used for instruction (incl. small group, large group, independent reading & guided reading). I was prepared for it to be bad but not *this bad*."
What are your thoughts on Benchmark Advance? Please share with us, your Board director, district leadership, or teachers. Feel free to send us a comment.
We appreciate all the educators, parents and community leaders who have shared with us their many concerns. We are excited with MPS taking the time to audit Benchmark, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with our community in to how to improve our schools in Minneapolis.