Earlier in 2022, we had the opportunity to interview two MPS educators about their experiences with literacy instruction in MPS elementary schools. At the school where they taught, around 80% of students would have qualified for a literacy intervention; over 50% of fifth grade students were struggling to read CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words, like cat, fog, mop). Both educators left the district prior to the start of this school year.
The call was to provide an opportunity for educators to share their experiences and perspectives, and to provide the community with actionable steps that can be taken to improve student literacy.
David Weingartner was the primary interviewer and Khulia Pringle provided support. Sara Spafford Freeman was not on the call but provided questions that were asked. Together the three of us founded a group called MPS Academics Advocacy, whose goal to enable a public conversation around literacy instruction in MPS and to advocate for better tools and support for educators, parents, and students.
Below is a transcript of our conversation edited to remove identifying information, and for clarity, we’ve eliminated some extraneous discussions from the transcript. The transcription was done by a computer software service, some errors may remain.
Despite the editing it is a lengthy document but an incredibly important discussion.
Some key points:
Teachers want and need to be trained in evidence based literacy instruction .
There are not enough interventionists to support the many, many students receiving interventions; there are not ample tracking mechanisms to document who is receiving interventions & if/when they “work”
Tier 1 instruction must be improved for real improvements in students’ outcomes
Benchmark curriculum’s foundational skills units are seriously deficient. Schools need a better foundational skills curriculum. Benchmark could be maintained for broader reading skills & strategies, but it is weak in providing students with foundational skills, and knowledge building.
District has only provided a brief 30 minute training session on dyslexia, otherwise no support for teachers (despite MPS identifying 42% of its K-3 students as having “characteristics of dyslexia”)
MPS needs a more systems approach to literacy and less patchwork fixes.
In classrooms with low literacy levels, students are doing project based work, there is little writing or student reading – compounding future proficiency struggles
Educators want their students to succeed, and it is frustrating when they are using the balanced literacy tools they are told works and they don’t see the results.
David Weingartner: One of the things we've been asking for is the number of students that are receiving interventions. And we’ve been told that that's data at the district does not have or track at a district-level. So our understanding is that it's recorded at the site level, but it's kind of hard data because kids kind of come in and out of intervention. So the MTSS model says that if 20% or so of kids need intervention. You've got a tier one problem. Right?
Educator One: Yes. Yes, it is. I don't know the numbers.
Educator Two: So yeah, I would say that varies. There isn't sort of a place where we have to turn it in. I mean, we do at the end of the intervention documented in CFS, which is like the platform where everything lives in the district. But you're right, if students go into an intervention and go back to core, that means they exit out of the intervention. Sometimes that data isn't stored correctly, like it's not the most detailed or comprehensive system. What do you want to know about CFS?
David Weingartner: There is a data, a data repository for kids that go in and out of interventions.
Educator Two: Yeah. And it's hard to pull the data. It's very hard to pull the data as a whole school, right? Yeah.
Educator One: And it's kind of it seems like an older system doesn't seem necessarily like efficient. Some people don't know how to use it. There's as far as I know, the training is just scattered depending on your coach if they decide to talk to you about it. You learn about it.
David Weingartner: Does MPS have a Tier 1 instructional problem?
Educator Two: Absolutely. I agree with that. And I think there's also people who are maybe say they're doing interventions, but the interventions aren't authentic or research based interventions. Right. They're just like extra practice with the same thing and they may log that as an intervention. So I would say there isn't necessarily there aren't a lot of like protocols in place to make sure that every intervention we're doing is research based and used. But I would say, yeah, we definitely have a tier one problem.
David Weingartner: But in terms of using the MTSS model, we don't. We can say we have a tier one problem, but we're not. We're not really using the MTSS model to determine that, which would mean tracking the number of kids receiving interventions as a district.
Educator Two: Well, and I would say, like, who gets an intervention isn't even like if we're saying if you're not at grade level, you should get an intervention, then I mean, we could technically look at all of the kids in the red on various data points being the FAST the MCA data and say like none of these kids are at grade level or 80% of these kids are not at grade level.
David Weingartner: So they all should get an intervention. But maybe we're only giving 15% of them intervention?
Educator Two: Or they need a whole class wide reteach. Right. Because that's that's more what's happening is they need a class wide reteach because they haven't been taught it in a way that works for them to learn.
Educator One: Right. And then I think a lot of times part of that Tier one problem is those reteach is don't necessarily happen. So it's like we know, we know the process and we know what to do, but there's very little follow through.
David Weingartner: One of our first calls was with the literacy specialist, and she basically said most of the interventions were fluency based. Kind of a mixed bag.
Educator Two: Yeah. I think that that's going back to most of our teachers have only been taught the balanced literacy model. So when a kid is struggling with reading, they don't know what to do next. And there isn't sort of this reservoir of like, this is what your student is missing, right? This is the first year in Minneapolis where we've had PRESS, which is new. And it's exciting to have an intervention that focuses on CVC and letter sounds and digraphs and all the foundational skills, but it's an intervention, so they still aren't receiving the core they need. And then we're giving them five minute quick interventions from PRESS when they're so far behind.
Educator One: I mean, I agree with what you just said, and not everyone has been trained in PRESS. It's just the interventionists. So. I can give the materials to teachers, but it wouldn't be a full six week intervention cycle. Like you said, it would be a five minute quick. I don't know, adjustment during their regular core group time or something.
David Weingartner: If I'm a classroom at your school how would I be using PRESS?
Educator Two: I don't know. So what we did, I mean, when we're looking at our data and we see that 80% of our kids aren't reading at grade level and from for all the grades. Right. And we go through and look at our kids don't know their letter sounds, they don't know CVC so we basically what we did this year is we took PRESS and we PRESSed everybody first grade and up. We went around as coaches, we gave everybody the PRESS assessment, and then we knew how many kids were struggling with letter sounds, CVC, digraph all the way up. And what we found is we have a whole bunch of kids who can't decode and they're basically guessing words, right? Which is why they're struggling. Or they're looking at the picture to try to figure out what the sentence says instead of actually using reading techniques and understanding that there's a code that goes with the letter on the page that they can decode. So we did do all the PRESS assessments. And what we did what we chose to do at our school is for the coaches to all push in with the classroom teachers and do reading groups around those skills. Right. So we had, I don't know, 12 kids that needed letter sounds. We made two reading groups, for letter sounds, and we have ourself and the two classroom teachers for that grade level and we have three or four reading groups going on at the same time for 20 minutes, and then we flop and do another 20 minute group. And technically that would be considered their core differentiated reading group, right? Because you would do like a mini lesson and then you would do a small group instruction, but it's just all been in the past they might get little readers and go through and guess words and pretend they're reading. Now we're being really intentional about when they come to us. We're focusing on the skill that they're missing. However, there's no there's no tools for us to teach those groups for. So we actually a lot of us already had kind of a science of reading background, and I did a ton of research on it over the last two years when I realized that the teachers in our district really had no training in that. So we found a Orton Gillingham based curriculum, and it's free. And we actually tell them how much time do we spend jumping spent the whole fall for teachers, for all of those skills. And then we had teachers come in and we used resources to train them in science of reading. And I'm talking brief. Like we had 2 hours with them and then they left with a binder like, here's what your CVC, here's your CVC group, here's your grab group. And when they need new materials, they would come and we would make those. But we're making everything from the instructional materials to the flashcards to the like. It was tons of printing and binders, right, to give them materials to teach their small groups.
David Weingartner: So our $10 Million benchmark program is deficient in that.
Educator One: The Benchmark phonics, phonics and foundational skills, it's just. Awful. It's really, really slow. It rolls out the letters just way too slow. And it doesn't do it in like a systematic way where they would learn like six letter sounds really get good at those, blend those six into all kinds of three letter words and get great at those and then move to the next six. It's not structured and systematic in that way. It's just really like it's alphabetical. Yeah. Well, I don't think it's alphabetic, but it's. It's not. It's like the phonics part of Benchmark was an afterthought for them. That's really what it feels like. When I used kindergarten Benchmark for three years, I never well, we had another phonics curriculum, which is great, but I never even touched the phonics because it was so. Just not substantial enough.
David Weingartner: Are teachers in your building using Benchmark?
Educator One: Um. For the fiction units. I think a lot of them are. You can probably speak more to that.
Educator Two: During their literacy block, they do do a mini lesson from Benchmark where they might read a fiction book to the students and have them pick out beginning, middle and end the main idea while they're reading to them. And in the past, like I said, last year when I was there, they would pull mini books from Benchmark and they would do guided reading groups at Fountas and Pinneal level this year. Instead of that, they're doing a quick mini lesson with Benchmark, where they read to the students at grade level and work on some comprehension skills with a read too, because the students aren't reading at that level and then they're going to their small groups and they're working on foundational skills just because that was a huge need. Like our students, 80% of them did not have foundational skills to be able to read. So we're not using the benchmark that small readers and they have books within Benchmark called decodable readers, but they're not decodable. They have just a plethora of words that the students can't decode.
David Weingartner: So we had a call with a former educator who reviewed Benchmark for another school district. And she said one of the big deficiencies was its lack of knowledge building. A lot of the books you would read would be like, for example, transportation, but then it would ask, What's the main idea? Is this fiction or nonfiction? It wasn't like an in-depth discussion on how transportation works and how it benefits you is that you feel that's a deficiency?
Educator Two: Yeah, the books were definitely put in there to target like test taking skills, like main idea and key detail, but the content knowledge required for the students to understand that text is definitely not there. Yes, I would.
David Weingartner: It's fair to say it's a joyless. Test prep.
Educator Two: Benchmark.
David Weingartner: Is that a fair assessment?.
Educator Two: What did you like about it when you taught? What did you like about it?
Educator One: I liked the read aloud and you could like rich discussions about comparing and contrasting and fact and opinion. I did a lot with Benchmark in kindergarten in the whole group, but it wasn't. But I didn't touch on their actual reading at all.
David Weingartner: Does Benchmark help with knowledge building and vocab or is it more doing the things that you said, like find the main idea or compare and contrast things that would help you on a test? Versus things that would kind of open your eyes to the world. Build vocab and background knowledge.
Educator One: I thought it was good at building vocab and background knowledge. Yeah, that's kind of what I used it most for some of the texts we had to supplement because they just weren't interesting or rich enough or trying to think of an example. Like I'm thinking of one non-fiction unit where we learned all about jetpacks and space elevators, and the kids were just not very interested in that. So we brought in more like hands on things. So talk about technology and technology like iPads and things that they actually use and understand. But I think Benchmark was really good at getting at. Those standards, and they're not good at all the technical terms, but the standard, the comprehension and the background knowledge. I liked it for that.
David Weingartner: The district identified 42% of K three students as having “characteristics of dyslexia”. Did you, as a teacher ever get information from MPS regarding which students were identified and how these students should be supported to reach grade level?
Educator One: We had one 30 minute training on Lexia about dyslexia.
Educator Two: That's what we've had. I have not ever, ever, ever in a literacy training in our district. And this is now going on not like seven or eight years that I've been in the district and I've been into all these trainings. In fact, I've had to bring the trainings back to buildings. Never heard a conversation about dyslexia other than the quick thing from Lexia Academy.
Educator Two: And we were just listening and watching like it wasn't right. Listening and watching and answering questions on Lexia Academy.
Educator One: I couldn't sit with a kid and know if they have dyslexia or not. Like I don't even from that training. In my experience, I still am not sure what that would look like.
Educator Two: Yeah, I did. Our school last year was part of the literacy pilot. There's a there was a k1 literacy pilot in the district. I was the coach for the literacy pilot in our building. I was the K-2 math and literacy specialist. So our K1 teachers were part of the literacy pilot, and they were paid an extra 3 hours a week to do coaching sessions, planning sessions. And the last part was, I can't remember that. Anyways, they got an extra 3 hours of pay a week and I was given nothing to do the coaching pilot. I was not given observation tools, I was not given resources. I made them because I've done coaching cycles over the last seven or eight years a lot because I was an SOEI observer and I was not given one thing, so I made like a goal setting sheet. I went in and had goals for my teachers and made a table and then weekly we would go through this process for these 3 hours. And I did share that with the district, but I was given nothing and they were given an extra 3 hours of pay a week for a literacy pilot that was supposed to improve literacy.
Educator Two: I was given no tools. Zero.
David Weingartner: What does that mean to have a reading license? You're in Minnesota.
Educator One: I'm sure it's not science of literacy, because these new teachers that just got licensed, they don't even come in with that.
Educator One: If the universities aren't teaching it to pre-service teachers, I doubt they're teaching it to anyone.
David Weingartner: MPS is hiring new literacy director
Educator Two: I'm concerned, honestly, because I have pushed for the science of reading and foundational skills. Last year with T&L, we would have one on one that was part of the literacy pilot. I would meet with them in a Google meet once a week and I would push and push and say, our kids don't know their letter sounds they don't know there CVC words, well continue to push Benchmark with fidelity. That was my lesson. That was my every single day. If they do Benchmark with fidelity, their kids will be reading. And I said, no, that's not the case. I came from this background. My kids were reading by December because I did Reading Mastery for ten years. I know it's possible and it was nothing like Benchmark. It was very systematic. And it's not that our teachers aren't following the rules. Our teachers need training to understand. Right, because we have given them a phonics curriculum. And they picked it up and did it and asked more questions and wanted more training. And when they see their kids moving like we have moved probably from 80% of our kids needing letter sounds and CVC in fourth grade, CVC digraphs and letter sounds. And I looked at the data today and it's like cut in half. Those kids have moved out of those groups and are progressing. So what that tells you is it's not our kids that can't learn it. They are learning it with a new with a new way of teaching it. So they've never had that tells me they've never had exposure to that because if they did, they would be where they need to be because we've only been doing it consistently for however many weeks. Right.
David Weingartner: And back to the beginning of that statement. So you said 80% of the kids in your fourth and fifth grade class couldn't read CVC words?
Educator Two: They needed either letter, sound, CVC digraph, which are the top three skills.
David Weingartner: So at what grade level should (they have mastered).
Educator Two: I think I think they should be done with those those three skills by the end of kindergarten.
Educator One: Yeah, well, definitely by the end of first grade. But the first two letter sounds and cvc's by the end of kindergarten, digraphs are introduced at the very end of kindergarten. So they should be mastered by first grade for sure in first grade.
Educator Two: I mean, if you look at a first grade text, they need to be if you look at a first grade text by the end of the year, they're doing blend digraphs and doing vowel teams. They're doing our control about like all of the other skills that come later. I would say all of the skills by the end of first grade.
David Weingartner: So how do we get to a point where that where you have that many kids not reading?
Educator Two: And I honestly think it's because our teachers have not had the training to know how to meet their skills like they've been trying an approach. They are pulling groups and they're trying an approach. And that approach is not helping our kids to be able to decode words.
David Weingartner: But then why? So there's no leadership. Principal Associate superintendent. I mean, what's going on there?
Educator One: In my time at here, it's been there's just like so much inconsistency and expectations and like what teachers are supposed to be teaching, it's never I don't know. I think it is a leadership problem and it's probably not just specifically our leader, but lots of leaders all over the district and the associate superintendents and just the whole system of how the DPF's work.
Educator Two: So the DPF is the district program facilitator. So every building has one or the buildings that are struggling or the buildings that are needing improvement have one. She basically comes in to make sure that the compliance things are in place. So to make sure that we are we're collecting data, that we're analyzing data, that we have effective PLC's that we're doing. Pd Like all of these things, she helps the principals write their SIP goals. She's not admin they don't have an admin license. They're basically a Tosa coming in to check on the principals and AP's. I do know, like when we looked at data as a staff because she put that in place and we had a big white piece of paper. We looked at our data and then we had to go around and sort of analyze why is this happening? It was a lot of conversation about, Oh, our data looks bad because of COVID and our kids haven't been in school. But if you actually dig deeper and look years back like it's been consistently the same, right? There wasn't a huge difference in the year of COVID. So I think there's a lot of. Everybody wants kids to be learning. But when we don't have the tools and the efficacy to make that happen, then we look at outside excuses why that's not happening. Because if we can't find an example of where that is happening and it's working, then we say like, Well, I'm doing everything I know, I'm doing everything I can. Like I'm working really hard. And so it can't be me because I'm working really hard, right? And I've been given these tools and I'm using them and my kids can't read. So I think. I don't know.
David Weingartner: It seems like many of the tools you are implementing are happening at the site level. It's not from district leadership.
Educator Two: Oh yeah. And when we told our Principal that we were going to push this out, they didn't stop us. I was like, we noticed kids don't have foundational skills. We found this curriculum. We're going to train people in it. But the three of us pushed out like we found it. We put it together. We train teachers. They gave us time to do all those things at the site level. But yeah, it's just because we're choosing to. We could have kept doing it that way. No one's telling us to do it right.
David Weingartner: What can we do as advocates from the outside to get teachers what they need? Is there any way the union leadership would push for literacy changes?
Educator Two: LETRS.
Educator One: Training? Yes, LETRS training. Like pushing for that.
Educator Two: We're both in it right now.
David Weingartner: Tell us about LETRS training.
Educator One: I mean, so far I've only completed the first unit, but like it's really affirming of things that I learned in my teacher prep program in out of state that was really science of reading based. So. And coming and realizing that not everyone does. That was strange. But so. Like really affirming the first unit is really just been an overview, but I can tell like it's going to get really good and it's going to help me understand even better the sequence of, of the code and how we teach the code and how we teach kids to decode.
Educator Two: The LETRS training is great and it's really it takes a lot of time. Right. And we are both really committed to it. And I think there's two other people in our building that are signed up, only one of which is a classroom teacher. So our kindergarten and first grade teachers are not signed up, and I can't honestly blame them because it is a big time commitment and they're not getting paid to do it right. So it's outside of the district trainings. Here is another training that I'm going to go do and it's going to improve my instruction, but I'm not being compensated for the time. I have to do it on my own time, like I'm not being given time to do it. And so that's a huge deterrent, especially when we have fairly new things.
David Weingartner: We could advocate for in terms of like moving a lane or getting few dollars for people to pass LETRS. It seems like that would be for a kindergarten teacher taking that as opposed to a master's degree or something.
Educator Two: Yeah, that would be great. I think we need to get creative about what we do with $. And I talked to you, about this, but yeah our district doesn't use to comp dollars to compensate teachers. They use it to pay for instructional specialists who are people who observe teachers. Right. So other districts do are being observed.
Educator Two: Oh, there's IS's out there. Yep. And there's teachers are supposed to get either 2 to 4 observations a year based on what track they're on. And so there is a database where we store teacher observations. And I would say there's varying levels of compliance as to how those are done in each building. Like it's usually coaches that do it. And then there's the buildings are allotted a certain amount of time for an IS or an instructional specialist that comes in and does those.
David Weingartner: The FAST tests are timed, which can create some noise and results, especially in early elementary school, any other tools to assess student proficiency and growth?
Educator One: Really just FAST and PRESS.
David Weingartner: Do you feel the FAST test is accurate? Does it give you the information you need.
Educator Two: It does in first grade because it's testing letter sounds into decodable words and all the things that focus on foundational skills. I would say in two through five, we have no idea what that number means.
David Weingartner: It'll give you a score.
Educator One: Right? So I think it's a good overall like universal screening assessment. But so I would when I was teaching kindergarten, I would do the FAST because it was required, it would give me some information, but then I would also do letter sound inventories on my own to figure out specifically which letter sound they're missing. And I wouldn't do that timed. But I think the timing is important because it needs to be fluent like decoding needs to happen very quickly, like they're not going to be fluent readers if they're at it forever.
David Weingartner: Do all of our teachers know their letter sounds?
Educator Two: I would say no. I would say I have to correct them. So part of us pushing in for reading groups, which is something we chose to do. And again, we weren't asked to do it. We don't have to do it. We've chosen to go in and work with kids. But every year I've chosen to go in and teach students as well that that is an opportunity where if I hear a sound wrong because I specifically for Reading Mastery, we had to listen, repeat the sound, listen, repeat the sound. I had headphones. I would listen and listen, listen, and someone would come check us on it all the time. So I know, like the ear sounds and the sounds that you're not supposed to have a hard sound and you're supposed to have a soft sound. So when I hear it, I will go over and correct it or I will talk to them after. So that is nice to be able to parallel teach in those classrooms because we can hear and they can hear us. So they are getting some modeling of that. But no, there's never been a time where they were taught each letter.
David Weingartner: So there's one advocate out there arguing that teachers don't know the correct letter sounds and they're using extra vowels.
Educator One: "Na" for n like.
Educator Two: And I actually hear "yeah" for you often which is sad because umbrella but they don't know and it's like and I know I'll know when I test a whole class of kids and every kid says “yes” for “you” that that's how they've been taught to say it. Right?
David Weingartner: So that kind of screws them up.
Educator One: Yeah, it does. Because that's not the code, right? That's not how we read.
Educator Two: Yeah.
David Weingartner: Have you received PD in the science of reading and writing instruction? I mean, what is the LEXIA Academy?
Educator Two: Yeah. So we did have some science of reading stuff in the beginning of the year, remember? We were laughing because it was so little and it was just like it was through LEXIA Academy.
Educator One: Oh, right. Yeah.
Educator Two: So we're required to do some of the trainings at the beginning of the year. And by required, I mean we were asked to do them and we check them off the list and then the principals will get a list of like who completed this training. But I know people who just let it play and then went about their room set of their room and came back and checked, Oh, I got it wrong. Oh, check, check, check. That must be the answer. Oh, I got it wrong again. Oh, check, check, check. And then they would continue to set up their room and pass it, and then the principal would get a thing saying they completed it. Okay.
David Weingartner: Okay. How do you think about that? What do you think about the value of professional development, such as LETRS versus vendor training? How would you characterize the district's offerings to teachers?
Educator One: I don't know about the difference, but I think what they need to do is be more consistent with their offerings and make sure it's for everyone or targeted. I don't know. Like K-1 teachers need very specific things that maybe second, third, fourth don't need. As far as foundational skills. Does the district ever offer a PD throughout the year. I don't even.
Educator Two: I don't think any of the is required except the PD during the workshop weeks. And I. Yeah. I would say comparing to vendor training like. The vendor training that we got through Benchmark and I was a TOSA of the year benchmark rolled out. Was all about how to use the tools and not about how to teach reading. Right. It was like, we have these tools, we have big books, we have closed readers. This is how kids use closed readers. They can highlight. You can read. It wasn't it wasn't about how to teach kids to read. It was about the tools that you were going to open up and have at your disposal to use for reading time.
Educator One: Yeah. And I think, yeah, that would be the big difference between that Benchmark type of training and LETRS is LETRS is the well, the science behind it, the philosophy like the the how it's happening in their brains rather than this is how you use this tool. With Benchmark. There's no like. There was never a discussion about why we do it. It's just like, here's this tool. This is how you use it.
Educator Two: Go do it and do it with fidelity. Do it with fidelity.
David Weingartner: We are looking at de identified PRESS data from you school, tell us about this. (Not included)
Educator Two: Yeah. And what's interesting, if you look at the FAST skills that they had to test in the fall for early reading, they don't even have letter sounds on there. So the only way that and so the district chooses subtests for us to give right to the first graders they say give these four subtests in the fall give these four in the winter. So you'll notice based on what the district has told us to give for early reading and first grade in the fall, that they're obviously expecting kids to already know their letter sounds because they're not even checking on letter sounds.
David Weingartner: So that's an option to test kids for letter sounds and we do not in first grade.
Educator Two: That's why we did PRESS, right?
David Weingartner: So the schools that don't have PRESS, there's only half the schools have PRESS right now, right?
Educator Two: Right. You can choose to add it on, but it's not required by the district. Like we're required to give a certain number of subsets, and that one is not one of them.
David Weingartner: So when we look at these sight words are is it like a list of 50 sight words?
Educator One: Yeah.
David Weingartner: I see a lot of zeros is really that many kids that know zero sight words in first grade.
Educator Two: Yeah. Yep.
David Weingartner: And even in the winter.
Educator Two: So that word segmenting one. That's an oral task, right? That's like, tell me the sounds that make up the word cat and the student has to say "K-AT". So that's a phonemic awareness, one that's not one where they're actually looking at sounds. So that is an oral task. And then the only one that would. That would check on letter sounds and CVC would be to quotable words, right? That that letter, that's column R for fall that would actually tell us can they decode CVC words because that's the decodable word column. But there's nothing as far as letter sounds.
David Weingartner: And this is all this is all PRESS.
Educator Two: No, that's that's a-reading fast.
David Weingartner: And so this is a question I asked maybe three years ago, because I asked how many kids don't know how to decode words and the districts like we have no idea.
Educator Two: Was this that they have that data. It goes right into the fast, fast bridge system and you can pull from any school. In fact, I can still pull from my old schools.
David Weingartner: I if I wanted to request this data. I mean that is the a reading the number of kids that don't (know how to decode). That's something we could request.
Educator Two: You could. And here's what's funny. And so early this is actually early reading. This is that's that's usually only given to kindergarten. So what the district did is something really funny. Years ago, they used to just require early reading for kindergarten and everybody else took A-reading.
Educator Two: And I think they realized, Oh, our first graders can't do Fast A-Reading because they can't read. So then they started saying, Let's do Fast Early Reading, which is the kindergarten fast assessment for our first graders. And so you're looking at early reading data, which is a kindergarten fast assessment that we've decided to now give. So we basically dumbed down the assessment when we realized our kids couldn't do A-reading in first grade because they didn't have the foundational skills to do A-reading. So we're giving them a kindergarten assessment now. So we're actually looking at kindergarten.
David Weingartner: Data assessment in first grade and they're still failing it?
Educator Two: Right.
Educator One: And they did that without any explanation or expectation. Let's let's focus on these kindergarten skills in kindergarten. It was never like that. It was like. Well, we'll just pass the assessment.
Educator Two: Let's give an easier assessment. Right. And not giving tools for teaching them afterwards. That's the bigger concern. I see all these kids in the red. They can't decode words like, where are my tools? Because if I'm in first grade benchmark, they're not. I mean, the phonics and first grade benchmark is even worse than kindergarten. It's even less systematic than the kindergarten one. So now we now we're in with first grade teachers who haven't had the training or background and don't have the tools to teach it.
David Weingartner: So this is the PRESS data. Is this just a kid that would be receiving an intervention at this point?
Educator Two: Okay. So those first four on the left side of the black line. So we didn't talk about that, that there's there's four phonemic awareness assessments that are just all oral. So those are all based on them just doing oral tasks and manipulation. And then the right side are all phonics. There's phonemic awareness, then there's phonics. So most of our kids and that diagram are not to the phonics part yet, because if you can't do the phonemic awareness test, you're supposed to stop because you're not ready. Because if they can't even hear the sound correctly, they can't learn how to produce the sound. Right?
Educator One: Right. Or associate it with a graphic.
Educator Two: A really good question to ask CAO is why they stopped doing FAST A-Reading in first grade and started doing FAST Early Reading. Like when? Like at what point did you decide to get more data around foundational skills and then not do anything with it? Right. Because now we're checking kindergarten skills and first grade because we realized they're not ready for the first grade fast, but yet we've we've not provided any tools for our early like so the upper grades if you were thinking about PRESS really should be the ones doing an intervention, right? It's not really core anymore. It's an intervention for foundational skills. But K one needs a foundational program so that we don't have so many kids needing PRESS in two, three, four, five. Yeah. And that's what we didn't get. We got an intervention kit this quick little intervention with no core, which is why we made the binders of curriculum with us.
David Weingartner: So here's fifth grade, so now we're just getting in a reading score. Still, most of the kids are in the red zone. But you said there was you were seeing growth. Is that more spring growth?
Educator Two: So we see growth in the PRESS. So if you look at there's still some kids who need phonemic awareness, which is concerning in fifth grade, right on the left side of that line. And then if we look at the right side, the first skill is letter sound. So if you look down, all the kids who are highlighted yellow are fifth graders who still don't know all their letter sounds. Next over is CVC. In short vowels that score should be nine or ten. That's passing nine or ten. So every kid that's below nine or ten still can't decode simple three letter CVC words like "dog" "cat" "hit". I mean, they do one with each vowel, so it's all the five vowel sounds and then digraphs. So if they kept going, those are kids who passed and could keep going. So this is I'll follow data. And then I think you have another tab where you can click and see how many kids have actually left those letter sounds in CVC groups. So this is January data, and it looks like we only have however many kids left in the letter sound group. And I think we went from like ten who needed CVC to four or five.
Educator One: I mean, all of them. Well, I don't remember the numbers, but. Ten and two stayed in CVC so eight passed out of that and moved on to Digraphs.
Educator Two: Yep. So they should all be in the fluency by then, right? Which would mean reading books. Chapter books. Other books.
David Weingartner: Okay. That's the thing is it can be done.
Educator Two: Well, and that just shows that they can learn it. And that's what's concerning, is some of these kids, after getting this letter sound and CVC work in their small group for those 20 minutes, they moved out of the group like three weeks later, three or four weeks later, which is like, Oh my gosh, they literally were never taught these sounds because if they can come up in three weeks and decode, then what have we been doing for years? When we say we're teaching reading groups because they could have gotten it years ago. Right. And that's where I get angry because it's like. And it's. Yes. We have a couple of outliers now that we're really looking at like, yup, they aren't moving and they could be two CVC words and six weeks later they can still only read two CVC words. That's a different situation, right? Like that is a kid who actually needs an intervention. But we're looking at a whole bunch of kids that need to reteach that have never been taught correctly how to read.
David Weingartner: Which goes back to our tier one problem.
Educator Two: Well, and training and training like our teachers need to understand why this is important to teach kids this way. I can't believe how many teachers I've run into that have never been taught that. Yeah, I feel blessed that years ago and way back in 1999, I had a school that was using that approach. Right, and that I was I know that every kindergartener could read by Christmas time. That was like the goal. And it happened. So I just. It's very frustrating to come to building after building in Minneapolis and not see our kids because it's not their fault and they can do it.
David Weingartner: Has the new report card been implemented yet? There's a new report card that was going to help parents understand where their kids are at for reading.
Educator Two: I haven't, have you seen a new report card?
Educator One: Yeah, I saw the kindergarten one. It. Not that different. I don't think parents would have found it that much more informative. I think if someone at conferences, if they sat down and talked about it, it would. But basically instead of. Instead of just saying like the standard and whether or not they can do it. It was more it gave some little examples of what they might be able to do or not do.
David Weingartner: If you look at your sheet that said, you know, I know my kid knows three letter sounds and they're in fourth grade. To me, that would be helpful information.
Educator Two: Right.
David Weingartner: Not you're in the red zone because the red zone doesn't really tell me anything.
Educator Two: Right.
Educator One: Yeah. And so it's still, it's still like a scale of 1 to 3 for.
Educator Two: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we have we tried to for conference time, we made packets of our stuff and different like what we're teaching and why and letter sounds. And we did the whole thing for K one and sent them home just on our own. But we've not been given stuff like that from the district. In fact, the report cards when we used to get like how to do the report cards. So it was a. Big issue in the beginning of the year because like I said, our teachers aren't following Benchmark with Fidelity right now. They're doing their nonfiction reading standards within our Transdisciplinary block. So they were given a report card and then by the district said, okay, so numbers four through eight, you taught in benchmark unit two. So if you benchmark unit to like you've covered that and you can like check, check, check that the kids have done that, right? And the teachers were like, Well, how am I supposed to do the report card since we didn't do benchmark unit or whatever? It's like, well, the standards you taught the standards with different materials and that's how ingrained we are with following a program versus teaching standards, right? Like. If I didn't follow this program, then how will I fill out a report card that is based on standards? Right. I can use a variety if I truly understand what kids need to know. At each grade level, I can use a variety of materials to get students where they need to go, but if I've just been taught to benchmark with fidelity, then I open my book and I teach lesson one and I teach lesson two and I teach Lesson three, and I have no idea what mastery looks like with as it pertains to any standard. I just know how to follow a curriculum and I can say, yep, I taught it. Check, I taught that.
David Weingartner: So we have been publicly advocating for about it over a year and a half right now. What do you think? We could be doing better to get more buy in from teachers and district leaders.
Educator Two: I don't know how the district can look at our reading data and not realize that there is a problem that we need to fix. That is really concerning to me. Teachers realize there's a problem. They don't always know what to do about it, but it's really hard to teach content when kids can't read and write.
David Weingartner: So you got a fifth grade teacher and your data says 1/2 can't read CVC words. What does that classroom look like?
Educator One: I haven't been in there while he's during his transdisciplinary blocks. So I don't know. I mean, they do their projects, but it's mostly hands on or they're drawing, creating posters of hands on projects and drawing and then talking about it. But I haven't seen, like, a lot of written report type things done.
Educator Two: A lot of doing stuff? Sit there reading block looks like a lot of doing stuff together and it looks like a very brief, like 15 minute. Here's how we find the main idea. I'll do it with you in your closed reader. And then we're splitting up into our small groups and we're all getting what we need. And that's this year before this year. I don't know what they did in those small groups. I think they probably had leveled readers and maybe kids were reading at a B level and they were tracking. And they were repeating things that were said. Right, until they were able to access most of those texts.
Khulia Pringle:. How do we know if PRESS is working?
Educator Two: So PRESS is an intervention. And like we talked about in the beginning, I think before you were on Khulia, it's a short five minute quick brush up on something you should have already learned. We do not have a core program that teaches the kids what they need to learn to even like. It's like a Band-Aid on, like, a massive problem. Right? It's like a quick five minute, like, oh, this, this, this, like, five minute exercise when they haven't learned all of this. Right? And there's nothing to teach all of this.
Khulia Pringle: How do we advocate for teachers to get your teachers the training that they need. And then the fact that only $1.8 million of Esser funds was even put into the literacy bucket.
Educator Two: I think you have to look at that k-1 foundational skills. You have to look at that early reading data and like we talked about how we're now giving a kindergarten or early reading assessment to our first graders. There's a big gap there. We need and it's not because they're not doing benchmarks. I've been in seven buildings now and I've seen various degrees of benchmark implementation and I've seen full benchmark implementation. In fact, I pushed I pushed full Benchmark implementation my first year in this district when it came out and I pushed that. We all do it just as it's written. And I don't think that that's what we need to start comparing the schools that are doing their own phonics programs. And I'd love to see this data. I'm trying to figure out how to get it. Like Anderson, who uses foundations like Lind, who's using Sondy? We need to look at those schools and see how their kindergarten and first grade students are doing and how many of their second through fifth grade are struggling with the very beginning PRESS skills compared to the schools that have no foundational program besides benchmark. Then we would actually have something to look at and some data to compare.
Educator One: Right. I completely agree with that because Benchmark, we already talked about the phonics is so weak, there's no. We have to look at those foundational skills and we have to find the schools that are teaching them. And that's where the data is. It's not just in Benchmark. And it's definitely I mean, I agree. We won't know if PRESS is working for a few years, but. We've had Benchmark now for a few years. We know scores are not going up, but there have to be some schools with foundational programs that are.
Educator Two: Like. Well, I think I would also ask our CAO, if we are so confident and Benchmark with fidelity, then why are we continuing to grow the number of sites that partner with Groves? Because I think they added another six sites this year. My neighbor is a Groves literacy person. She's a Groves coach. She's like, I have three more Minneapolis public schools I'm in this year. She's like, They need training and reading, like, so why are we hiring outside people? We're hiring outside people because no one at the district level is trained in science of reading. We had someone with a science degree in there and now I'm confident they're going to hire somebody with a reading licensure, but not necessarily somebody with the science. I don't think they get it like what is needed. And so we're hiring outside consultants and outside companies instead of actually doing what needs to be done at the we have plenty of people like we have plenty of coaches. There's four or five.
Educator Two: But why not train teachers in the in what Groves is doing right, like Groves is using Orton Gillingham. Groves is the working through science of reading. So why not trust our teachers? They're smart. They want to have efficacy in what they do and train our teachers and give them the tools to do it themselves. Train the coaches, give us the tools to bring it to the buildings ourselves. You would think that would be so much less expensive than having an outside partnership, right? I just don't that makes no sense to me. But the approach, I mean, they obviously are trying the approach, right. And the approach is a science of reading approach. So then why are we still pushing a balanced literacy curriculum and motto in our district if we are trying to get more people to partner with Groves because there's something we like about like there's something that we want to try. So why can't we find somebody to put that in the district wide? I mean, obviously Benchmark isn't obviously like the balance literacy approach isn't working, whether it's Benchmark or because.
Khulia Pringle: Of grass position that it was a philosophical, philosophical debate, which is why she's probably was going slowly and maybe she'll have the opportunity with this new position and the literacy person who they don't know who they're going to hire and maybe another superintendent, I don't know.
David Weingartner: Right. So I think there's an opportunity here where. All right. We're getting a new superintendent. You could come out and say, we're going to do something different.
Educator Two: And I don't have to buy a new curriculum. I don't think it's a matter of swapping it out. They need to train teachers. And I mean, we were able to make the materials needed in our building. If we train teachers and they believe in it and they know it's going to work and they want what's best for kids, then they're going to find a way to implement it. I mean, they would need a pacing guide. We have made a pacing guide. Here's the sound you teach this week. Here's how you decoded. Here's a model of what this looks like. We can come in and model it for you like we were able to roll it out in our building. And I'm not saying it's wonderful and great, but it's better than just doing more of the same and we're the growth with our kids. So I guess I just I don't think it would be a matter of buying something. I think that's the problem that we do in big districts. We just want to buy like a kit that's going to do it. And that's not what science of reading is like. We need our teachers to understand it. We need to say the sounds correctly. We need them to know the progression of skills. And that's just a knowledge base that we can grow in our teachers with training.
Educator One: And that's what's great about LETRS. It's not a curriculum it's two Binders or two big books. Just it's informative. It's not a curriculum.
David Weingartner: So let's go back to that. So you're saying that we can if we were to train our teachers and LETRS, we would be able to maintain benchmark?
Educator Two: I think there's things we could use benchmark for like the comprehension skills, like our kids, until they can decode and read it themselves like we can still do read to and we can still model good reading practices. This is what good readers do, right? Like we're looking where. Oh, I just heard them say this. I'm making a prediction about what happens next. Right? Like we can do some of those visual thinking skills. So I think we can still keep it and use it for that. While also saying yes in k-1, all of your small groups should be foundational skills, right? They should be differentiated foundational skills because our kids don't have them yet and most of first grade to where we don't.
David Weingartner: Have a curriculum to do that or what would. How would that make it?
Educator Two: Yeah.
Educator One: We can make binders. It would be helpful to have a like Fundations is what I used and it was great to have benchmark for that whole group. Think aloud, read aloud, model, good reading, practice making those predictions, all that comprehension stuff. And then I just like him said in my small groups I would use Fundations and that.
Educator Two: Sorry, it would be great to have one like Wilson Foundations as often as we've seen it in the LETRS training videos too. We've seen teachers using Fundations like it's a good program. And again, like, I don't think they'd have to look for like obviously there's buildings using their own funds to buy their own phonics programs. So there are buildings that administrators have said, we recognize this doesn't work and we need this. Right. And that's not some buildings. I would say there's at least seven elementaries that have purchased their own phonics curriculum using their own building funds. So that's another thing I'd say to her. Like, obviously, principals, teachers, whoever have realized they need this. So they're buying it with their own funds. Like, why can't this be a bigger district initiative? Why can't this be the messaging that's coming from the district?
David Weingartner: So I'm going to go back to like fifth grade. So I don't. Have you ever read Albert Tatum's book? So he talks about advanced reading and writing. So his his whole point is kids spend more of their day reading and writing. And you mentioned that what you're seeing in the upper grades is a lot of kids are spending time just doing projects where they're not reading and writing. So do you think is that something that we could do within the existing benchmark curriculum or is that something where we have. I mean, is that a weakness in the curriculum if what he's saying is we should be spending more time having kids read and write?
Educator Two: I think the district has given us a literacy block. That is long enough. That is like half the day right there. Breakdown of how you should spend your literacy block is a big chunk of time. Is it like 120? It's a big chunk of time between reading and writing.
Educator One: 50 minutes.
David Weingartner: So if we want like a science and social studies humanities curriculum is benchmark that?
Educator One: I mean. I don't know. It's all in there. It's meant to be. Right. Like. We don't have in kindergarten. They don't have a social studies or a science at most schools that block because it's all included in the literacy.
David Weingartner: But actually receiving like science and social studies instruction within that block.
Educator Two: No. I would say that the way that Benchmark was pushed out was not to spend a lot of time teaching the content. Like, so if I'm reading a book about technology, I'm supposed to use the benchmark tools to get to a reading strategy. That was the idea behind Benchmark. If my kids need some teaching and what I'm going to learn about, I would do that ahead of time when I'm using the benchmark materials. And I know teachers don't use it, but this is how it was pushed out. I remember the training was to get to a reading strategy. It wasn't about learning the content. And I would say like as we've been like pacing, doing pacing guides with teachers, we will pace the standards. We just did this with kindergarten. And if they don't want to use the benchmark text to teach that standard, they can still use the strategies for how to teach that standard with a different fiction book that maybe is more culturally relevant. So there are teachers substituting materials, but we've asked them to pace it according to how Benchmark paces their standards and the comprehension standards I'm talking about no foundational skills.
David Weingartner: Does that seem problematic to me is that we were at like at Lyndale, we were at our core knowledge site. So we had a sequence of things.
Educator Two: I came from a core knowledge school too.
David Weingartner: So when we went to this, we would have the open house in third grade. Here's what you're going to learn in history every month. This is what you learn in science.
Educator Two: Yep, it was awesome. They were learning in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
David Weingartner: When they were when they were doing Core Knowledge, they had one of the highest value ads in the district. Then when you see it, when they drop that for benchmark, it all fell off.
Educator Two: Benchmark is nothing like core knowledge. I came from kindergarten core knowledge. We had core knowledge and then we had three direct instruction for reading. So they had foundational skills and they had core knowledge for the rich content. And our kids were making mummies. Our kids were like it was they could tell you everything. My kids could go to a map. They could say all their continents and oceans. They knew their states and capitals. They knew the cultures and the like. They learned so much even in kindergarten. So yeah, it's nothing like that. Benchmark is not like that. It is for the reading strategy.
David Weingartner: So a reading comprehension test after you've learned to decode is basically vocab and background knowledge and being able to decode texts. Right. So the simple view of reading is decoding times Language comprehension equals reading comprehension. So if we're not teaching them to decode, but then we don't teach them the vocab and background knowledge. They're going to fail.
Educator Two: And they may have learned the skill of how to figure out that vocab. Using context clues like that would be a skill that we would be teaching within a text.
David Weingartner: But on a standardized test where there's not a lot of context clues that may be more difficult when you're only reading a paragraph.
Educator Two: I have pulled my info what from core knowledge to the Ed Hirsch. Like what? Every kindergartener needs to know, what every first grader needs to know. I've done some of that supplementing when I've been in classrooms on my own just because I have those texts. But yeah, I would say no. And I don't think that there's been a strategic effort to align the social studies content with benchmark. Like I think that would be really smart to do, right, like if we had because I honestly don't know how many of our teachers even know what social studies like. I've never really seen social studies being taught in any of the buildings
Educator Two: And they get the science kits. I mean, they get a kit every now and then. They trade them back in. So they do the kit, but the actual science standard. So we've mapped out like all of the standards and they're supposed to check when they when they teach them and how they align with the STEM units. But I don't know if up until then they had actually seen the science standards like we're teaching materials in this district. We're not we're not like fluent in the standards for every grade level. I would say that that's a deficiency of our teachers. Like they couldn't rattle off what a kindergartener needs by the end of kindergarten.
David Weingartner: The Dr. Tatum book has two pages on a strategic plan. And it's like districts here's what they do, every year they set a new goal to get 3% growth. And they never achieve it. And it's always like this low growth and it's always kind of this low proficiency level trying to get kids from the red to the yellow. And it's never trying to get kids to a mastery level. He talks about a lot of what we talk about in schools is social justice. He adds Scientific justice. Tatum argues with social justice, you identify a problem like the world is coming to an end for global warming. Scientific justice is like you can become a scientist and maybe try and actually solve this problem as opposed to just pointing it out. Social justice pointed out scientific justice is actually solving the problem, and if our kids don't know how to do basic science, they're not going to solve the problem.
Educator One: And if they don't know how to read, they're never going to be able to do basic science correct or be a scientist or be an engineer.