Reading Recovery, or regression?

KPS is using a reading program that recent studies show to be ineffective and potentially harmful. A concerned mother turns to NowKalamazoo as her questions go unanswered by the district.

Five months ago, Susan O’Connor began writing to administrators at Kalamazoo Public Schools about an early elementary school literacy intervention program that has been all but discredited by recent research.

A librarian and data specialist with two elementary school kids at KPS herself, it was a point of inquiry both professional and personal. She spoke at Board of Education meetings and emailed links to studies, reports, news articles, and specialized podcasts all underscoring her main question: will the district keep using this program?

It is a particularly vital probe in Kalamazoo, as recent test scores show that 44.4% of KPS third graders are not proficient compared to the statewide average of 33.9%.

Reading Recovery has been around for half a century, first in New Zealand, and then in the United States in the mid 1980s. It’s aimed at first graders with the lowest reading skills. It teaches those kids to memorize words and to make educated guesses as to what more difficult words are in a sentence, often with visual hints like pictures.

Studies show that while this may be successful for kids who need to pass a particular test in first grade or attain grade level proficiency, those are nearly always short-term gains that are either stunted or lost only a few years later. 

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“There are kids who get through first, second, third grade can’t actually spell the word zebra, but all the books at school that show the zebra and they are smart and can guess the word,” said Heather Eckner, a former educator and now Director of Statewide Education at the Autism Alliance of Michigan. “The theory is if you keep exposing kids over and over again, by default of exposure their brains are supposed to just click. Science has shown that’s not how it happens in the brain.”

Instead, the science of reading shows, children need to develop a baseline of knowing what sounds a letter and groups of letters make, which feeds directly into skilled reading comprehension, and then build upon that each school year.

“Kids fly under the radar with these poorly designed and poorly implemented programs,” Eckner said.

The need to address KPS’s reading scores become more urgent when viewed in light of core demographics. While only 22.4% of White students are not proficient, those numbers rise to 51.6% for Hispanic students and 65.3% for Black students. 

Andrea Tramel, Community Engagement Director at SLD Read, a non-profit that provides private tutoring as well as in-school literacy programs in Kalamazoo and Portage public school districts, called the science-based reading techniques “the most equitable way to teach reading.”

Her colleague, Mary Outinen, spent seven of her 30 years in Parchment Public Schools teaching Reading Recovery. It has since been dropped there, like everywhere else in Kalamazoo County’s public school districts.

“It got a lot of good press in the 80s and 90s,” said Outinen, who retired in 2020 and is now the Curriculum and Instruction Manager at SLD Read.

“It actually reinforces strategies that struggling readers use,” she said. “It’s actually harmful to kids. They end up doing worse. They might do OK for first grade but end up hitting the wall in 3rd grade.”

“They don’t have the skills to decode – our brain looks at each letter in miniscule seconds and that’s how we learn to read. Some people pick it up naturally but when you teach someone to read, those are the phonics they need, that’s where you start.”

For months now, O’Connor has been trying to pin down KPS administrators to justify the use of Reading Recovery. She has flagged the studies and the six-part podcast series called Sold a Story by American Public Media in an email to Micole D. Dyson, KPS Director of Elementary Education, in which she raised explicit concerns about Reading Recovery.

“I am aware and have listened to this podcast as many of us in K-12 education aim to stay keen to research and perceived new findings,” Dyson wrote in a one paragraph response.

“Reading Recovery is one of several interventions” for students needing help, Angela Justice, KPS Coordinator of English Language Arts, Social Studies and Library Services, wrote in response to O’Connor. She said those that use it are either phased out when they test out or, if not, “are recommended for further intervention.”

O’Connor kept pressing for answers from administrators.

In February, she was told by Amy Vondra, KPS Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Student Services, that the principals can answer questions about specific reading intervention strategies being offered at each school. She was also told that 14 KPS elementary schools are using Reading Recovery this year, and there are 17 Reading Recovery teachers in the district. When asked how many students participated in Reading Recovery, Vondra said “We cannot share student data at this time.” When asked if the Reading Recovery is funded by a grant and for how long, Vondra wrote: “It is privately supported and I cannot comment further.”

O’Connor then brought her frustration, research, and questions to NowKalamazoo.

NowKalamazoo asked KPS why it is using Reading Recovery despite the research suggesting otherwise, in an email to Susan Coney, head of communications at KPS. After eight days without a response, NowKalamazoo followed up with a voice mail and an email reiterating the question, requesting an interview about the research and how the program is being utilized in the district.

“Reading Recovery is just one of the supports” to help students, KPS wrote in a statement emailed to NowKalamazoo. “While the district has examined current research, only some of which argues against the effectiveness of the program, KPS has found that as part of a multi-tiered and multi-disciplinary approach to reading intervention, Reading Recovery can be an effective tool to help some students build not only skills but confidence.”

KPS administrators did not respond to any follow-up, clarifying questions.

“The mixed bag approach that they are touting is one of those things that has been debunked,” said the Autism Alliance’s Eckner. “The science of reading supports a systematic, explicit, sequential approach of fundamental skills that connect to literacy. You don’t just pull a little from here and a little from there.”

Eckner said the approach is a drain on teachers too – time spent on teaching something that doesn’t work that could be spent on learning how to best teach reading in a way that shows better results.

“Teachers are constantly undercut with the hard job they are trying to do,” Eckner said.

NowKalamazoo also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the district, asking about annual costs for all aspects of the Reading Recovery program, the number of teachers and students involved in the current school year, and copies of current and previous contracts and other documents associated with its implementation in KPS. The district required a payment of more than $2,500 to provide the information.

Fifty-percent of the funding for the program comes via an anonymous donor in a fund created at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation explicitly for this program. It’s a matching program, requiring KPS to provide funds for the rest of the cost.

The recent studies about Reading Recovery have been brought to the Foundation’s attention as well. Last fall, the Foundation began convening stakeholders, including both KPS and the anonymous donor, to explore the concerns that have been raised and whether any changes to what the funding is spent on is appropriate.

“We are aware of the Reading Recovery program’s concerns and what other community solutions might be, including having further conversations with Kalamazoo Public Schools,” said Sarah Lee, Vice President for Marketing Communications at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “As we all know, when it comes to a child’s learning and growing it takes a whole community behind them to make sure they can thrive.”

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