Right On Target

Ken Donohue becomes principal of Merriweather High School at a time of crisis. Charged by the superintendent with "fixing" the school, Ken believes building reading skills in all content areas is the key to improvement.

Ken Donohue, principal of Merriweather High School, addresses his state secondary principals’ association convention.

Ken had trouble hearing his fellow diners over the din in the crowded banquet hall. While he relished the opportunity to detail the success of the literacy initiatives at Merriweather High School, he was a perfectionist, and it was important to him that things go smoothly in front of his colleagues. He pulled his talking points out of his briefcase for a quick review.

“Ready?” An assistant tapped Ken’s shoulder.

Ken stood and headed for the podium. He greeted his audience and then clicked the computer remote to begin his PowerPoint presentation.

View Ken’s presentation on literacy issues at Merriweather High School.

After he finished, he returned to his seat at the head table and listened to the next speaker, Melvina Phillips. She, too, was talking about the significance of literacy at the secondary level.

View a video of Melvina Phillips.

As Ken listened to her description of literacy issues, he thought back to the beginning of his tenure at Merriweather High School and how he began to understand the connections between literacy and school achievement.

Ken recalls his March tour of Merriweather High School, just after he accepted the principalship.

Merriweather was at a crossroads when Ken became principal.

“We have a wonderful faculty here,” Emily Cottner, retiring principal, commented as she walked with Ken through the monochromatic halls of Merriweather High School.

Ken was excited about his new position, his first job as principal after five years as an AP out-of-state. He was apprehensive, too. This was not exactly a plum he’d been handed, but a school with multiple problems, problems he’d been charged with solving.

See the Merriweather High School Overview below:

Emily continued, “I give my staff a lot of freedom to do their own thing in the classroom, and it’s worked really well.” She stopped in front of a closed door. “Polly Furman is one of our best social studies teachers. I want you to see her in action.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to sit in on a conference call. Why don’t you go in, and I’ll come back at the end of the period.”

Polly welcomes Ken’s observation.

Polly Furman’s third period American History class was already in full swing when Ken slipped into the room. The students were seated in groups of four, discussing U.S. policy in Vietnam. The room was noisy, but focused, as group members worked together to understand the assignment. He introduced himself to Polly.

“Welcome aboard,” she smiled. “I’m glad you decided to come to my class!” She seemed genuinely pleased and continued, “We’re doing this numbered heads together strategy, first time for all of us.”

Ken raised his eyebrows.

“We’ve had a lot, and I do mean a lot, of workshops to help with content-area learning, and this is one of the things we covered. Students seem to like it.” She looked around the room and then at the clock. “Time’s almost up,” she called out.

View Strategies to Teach Social Studies, a resource Polly consults.

After finishing the activity, Polly gave students a few minutes to get started on their homework, a reading assignment in the textbook, while she sat at her computer and began typing. Students pulled out their text books, settling down quickly, most making an effort to complete the assignment. But one boy caught Ken’s eye. Hunched over his book, he stared at the page without moving, clearly not reading. Ken approached Polly, “What’s going on with him?” he asked in a whisper.

“Oh, that’s Michael,” Polly sighed. “The book’s just too hard for him.”

Michael stares at his book.

Michael did not look up when Ken stopped by his desk. “Having a tough time getting started?” The head stayed down. “I noticed you had a lot to say in your group about the war. Don’t you want to learn more about Vietnam?”

Michael glanced up quickly and shrugged. The bell rang. He grabbed his backpack, left the book on his desk, and headed out the door.

Polly walked over, shaking her head. “He’s a good kid, really, but I don’t think he’s going to pass the SOL. Not unless somebody reads him the questions.”

Improving reading skills became the key to increasing overall achievement and meeting school improvement goals.

Ken explores the issues facing Merriweather High School.

Ken’s contract began in June, and he dove into his work at Merriweather, devoting all his time to getting a deeper understanding of the school. He analyzed test scores, attendance patterns, and mobility rates. He reviewed teachers’ files, examined the budget, and met with department chairs and his assistant administrators, one of whom was also new to the school.

It was a given that achievement was unacceptably low at Merriweather. He’d been hired to fix that, but there was a paucity of data—other than achievement scores—to show what might be the cause. He kept coming back to what he’d seen in Polly’s classroom. He didn’t think there was a silver bullet, but could low literacy be the underlying factor?

Looking for more information, Ken called Mark Billingsly, the Director of Testing, who laughed when asked about reading scores. “We test reading in the fourth grade! After that, it’s content, content, content.”

Ken pressed on. “But I need to know about the incoming ninth graders. What are theirreading skills like?”

“We really don’t know, specifically. What we do know is that at the fourth grade level, eighty percent of the students from the feeder elementary schools read at or slightly below grade level. Things look okay.” Mark paused. “On the other hand, I’ve heard from many teachers that reading is a problem, and you could look at their content test scores as a proxy for their comprehension.”

Ken hung up the phone and sat for a moment, looking out the window of his office into the parking lot, which shimmered slightly in the midsummer sun. There had to be information about this out there, somewhere. And then he remembered an article he’d seen in the Harvard Education Letter. He hadn’t paid close attention to it when it came out, but now he asked his secretary to locate it so he could read it over his sandwich. One sentence jumped out at him, “ . . . [S]econdary teachers should just assume that most of their students can’t read at grade level.”

Read the article that Ken consults, Johnny Still Can’t Read.

Ken would do more research on this, but he was convinced on an intuitive level: Work on students’ reading skills, and their achievement in all subject areas would improve. Late that night, he finished drafting his strategy for fixing a broken school. The next morning, he asked his secretary to make an appointment with the regional Superintendant of Curriculum and Instruction, Beryl Davis, as soon as possible. Ken was ready to present his ideas.

See Ken’s school improvement proposal below:

In late July, Ken met with the regional superintendent and members of the Office of Assessment and Accountability.

Beryl Davis scheduled Ken to present his ideas the following week and included several other regional-level superintendents as well. This was his chance, Ken knew, to get backing from the top, backing he’d need if he was going to make any headway with implementation. He had prepared carefully, using his most persuasive points to convince the committee that his plan would work to improve Merriweather. He was confident in his ideas and hoped that confidence would be enough to persuade the necessary people.

When he finished speaking, Marion Peterson, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, was the first to respond. “Do you have any idea what we’ve already been doing to improve Merriweather High School?” she asked testily.

Ken nodded. “I am aware of the content-area work that’s gone on.”

“Really? Because it doesn’t sound like it to me” she turned to Beryl. “We’ve spent two years on a major content-area initiative. Our teachers have been PD’ed to death! Now is the time to let them implement the new strategies, not introduce a completely new program.” She gestured to the page of his proposal that outlined reporting requirements. “Teachers are going to explode when they see this!

“I don’t want to do away with all that hard work, Marion,” Ken jumped in before Beryl could state an opinion. “I just want to figure out how literacy strategies can be incorporated in the work you’ve already done.”

Andrew Roberts, Regional Director of Secondary Programs, chimed in. “I think you’re being a little disingenuous. This proposal goes far beyond just adding a few reading strategies.”

“Maybe so, maybe so,” Ken shrugged. “But if students can’t read the textbook, none of those content-area strategies are going to work very well!”

Andrew persisted, “We need to give the current initiative more time to work before adding yet another layer, much less a whole new initiative.”

“I’m sure you’ve read Michael Fullan,” Marion added. When Ken nodded she went on, “Remember what he says about change?” He nodded again. “We had some initial success and if we just keep pressing we can get past what I think is simply an implementation dip.”

Read an introduction to Michael Fullan’s ideas about change and school reform.

Then Mark spoke up. “I’d like to hear more about your ideas for assessment.”

“The last thing we need is more testing!” exclaimed Marion.

Ken caught Beryl’s eye. “I just want to test ninth grade reading,” he said. “Look, I’ll make you a deal.” Ken felt the momentum of his ideas take hold. “Let me test them, and if they are reading on grade level, I’ll abandon my ideas about this program altogether.”

Mark looked at Marion and Andrew. “I had the same reaction you did when Ken first broached this idea to me. My staff is stretched to the limit as it is. But then he sent me that article from Harvard, and it got me thinking.” He spread his hands as if to invite them all towards consensus. “So let me do some research into secondary reading assessments, and I’ll see what I find.”

Beryl cleared her throat, and all eyes turned to the head of the table. “I appreciate your concerns and the hard work you’ve done. But I think Ken brings a fresh set of eyes to the problems at Merriweather. Sometimes it takes a newcomer to help us see new possibilities.” Ken heard Marion let out a quick puff of air. “So, we’re going to find out about the reading problems.” She nodded decisively. “Ninth graders will be tested as soon as possible at the beginning of the year. We’ll give Ken whatever help he needs, and Ken, keep us informed of your progress.”

Ken decided to press his luck. “I want to begin this year. Test in September. Mark, is that doable?”

At his first faculty meeting, Ken introduced the literacy initiative.

Ken had met many teachers during the interview process and had worked with department chairs during the summer; however, today would be the first time he addressed his entire faculty face-to-face. As he looked out from the podium, he sensed wariness and apprehension.

He began by welcoming teachers back, then told a few anecdotes about positive teaching he’d witnessed during his spring visits. He took a deep breath, switched on the projector, and showed the results of last year’s state assessments. He wanted teachers to see the need for change, but he didn’t want them to feel their previous efforts weren’t valued.

“I don’t think we’ve been addressing the fundamental issues here,” Ken gestured towards the projected figures. “It’s not that you haven’t been working hard, but maybe students aren’t where they should be in terms of their ability to understand the tools you use to teach them. In other words, they can’t read. And if they can’t read, they can’t succeed.”

Ken finished and asked for comments and reactions. Silence. He waited. A hand went up in the back. He was fairly certain it belonged to a science teacher.

“I completely agree that reading is very important,” she said. Ken felt a strong sense of relief, especially when he saw several teachers nodding in agreement. Was it really going to be this easy? “But I don’t think we should be focusing on this at the high school level. Clearly, the language arts program at the elementary and middle schools needs to be strengthened. Have you spoken to those principals?”

“I am certainly planning on sharing the results of our testing with the feeder schools,” Ken replied. “But the point is, we’ve got students struggling to read right here, right now. And improving the middle schools isn’t going to help them!”

Ken pointed toward Polly Furman, the social studies teacher he had met in the spring, who had raised her hand. She stood up and looked around the room for support. “We’ve heard this before. `Everyone is a reading teacher.’ Well, I’m not. I’m a social studies teacher and I have no training to teach reading.”

“Here, here,” another teacher called out.

“Do you understand how hard we’ve been working to improve student achievement?” Polly sounded genuinely frustrated. “Now, you’re walking in out of nowhere and telling us everything we’ve been doing is wrong!”

Ken paused before responding, “It’s not that it’s wrong. But I’m convinced that until we address the reading issue, content-area strategies simply can’t be successful. And I know you’re not reading teachers; that’s why I’ll provide plenty of support.” He’d already scheduled inservices on content-area reading strategies.

There were no more raised hands, so Ken continued with his meeting agenda, dividing teachers into content-area groups and giving each group a laptop. “Please take some time to explore these websites related to content-area reading. We are going to assemble a list of strategies that you think will be most helpful as we begin this process.” As the groups got to work, Ken circulated, trying both to learn names and encourage thoughtful participation.

Explore one of the websites teachers consulted to learn about content-area reading.

By the end of the session, the groups had compiled lists of before, during, and after reading strategies. Ken asked them to identify one or two strategies in each area to try out in their classrooms. He provided a handout where they could record the strategies they tried and asked that they let him know when they would be using a particular strategy so he could come and observe.

As the meeting concluded, Ken paused. At this point, maybe he had some buy-in, but he sure hadn’t convinced the majority of his faculty that it was their job to improve literacy skills. Still, teachers had worked diligently to review the strategies. Maybe implementing them would convince some of their efficacy. The reading test wouldn’t be administered to incoming ninth graders until the second week of school. Those results, he hoped, would be powerful enough to convince the remaining teachers.

Ken observed Polly Furman incorporating reading strategies into her instruction.

Polly’s classroom was stuffy. The heater was turned on October 1, regardless of the weather, and it promised to be a warm fall day. Ken leaned over and opened a window. The incoming breeze rustled a few papers but did little to refresh the room.

Polly’s class was studying the Reformation. Using a template in Inspiration, Polly had developed a cause-and-effect chart. She distributed it, reviewed the concept of cause and effect, and directed the students to read the article she had copied, completing the chart as they read.

See Polly’s Lesson Plan below:

View Polly’s Cause-and-Effect Chart.

As students began to read and complete the information in the organizer, Polly walked around the room to meet with individual students. Judging from the noise level and overheard comments, Ken was pretty sure that many students did not understand how to complete the task. He noticed one girl who was doodling on the handout and headed in that direction. But Polly was already there.

Despite the introduction of content-area reading strategies, students like Suji still struggle with difficult text books.

“Suji,” Polly spoke softly. “Do you understand what I have asked you to do?”

“Well, yeah,” the girl shifted in her seat.

Polly pointed at the book. “At least one of the causes is listed in this paragraph. Read it out loud and tell me what you learn.”

Suji hunched over the book. Ken struggled to hear her halting, monotone reading of the text.

“So, what do you think?” Polly asked when she finished. “What’s one cause?”

“I guess illness?” Suji looked up hopefully at her teacher.

Polly frowned slightly.

“It says right here that grave ills swept the church,” Suji pointed to the sentence in the book.

Polly pointedly looked over Suji’s head at Ken. Later, as they discussed the observation in Ken’s office, Polly expressed her frustration. “I’m trying to incorporate the strategies, but nothing I do seems to work.”

Ken looked over her lesson plan and reading strategies recording sheet.

See Polly’s completed content reading strategies recording sheet below:

“Maybe you’re expecting too much from the students. Have they used this kind of organizer before?” He asked.

Polly shook her head. “Expecting too much? Asking them to read and understand the textbook?” She sounded completely exasperated. “This shouldn’t be too hard.”

Ken felt deflated. It didn’t seem enough to implement the strategies. Teachers needed more help figuring out which strategies to use when and with which students. He knew many elementary schools had literacy coaches to help teachers and he’d planned on creating this same position at Merriweather next year. Now he thought that might be too late.

He took a quick look at last year’s departmental budget for professional development. Even if he combined all these funds, it wouldn’t cover a reading professional full-time in the school. He’d have to find another way to come up with money for this position—and fast. He wanted to get the coach in place before faculty support eroded completely.

Review the Departmental Budget Report.

The new literacy coach, Lily Toliver, began to make a difference.

The new reading coach helps teachers integrate reading strategies.

As the year went on, the school focus had turned to literacy. It had helped Ken make his case when the ninth grade tests scores had shown more than 75% of students were reading below grade level. As a result, they’d shuffled teaching assignments and created several sections of a reading remediation class called English 9 Literacy, taught by December hire Lily Toliver, a reading specialist.

What an impact she’d had! In a short time, she’d organized a weekly “Just try this!” email, in which she gave quick notes for teachers about a reading strategy. She had a regular Reading Room, where teachers attended brief workshops to support their use of the strategies, and she worked one-on-one with teachers to help them master a combined literacy and content approach. All of this while teaching the Literacy class!

With Lily’s coaching, teachers successfully integrate content-area reading strategies.

See the list of reading strategies Lily introduced below:

Now, at the end of the school year, Ken had observed almost every teacher implementing content-based reading strategies. Some were more at ease with the new model than others.

The state testing results weren’t in yet, but Ken was sure that scores would rise. This week, students would be taking their year-end reading assessment. Lily promised him that he’d see students’ scores improve by one to two grade levels. He sure hoped so; he’d bet his career on this literacy project.


Watch a social studies lesson incorporating reading strategies.


See Pamela Jones-Critical Perspective