Literacy initiative tests political patience, and political will

The Blaine County School District has ambitious and brand-new reading goals for this year.

Many of the district’s first- and second-graders begin to struggle with reading, after scoring well in kindergarten. Blaine County wants 70 percent of first-graders reading at grade level this spring, up from 55 percent a year ago.

Literacy logoBut district administrators are already looking past spring, and trying to figure out how to prevent their young readers’ perennial struggle with the “summer slide,” as students forget what they learned the previous year.

“Our concern is that the slide is consistently happening,” said Aaron Bronson, the district’s program coordinator. “The skills are not secure.”

Districts across Idaho are looking for sustained strategies to help boost reading skills — such as expanded summer programs or enhanced teacher training. They are balancing short-term milestones against long-term objectives.

And in the next three months, when lawmakers decide whether to continue the literacy initiative, they will do so without any hard evidence.

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The early signals

A month before the 2017 legislative session, Idaho’s political leaders seem to acknowledge that this year’s $11.25 million literacy budget is but a down payment.

  •      State superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s 2017-18 budget request proposes a $7.9 million increase in literacy programs. The bulk of the money, $5.9 million, would go to replace or revamp the Idaho Reading Indicator, the snapshot screening test administered in kindergarten through third grade.
  •      As is custom, Gov. Butch Otter isn’t sharing any details about his budget until the Jan. 9 opening of the legislative session — and Otter declined an interview request for this series. However, Otter frequently extolls the state’s ongoing five-year plan to improve its schools, the product of his 2013 education task force. A literacy initiative was among the task force’s 20 recommendations.
  •      Otter’s State Board of Education has a six-year goal to boost reading scores — affecting today’s newborns and preschoolers. By the spring of 2022, the board wants 88.4 percent of Idaho’s kindergartners reading at grade level, compared to the 78 percent proficiency rate from 2016. The board wants to see similar rates of improvement in first through third grade. These targets are a part of a proposed State Board rule subject to legislative approval in January.

While board members have embraced a six-year goal growth goal, board staff are quietly trying to build the foundation.

It was the staff’s job to review the literacy plans school districts and charters submitted earlier this fall. The board didn’t have veto power, and the schools received their share of the $11.25 million in literacy money even if pieces of their plan didn’t follow prescribed guidelines. Board staffers asked schools to fill in the blanks, asking them to set goals for 2016-17. Blaine County was one example; the district’s original plan included no first-year goals.

Meanwhile, board staffers have another job, with a view to the future. They’re keeping track of how different districts and charters approach their reading needs — by extending the school day, hiring more staff, adding training or buying classroom technology. The state will look for best practices. As early as next year, the State Board will be able to use these results to identify best practices, and provide advice to schools that are struggling to meet their goals.

“I think that’s one of the real benefits of having those plans submitted to the board,” spokesman Blake Youde said.

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Waiting for results

Ybarra’s State Department of Education is required to provide the 2017 Legislature with a progress report on the literacy initiative.

The trouble is, there is no way to measure that progress, at least not until the spring Idaho Reading Indicator. The spring test will measure student growth from the fall IRI, but the results won’t be available during the legislative session. Ybarra’s staff will be able to talk about approaches and strategies — and speak anecdotally about successes — but that might be the extent of it.

“I’m not sure what kind of programmatic report we can put together that quickly,” Ybarra spokesman Jeff Church said.

Will that suffice for lawmakers who are being asked to make a second payment on a literacy plan in its infancy?

Julie VanOrden
Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree

“I think you have to give the programs and the new money a couple of years,” said Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree. Named the new chair of the House Education Committee on Dec. 1, VanOrden played a key role in drafting the 2016 literacy bills and overcoming some skepticism around the Statehouse.

VanOrden’s Senate counterpart is also preaching patience. “We’re new into the process so we can’t expect too much,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, hopes her colleagues resist the urge to expect immediate results. Like Mortimer, Ward-Engelking notes that schools are still recovering from the unprecedented K-12 budget cuts of the Great Recession. In many schools, the reading specialists and the counselors were among the first staffers to go.

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Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

“We’ve got to play catch-up a little bit,” said Ward-Engelking, a retired teacher who sits on the Senate Education Committee and the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

In the absence of any new numbers on student achievement, the 2017 Legislature will have to decide how much it trusts a process created just a year ago. It also will be a test of political attention span.

As the senior member of the state Senate, and co-chair of JFAC, Sen. Shawn Keough is well-positioned to keep pushing for this new program. And as the wife of a retired teacher, she is sensitive to educators who are skeptical about the politics of K-12 — and the tendency to jump from one flavor-of-the-month project to the next.

“We do have to keep our commitment to this investment,” she said. “Literacy is foundational.”

Literacy series, at a glance

Wednesday: Idaho schools try to bridge a wide reading gap

Wednesday: A close look at literacy dollars, and literacy demographics

Thursday: Literacy initiative tests political patience, and political will

Thursday: As Idaho revamps its literacy program, its reading test awaits a rewrite

Thursday: Rethinking literacy for special education students

Thursday: No clear picture on funding for special education