Administrator Magazine: Curriculum
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Erasing the Reading Gap

See how this Las Vegas high school uses the individualized, tech-based READ 180 to dramatically improve students’ reading proficiency.

Principal Ron Montoya of Valley High School in downtown Las Vegas had no idea how much his students were struggling with reading until an inventory in 2002 revealed half of his ninth graders were below grade level.

"We knew we had to do something quickly," says Montoya. Of the school's then 2,800 students, more than eight of ten were minorities and almost half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. "We didn't realize that was the root of all our problems."

But trying to teach basic reading skills to high schoolers comes with significant hurdles. Teachers at this level aren't trained to teach reading strategies; it is hard to find age-appropriate material that covers the correct skills; and perhaps most significantly, the dropout rate for urban students is high. This last factor basically demanded that Valley not only find a solution, but do so quickly.

The school joined in a district-wide roll-out of Scholastic READ 180, an individualized, technology-based reading intervention program. Several sections were offered, even in the summer, and students thrived in the smaller classes with customized instruction. It soon was apparent that when kids became better readers, their performance improved in math and other subjects.

Between 2006 and 2009, the percentage of Valley's students that passed the state proficiency test in English language arts improved from 75 percent to 89 percent for Hispanics; 71 percent to 94 percent for blacks; and 83 percent to 95 percent for whites—nearly closing the achievement gap. At the same time, math scores went up from 52 percent to 76 percent for Hispanics, 49 percent to 75 percent for blacks, and 62 percent to 85 percent for whites.

"When we won the state basketball tournament in 1999, there were 200 kids excited," says Montoya. "When you have 3,000 kids excited about achieving, it's different. It's wonderful for the school. Everyone feels proud."

A Unique Approach
Valley high school is not unlike many other schools in the United States. Nationwide, nearly 68 percent of eighth graders and 62 percent of twelfth graders score below "proficient" in reading achievement and about 25 percent are below "basic" reading level, according to 2009 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

"When adolescents are having difficulty reading, it's really an emergency," says Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education. "They need to be in the reading ER or they are at risk of dropping out. It's a crisis situation."

Launched in 1999, READ 180 was designed to turn a struggling reader's life around completely—180 degrees. It has at its core the concept of differentiated instruction, which also makes it a good tool for English language learners and students with disabilities.

At the computer, students are introduced to new material by watching a video, which gives them base knowledge. Then, as they work through vocabulary and exercises, students are timed, monitored, and reevaluated. Every click of the mouse is collected to give the teacher feedback, and instruction changes based on students' needs.

A READ 180 classroom is divided into three centers: small-group reading with a teacher, independent reading, and computer lessons tailored to each student's ability. The program is designed to be used in a 90-minute block, during which students spend one third of their time in each area.

"Adolescents need to get up and move around," says Mayer. "It's been a learning curve for teachers to get used to that, but now many say they don't want to go back to standing in front of a class."

Although designed for a school setting, developers of the program wanted the classroom to look more like a Starbucks than the traditional setting. Students who come into these classes have not been doing well in school and often don't want to speak up or be called on to read aloud, says Mayer. This format, with discrete areas, helps students feel more comfortable speaking up and allows them to build a closer rapport with teachers.

Pam Hanson-Robles, a teacher at Valley High, which now has 3,100 students, has taught READ 180 since 2005. She says the rotation gives kids a needed change of pace. "The attention span these days is so short, they need some activity involved."

Giving students choice, especially in the independent reading area, also helps to alleviate discipline problems. "Anytime someone is dictating what you have to do, you get your feathers ruffled and you don't buy into it as much," says Hanson-Robles.

An engaging topic can help hook a student who is a reluctant reader, so an important focus of the program is offering a variety of interesting (mostly nonfiction) books that are age-appropriate at different reading levels, says Mayer.

Working in Clark County
Read 180 is used in about one third of the 326 schools in Nevada's Clark County School District, the fifth largest in the United States. It's mostly in middle schools, but also in elementary and high schools, targeting students who are at least two years behind grade level in reading, says Patricia Cooper, coordinator for instructional programs with the Student Support Services division.

An assessment helps determine which kids need the program, says Cooper. Then, once in the classroom, students get ongoing feedback and can monitor their own progress.

"It's purposeful," she says. "Teachers love that it makes kids feel good about themselves, because for the first time they are being successful with reading."

In 2008-09 and 2009-10, students in Clark County's READ 180 program in grades 4-12 improved their reading by one and a half grade levels based on the Scholastic Reading Inventory, says Cooper.

A study of the program's impact in Clark County from 2004-06 reveals dropout rates decreased in two READ 180 high schools by 35 percent and 55 percent, while the overall district rates dropped by 11 percent to 13 percent.

READ 180 was also found to have potentially positive effects on comprehension and general literacy achievement for adolescent learners, according to a review of seven studies of students in grades 4-9 in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

Teachers Embrace Structure
"For me, instructionally, it was a saving grace," says Amy Stepinski, a READ 180 teacher at Valley High from 2004 to 2007. She is now dean of students at the school. "Most English teachers aren't trained to teach reading," she says. "They are trained to teach English, writing, and grammar. It can be pretty intimidating to teach those who are missing basic fundamentals when you aren't trained."

The system provides reports for teachers to track how students are doing. It also suggests groupings within a class so students of similar levels can work together. "It's easier to do an assessment on the spot and get a snapshot of who is picking up on what," says Stepinski.

For students who have failed and feel like they can't read, many don't want to try anymore. But by experiencing success in READ 180, many gain the confidence they need to achieve in other subjects, Stepinski adds.

"You have to use these programs with fidelity—the way they were designed to be used," says Principal Montoya. READ 180 classes at Valley High are limited to just 24 students, which is a welcome break from the typical 36—-student classrooms in other subjects.

The program is structured and organized. "When implemented well, it works well," Scholastic Education's Mayer says. Yet, it is intended to give teachers some freedom to be innovative. READ 180 provides a plan, but teachers can bring their "special sauce" and "passion" to make it their own, says Mayer.

Connecting With ELLs
Elizabeth Bell has taught various subjects in a number of states over the past 40 years, but she's found she loves teaching reading at Valley High because she is witnessing such success.

Many of her students are newcomers to the United States, like Twizere Nyirakadar, 15, who came from the Congo two years ago where she had been living in a refugee camp and was out of school for three years. Nyirakadar knew a little English (her native language is Swahili), but didn't know how to read or write.

After two years in Bell's classroom, where she used Scholastic's System 44 and READ 180, Nyirakadar passed the English proficiency test. "I like reading," she says. "Now I get all As."

"She's come a long way," says Bell of her student's progress. Seeing the students improve-especially compared to past approaches of worksheets and lecturing—has sold Bell on the approach of READ 180.

"I was so impressed. Especially for diverse learners and those with language gaps when they are on the computer, if goes right to what they need," says Bell. There are motivational aspects to the software, where students compete against themselves and work toward their personal best.

When a student recently told Bell she loved a book and stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish it, Bell says she got teary over her accomplishment. "This is teaching. Students have that desire to learn," she says. "I'll finish my career here."

Rolling Out an Update
In May, READ 180 introduced Next Generation—an updated version of the program that has been in the making for five years. It provides more feedback and data to teachers, administrators, and students, says Mayer. A new feature will also help teachers more accurately group students based on their performance.

As for the change in technology, the Next Generation version of READ 180 will be browser based, which should reduce the cost of ownership.

In response to the Common Core State Standards' increased emphasis on writing, Next Generation will also challenge students with deeper writing activities and more analysis.

Currently, about one million American students use the READ 180 program in 15,000 classrooms. With many more students needing intervention with reading, Mayer anticipates the demand for the system will only grow-although she holds out hope for a turnaround in reading skills. Adds Mayer: "Our dream is that there would be a day when there is no need for READ 180."

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