An Early Reading Laboratory in Connecticut

I spent an hour last night with my son in his elementary school, Mason Crest, here in Annandale, Virginia. The school had a math and literacy night. Teachers met with parents and students and in one session, parents were given a brief overview on how to help their children read. Reading without doubt is essential to learning. A lot of information is out there, but one obviously cannot access any of this knowledge without learning to listen and read first.

Developmental psychologist Michelle Anthony, an advisor, columnist, and feature writer for Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine, provides tips on how to help a developing reader in her article, "Reading Comprehension and Decoding Strategies". She writes:
The time between 6 and 7 is when a child learns to “really read.” Congratulations! The world of learning is open to your child in new and fantastic ways! You have a tremendous role in supporting your developing reader.
Comprehension and decoding are important skills in reading. Decoding allows for young readers to begin recognizing words. Reading requires vocabulary, but vocabulary cannot grow without exposure. Thus, it is obvious that to become a good reader, one must read, and read, and read....

At the heart of finding better ways to teach children how to read, there is a school in Hartford, Connecticut that has received quite an attention recently. The school is Dr. Ramon E. Betances Early Reading Lab.

The Dr. Ramon E. Betances Elementary School is a model Pre-K-3 Early Reading Lab School. This school will employ outstanding practices in early literacy instruction while also serving as a professional development center for elementary school teachers who want to further develop their skills in early literacy instruction. Students will develop an appreciation for all genres of literature, and be prepared to be at or above the proficient level on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) by the end of third grade. (Parents must enroll their child in pre-kindergarten to benefit from the full five-year curriculum that is designed to meet the third grade reading proficiency standard.)
The following provide some data regarding this school (copied from FindTheBest)

It should be noted that on top of having a large fraction of the students Hispanic or Black, nearly every student in this school qualifies for either reduced-price or free lunch. Betances elementary school therefore mainly serves minorities who belong to households that are below, at, or near the poverty level in the United States.

One reason why the school is getting some attention is this (as noted by the Connecticut Council for Education Reform):
Our March 28th Best Practices Forum is designed to highlight strategic innovations that close achievement gaps while raising overall student performance, and Dr. Immacula Didier, principal of Ramon E. Betances Early Reading Lab in Hartford, has some ideas to share! Since 2010, when Betances implemented its new program, the percent of the school’s third graders scoring at or above goal on the Connecticut Mastery Test has increased from 19.1% to 74.2%. We checked in with Dr. Didier to learn about some of the school’s strategies for supporting teacher and student development and improvement.
19.1% to 74.2% - This is certainly a huge jump. Therefore, it is no surprise that the state of Connecticut has recently questioned test results from Betances:

This indeed is the price of placing too much at stake on test scores. When bonuses involving thousands of dollars are tied to students' test scores, one has to worry about irregularities.

Focusing solely on test scores, unfortunately, hides the other side of the story (which is probably much more important). Luckily, PBS NewsHour Learning Matters recently reported on this school:

Clearly, teaching and learning go far beyond test scores. And the above seven-minute video captures some of the aspects of this pilot reading school in Connecticut. Take for example videotaping and observing a classroom. The following is an excerpt of an interview of one of the teachers, Sarah Fritz, and the literary coach, Dr. Bronstein in Betances.
It’s not about Right or Wrong

Second Grade Teacher Fritz welcomes Dr. Bronstein’s impromptu visits – but also has noticed that her fellow teachers in the cluster group meetings take very different notes. Each teacher’s review of the “game tape” relates to how different models both mesh with their own styles and also meet the unique needs within their classrooms. The point is, there is no one absolutely correct style.

“Until you see the video, you don’t get the full sense of what you’re doing – and how you can change,” says Ms. Fritz. In classes with 20 to 23 students, teachers naturally tend to focus on the interactions they have with the most energized children. The video tool can capture every child’s level of engagement. 
Seeing other teachers presenting the same lesson in different ways – and then modifying one’s own to improve – goes to the heart of what is so essential to teacher preparation, Dr. Bronstein points out: self-reflection.

The Betances experiment is new and has barely tapped the potential of the technology, Dr. Bronstein says. Yet, in the case of Sarah Fritz, “Utilizing what was learned from these videos, she did her best lesson ever. I am so proud of these teachers as to what they see in the video footage and what they observe about student work. There is a change in those teachers. They say to themselves, ‘I know this now.’”

We look forward to hearing about how this practice will get scaled, hopefully in the near future.
Watching the video goes much farther than looking at test scores. Seeing the classroom is actually no different from the experience I had last night with my son in his school. My son's teacher was there and so were the other teachers. They were working together as a team.

I can really relate to what the Betances Reading laboratory web site says at the bottom of its home page:
Students Say : “I want to live at the school so I can read all of my favorite books.” 
Parents Say : “My child is learning a lot at this school. He is happy to be here everyday.” 
Teachers Say : "We are a community of learners."
The above does matter.... even more than test scores do.


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