A Call to Action on Literacy

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North Carolina in 2012 adopted the rigorous Common Core curriculum standards for all public schools and charter schools. When the State Board of Education released the results of standardized tests from that first year of Common Core, they revealed a dramatic drop in performance by students, schools and districts. The overall passing rate in Durham was 34%, compared to 55.8% in Wake County and 50% in Orange County. The overall statewide passing rate was 45%.

The new Read to Achieve law, passed last year by the General Assembly, mandates certain levels of reading proficiency by the end of third grade and requires school districts to offer summer remediation camps for certain students not reading at that level. Hundreds of Durham third-graders are expected to need that support this summer.

Amidst these challenges, and with the critical knowledge that end-of-third-grade reading level is the most accurate predictor of high school graduation, Durham Public Schools earlier this month hosted a Literacy Summit to begin mobilizing community stakeholders. Dr. Phail Wynn Jr., vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke University, was the keynote speaker at the event, and these are his remarks.


Phail Wynn Jr.
Phail Wynn Jr.

We are here today to begin a community dialogue in preparation for taking action on both an immediate challenge and a more difficult long-term one. This Literacy Summit is the beginning of a long and sustained process during which all education and community stakeholders will have to step up.

If we examine this challenge from a historical perspective, we discover we have been talking about third-grade reading proficiency in Durham elementary schools for more than 20 years. Many of you will remember this quote from the late 1990s — “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” This quote from former DPS superintendent Ann Denlinger referred to the goal of having all students reach reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

I even have here an op-ed piece I wrote in 2000 advocating support for that goal. DPS drafted a covenant that was signed by dozens of stakeholders. However, no sustainable action plan was developed.  We continue to face the challenge.

Allow me to take a few minutes to discuss my view of the challenge and the consequences of not developing and implementing a sustainable, research-based action plan. To paraphrase singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell’s wonderful song, “Both Sides Now,” I have seen the consequences of this pre-K-to-third-grade literacy issue from both ends now – as well as from the middle.  And it all points to the same conclusion – this is a most serious and critical challenge, leading only to disastrous consequences if coordinated and focused actions are not taken to save these kids.

My first experience in understanding the consequences of poor reading proficiency occurred early in my 28-year tenure as president of Durham Technical Community College. Durham Tech provides open-door admissions but requires entering students to take placement tests to determine their preparation for college-level academic work.  Over the years, as many as 40% of our entering high-school graduates tested below grade level in reading, English and/or mathematics. We carefully developed three levels of Developmental Studies courses to prepare them for college-level work. We understood that a student could not master any course or subject at Durham Tech without appropriate grade-level reading proficiency.

As a result, we faced many disappointed and discouraged students. In their minds, their high school diploma meant they were prepared for college-level work. It was a huge blow to learn they would have to spend up to three semesters doing remedial work — at their own expense — that would not count toward their major. This was a harsh penalty for young people who had done everything expected of them. But, who was at fault? The school system? Their parents? The community?

I developed another perspective on the importance of early literacy development when I became vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke University in 2008. Jeannie Bishop, then principal of E.K. Powe Elementary School, expressed to me her concern about the large number of students entering kindergarten with little or no pre-school experience. These students lacked the necessary kindergarten readiness behaviors and had not begun to develop the requisite pre-reading skills. Recent studies show that in the United States, one of every three children enter kindergarten unprepared or underprepared to begin learning reading and math. Just imagine their first educational experience during their first day at kindergarten – a day filled with frustration and lowered self-esteem. So, if these students are not ready for kindergarten, who is at fault? We certainly can’t blame the schools if students arrive unprepared.

My most recent perspective on understanding the consequences of poor reading proficiency came when my office piloted the Balfanz Early Warning Indicator Tracking System (EWITS) at three DPS middle schools. This project began in the fall of 2009 to identify those middle-school students most at risk of dropping out or otherwise getting off track for graduation. The rationale for this cohort analysis approach was that by identifying middle-school youth most vulnerable to disconnection from school, resources could more efficiently and effectively be deployed for those youth identified as most likely to drop out.

We began the process by applying the “high-risk” indicators developed by Professor Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University to data on all sixth-grade students at the three schools at the conclusion of the 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. Those indicators, found to accurately identify sixth-grade students at risk of dropping out, are:

Attendance – Students with attendance below 80% during the school year.
Behavior – Two or more suspensions during the school year.
Course performance in English & Mathematics – Final grade of F or D.

Balfanz’s research shows that a sixth-grade student with at least one of these indicators had a 75% chance of dropping out of high school. An increase in the number of indicators exhibited by any one student significantly increases the likelihood of that student dropping out.

When we applied these indicators to students at those three Durham middle schools, we were able to identify for them the students most in need of support services. Our research also showed that all students exhibiting one or more of those indicators had something in common – They all read at the lowest level of proficiency.  So, if they were truant, acting out or failing, it was because they couldn’t read proficiently.

We have now reached – or maybe passed – that critical point where collective action is necessary. Raising reading levels will require careful planning and close collaboration among parents, educators, and all stakeholders in the broader community.

According to authors John Kania and Mark Kramer, the key to long-term, sustainable success is for all community stakeholders to abandon their individual agendas in favor of a collective approach to improving student reading proficiency. In taking collective action, stakeholders must realize that fixing one point on the educational continuum won’t make much difference unless all other points of the continuum are improved at the same time. The collective action mission must be to coordinate improvements at every stage of a DPS student’s educational continuum, from pre-school through high school.

This collective action mission must be addressed at another community summit, since collective action is the third step in this long-term process. The first and most immediate step is to recruit and sign up volunteers for the summer reading camps, and for volunteers to recruit other volunteers.

The second step will be to recruit volunteers for every elementary school to support afterschool literacy and academic enrichment programs. Our schools need reading buddies, reading tutors, and mentors. Now is the time for all education and community stakeholders to step up and heed this call to action!

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