DPSCD chief wants fresh start for literacy curriculum

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Literacy is an educational milestone that remains elusive for some school children in Detroit.

Javier Reed helps Destiny Fears, 16, a 10th-grader at Mumford Academy, improve her reading skills.

At Mumford High School and Academy, only 10 percent of freshmen are ready to crack open William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and get to work digesting text from the revered tragedy, educators say.

The remaining 90 percent are at reading levels that range from first grade to fifth.

“Our kids have figured out how to survive, but they are not competing with those who’ve had language and books read to them from birth,” Mumford Academy assistant principal Kyra White said. “The gaps are real, and the gaps are large.”

DPS Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

Officials with the Detroit Public Schools Community District say a closer look at literacy curriculum across the district this winter provided insight into classroom challenges with reading and writing and a path forward toward closing the literacy gaps.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said a recent audit of instructional materials used in English language arts in grades K-12 show the district’s curriculum is far from aligned to Michigan’s Common Core Standards. Those standards, adopted by the state in 2010, outline what students are expected to learn and be able to do at the end of each grade level. State assessments are based on those standards.

The audit — led by David Liben, the lead author of the Common Core Standards for Literacy — found teachers are still using instructional materials from 2007, which were written three years before the Common Core was adopted statewide. Wayne RESA, a regional educational service agency, funded the audit.

Auditors say in the report the district’s curriculum is missing research-based methods to increase vocabulary and knowledge needed for students to be proficient readers. It’s also lacking informational texts and nonfiction to increase vocabulary and knowledge building.

Sheeba Cheriyan helps ninth-grader A’Sharia, 14, work on her reading last month at Mumford Academy.

“None of these programs offer help and materials so teachers can help support students who are behind or far behind,” the audit stated. “So the materials themselves are not only failing these students but are also alienating them from literacy and school itself. This can contribute to an increasingly poor sense of self as a learner when experienced year after year.”

Pam Good, Beyond Basics’s president and executive director, said when high school students have a reading deficit, the goal is to get them to a seventh-grade reading level, which is considered proficient literacy.

Vitti, who came aboard the district in May, said he was not surprised by the findings. He witnessed the unaligned curriculum in classrooms last fall.

“However, in Detroit, this exacerbates our literacy challenge and places our teachers and students at a deeper disadvantage,” Vitti said. “The Common Core has emphasis on reading and analyzing text. We are not seeing that in our schools. It’s a lot of recall. It needs to be critical thinking, justifying arguments and supporting arguments.”

Vitti’s solution, which he is expected to propose to the board as early as Tuesday, is to scrap all current curriculum for English language arts (reading and writing), obtain bids this spring for a new curriculum and start the 2018-19 school year with a curriculum aligned to the standards, starting with grades K-8.

“We are already attacking this problem by training all principals, assistant principals and teachers on the new standards at the K-8 level now. That work has already started, and the new curriculum will be selected in the spring to train teachers over the summer and begin implementation in the fall,” Vitti said.

The board of education would ultimately have to approve any new curriculum.

Vitti said state emergency managers who ran the district from 2009 through 2016 never appropriately shifted curriculum and professional development to align with Common Core standards.

Asked how the district could be using a curriculum not aligned to the standards, state education officials said they give each local district autonomy to select a curriculum.

“Since state assessments are based on the state standards, it would be prudent for local districts to base their curricula on the state standards if they want their students to be prepared to perform well on the state assessments,” state department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley said.

The district is under tremendous pressure to improve student achievement and academic growth in coming years. As a partnership school district, the state requires it to reach goals in academic growth or face state intervention at specific schools.

Makayla Link, 15, found herself in the Beyond Basics program at Mumford as a freshman last school year.

Since the start of the new school year in September, the district has been using a new tool called iReady to assess students in K-3 in reading and math. The tool, designed for Common Core, allows educators to see growth and pinpoints students’ needs down to a sub-skill level. It allows teachers to make adjustments during the year in both subjects.

Detroit schools started using the tool in the fall in response to Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which allows districts to retain third-graders who fail the state test in reading. The district is under pressure to increase literacy by third grade, or face holding back thousands of students, starting in 2020.

Across its elementary schools, only 9.9 percent of the district’s third-graders are proficient readers, according to recent M-STEP results. That’s compared to 44.1 percent statewide.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, agrees with Vitti’s assessment that curriculum is not aligned to state standards and drives the district’s struggle with literacy.

Bailey, a former first-grade teacher, said teachers do not have the proper resources and support they need to know and teach the current standards. They also have had prep periods eliminated because of teachers shortages, leaving little time to devise rigorous lesson plans.

The district continues to have a teacher shortage. As of Feb. 6, it had 177 vacancies. Auditor said they were not blaming teachers for using a curriculum that didn’t meet the standards.

“Teachers are following the curriculum they have,” Bailey said.

Nell K. Duke, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, said schools have an obligation to provide a high-quality literacy education, but supporting literacy development cannot just fall to teachers.

“District central administration also has important responsibilities, such as to ensure that every teacher has access to the tools that they need to support literacy development, including lots of appropriate books — teaching children to read without books is like teaching children to swim without water — but also high-quality, standards- and research-aligned professional development and curriculum materials,” Duke said.

Literacy is an issue that gained national attention in Detroit 2016 when a group of Detroit students sued the state, alleging they were denied the right to basic literacy.

The lawsuit alleged filthy conditions at Detroit schools, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures. Some of the schools are currently operated by the district, others are charters and some have closed.

Students are asking the court to order the state to provide relief that includes “appropriate, evidence-based literacy” instruction at all grade levels and to address physical school conditions that impair access to literacy.

Lead attorney Mark Rosenbaum is awaiting a judge’s decision in the case. Rosenbaum said he knows Vitti is working to make changes in the district, but more than a decade of state control and neglect have damaged the ability of schoolchildren to learn and thrive.

Addressing literacy challenges at Detroit’s schools one child and one school at a time played out inside Mumford High School and Academy on a recent January morning.

A select group of students gathered in two classrooms, each sat next to a tutor from Beyond Basics, a nonprofit that provides the district with literacy-based programming at nine schools across the district.

It includes six-week one-on-one tutoring and group sessions, paid for with a combination of federal funds and private donations.

Pam Good, the company’s president and executive director, said when high school students have a reading deficit, the goal is to get them to a seventh-grade reading level, which is considered proficient literacy.

Makayla Link, 15, found herself in the Beyond Basics program at Mumford as a freshman last school year. She started at a fifth-grade reading level and is now closer to ninth grade.

“I started using the tools they taught me — in my tests and finals — and I went to a 3.5 GPA. It helped me. It showed me where I can go in my future,” said Link, 15. “I am doing way better than when I started.”

Good estimates about 90 percent of the district’s student population need tutoring to address literacy issues. Of those, about 40 percent are two or more reading levels behind.

“It’s life changing to take a high school child reading at a second-grade level and get them reading where they should be,” Good said.