Reading at Shutesbury Elementary School

Information about the Reading First grant Shutesbury applied for

Stephen Bannasch, June 13, 2003

Tari Thomas the principal of the Shutesbury Elementary school headed up a team that wrote a successful Reading First grant to the state Department of Education in February 2003. However on June 12, 2003 Shutesbury and 12 other schools in MA were notified that they have had their Reading First grants canceled because of a mistake the state Dept of Ed. made in calculating eligibility.  Evidently both poverty rate and reading scores were to be taken into account in determining eligibility not just one of those factors.

If the grant was successful Shutesbury would have received up to $1,000,000 in aid over a 5-6 year period to implement a comprehensive, K-3 reading curriculum. In general it is expected that successful proposals will specify the adoption of a prescriptive, textbook-based K-3 reading curriculum. While Massachusetts has not specified what reading programs would be acceptable they have provided a list of programs that have been accepted in other states.

Adoption of one of these reading curricula at Shutesbury will dramatically change the the style of learning and the teacher-centered model of curriculum development we have now. I put these web pages together to help inform interested members of the community about the background and goals of the Reading First program.

The State DOE had previously stated that Shutesbury Elementary School was eligible to apply for the Reading First grant because our poverty rate as determined by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue is 15.68%. Any district with a rate equal to or higher than 15% was determined to be eligible. However after complaints from some urban superintendents that they were loosing grant resources to schools that had better reading scores the State DOE found that the Federal rules stated that poor reading scores along with poverty were a requirement for funding the grants.

Our MCAS reading performance is better than 70% of the other elementary schools in the state. Only 16% scored higher than Shutesbury. For more details about how we became eligible and to compare MCAS reading performance from eligible schools and local towns click here. Actually we are doing quite well, but not nearly as good as Leverett where all 14 third-grade students were scored proficient.

You can also find out more information about the Reading First program by connecting to the Massachusetts DOE website here.

While I think Shutesbury needs a more comprehensive and coordinated K-2 reading program and a maximum effort to make sure that every child entering third grade is reading fluently, I don't think we have a failing model of reading education. For the most part I think our model of teacher-developed curriculum integrating reading and writing with other curricular areas is an excellent approach. I am quite concerned about the replacement of our current model with a rigid prescriptive approach. I am also worried about the effect these types of curricula will have on our 3-4 grades. The Reading First grants requires adoption in K-3 classrooms. I believe a successful school will have achieved the intended goals of the grant by the end of second grade. The reading skills developed in grades K-2 should be integrated with a much wider range of activities and themes in grades three and up than envisioned in the Reading First grant program. It may be entirely likely that in a school which is failing large numbers of its students the adoption of a Reading First curriculum will improve reading education considerably.

One interpretation of the grant is that it requires the adoption of single comprehensive programs such as SRA/Open Court. I did some research on the Reading First Grant solicitation and couldn't find anywhere on the grant web site a listing of the criteria the DOE will use in evaluating proposed K-3 reading programs. Here is a link to a description of the Reading First program.

Quoting from the web page part 3 section 2.d:

"Identify the program and describe how it meets the definition of a
comprehensive scientifically-based reading program, including the
components of an effective reading program and the criteria addressed in the
Department's Recommended Criteria for Evaluating Instructional Materials and
Programs in Reading. Indicate how provisions for a daily, dedicated block of
time for reading instruction of at least 90 minutes will be included."

In response to my questions Lynn Boston <>, from the state DOE sent me a word document with the criteria they recommend using to evaluate reading programs. I have put a copy of the criteria in pdf form here. Nowhere is the phrase "scientifically-based" defined or is it stated that a single program must be used. In a workshop Tari attended, representatives from the state Deptartment of Education seemed to define "scientifically-based" as programs which have been tested using control groups by researchers not affiliated with the programs themselves. This may be a definition that has been inherited from the federal No Child Left Behind act which is where the funds for Reading First grants come from. While research using separate groups for control and intervention certainly can have scientific validity is incorrect to imply that other types of educational research do not have scientific validity.

This argument about whether a particular reading program or intervention is supported by independent scientific research seems to rage on. My understanding is that members of the Massachusetts DOE in presentations about the Reading First grants stated that Reading Recovery is an example of a program for which there is no independent scientific evidence. However in congressional testimony last June U.S. Department of Education Undersecretary Gene Hickok stated that Reading Recovery would be eligible for federal funds. This was followed by a 78 page report outlining the evidence for the Reading Recovery programs efficacy. The link to the report is here:

Much of the educational underpinning for the goals and methods of the Reading First grant program come from a report issued by the National Reading Panel titled: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessement of the Scientific Reaserch Literature. The summary version (35 p) and the full report (480 p) can be accessed here:

The grant application was discussed at a school committee meeting in January and with four members attending (Jeff Fishman was absent) three members voted to support Tari in applying for the grant. I abstained because I didn't have enough information about how adoption of a Reading First program would change the way reading is taught in the school. It is possible we could lose some excellent teachers if a rigid comprehensive prescriptive reading curriculum is adopted. These types of programs are not based on a concept of a teacher as a professional who evaluates, modifies and develops curriculum instead they seem to envision the teachers role as managing the delivery of a pre-defined curriculum.

School committee meetings are on the third Wednesday of the month at 7:30 at the elementary school. The next meeting will be Feb 19th.

Stephen Bannasch
106 Sand Hill Road, Shutesbury, MA 01072
413 259 9125