The University of Iowa

One District’s Journey to Every Middle School Student Achieving Literacy Proficiency

Teachers collaborating on literacy initiative

Middle school educators are working together in Cedar Rapids under a set of core beliefs about literacy instruction established early in the literacy initiative.


Carlos Grant, Ed.D.

Executive Director of Middle Level Education, Cedar Rapids Community School District

Posted on: June 4, 2019

Editor’s note: The IRRC is partnering with the Cedar Rapids Community School District for an initiative in its middle schools. The district is implementing literacy instructional strategies that support students accomplishing the three key shifts in the Iowa Core Literacy standards. Whether considering a literacy initiative relating to the shifts or any other district-wide literacy initiative, understanding Cedar Rapids’ approach may be a helpful guide for other educational leaders. We invited Carlos Grant and Adam Zimmermann to explain their district’s process in this guest post.

This is the first post in a two-part series on this literacy initiative with the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, our mission is to equip every learner with a plan, pathway, and passion for their future. Literacy is fundamental to this mission. Our state and district have a long history and tradition of academic excellence. However, our student achievement data indicate we have great variance in our middle school students’ performance at the state and district levels.

At the state level, Iowa’s fourth-grade reading proficiency on the 2017 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) was ranked 26th among the 50 states, the District of Columbia (DC), and the Department of Defense (DoD) schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). However, when broken down by demographic subgroup, Iowa ranked 52nd of the 50 states, DC, and the DoD in the gap between the reading performance of Black and White students. Our state reality also is reflected at the district level in our middle schools, where only 66% of our students were reading proficiently on the 2017-2018 Iowa Assessments. In addition, the disparities among our demographic groups are substantial. Specifically, there is a 39% achievement gap between the proficiency rates of our White and Black students as well as a 19% gap between our White and Hispanic students.

We intend to change this reality. Accordingly, over the last 9 months, our middle school principal team has partnered with the Iowa Reading Research Center to build knowledge about adolescent literacy as we have prepared to lead and support our teachers and students in the coming years.

Our journey was divided into four phases over the course of this school year. First, we built our case for change in core instructional practices. Second, we assembled the right teams from each school by bringing together principals, instructional coaches, and champion teachers. Third, we created shared beliefs and vision around literacy instruction in our middle grades. Finally, we engaged in learning best practices for adolescent literacy instruction. The IRRC has served as a great partner in the planning and execution of each phase of this journey.

1. Our Case for Change

The first phase of our journey was to establish a compelling case for change with our principal team. We believe that sustainable, lasting change must be driven at the school level by the principal and teachers. In Cedar Rapids, we have six committed, talented leaders in our middle schools. Accordingly, we invested heavily in providing the space and time for our leaders to:

  1. Analyze current literacy data
  2. Discuss current challenges that they observed in the data and their experiences working with teachers and students in their schools
  3. Identify opportunities for making improvements

Our goal was to provide consistent and structured time for each principal to develop a compelling case for change in their buildings around literacy. Although a daunting challenge, our principal team embraced this challenge.

2. Assembling a Team

The second phase of our journey was to expand our conversation beyond the principal team. Accordingly, we held monthly literacy meetings and invited key players from each school team to engage, including:

  1. Principals
  2. Instructional coaches
  3. Champion teachers who are willing to learn and apply new strategies and approaches
  4. District leaders from our Department of Teaching and Learning

Creating space for these teams consistently to come together with a specific focus has been critical.

3. Creating Shared Beliefs and Vision about Literacy Instruction

After assembling our team, we sought to build a shared understanding of our beliefs and vision for literacy instruction within our district. IRRC Director Dr. Deborah Reed and Graduate Student Assistant Leah Zimmermann provided professional learning on designing an effective Multi-Tiered System of Supports for literacy in middle schools, which provided the foundational knowledge for our discussion of beliefs. After learning about effective practices and structures we came to consensus on five core beliefs:

  1. All students have the potential to read on grade level
  2. High-quality core instruction and intervention are both essential
  3. Core instruction must meet the demands of the Iowa Core literacy standards
  4. We must deliver literacy instruction across the content areas for secondary students
  5. Tier 2 and 3 interventions must be more intensive than Tier 1 instruction and based on the needs presented by students

These beliefs incorporate both core instruction and intervention structures, but we wanted to ensure that all students had access to evidence-based literacy instruction across the content areas before assigning interventions. Accordingly, we committed to prioritizing core instruction in our improvement efforts.

4. Building Alignment, Knowledge and Skill Around Best Practices

Our efforts accelerated greatly in our fourth phase as we narrowed our focus to aligning resources and knowledge around quality core literacy instruction. Grounded in our beliefs, we began to unpack the three instructional shifts called for by the Iowa Core literacy standards:

  1. Providing regular practice with complex texts and their academic language
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
  3. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

Although we introduced all three shifts, we primarily focused on the first shift in the current school year. Our principals, instructional coaches, and champion teachers spent time exploring the qualitative and quantitative components of text complexity, the relationship between those components and the standards, and ways to scaffold instruction so that every learner can access complex texts.

Within this phase, Dr. Reed and Zimmermann provided professional learning on Self-Generated Questions (Vaughn, Edmonds, Simmons, & Rupley, 2006), an evidence-based strategy to help students comprehend complex texts. First, Dr. Reed modeled and supported our school leaders and teachers in practicing the strategy. Over the next several weeks, English language arts, science, and social studies teachers implemented the first level of Self-Generated Questions in their classrooms. In a subsequent session with the school teams, teachers brought samples of questions generated by their students and reflected on the successes and challenges of their initial implementation. In addition, teachers shared instructional materials used across content areas to revisit the qualitative features of text complexity. This cycle of learning, application, and reflection was highly successful.

Our Partnership and Future Work

Our work to improve literacy at the middle school level in the Cedar Rapids Community School District has just begun, and much work remains ahead. However, we are excited about the journey we have started this year with the IRRC. We look forward to continuing and deepening this partnership to achieve our goal of having all students achieve literacy proficiency.


National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1992–2017 Reading Assessments. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Vaughn, S., Edmonds, M., Simmons, D. C., & Rupley, W. H. (2006). Enhancing the quality of expository text instruction and comprehension through content and case-situated professional development. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educational Sciences.