The University of Iowa

Getting the Work Started: The PROPeL Initiative

Three teachers

During the first phase of our PROPeL initiative, school districts are asked to form teams comprised of district- and building-level members, and write a literacy challenge statement using student literacy data.


Posted on: February 28, 2017

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of posts related to our newest initiative, Practitioners and Researchers Overcoming Problems of Literacy (PROPeL).

PROPeL is an innovative two-year initiative in which the Iowa Reading Research Center will work with select schools to address a literacy problem they identified. Together, we will create individualized plans to implement during the 2017-18 school year, and we will evaluate the impact of those efforts. We will be blogging about the various phases of this initiative, and we look forward to having readers of our blog follow along with us on this new journey.

The inaugural PROPeL cohort is made up of alternative school students because they often experience higher rates of poverty, reading disabilities, and dropout. Research findings also have shown a strong correlation between poor literacy and involvement in the juvenile justice system. The following four applicant schools, representing different regions and demographics in Iowa, have been selected to participate in the first cycle of this exciting initiative:

PROPeL involves a research-based, data-driven approach to improving literacy. Over the next several months, we will be sharing with you the concepts behind each of the phases in the data analysis process. Each post also will include the perspectives and work of one or more of our PROPeL partners. This post describes how our partner schools formed teams and defined their literacy challenges during Phase 1 of PROPeL.

Establishing a Team

A cornerstone of PROPeL is that a team representing not only literacy instruction, but also the local educational system as a whole, must work together to solve the literacy challenge. The PROPeL team is responsible for implementing all eight phases of the initiative and ensuring fidelity throughout the process. District- and building-level members will offer different perspectives and levels of expertise when determining causes and solutions to substandard student literacy outcomes. PROPeL team members must include:

  • An administrator who understands the system and has the authority to make changes
  • A literacy consultant or reading specialist
  • A curriculum coordinator
  • A classroom teacher
  • And others with system and literacy expertise

Waverly-Shell Rock Assembles Its PROPeL Team

Watch the video below to hear from Bridgette Wagoner, Director of Educational Services for the Waverly-Shell Rock Community School District, on how the team members at Waverly-Shell Rock Lied Center were identified.

PROPeL Phase 1: Defining the Challenge

During the first phase of PROPeL, the literacy challenge being addressed by the team needs to be defined in a clear, concise challenge statement. It is important that the team analyze student literacy performance data when answering the following questions:

  • Who has the problem?
  • What is the problem
  • When did the problem begin?
  • Where does the problem occur?

Looking at the Data

The team is responsible for considering multiple sources of information when defining the challenge. Potential data sources include:

  • School-level student data such as data gathered at student enrollment
  • Trend data (3-5 years) on students’ literacy abilities
  • Literacy data disaggregated by student characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity, disability, English language learner, poverty, behavior)
  • Attendance data
  • Literacy data demonstrating a gap in performance between peer groups
  • Progress monitoring data on students receiving literacy interventions

Examples of Challenge Statements

The following are examples of challenge statements as they might apply to an alternative school or juvenile justice facility. The bolded text in blue are the answers to the questions outlined above: who, what, when, and where.

Intake assessment data indicate that the current (when) literacy performance of students (who) enrolling in the Thomas Jefferson Alternative School (where) is 500 scale scores below the proficiency level (what).

For the last five years (when), district literacy benchmark data indicate that students who are African American (who) attending the George Washington Alternative School (where) are performing below their typical peers in the district high school (what).

For more than five years (when), as documented in the district report card, the Thomas Edison Alternative School (where) has reported a gap between the performance of students attending the alternative school (who) on the statewide reading assessment as compared to typical peers in the high school (what).

How Grant Wood AEA Defined Its Challenge

We asked Lisa Haverkamp, team leader and regional administrator at our partner Grant Wood Area Education Agency, to describe the team’s experience when defining the challenge statement in the following question and answer session.

Question: What data did your team review when answering the questions Who, What, When, and Where?

Lisa Haverkamp (LH): Data for a student in the shelter and detention programs are difficult to gather from the student’s home school. The team concentrated on the intake assessments that are completed when each student enters the programs. These include curriculum-based measures of reading, writing, and math to provide “real time” information about their performance. In the area of reading, the student completes a maze task, and, if necessary, fluency and phonics assessments.

In addition, teachers review the student’s IEP goals to collect more information about individual reading strengths and weaknesses, and a timeline of when the student began receiving reading support services. This information was reviewed when considering our challenge statement.

Q: Are there data you needed that were not available?

LH: Because we serve students in a short-term program, we do not have access to district-wide assessments, standardized measures, or assessment data collected over time. Attempting to get assessment data from the student’s home district is often not beneficial, as the average student attendance in one of our programs is five days.

As a component of our future data gathering, we will be implementing a reading survey to gauge a student’s reading interest, past experience, and supports.

Q: How did you ensure all team members were involved in defining the challenge?

LH: Each teacher within our programs is part of the team. We have a history of working collaboratively through video conferencing meetings and are continuing that collaboration as we define the challenge. Because we have three separate programs, we are reviewing the data both as independent programs and as a combined dataset.

Preparing for the Next Phase

Having defined the challenge now enables our PROPeL partners to move to Phase 2: Identifying the Root Cause. Defining the challenge answers the questions who, what, when and where. Identifying the root cause will answer the question why. Our next post will describe the importance of and processes for answering the question, “Why are we experiencing our defined challenge?”