The University of Iowa

Through Professional Development and Comprehensive Support, Literacy Consultants Look to Boost Student Reading Achievement

Q&A with Green Hills AEA

Posted on: January 8, 2019

Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs) provide school districts in their regions support and consultation in a number of different areas, including literacy instruction. Their work often is driven by statewide initiatives or by the needs of the schools they serve. The demands on AEA staff members can make it easy to fall into a pattern of getting the job done without carving out the time it takes to reflect on the effectiveness of their practices. About 2 years ago, Green Hills AEA contacted the Iowa Reading Research Center because its general and special education literacy team wanted to be a model of the data-driven decision-making in which they encourage teachers to engage. Therefore, the team, comprised of specially designed instruction literacy consultants Lesley Ehlers, Karen Hesse, Jenna Hucka, Lynn Hockenberry, Lori Helgevold, and Melanie Andersen, and literacy consultants Sally Johnston, Emily Lampe, Jenn Johnson, and Lynn Killpack, asked the Iowa Reading Research Center to help it evaluate its services. After much discussion, the team settled on evaluating the implementation of a literacy professional development project with four school districts in the Green Hills region.

The interest in this kind of reflective practice indicates the team members’ sense of responsibility for the literacy outcomes of students in their districts. Rather than approaching their work as driven by helping educators make decisions based on the schools’ data, the Green Hills team considered this a collective look at “our” data and the needs of both the educators and the students as suggested by those data. The first phases of the team’s reflection led it to select a professional development program targeting the principles of scientifically based instruction in foundational reading skills. The team members’ interest was in determining if they could improve student outcomes by improving teachers’ knowledge of the content and pedagogy of reading instruction.

Figure 1. Theory of Change for the Green Hills AEA Literacy Project

Figure 1

To conduct this evaluation, Hockenberry recruited four school districts that were committed to undertaking this serious endeavor. The districts were split into two cohorts. Cohort 1 consists of Sidney and Villisca Community School Districts. Cohort 2 consists of Essex and Murray Community School Districts. As described further below, Hockenberry and Ehlers are delivering the professional development to kindergarten through third-grade teachers in the first cohort this year. The literacy team is following up with coaching for teachers as they implement what they have learned. Cohort 2 serves as a lagged treatment control, meaning they will not receive the professional development of follow-up coaching this year in order to compare student performance in the classes where teachers are and are not receiving the specialized support from Green Hills. In the second year, Cohort 2 schools will receive the professional development, allowing for a comparison of student performance when teachers have one versus two years of Green Hills’ support.

Part of the Iowa Reading Research Center’s evaluation involves determining if Green Hills’ professional development and coaching helps teachers implement the practices as intended. To find out, the literacy consultants are observing teachers monthly to complete a fidelity protocol, and Hockenberry is using audio recordings of those observations to complete a second fidelity protocol. This is a check to see if the consultants are assessing teachers’ fidelity in a reliable and consistent way. The observation data is crucial to informing both the follow-up coaching for teachers as well as the uniformity of the services delivered and expectations of different Green Hills team members. The latter has spurred many thoughtful conversations among the Green Hills consultants.

To find out if the instructional approaches conveyed in the professional development are effective, we will use fidelity data from the observations in our statistical analyses. The key outcome data are students’ pre- to posttest growth in the Formative Assessment System for Teachers (FAST) Curriculum-Based Measurement for Reading (CBMreading) and Quick Phonics Screener scores. We will compare the scores of Cohort 1 to scores of Cohort 2. This insight will allow Green Hills to determine if its approach contributes to students performing better on the reading measures.

To find out more about this project that could provide a model worth considering for other teams across the state, we spoke with Green Hills AEA’s Ehlers, Hesse, Andersen, Johnston, Lampe, Johnson, and Killpack for this Q&A. Their thoughts show a dedication to improving student literacy outcomes and a desire to improve literacy instruction for all students, two goals we are happy to share with our partners on this project.

Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): What Inspired Your Team to Pursue an Evaluation of the Literacy Supports You Are Providing the Schools in Your Region?

Leslie Ehlers small

Lesley Ehlers: When analyzing district kindergarten through third-grade literacy data, we recognized that schools continue to have a need to improve reading achievement across the AEA. In order to better support schools, we (the Green Hills AEA literacy consultants) proposed providing professional development on scientifically based reading instruction, demonstrating instructional strategies and routines to support the professional development, and conducting monthly classroom observations with coaching conversations for participating schools. We wanted to study the effectiveness of this delivery model on kindergarten through third-grade student literacy outcomes, which also would inform our delivery of ongoing literacy consultation.

Karen Hesse: Although we are an intermediate agency, we recognize that a district’s student data is also our student data. We wanted to reflect on our own practices and try to determine how we could best support schools in improving outcomes for students.

IRRC: How Did You Determine the Focus of This Evaluation Project and the Work You Wanted to Do With Your Schools?

Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse: We were familiar with the professional development program and the positive impact it could have on teachers. We also were aware of the research indicating that professional development is more likely to transfer to classroom practice when paired with coaching. Therefore, we were eager to examine whether the professional development paired with specific coaching related to scientifically based reading instruction would have an impact on teacher practices and, ultimately, student performance.

IRRC: Why Was It important to the Team to Collaborate Across General and Special Education?

Karen Hesse: All special education students are general education students first, so it was important for the Green Hills consultants from both areas to work together to support both general education and special education teachers.

Lesley Ehlers: We support literacy development in all grades for all students. It is critical this collaboration uses a team approach across general and special education consultants.

Sally Johnston

Sally Johnston: This project has helped to open the lines of communication between general education, Title 1 or reading interventionists, and special education teachers in the school where I work. They have established that their professional learning community time will include the opportunity to look at student data and dig into making quality instructional decisions.

Emily Lampe

Emily Lampe: This project has allowed time for collaborative conversations between the special education and general education teams around the best practices for literacy instruction.

IRRC: In What Ways Will This Be an Extension of Your Typical Work With Schools, and in What Ways Will This the Change the Nature of What You Might Usually Do as You Support Literacy Instruction?

Jenn Johnson

Jenn Johnson: This project will make my work more focused, thanks to the clear direction we are taking to provide support to schools. This project also will help me evaluate myself and ensure that the support I am providing schools directly will impact student learning.

Lesley Ehlers: This work has provided the opportunity for general and special education consultants to look at universal instruction and intervention. By doing this, consultants now have an improved view of literacy efforts across all levels of the system.

Karen Hesse: As a specially designed instruction (SDI) literacy consultant, this work has helped me to broaden my perspective. My support of literacy instruction prior to this has focused mostly on SDI for students with reading disabilities. Through this project, I am working with both special education and general education teachers, focusing both on individual student data and on building-wide data. As a result of this work, I have more knowledge about what is happening for students during universal literacy instruction.

Melanie Andersen

Melanie Andersen: Although I am not serving a school that is part of the project, I have reaped the benefits as an extra observer. The fidelity protocol has raised my awareness of quality instruction. Specifically, when observing other teachers, I have emphasized the need to restate the goal and purpose of the lesson, which is part of the fidelity protocol for this project. When I discuss this with teachers, they are appreciative of this reminder and are eager to begin including the information in their instruction.

IRRC: What Do You Hope the Outcomes of This Project Will Be?

Jenn Johnson: I am hoping for increased student achievement based on teachers’ implementation of the professional development and the support that we provide to them during this process.

Lynn Killpack

Lynn Killpack: I hope to learn how our practices as literacy consultants can impact teacher knowledge and instructional practices as well as student outcomes.

Sally Johnston: My goal for this project is not only to increase my capacity as a literacy consultant, but also assist my schools in building collaborative teams that engage in discussions to improve student achievement and teacher practices.

Karen Hesse: My hope would be to learn more about our practices as consultants and how we can best use our knowledge and resources to support teachers and improve student