University of Iowa

Turning to Systematic Improvements to Boost Middle School Literacy Achievement

Anderson, Johnson, and Klostermann Q&A
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Posted on: October 23, 2018

Since 2012, Iowa has been devoted to improving literacy in kindergarten through third grade in an effort to help all students achieve literacy proficiency. But even with educators’ best efforts, instruction in the lower elementary grades does not inoculate students from experiencing difficulties with the literacy demands once they reach middle and high school. In the fall of 2017, Grant Wood Area Education Agency (AEA) Programs and Services Administrator Kris Donnelly asked the Iowa Reading Research Center if there might be ways to support middle schools with strengthening their organizational structures and the literacy instruction that adolescents need to be successful. Over the next several months, I met with Regional Administrator Josh Lyons (now with the Solon Community School District), and Curriculum Consultants Wendy Anderson, Laura Johnson, and Chris Klostermann to make plans.

The Grant Wood AEA team visited California in March to observe the work I was doing with middle schools there as part of a federal grant awarded to the California Department of Education. As the Grant Wood AEA team learned during their visit and subsequent conversations with me, the California project was based on implementing a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) for literacy instruction and included four focus areas:

  1. Collaborative data culture
  2. Literacy strategies
  3. Leadership for implementation
  4. Family and community involvement

After making adjustments to accommodate the approach to Iowa’s schools, Grant Wood AEA invited 10 middle schools in its region to participate in this new effort. Each school spent two days in June of 2018 preparing a leadership team to lead the work with the support of 11 Grant Wood AEA consultants. Over the 2018-19 school year, the teams are meeting periodically to continue their learning and to take additional steps toward implementing a culture of data use, effective literacy strategies, and school and family supports. There are a total 65 teachers involved across all the participating schools.

We asked the Grant Wood AEA secondary literacy team of Wendy Anderson, Laura Johnson, and Chris Klostermann to share additional thoughts and goals for the project. As you will gather from their responses to our questions in the following Q&A, the Grant Wood AEA consultants and school educators are to be commended for their dedication to making changes and working through the challenges of improving literacy supports for adolescents.

Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): How Did You Become Interested in a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) for Literacy at the Middle School Level?

Wendy Anderson, Laura Johnson, and Chris Klostermann (collectively referred to as Grant Wood Area Education Agency [GWAEA]): As a secondary literacy team within Grant Wood AEA, we have observed middle schools struggling to get traction in implementing the structures, practices, tools, and processes to address the needs of their students in a systematic way. We wanted to help them find the answers to their many questions about effective screening practices, data-based decision making, designing effective intervention strategies, progress monitoring, and how a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) looks in the middle school context. It was important to us that we design a professional learning structure that was inclusive of content, process, and ongoing coaching and support.

Because middle schools can vary widely in building size and structure, we wanted to offer assistance that could be differentiated for all members of the initial cohort of schools. Helping schools find ways to implement supports that address students’ needs was an important factor.

IRRC: Are There Certain Commitments You Are Asking the Participating Middle Schools to Make? What Is the Rationale for Making Those Commitments?

GWAEA: Before registering for the training sessions, we asked that participating schools already had a protected MTSS structure and/or intervention time in place. Although they may not have been satisfied with the way their systems were operating and looking to improve them, it was imperative that their leadership had committed to addressing the needs of all students, and were committed to attending the trainings and supporting the implementation of what they learned at the trainings.

After each training, we asked that school teams attempt the strategies and monitor fidelity, evaluate the process and results through collaboration with the data team, and share their progress with both their Grant Wood AEA literacy consultant and other school teams within the cohort. The rationale was to ensure these changes could happen systematically and could be sustained over time.    

IRRC: What Do You Hope the Participating Middle Schools Will Accomplish in the Short and Long Term?

GWAEA: In the short term, we hope that schools will learn about research-based strategies to support student learning at the core, targeted, and intensive tiers, while understanding the methods for identifying students’ needs at all levels. We hope that the leadership teams will monitor the implementation of these practices throughout their schools and be able to adjust as needed.

In the long term, we hope that schools will be able to integrate collaborative data collection and analysis as part of their everyday practice. We hope that schools will understand how to capitalize on involving students and their families as essential partners in creating a successful educational experience. Overall, we hope that schools will develop and maintain a culture of literacy across all content areas. The ongoing development of literacy for all students is a goal for everyone in the school.

IRRC: Why Did it Make Sense to Partner With the Iowa Reading Research Center on This Effort?

GWAEA: It was important that we partnered with the Iowa Reading Research Center to access the experience, knowledge, and additional resources the IRRC Director Deborah Reed could provide. We were looking for a collaborative partnership to design a system of support and learning that may create a model for other schools to follow across the Grant Wood AEA region.

Dr. Reed is involved as a consultant in various literacy initiatives nationally, such as Project READ, which aimed to increase student literacy proficiency through teacher training, providing ongoing coaching, involving parents and families, etc. After networking with school leaders in California, it became clear that our schools would benefit from a similar initiative, and from the research and expertise offered by the Iowa Reading Research Center.

IRRC: Have You Identified the Next Steps for Continuing the Work in Your Region?

GWAEA: We are anticipating that the current cohort will continue to refine its work and receive ongoing support through additional training in 2019-20. We also anticipate that a new cohort will be created in the spring of 2019 to begin this work in its schools. We invite interested schools in the Grant Wood AEA region to contact their literacy consultant for more information


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