A small proposed pilot to use technology to improve early literacy skills for kindergarten students and first-graders at three schools – King Arts, Oakton and Walker – generated an extensive discussion at the June 1 District 65 School Board meeting. Approximately 50 teachers attended the meeting to demonstrate their concerns or objections.

 “Every person is in this room because we have the intention to do what is best for the kids,” said Board Vice President Richard Rykhus at one point during the meeting. “I believe everyone here has the best of intentions for all of our kids.”

After the meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Schools John Price met with the teams of teachers who would be potentially involved in the pilot. On June 8, he reported to the Board that the pilot will proceed with two teaching teams at King Arts and one, or possibly two teams, at Walker.

The Proposed Pilot

In the pilot, Innovations for Learning (IFL), an Evanston based non-for-profit organization, will provide $45,000 worth of coaching and professional development for teachers free of charge. The Finnegan Family Foundation will provide $40,000 to purchase a tablet computer for each student and teacher in the program.

IFL has developed an app, or software, called “TeacherMate,” that is designed to help teachers provide differentiated literacy instruction in the classroom. Teachers and students will be able to use the tablets in small group learning sessions. Teachers may also assign students individualized listening or reading tasks that are available on the tablet.

Mr. Price said the technology “can provide tools to support highly engaged and targeted instruction in phonics, sight words, word attack and fluency.” Students may use the tablets to support independent reading which, he said, has been shown to be “a key component in increasing student engagement in reading and reading ability.” He added, “We believe we can learn methods and strategies that will decrease the achievement gap and help to support all children.”

Mr. Price said the model is flexible, and the amount of time teachers use the technology is up to them. “Teachers will design and tailor how this tool supports their classroom and their students,” he said.

Perhaps as important as what the program is intended for, is what the program will not do. Mr. Price emphasized that IFL will not change the District’s approach to providing interventions to struggling readers. The program is not intended to replace reading specialists. It will not change the reading or writing curriculum; it will not affect Read Aloud, shared reading, independent writing, or social and emotional learning in the classroom.

After the first year, the District may decide whether or not to continue the pilot for a second year. Superintendent Paul Goren said there will be no cost to the District through the first two years.

Rationale for the Pilot

Dr. Goren said some kindergarten students and first- and second-graders are not achieving at desired levels in literacy. “We need to think about how we will address these concerns,” he said. He added that piloting new ideas is important, “so we can grow, so we can try out new techniques. Being open to innovation is an important piece for the District as a whole.”

Mr. Price said, “We see stagnating or decreasing reading scores across the District. … The percentage of students who are proficient according to our own standards decreases from kindergarten to first grade to second grade.

 “Differentiating [instruction] for more than 20 students in the area of literacy learning where every child can be at a different place is extremely difficult. I feel like, as a District, we have not met our obligation to provide enough support to our kindergarten- through third-grade teachers in having the tools at their disposal to meet this need.”

Teacher Concerns

Amelia Haran, a kindergarten teacher at Oakton, and Tracy Pitlosh, a reading intervention teacher at Washington, expressed concerns about the program at the June 1 meeting.

Ms. Haran acknowledged that students “are not reaching their potential,” and that there is a need for change. “While we recognize there is a need for change we are not convinced that IFL is a program that will result in changes that the teachers so desperately need,” she said.  She listed concerns about the model including a lack of long-term data demonstrating the program’s efficacy; the program has only been tried in urban districts with very high-risk populations with large class sizes and where teachers lack training and support; the pilot would be experimenting with the District’s most fragile students; and the amount of computer screen time may be excessive.

Ms. Pitlosh said, “We are also concerned that IFL represents a serious philosophical change in our curricular direction.” She asked if other programs were considered and why IFL was chosen. She added that teachers were not asked to collaborate in the process.

Ms. Pitlosh asked people in the audience to stand if they shared the concerns outlined by her and Ms. Haran. Approximately 50 stood, many applauding.

Paula Zelinski, president of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), said teachers are not opposed to change or to pilots, “but we want to be part of the process.”

Mr. Rykhus asked a number of questions about how teachers were involved in the process. Mr. Price said there was an initial meeting held with principals of King Arts, Oakton and Walker, and some teachers to explain the pilot and to gauge interest. At one point, the teachers’ Curriculum Advisory Committee approved the pilot, but later withdrew its approval.

Mr. Price read letters from two teachers who support the pilot.

Three parents raised concerns about the pilot, including about the long-term viability of the program, sketchy research about the program, and the amount of screen time for the students.

Board Discussion

Board member Jennifer Phillips asked, “What’s the due diligence that’s been done here? How do we know IFL is the very best platform to use in District 65 as compared to what – what are the competitors or comparable programs? Just because it was given as a gift doesn’t mean accept it.”

Mr. Price said he worked with representatives in another school district where it was piloted in 21 first-grade classes on the south side of Chicago. He said there was a remarkable impact immediately. He said he was not aware of any competitors.

Dr. Goren said he was previously on the advisory board of IFL. “I found it to be a very interesting place to learn about innovation about literacy as it relates to the use of technology as a tool for teachers to work with students,” he said. “I have never been compensated, nor would I receive compensation, nor do I serve on the Board or advisory board.”

Claudia Garrison asked about flexibility, specifically if teachers would be required to use the program every day for a set time each day.

Mr. Price said they would not. He said teachers would have flexibility in how they used the program. He added that TeacherMate provided three centers that teachers could use, and they could use others at their option.

“This is a change with real potential, and we can expect that this change will cause concern, anxiety and resistance, and frankly that’s good,” said Mr. Price. “If we were all willing to change at the drop of a hat, then we would be a rudderless boat. So the questions and concerns are an indicator of strength of our teacher core, but are not a reason to stop moving forward.”

Ms. Garrison challenged this comment saying, “I think change can also be exciting and inspiring. … We have teachers who are excited about innovation, and we have teachers who are excited about making changes and learning new things and doing differentiation better. … I wouldn’t like to see this be an indication of we just can’t work with each other. We can straighten this out and unravel this so everybody is comfortable and everybody is excited. I think that would be the best thing.”

Mr. Price responded, “I don’t think I said concern and anxiety are good. I said resistance is good … that we’re able to ask questions and engage. That’s positive.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki asked if the pilot could be rolled out using teachers who were interested in using the technology. Mr. Price said the program could not be spread out among many schools because an important part of the pilot was for teachers to collaborate and share ideas on how to use the technology. He added it was too late to introduce the pilot at a new school.

In response to a question by Mr. Rykhus, Mr. Price said the pilot could proceed with those teams of teachers at King Arts, Walker or Oakton who were interested in using the technology. He added, “No one will force them to use the tool. … If a team decides not to participate, I’m comfortable with that.”

Ms. Quattrocki said the Board wanted to incorporate the teachers’ concerns in launching the pilot. She said Mr. Price had articulated a model that was much more flexible than she had heard from other sources. “What would be helpful for us,” she said, “is for you [Mr. Price] to go back to these schools where teachers have expressed some interest, articulate the flexibility to the teachers involved and of the assessment, and if they’re interested, we should go forward. If you get push back, at that point we should bring it back to the Board again and consider whether there’s other schools.”

June 8 Board Meeting

At a special meeting of the Board on June 8, Mr. Price reported that he had met with teachers potentially involved in the pilot after the June 1 meeting, and they discussed the pilot and also had an opportunity to ask questions and submit comments using Google Docs. Two teams of teachers at King Lab were “very interested” in proceeding with the pilot, he said, and one team at Walker was ready to commit and a second team there still had questions. He said the reaction at Oakton was more mixed and the pilot would potentially not move forward there.

Ms. Garrison said it would be reassuring to have information on what other programs were available and also that it would be helpful if teachers could see how the technology would be used in the classroom. Ms. Phillips raised questions about the long-term financial stability of IFL.

Mr. Rykhus, who chaired the June 8 meeting, said a lot of ideas, concerns and questions had been raised about the pilot, but a main one was whether teachers really bought into the pilot. “It seems like we’ve gotten buy-in for three, maybe four teams, and we’ll be able to proceed there,” he said.

He said another open question was how to evaluate the pilot. He said the Board would like to see an evaluation plan at the beginning of the school year. It is anticipated that teachers will be part of the process. Dr. Goren said that the teachers’ view on whether the technology was helping would be very important.

Mr. Price added that he would try to arrange time for teachers who were not participating in the pilot to visit classrooms where it was being implemented, so they could see how the technology was being.

Ms. Garrison thanked Mr. Price for meeting with the teachers after the June 1 meeting. She said, “It was a hard meeting in a way last week, but we’re learning what collaboration is in the District. Sometimes it’s not all smooth. It’s a lot of different opinions and heart-felt opinions. Learning how to bring all this together will take us some time, all of us.”

At the June 1 meeting, Ms. Quattrocki said the Board needed to consider how it implements pilots in the future. “Since innovation is in our strategic plan,” she said, “I think we really need to take this to the policy committee and really hammer out how we can successfully partner pilots.”