A year after the District 65 and Evanston Township High School boards identified a need to “reboot” a longstanding joint literacy goal established in 2014, board representatives and administrators said they are now “moving away from” that specific goal during a joint meeting held Tuesday, Feb. 21.
The original goal, written nine years ago, outlined a plan for both districts to ensure that all students are proficient readers by the time they enter their senior year of high school.
But with literacy rates and English/Language Arts performance among Evanston students largely remaining stagnant, board representatives at joint meetings over the last two years have expressed frustration about the lack of progress in reading, and a lack of alignment across ETHS and District 65 on achievement standards.
On Tuesday, the curriculum and instruction teams for both districts offered their latest updates on literacy, which showed flat scores over the past few years and a consistent opportunity gap by race, as demonstrated in the graphs below.
“It seems like, rather than having a joint report tonight, we have side-by-side reports,” ETHS board member Gretchen Livingston said. “What strikes me in looking at these two side-by-side reports is that we’re sending a really, really confusing message to our community. Parents, looking at these reports side-by-side, are not going to understand what it is their kid is striving for.”
Livingston also referred to an October 2021 joint meeting, where, after years of painstaking work, staff from both districts were finally able to present what they saw as an apples-to-apples comparison of literacy performance rates for all students from kindergarten through senior year at ETHS.
But just a year later, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said the 2014 literacy goal had been “a challenge to really make sense of” and “didn’t have true direction.”
“I do recall that, as collective boards, we had discussed moving away from the narrow joint literacy, and developing broader goals for assessing literacy across both districts,” District 65 board member Soo La Kim said. “It seems like we are moving toward that with these different approaches and reports.”
Under Horton’s direction, District 65 is currently in the process of rolling out a new curriculum and new instructional materials in reading for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Moving forward, reading standards for Evanston’s K-8 students will be tied to the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, which Horton described as one of the highest bars in the nation. Plus, the district is hoping to focus especially on the effectiveness of a new system of teaching literacy on students in second grade and below, which ETHS Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis said he was excited about.
Other board members echoed Livingston’s questions though, with District 65 representative Joey Hailpern asking, “Where’s the urgency?” and calling for more accountability. And ETHS board President Pat Savage-Williams said the discussion Tuesday night “feels like the same conversations we’ve had before.”
“Let’s just figure out what those three, four things are that we want to watch to see if we’re making an impact, because we have to start showing that we’re making an impact. And all we know is that we have students coming in in need,” ETHS board Vice President Monique Parsons said. “I don’t get excited about a literacy lab in high school. This is sad to me. This breaks my heart that we’re talking about this in high school.”
Data from the spring of 2022 shows that just over 50% of all ETHS freshmen are meeting or exceeding literacy expectations based on standardized test performance, but that number drops significantly for Black, Latino and low-income students, among others.
Both boards agreed that new, bold approaches to teaching and learning will be necessary to help all students start reading at a higher level and to eliminate gaps in educational opportunities by race.
But the path forward remains uncertain. And, for his part, District 65 board President Sergio Hernandez said too many standardized tests are given to children every spring.
“All we see is bad news. Children are more than test scores,” Hernandez said. “We need to be able to expand the way we measure academic, as well as social and emotional, success for all students in our community.”
I don’t get all this confusion and complex discussion. My father taught me how to read when I was 4 using the book “Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It” by Rudolf Flesch. He was completely successful. This book is still available. If he could do this, why can’t most parents? And schoolteachers? Now, I know that there are some children with neurological variations, such as dyslexia, which make a normal way of teaching reading inappropriate. But experts have been researching effective methods to teach reading to children with neurological differences.
Both Boards agree that “ new , bold approaches “ are needed. The Board members say we need “to reboot “ the joint literacy goals. The districts have very highly paid administrators with every conceivable educational title. Still they can’t figure out how to teach reading? We had 45 students in my class in 4 th grade during the 50’s Boeing knows how to build planes. NASA knows how to put a man on the moon. But our School District 65 doesn’t know how to teach basic reading?
Missing in most discussions about improving literacy is any mention of techniques that are proven to work. So we must ask who is teaching reading effectively?
Also, we know that students in specific demographic groups struggle more than students from other groups. (This is true nationwide.) What specific practices work with students who struggle?
I propose we stop talking about expectations for improvement and about how we will measure it and start talking about what kind of teaching and what kind of schools improve the literacy of the students we most want to help.