Critics question success of reading program
By Teri Vance
Critics of the Carson City School District’s use of the Success For All reading program addressed the school board Tuesday evening with their concerns.
Former teacher Sharon Kientz, who is now a board member of the charter school Nevada Virtual Academy, called into question the integrity of the program.
“Success For All has a dubious research base,” she said. “Virtually all of the glowing research reported about SFA’s successes was conducted by the developers of the program, Robert Slavin and his wife, Nancy Madden.”
Susan Keema, associate superintendent of instruction, said that the Carson City schools that have used the program have seen an improvement in performance.
Keema gave a presentation on the program, which groups students according to reading level rather than grade level for 90 minutes a day.
The district first implemented the reading program in 1998 at Bordewich-Bray, Mark Twain and Empire elementary schools, all designated as “at-risk” schools because of a high rate of transiency, large populations of students learning English as a second language, and significant numbers of families qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
Valerie Dockery, principal at Bordewich-Bray Elementary School, was the grants administrator for the school district when the program was first implemented.
She said each of the three schools conducted extensive research and came to the conclusion independently to use Success For All.
“It was a very thoughtful process. It was a very thorough process,” Dockery said. “We had overwhelming support at each school for Success For All.”
During the next decade, other schools in the district continued to use a variety of reading programs. However, in recent years, Keema said, the district has seen the value of using a single system. She said it will make for a seamless transition as students transfer from one school to another, and will make it easier to track each student’s progress. It also will be more effective as teachers and administrators collaborate with those from other schools.
Fourth-grade teacher Rena Huntington said she has worked with the program for six years and found it to be inadequate.
“Time and again I hear from other teachers, ‘Why do we continue to use a program that isn’t working?'” she said. “Students who can read well are now the exception, not the rule.”
Keema pointed out that Nevada schools using Success For All saw an 8.5 percent gain on standardized tests last year, while those that did not saw a 2.6 percent jump.
Kientz said the improvement was not good enough.
“We must do better,” she said. “The goal must be nothing less than 90 percent reading proficiency for all students.”
Danielle Schofield, a mother of four children in the school district, said her daughter is reading at a lower level in school than what she is reading at home.
“I don’t see that she’s getting pushed,” she said. “I don’t see that she’s getting challenged. My concern is for our high-achievers. There’s not a lot of forward progression for them.”
Keema said the program isn’t solely responsible for success or failure.
“Success For All is a tool,” she said. “The tool doesn’t do the work. The teacher does. The teacher leads the tool and maximizes the use of the tool.”
She said the program is less important than the teachers who deliver it. Implementing the program at all the schools, she said, would help the teachers because they can better collaborate and the district can have a standard measure of success.
Empire Elementary School teacher Terry Snelling reiterated that point.
“Success For All is a program. I am a teacher,” she said. “The program doesn’t control me. I control the program. I deliver excellent reading instruction. SFA is the tool.”
Trustee Ron Swirczek asked for a follow-up presentation in several months to see if concerns had been addressed, and asked for a commitment from officials that teachers would have freedom to apply the program how they thought best.
Superintendent Richard Stokes said despite “some bumps,” the district will to commit to the process.
“We, as a community, want our children to do well,” he said. “We now have a set of systems, programs, equipment, training and a common vocabulary. It’s the first time we’ve had that for a while. We have to try. I’m excited to see where it goes.”