Lessons Learned from One School District’s Experience in Implementing Research-Based Literacy Instruction

Kids reading together in school

In 2017, it was abundantly clear that Battle Creek Public Schools, near central Michigan, needed a dramatic change. Like many midwestern manufacturing towns, Battle Creek began facing economic struggles from the decline in the manufacturing industry. As economic opportunities dwindled, enrollment and achievement of students at Battle Creek Public Schools followed suit. When a five-year, $51 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation was awarded to the district in 2017, the newly installed leaders of Battle Creek Public Schools took advantage of the opportunity to transform schools across the district.

AIR’s Evaluation of Battle Creek Public Schools’ Transformation

For five consecutive school years (2017-18 to 2021-22), AIR collected and analyzed a wide range of data in Battle Creek Public Schools, including an annual teacher survey, a high volume of qualitative data (teacher and administrator interviews, parent and student focus groups), and analysis of extant achievement, attendance, and discipline data. AIR provided feedback to the district through periodic learning briefs, an annual report, and stakeholder data workshops (pre-pandemic).

The district leadership team selected early literacy as a critical starting place for the transformation journey, understanding that if students did not learn to read by third grade, their future academic success would be hampered. In fall 2017, about two-thirds of U.S. students were outperforming the average Battle Creek student on the NWEA-MAP, a widely administered benchmark assessment. District administrators were even more concerned that African-American students, Hispanic students, English learners, and students with disabilities lagged behind their peers by up to 12 percentage points.

Over the last four years, Battle Creek Public Schools has sought to implement literacy instruction grounded in research as part of its larger transformational journey. The district hired AIR in fall 2017 as an external evaluator to provide feedback throughout all five years of the transformation. Like many other schools hoping to infuse practices with research, Battle Creek’s journey has not been without challenges, and those challenges can serve as lessons for other education leaders. While Battle Creek is nearing the end of its transformational journey, some key takeaways from the experience have emerged.

Challenge Misconceptions About Reading Instruction

When Kimberly Carter became superintendent of Battle Creek, she observed that reading instruction was grounded in a “whole language” approach, based on the assumption that exposure to literature and reading out loud to students would enable them to learn to read, even without direct and explicit instruction of skills. But as Carter noted, “Kids don’t become readers because you put a book in front of them.”

To begin the transformation, she required elementary teachers to set aside a 120-minute block for literacy each day. During this time, she sought to emphasize explicit instruction, daily vocabulary, decoding, metacognitive skills, and reading comprehension. Rather than relying on teacher-centered practices, teachers were expected to provide small group instruction with differentiated strategies depending on student needs, and she also encouraged all teachers to read publications from the What Works Clearinghouse, including practice guides for adolescent literacy and foundational skills, to support reading for understanding in early elementary grades.

However, ongoing classroom observations and periodic student test scores made it clear that teachers needed more support to transform their instruction. On an AIR annual teacher survey, more than 80 percent of BCPS teachers reported “reading about educational research findings or best practices” sometimes or often, which is laudable. However, it is a necessary but not sufficient step: just because teachers access this research, that does not necessarily put them in a position to enact those best practices. Carter said, “Teachers didn’t understand enough about the science of reading, and they weren’t using research as a ‘bible’ to guide their instruction.”

Build Capacity with Layers of Professional Development and Coaching

Carter then assigned each school an instructional coach and a literacy specialist to work directly with teachers to model lessons, observe classrooms, and support professional learning communities. “We needed a twofold approach,” she explained. “Standalone professional development is not enough. It has to be coupled with instructional coaching.” Among all the professional learning opportunities offered to teachers in the district, instructional coaching was the most highly regarded and cited as the most likely to influence teachers’ practice in AIR’s annual survey of teachers in Battle Creek Public Schools.

Standalone professional development is not enough. It has to be coupled with instructional coaching.

However, as much as teachers found the instructional coaches to be supportive and insightful, hiring them was not a turn-key solution. To address the issue of different reading curricula being used at each school, Carter and her leadership team partnered with Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), which provided a professional development curriculum for elementary reading teachers. LETRS is an evidence-based choice. In a study of the program for the Institute of Education Sciences, AIR conducted a randomized controlled trial and determined that second-grade teachers who participated in training based on the LETRS curriculum increased their knowledge of reading instruction techniques and their use of explicit instruction.

AIR’s longitudinal evaluation data—from both interviews and the annual teacher survey—demonstrated that Battle Creek teachers were keenly aware of the focus on literacy, were grateful for the support of instructional coaches, reported an increased focus on explicit instruction and vocabulary, and were challenged by the LETRS training. As one teacher explained in an interview, “LETRS is a challenge, but they have the research to back it up.”

Document Expectations Early

Despite district leaders’ efforts to create consistency across the relatively small school district, disparate practices prevailed three years into the transformation process. Carter observed, “We needed a shared understanding and definition of what high-quality literacy instruction looks like. Teachers can’t meet your expectations if they don’t know what they are. I just wish that we would have documented expectations early on so that we didn’t lose time.”

During the summer of 2019, district administrators convened school leaders to collaboratively develop a common literacy framework that would guide reading instruction throughout the district. Over a period of four weeks, teams at the elementary and secondary levels reviewed research and their students’ performance data. They then built a detailed roadmap to high quality literacy instruction.

Celebrate Wins, But Stay Focused

Building a rigorous, evidence-based culture is an on-going effort that requires persistence. By spring 2019, there were some encouraging signs: the average student percentile rank on the NWEA-MAP test of reading was 44, an increase of 10 points from the previous fall.

Building a rigorous, evidence-based culture is an on-going effort that requires persistence.

However, pandemic-related disruptions throughout the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years required that both educators and administrators focus attention on tasks in addition to instruction, including technology distribution, providing access to food, establishing schoolwide social distancing practices, contact tracing, and quarantining teachers and students who were exposed to COVID-19.

While students were on track to make even greater gains in reading by spring 2020, no tests were administered while schools were closed. When tests were administered the next school year, there was a drop in average reading scores, proving to Carter that she needed to reinvigorate attention on literacy efforts.

Reflecting and Looking Forward

Improving student literacy by focusing on research-based practices is a worthwhile but challenging objective. Even with generous resources from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek Public Schools has found this to be a long journey. With the benefit of hindsight, Carter realized that she should have started with multiple forms of professional learning (both instructional coaches and LETRS training), a common literacy framework, and clear expectations for instructional practices. She also notes that it is important to not underestimate how long it takes to make everyone good consumers of research and to develop a strong knowledge base. Building a research-driven culture is a substantial shift for any school district.

“Our priority now is to stay focused, particularly in the context of the pandemic,” Carter said. “My number one challenge is not allowing the sense of urgency to pile on a bunch of stuff so that we don’t do any one thing well. We can’t lose focus. That is a huge challenge here because we see so much need.”