Preparing Literacy Specialists in Connecticut: Perceptions, Realities, and Policies (A Preview of the Research)

by Dr. Dianna Sisson and Dr. Betsy Sisson, Sisson & Sisson Educational Consulting Services, LLC

AUTHOR’S NOTE: CARR is currently conducting original research on Connecticut universities’ preparation of literacy specialists. The following is an excerpt from the complete study that will be released in 2015.

The achievement gap. Poverty. Racial inequalities. New educational standards. Changing platforms for student assessments. The international race between American students and competing nations. For over four decades, U.S. policymakers have searched for effective tools to raise student achievement and ensure American competiveness. What has research definitively established? Teacher quality is the single largest factor affecting student achievement (Boston Public Schools, 1998; Darling-Hammond, 1999; Jordan, Mendro, & Weerasinghe, 1997; Rowan, Correnti, & Miller, 2002; Sanders & Rivers, 1996; Sanders, 2000; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997) with the strongest teacher qualification variable being an educator’s state licensure – so significant in fact that after controlling for student factors, the achievement gap between Black and White students can almost entirely be explained by differences in teacher qualifications (Armour- Thomas, et al., 1989; Ferguson, 1991; Fuller, 1999; Strauss & Sawyer, 1986).

What is universally accepted today is the understanding that educators have a profound effect on student achievement, and the programs they attend to develop this specialized skill set is critical to their effectiveness and ultimately . . . to the success of their students. As Connecticut continues to grapple with the largest achievement gap in the United States, the teaching and learning carried out in this state’s classrooms demand instructional support focused on the needs of a diverse student population. The key support commonly comes in the form of literacy specialists (Dole, 2004; Hawley & Valli, 1999; Sykes, 1999) who, with an advanced degree in literacy possess more sophisticated skills than their classroom colleagues, devote their professional energies to academic support.

This recognition of the power of literacy specialists to influence learning outcomes informs this current study on preparation programs. The Connecticut Association for Reading Research will conduct qualitative research on the preparation programs for literacy specialists in Connecticut. Do literacy specialists perceive themselves as comprehensively trained to meet the onslaught of needs they face daily in the field? What are the views of school administrators? Classroom teachers? Importantly, what views do leaders of these preparation programs hold?

As the world around us catapults into a rapidly changing landscape of student needs, technological challenges, and international competition, this study seeks to inform literacy specialist preparation programs in Connecticut as to the perceived needs and successes of training as well as what the future may hold for the ways in which we ensure that those who specialize in literacy come to the field thoroughly prepared to meet the needs of students, classroom teachers, and administrators as they all work collaboratively to assure that Connecticut classrooms offer a world-class education.

In looking at today’s preparation programs, an awareness of where we have come is essential to our understanding of what is in place as well as to an impartial analysis of current practice. In these efforts, we begin with what the literature tells us about the significance of teacher preparation programs.

Importance of Teacher Preparation Programs

Since the formation of teacher education, there have been few instances when it has not been studied, evaluated, and reformed (Cochran-Smith, 2004; Wideen & Grimmett, 1995). So, perhaps, not surprisingly, teacher preparation programs have once again been thrust onto the national stage by policymakers intent on using them as a tool to transform the educational system in this country. On April 26, 2014, The New York Times reported that President Obama’s administration was constructing a rating system for teacher preparation programs to ensure greater accountability for educators’ performance in the classroom. The newspaper quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying that:

We have about 1,400 schools of education and hundreds and hundreds of alternative certification paths, and nobody in this country can tell anyone which is more effective than the other . . . Often the vast majority of schools, when I talk to teachers, and have very candid conversations, they feel they weren’t well prepared. (p. A12)

Such an undertaking is incredibly controversial as many education experts believe that it isn’t possible to link a preparation program to student achievement in schools, arguing that it isn’t feasible or helpful to rate programs. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford and one of the nation’s foremost experts on education, countered a more realistic rating system should be based on surveying graduates and their employers – as is illustrated in the current CARR study.

Despite its detractors, the federal government is moving forward with its efforts. What compelled such a decision can be viewed through two much-discussed, heavily-researched lenses – teacher influence on student achievement and education’s role in global competitiveness.

Teacher Effects on Student Achievement

Since the well-publicized study by James Coleman discounting the importance of schools and teachers to affect substantial changes in student achievement, large-scale research has consistently demonstrated that teachers do, in fact, have profound power to influence student outcomes (Carey, 2004; Ferguson, 1991; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996; Haycock, 1998; Jordan, Mendro, & Weerashinghe, 1997; Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, 2004; Odden, Borman, & Fermanich, 2004; Sanders, 2000; Sanders & Rivers, 1996) – particularly in the area of reading (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Goldhaber & Brewer, 2000). After reviewing the literature in 1997, Scheereens and Bosker posited that approximately 60% of variability in student performance stems from student factors, however, 20% relates back to the schools that students attend, and 20% links directly to individual teachers and classrooms. Thus, based on their appraisal of the existing research, schools and teachers can account for nearly half of the variation in student achievement — a conviction echoed by the general public who voiced their opinion in a study in which 55% of respondents selected teacher quality as “the greatest influence on student learning” (National Education Association, 1999).

This research has been substantiated with numerous studies corroborating the link between teacher quality and student achievement (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007; Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2007; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Perry, 2011). The inarguable power of educators to affect student outcomes has become a significant rationale for examining teacher preparation programs. The perception that the education system plays a key role in the U.S. ability to compete globally is another significant factor.

Education’s Role in Global Competitiveness

In 1983, the U. S. Department of Education released the incendiary report, “A Nation at Risk” which spoke directly to teacher preparation programs and an evaluation of their effectiveness in training teachers.

The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses. (National Commission on Excellence in Education, p. 20)

Interwoven throughout its findings, however, was a consistent link from educational outcomes to the ability of the United States to compete globally, beginning with these opening words: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” (p. 9).

This conviction has consistently been reiterated throughout research, academic texts, and popular media (Barro, 2013; Lauder, Brown, Dillabough, & Halsey, 2006; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008; Sahlberg, 2006; The Role of Education in Global Competiveness, 2006; U. S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 2010). Thus, the belief that our educational system has a causal link to our economic well-being pervades all aspects of American society and impacts the role of preparation programs.

Current Status of Teacher Preparation Programs

With over 1,400 teacher preparation programs, 200,000 candidates leave training programs annually and enter the teaching profession. Twenty-five years ago, veteran teachers had an average of 15 years of experience; today that number is down to just one year with studies finding between 23% to 50% of teachers typically leaving the field within five years (Keigher, 2010; Plash & Piotrowski, 2006). Of greater concern, Levine’s seminal 2006 study revealed that three in five teachers feel that their teacher preparation program did not prepare them for the classroom. Their principals agreed.

In 2001, The U. S. Department of Education commissioned a report to summarize research on teacher preparation programs. After reviewing over 300 research studies, only 57 adhered to the inclusion criteria for their meta-analysis. The report determined that multiple studies found a link between training in subject matter and higher student achievement, particularly in reading. Studies also revealed that some pedagogical training is beneficial. The report further found that “study after study shows that experienced and newly certified teachers alike see clinical experiences (including student teaching) as a powerful – sometimes the single most powerful – component of teacher preparation” (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2001, p. 17) and discovered that teachers performed better on certification tests if they attended an institution approved by the national accrediting association.

Within the preparation programs, literacy professionals also gain a specialized skill set necessary to support classroom instruction. How have these professionals emerged as a critical aspect of schools and classrooms?

The Specialized Field of Literacy Professionals

Literacy professionals have been an integral component of instructional support since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 which established federal funds for compensatory education in American schools. Within this model of Title I support, the literacy professional, more commonly known as the reading specialist, tended to work with struggling students and offered services in addition to classroom instruction, providing additional, targeted support with little attention to the needs of the classroom teacher. Despite the expense of providing literacy professionals, numerous studies reflected little evidence of continued student growth after they were returned to mainstream teachers (Allington & Walmsley, 1995). In 2000, Congress re-authorized the ESEA with three specific aspects directly influencing the role of the literacy professional: 1) highly-qualified professionals should be a requirement to teach reading, 2) reading programs and strategies should be scientifically-based, and 3) informal assessment should inform instruction.

Since 2003, the International Reading Association has recognized two distinct roles inherent in the role of literacy professionals – reading specialist and literacy coach (International Reading Association, 2004).

In this new role the reading specialist supports teachers in their daily work—planning, modeling, team-teaching, and providing feedback on completed lessons in collaboration with classroom teachers in a school. In addition, the reading specialist assists teachers by helping them understand the assessment and instructional cycle and how that cycle can help them as they develop lessons and organize their classes for instruction. (Dole, 2004, p. 462)

In the most recent draft, the International Reading Association (2009) offers six standards for the reading professional:

  1. foundational knowledge
  2. curriculum and instruction
  3. assessment and evaluation
  4. diversity
  5. literate environment
  6. professional learning and leadership.

After consulting a number of reading coaches from the field, Dole (2004) suggested that reading professionals require several attributes in order to be effective. They must have a greater expertise than the classrooms teachers they support and be capable of articulating what they see taking place in classrooms. They must have extensive knowledge about how to teach – both in theory and in practice – and be reflective about their own instructional practice. Coaches must also be able to “support and nudge” their colleagues as they help them improve their own practice.

How effective are literacy professionals in the field? Several studies have researched their impact on student achievement. In 2003, a study of the International Reading Association Exemplary Reading Program award-winning schools revealed that coaches act as change agents, providing instructional materials as well as a wide range of professional development support services, such as a: (1) resource to colleagues, (2) liaison between school and community, (3) coordinator of the school reading program, (4) contributor to assessment practices, and (5) instructor (Bean, Swan, & Knaub).

As the spotlight continues to highlight the work of literacy professionals, this current CARR study will be performing document analyses, conducting interviews, and holding focus groups as it seeks to provide a comprehensive review of how literacy professionals are prepared in Connecticut, the perceptions stakeholders maintain regarding their preparation, as well as the current and future policy ramifications of this research. The complete report will be released in late 2015.


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