By Sally Absher

Back in September, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett made the news by saying that he wanted information connected to a school system reading program he helped establish several years ago, and that school leaders were resisting his request.

Frustrated by not having received the information he requested, Burchett filed a formal open records request under the Tennessee Public Records Act. Burchett wanted to know how the school system has spent approximately $8.4M he set aside for an early (grades K-2) reading program. The funding comes from a $2.8M annual grant designated for an early literacy initiative.

Burchett asked school officials to show “exactly which schools received funding from this grant, and how much they received, what programs or support elements were funded with these grant dollars, and any test results, scores, or other data that is intended to measure students’ reading progress and proficiency arising from the use of these funds.”

The grant began in school year 2012-2013 (FY 2013) and ends in FY 2015. Because it is a grant, it can be cancelled at any time. The Focus obtained copies of the information provided to the Mayor, which included financial information from school year 2013-2014, SAT-10 data from 2013 and 2014, and TCAP data from 2010-2014.

Records show that in FY 2014 the majority of the literacy project grant funds were spent on instructional coaches ($1,429,238) and educational assistants ($325,511). Another $449,094 was spent on benefits (social security, state and local retirement, life insurance, health insurance, and dental insurance) and substitutes for the above positions. Instructional materials included $277,910 for the Voyager and SPIRE reading instructional program.

Related to early childhood literacy, another $280,292 of general purpose funds were spent in FY 2014 to cover the salary of the District Reading Supervisor ($93,932), instructional coaches ($72,267), Professional development for ELA reading instruction training ($11,292) and substitutes to cover for teachers to attend said training ($51,187), and associated stipends, social security, retirement, insurance, and travel associated with those positions ($51,614).

And $118,836 of general purpose fund money was spent on the Discovery Ed Assessment (which has since been discontinued). In summary, $2,870,880 was spent in FY 2014, including $2,471,752 from the literacy project fund and $399,128 from the general purpose fund.

What did Knox County get for that investment? In the 2013-2014 school year, a total of thirty eight elementary schools participated in the program, although funding for instructional coaches at six of those schools came from other sources (e.g., general fund, or Title I or II).

Achievement results were mixed. One problem is that any kind of summative assessment is notoriously unreliable for children under about age 8, something that has been a hot topic in recent BOE meetings as the dubious merits of the SAT-10 assessment have been discussed.

For the county as a whole, the median percentile on the SAT-10 rose for Kindergartners in 2013 to first graders in 2014, but fell for first graders in 2013 to second graders in 2014. During the same time period, median percentiles rose from Kindergarten to first grade in 25 schools, but only 16 of the 38 schools involved in the early literacy program showed an increase from first to second grade.

And 2014 Grade 3 TCAP reading scores fell dramatically, with 44.2% of KCS third graders testing proficient/advanced in 2014 compared to 53.5% the previous year. That is a drop of over 9 percentage points. The percentage of students testing proficient/advanced fell at 39 elementary schools, with only 8 schools showing increases. Something isn’t working.

Mayor Burchett hasn’t made a decision yet on continuing the funding for the early literacy program. He said “I want to see more students reading on and above grade level before they leave third grade, and I’m confident the school’s administration agrees. It’s important that the Knox County Schools continue to research and identify early literacy programs that have a history of positive outcomes and measurable results for children.”

But what was not mentioned during this discussion is that back in 2011, McIntyre cut a highly successful early intervention program known as Reading Recovery®, and eliminated 20 Reading Recovery teachers by “reduction in force.”

As recently as October 2014, the US Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse released a single study research review that adds to the body of evidence on Reading Recovery’s effectiveness. “The study’s authors found, and the WWC confirmed, that Reading Recovery had a significant impact on general reading achievement of struggling readers in the first grade.” WCC also confirmed positive impacts on two sub-tests, general reading achievement and reading comprehension.

Now in its 30th year, Reading Recovery research was previously reviewed by WWC in 2007, 2008, and 2013. To date, Reading Recovery is the only intervention in the beginning reading category to receive positive or potentially positive ratings in all four reading domains: alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement.

The Focus spoke to a former Reading Recovery teacher, who said, “I see the children who struggle every day and get further and further behind, when there are a number of us still in the system who were trained with graduate courses paid by KCS and we are not being utilized.” Fewer than half of the former Reading Recovery teachers are currently in the system.

Reading Recovery served the KCS system’s struggling first grade students at Beaumont, Belle Morris, Christenberry, Dogwood, Inskip, Norwood, Pond Gap, Sarah Moore Greene, South Knox, Spring Hill, and West View Elementary Schools. It consistently brought students up to grade level or higher.

Reading Recovery was one of the earliest Response to Intervention (RTI) initiatives used in Knox County.  It is a one-on-one intervention program in reading. But other children who were struggling in school also had access to the Reading Recovery teachers in small groups throughout the day, where they too benefited from this expertise.

Today students in intervention are taught by teaching assistants. Not to take away from the many hard working teaching assistants, but these assistants have little if any specialized training in working with hard-to-reach struggling readers. They are teaching a “canned” program and not able to individualize the instruction for the student, like trained Reading Recovery teachers could.

Reading Recovery was also helpful in reaching children with dyslexic tendencies during the critical ages of 5 to 7. The “working with words” section of Reading Recovery was an adaptation of the Orton-Gillingham method that helps all students, dyslexic or not.

It appears that KCS is more interested in assessing the students to gather data for teacher evaluations than they are in actually achieving equal educational opportunity and providing Excellence for Every Child.