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Open Letter to Our School Board

Monday, March 25, 2019


An Open Letter to the School Board of Tredyffrin-Easttown School District


Everyone Reads T/E has been working on one mission for the past eighteen months – to ensure all Tredyffrin/Easttown School District (TESD) students learn to read to the best of their ability.


We have dyslexic children, yet our mission is not about dyslexia, nor about teacher training specific to dyslexia. Our mission is to ensure our “top-notch” school district is invested in training and materials that support evidence-based reading instruction for ALL students – including the nearly 20% who are in reading support, but also all other students in the District.


Unfortunately, our many hours of dialogue with T/E School District leaders have surfaced numerous significant issues with reading instruction:

  • District administrators have actively avoided sharing TESD reading performance data – raising community concerns that they must have something to hide.

  • The District is using the weakest curriculum in the K–12 market, as validated by respected third-party reviews.

  • TESD reading instruction is not aligned with large bodies of evidence on how kids learn to read.

  • The district’s approach to student benchmark assessment is not inline with established best practice.

  • Teachers and leaders in TESD are not using the collected criterion-referenced benchmark student data to inform reading instruction, because the District has not created systems to support this practice.

  • District leadership does not appear seriously invested in resolving these issues. In fact, it seems most invested in maintaining the status quo.

  • Students in TESD are experiencing negative consequences with potentially lifelong outcomes.


This runs counter to the mission of our district, and the needs of our students and our teachers. We regard the teachers in our school district highly and believe they deserve the best support and materials, as we shared in our recent open letter to TESD teachers. In private conversations, we have been told that many teachers applaud our efforts yet fear reprisal if they speak out publicly about issues in the schools (which their contracts prevent them from doing).


Everyone Reads T/E believes the parents and community members of TESD deserve to know of the issues we have uncovered with reading instruction in our “top notch” schools, and that these matters warrant prompt Board attention.


Here are our concerns:


Concern 1: Red Flags About Reading Instruction in TESD


Parents in T/E are accustomed to thinking of the District as high-performing. By the metric of performance in the Pennsylvania State assessment (known as PSSA), this might appear to be the case: Schooldigger ranks TESD 12th in the state based on the 2017-2018 PSSA scores.


What parents may not realize is that TESD has the 7th-lowest 4th-8th grade English Language Arts growth score (called the PVAAS) of the 638 districts in Pennsylvania. This alone might prompt reflection.


Additionally, in the October 2018 Education Committee Meeting, the district verbally shared performance indicators for its reading support programs: across its Elementary Reading Support Programs, students demonstrate a mean of one year of reading growth each year. No data was disseminated to support this assertion. Yet even if we take this at face value, it is worrisome. The goal of a reading intervention program is to help under performing readers catch up with their grade level peers, thus such programs commonly achieve more than 1 year of growth in a school year. In TESD, some students will make more than one year of growth in a year, so the TESD mean of one year shows that many of our students in reading support make less than one year’s annual growth. We have sought data from the district to know how many students are in this low-growth situation.


Further, in the last 18 months, we have supported dozens of parents who expressed concerns about TESD reading approaches that mirrored our own troubling experiences. We outline a sample of the parent concerns in Appendix C of this letter.


These red flags prompted us to invest hundreds of hours of personal time in understanding the reading approach in TESD. Our worrisome findings follow.


Concern 2: A lack of transparency about district’s own reading performance data


In the last year, we have sought greater transparency about student reading performance in our district, as has the Board – to no avail.


Promises have been broken. In August 2018, District leaders committed to provide reporting on reading performance to our community by March 2019. The District has failed to meet that commitment. Appendix E provides extensive detail on this matter.


We have every reason to believe the district has data on how our students are reading – in fact, it has said as much to the media. Reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent reported for WHYY that Dr. Wendy Towle, TESD Director of Curriculum, Instruction, Staff Development and Planning, said “the district sifted through internal data on its program for struggling readers and found it works for the majority.”


Further, student reading data is captured and aggregated in databases. The district has spent $9,000 on one system, SunGard’s Performance Tracker, (11/27/18 T/E School Board agenda, page 22). TESD employs a database administrator for $115,000+/year, who can access these databases to provide aggregate insight into student reading performance.

Yet the District leaders offer flimsy excuses for why they cannot share how our students are performing in reading. They are taking pains to avoid and/or delay the sharing of its existing reading data.


Our community is concerned. Dr. Jim Capalupo, former Superintendent of the year in a neighboring district, Associate Dean of Partnerships and Professional Development for the College of Education at West Chester University and TESD parent, made an impassioned plea to TESD administration to share their data in the March 14th T/E School Board Education Committee meeting. Dr. Capolupo asserted that there was no excuse for not presenting the data requested, to overwhelming applause from other attendees.


We must ask as a community: Why is the District not more forthcoming about the data on its reading performance?


Also, when will the Board hold the District administration accountable for its promise to share better data about our students’ reading outcomes?


Concern 3: TESD Uses the Weakest Available Curriculum


The current elementary curriculum used by the district, Literacy by Design, received the lowest score of any curriculum in reviews by EdReports, a respected nonprofit that reviews curriculum for alignment to standards. Literacy by Design’s “all-red” review specifically states that it “does not meet expectations” of alignment to the Common Core Standards, which are materially similar to Pennsylvania Core Standards.


When we raised questions to the District leaders about the curriculum quality in May 2018, we were provided with research that endorsed Literacy by Design, but when we dug into the research, we found that the study had been funded by the publisher of the curriculum.

Earlier this month, we asked District administrators about their plans to improve the District’s curriculum and we shared the ELA curriculum reviews on EdReports. Our curriculum leaders, Dr. Towle and Ms. Michele Staves, seemed unaware of EdReports, and that better curriculum options are available. Later, during her presentation at the March 14th meeting, Ms. Staves said there are many different ways to interpret what makes the best reading program, implying the work by nonprofits like EdReports might not help a district like ours.

The district’s use of a reading curriculum that aligns poorly with Pennsylvania standards concerns us greatly. This could be having a substantial adverse impact on reading instruction: extensive research has shown that curriculum can have a strong impact on student achievement.


Further, there has been significant national dialogue about improvements in reading curriculum, and leaders in other districts are clearly making curriculum improvement a priority:

  • Three district leaders spoke out about their work with improved curriculum in Education Week, writing: “Districts today have many choices among research-aligned, excellent curricula, which was not the case even two years ago… In each of our districts, we have implemented one of the newly available curricula that earned the highest possible rating by EdReports, an independent curriculum review non-profit. District-wide reading improvement followed.”

  • Entire states are using EdReports to identify the best curriculum options for their districts, then supporting districts statewide in learning of these options.

  • Literacy leader and lead Common Core author Sue Pimentel wrote of a “renaissance” in reading curriculum in Education Week.


We believe the community deserves to know how TESD plans to improve its poorly-rated curriculum.


Concern 4: Misalignment With Evidence-Based Practices


In meetings with the District administrators over the last 10 months, Everyone Reads T/E has expressed repeated concerns that the District literacy instruction does not support foundational reading skill development, which is a disservice to all students, and especially dyslexic students, based on the evidence about how kids learn to read.


We have identified two other areas in which TESD does not follow – or seem aware of – evidence-based reading approaches that are important for all learners, distinct from the specific needs of dyslexic students.


First, we note that elementary reading work is done primarily in leveled reading groups. There is a weak evidence base for this practice, as detailed in Appendix B.


Second: when we met with Dr. Towle and Ms. Staves in February to discuss evidence-based curriculum resources, we asked about aligning our curriculum with well-established research – also detailed in Appendix B – that shows the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension. They seemed unaware of this research.

Currently, the District is poised to invest in Orton-Gillingham training for teachers, in order to help teachers support students with dyslexia. Such training could be a positive step but only if it is part of a broader professional learning strategy for teachers. The Orton-Gillingham investment could have marginal returns if there is no strategy to help teachers understand and implement a bigger picture for teaching literacy.


Concern 5: Flawed Approaches to Assessment and Use of Data to Inform Teaching


Everyone Reads T/E has identified a number of gaps between best practice and our practice:


Reading Assessment

The district lacks clear metrics for measuring reading performance. In the March 14th presentation by the District leaders about elementary grades’ reading performance, the district leadership articulated a goal of one year of reading growth for “most” students, but did it not have a consistent way to measure that growth for all students. Instead, District leaders offered a menu of assessments, most of which were subjective, that they might use to determine reading level, listed in Appendix A.


We have identified a number of specific areas in which the District’s approach to assessment is inconsistent with best practices in other districts, also outlined in Appendix A.


Third parties confirm that TESD’s approach to elementary assessment is ineffective and out of date with K–12 education practices. Dr. Stephanie Stollar, Acadience/DIBELS Executive, explained to TESD Board members in March 2019 that TESD’s hybrid “benchmark” assessment schedule does not follow recommended protocols; specifically, no kindergarten, 5th or 6th grade norm- or criterion-referenced benchmark assessments are conducted in TESD, and a limited benchmark protocol is conducted in grades 1-4. By not using the full protocol, insight into student growth across grades is impeded.


Data-Driven Instruction


Today, districts commonly track student assessment data in reporting-friendly systems, both to support individual intervention by teachers and to help district leaders spot areas of strength, concern, and opportunity.


In TESD, district leaders have not prioritized effective use of data: Superintendent Gusick has repeatedly stated that he does not have insight into district reading performance, suggesting that his leadership team does not, either. We are surprised that the District and Board has not prioritized strong insight into the data to support instructional leadership at a district level.


It also appears that principals, instructional coaches, and teachers are unable to report on existing classroom-level and school-level data, in order to drive instruction on a day-to-day basis. It is common practice in many districts to invest in such reports that make it easy to identify students with needs and groups of students with similar learning profiles. TESD teachers do have access to individual student reports, which are currently provided to parents, yet this brings no efficiencies to data-driven teaching.


We believe the District should bring its assessment approaches inline with K–12 education norms and provide clarity about its planned strategies for using data to inform excellent teaching and learning.


Concern 6: Low Investedness of District Curriculum Leadership


As these significant issues have been raised about district-wide reading performance by Everyone Reads T/E, we have been surprised to see that Director of Curriculum, Dr. Towle, has been an inconsistent presence in discussions of these matters. Chris Groppe, the Director of Individualized Student Services (special education), has been leading the District’s response to our concerns. Perhaps the District has the impression – or wants to create the impression in our community – that the issues with reading instruction are specific to dyslexic students. They are not.


We have connected the District administration and the Board with a number of outside experts on literacy, summarized in Appendix D. District administrators have spoken with these experts, yet to date, there are no signs that TESD plans to take the advice of these experts. For example, Dr. Heidi Beverine-Curry spoke with Dr. Gusick for 1.5 hours, and she has advised us that she does not see any of the evidence-based practices she presented reflected in the district’s most recently-announced plans, though he verbally agreed with her recommendations during that meeting. The culprit appears to be the District leaders’ own low awareness of reading research: our leaders may be misinterpreting the expert advice because they do not understand the evidence-base well enough themselves.


A lack of openness to informed perspectives seems emblematic of TESD district leadership culture. Teachers have shared with us privately that the District leadership is entrenched in its “T/E Way.”


Dr. Towle has also misled parents. In the March 14th Education Committee meeting, she was asked by a parent about the District’s prospective participation in the Pennsylvania Dyslexia Pilot. Dr. Towle stated that TESD looked into participating, but that TESD was not permitted because the students in the District were too high-performing for TESD to be admitted to the Pilot. This is untrue. Diane Reott – the Executive Director of the PBIDA and a PA Dyslexia Pilot leader – was present, and corrected the facts during and after the meeting with TESD staff, including with Mr. Groppe and Dr. Roberta Hotinski, Education Committee Chair of the Board. Such incidents erode trust.


Concern 7: Consequences for the Students TESD Serves


Parents have reached out to us at Everyone Reads T/E because they see their children struggling and have authentic concerns. They have frequently been told, “your child’s reading is fine.” They tell us of children losing confidence, overly stressed about school demands, experiencing anxiety and depression, developing self-harming behaviors, and more. While supporting parents and helping them advocate for their children, we have seen firsthand evidence of students’ struggles to keep up with the reading demands in middle and high school. Many of these struggling readers are not dyslexic, according to the District.


Research has shown that poor readers are impacted emotionally. To quote one study, “Multi-level logistic regression analyses indicated that poor readers in 3rd grade were more likely to consider themselves as angry, distractible, sad, lonely, and unpopular in 5th grade than those who had not been poor readers in 3rd grade.”


As a community that cares about its children’s well-being, we need to talk about the role of reading issues in the stress levels and emotional health of our students. At the March, 2019 Education Committee meeting of the School Board, Mr. Groppe requested approval for more mental health support employees in our schools due to rising demand. The irony is not lost on us.


Putting These Serious Issues in Context


These issues are serious and substantive. They will surely surprise many in our community, just as they surprised us, and we think some context may help.


Our district’s high PSSA scores have helped it earn a strong reputation and attracted excellent teachers to our schools. Still, there are reasonable explanations for the dissonance between TESD’s high scores and strong teachers and these issues with how we teach reading.


Some are noted by the recent WHYY article about the District. Our schools benefit from a community of well-educated, active parents who invest in early reading and pre-school enrichment, which means our children arrive to school more ready for reading than kids in the average district. Also, when students struggle, parents invest in tutoring – or put their kids in private school. These realities in our community may drive test scores to a place that allows weak instructional approaches to go unquestioned.


We must also note that these issues are not unique to TESD. A growing national dialogue about how reading is taught has illuminated issues with reading instruction in many districts, and even in many teacher preparation programs. Teachers and district leaders have been speaking out about their misunderstandings about how kids learn to read. In that light, it’s unsurprising that TESD has some reading instruction issues; apparently, they are pervasive nationally. Still, they deserve to be addressed here, just as they are being addressed around the country.


We believe the issues that we have uncovered raise reasonable questions that deserve answers and actions.


Is there any more worthy goal for TESD than getting all of our kids to succeed as readers? We cannot imagine anything more important.


What We Seek


Since November, 2017, Everyone Reads T/E’s request of the District has been the same: we recommend the convening of a literacy committee – comprised of teachers, administrators, school board members, parents and outside experts – to analyze the current reading curriculum and reading support program, and to implement a literacy plan for providing high quality curriculum and intervention to all students.


The District has resisted such an approach; Dr. Hotinski, the Education Committee Chair said the Board should leave curriculum to “the professionals” in District offices. Yet parent-involved committee work has a precedent: in the March 14th School Board meeting, Carol Aichele, a former TESD School Board Member and current Pennsylvania Department of Education, Board Member, said she does not understand why TESD fears a literacy committee, noting that as an important part of the process parent/district committees were convened in the early 90’s around topical issues such as homework policy and administrator hiring.


We believe that positive change on these issues will require collaboration between all stakeholders, including outside experts. The district’s actions and inactions indicate an institutional resistance to change, and also a complacency about its programs, in light of the District’s data voids: our leaders cannot be certain District programs are serving all students when they have not fully reviewed them with best practices in mind. We believe outside expertise and transparency are the best corrective measures. While the Board’s proposed literacy plan is well intentioned it will not solve the problems we have presented without validation from all stakeholders.


The teachers’ union, Tredyffrin/Easttown Education Association, clearly states on their website, “We believe partnership with parents, families, communities, and other stakeholders are essential to quality public education and student success.” Let’s hold our district leadership to live that virtuous goal articulated by our teacher leadership.

As a board, your responsibility is to oversee educational programs and curriculum choices. We hope you will reflect on the process over the past 18 months and remember that Everyone Reads T/E is working to make sure ALL students in the District have high quality curriculum, ALL students make meaningful growth in reading, and that ALL teachers have professional learning on the science of reading.


We also want the Board to reconsider making significant financial investments, such as Orton-Gillingham training for teachers or the implementation of a database system, without a clear plan that is informed by expert and stakeholder input.


We stand prepared to provide further evidence of our assertions, should it assist the Board in fulfilling your oversight role.


Thank you for your time,


Everyone Reads T/E


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APPENDIX A: FLAWS WITH ASSESSMENT APPROACHES


List of subjective assessments used to determine reading level