Massachusetts nonprofit's focus on reading is more about leadership than literacy
The Bay State Reading Institute helps build teachers, literacy coaches and principals into leaders
John Obremski is just wrapping up his first year as principal of the K-8 Lafayette School in Everett, MA, north of Boston. When he walked into his first classrooms, he saw a great deal of whole-group instruction--a scenario where teachers stand at the front of the room and give the same lessons to all of their students at once.
In a diverse school where more than half of students speak another language before English and nearly 20% have disabilities, Obremski said that the current model doesn’t work. Teachers had classes with students across the achievement spectrum, but they were teaching to the middle, leaving plenty of minds to wander.
Obremski has made a partnership with the Bay State Reading Institute, which is the basis of his school improvement effort. And while the institute’s name indicates its focus is on reading, founder Ed Moscovitch would argue something else.
“This isn’t so much about reading,” Moscovitch said. “It’s about how to teach and how to lead.”
BSRI’s model, recently touted in the Massachusetts Senate’s “Kids First” report, focuses on teacher and principal coaching and the use of data to drive differentiation so that every student is engaged. BSRI principal coaches visit partner schools once per month and literacy coaches visit twice per month during the first year of a partnership. They observe in classrooms, model best practices and discuss the critical elements of good teaching.
Since data drives decision-making, BSRI schools have to agree to use the DIBELS for early literacy assessments three times per year to track progress and tailor specific lessons and interventions for individual student needs. They also conduct formative assessments along the way, and BSRI coaches go over successes and develop action plans for continuous improvement in every classroom.
At the Lafayette School, Obremski’s teachers incorporated Lively Letters and Project Read into their classrooms on the recommendation of BSRI, so that they would address gaps in students’ knowledge. Teachers got a crash course in measurement with the DIBELS and implementation of both literacy programs last August, so they would be ready to go at the beginning of the school year.
And while most teachers have been impressed with the progress their students have been able to make throughout the year, Obremski said early resistance is not uncommon, especially from teachers of the youngest grades who aren’t used to tracking data.
“Grades three and up are used to looking at some data because they have the state-mandated testing,” Obremski said. “They were very used to looking at summative data, not really formative data. It was a little shift. K-2 was a big shift.”
At Obremski’s last school, Everett’s George Keverian School, the first year's winter was particularly difficult. Teachers had been excited about the new classroom techniques in the fall, but the first assessment was disappointing and they began to lose faith. Standardized test scores dipped that first year, but Obremski stayed firm, with the support of the superintendent. And by the end of the second year, the school had gone from Level 3 to Level 1 in Massachusetts’ five-level accountability system.
Obremski credits the Keverian School’s reading coach with much of teachers’ success with differentiation. And he made clear to his staff that the reading coach’s recommendations for literacy instruction were not optional.
This leadership is key to the BSRI model.
“In the best schools, the principal drives it,” Moscovitch said. “Maybe the most important thing we do is teach the principal what good teaching looks like.” From there, principals can push their teams toward better outcomes.
Obremski has found the role of outside consultants to be critical in both schools he brought BSRI into. The fact is, teachers and principals can’t know what they don’t know. And fresh eyes on an old problem can lend important perspective.
In the end, what can be a difficult change seems to make teachers happier long-term. Moscovitch said teacher turnover in BSRI’s partner districts is slightly lower than the Massachusetts state average. Teachers report being fulfilled by seeing their students make progress they hadn’t thought possible before, and they benefit from an environment that prioritizes innovation. Teachers are emboldened to try new strategies for engaging all children and putting them on a path to success. That’s critical.
“You need the pedagogy, but even more important is getting this climate,” Moscovitch said. “You’re looking for total student engagement and you’re looking to create a climate in which people feel safe trying out new things. Once it gets going, it’ll just cascade.”
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