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LESSONS FROM THE ALABAMA READING INITIATIVE: Report Offers Advice to States and School Districts on Starting an Adolescent Reading Program

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“Although ARI administrators maintain some support for secondary schools, they face an ongoing struggle to allocate funds and continue professional development related to Initiative approaches for teachers in grades 4 to 12.”

Although primarily a program for elementary students, the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) is offered to students in 135 of about 1,000 middle schools and high schools statewide. Since the program’s inception in 1998, the number of students who have demonstrated reading proficiency has increased by 8.8% in ARI schools—more than double the progress of schools not in the program.

In an attempt to learn from the ARI’s success and to provide recommendations for other districts or states that want to start a secondary reading initiative, Carnegie Corporation of New York asked the American Institutes of Research (AIR) to conduct a study on the ARI’s impact on Alabama’s middle and high schools. Over the course of its investigation, AIR found positive outcomes for students and teachers alike. Through interviews with teachers, administrators, reading coaches, and others involved, the report, Lessons and Recommendations from the Alabama Reading Initiative: Sustaining Focus on Secondary Reading, tells how the ARI overcame obstacles such as an initial lack of support and inattention to the reading struggles of older students.

In its findings, the report notes that much of the ARI’s success among secondary school students was due to educators who modified the ARI model to meet the needs of older students. Initially, the ARI model included reading-across-the-curriculum strategies for secondary schools, but this approach was never articulated well enough for teachers to understand how to implement it in content area classes. According to the report, Alabama’s secondary teachers and their reading coaches adapted materials and approaches to meet their particular needs. In light of this experience, the study offers its first lesson to schools and districts: Be responsive to the different needs of secondary and elementary students and schools—a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

While the elementary and secondary school components of the ARI have their own unique characteristics, the report’s second lesson stresses that a successful K–12 initiative must have a coherent continuum of reading instruction across all grades. Such a continuum would not only articulate reading goals for students, but it would also outline “best practices” for teachers, offer ways that these elements could be aligned and modified at every grade level, and increase communication—especially between elementary and secondary schools.

The report’s authors also conclude that adequate and consistent support from specialized staff matters more than material resources for an initiative like the ARI. In Alabama, the state was only able to provide a handful of staff to support implementation in secondary schools. At the school level, some schools have no school reading coach, whereas others have a coach who is responsible for implementing ARI at two or more schools or who divides his or her time among several tasks. In Alabama, schools worked creatively within budget constraints and relied on local means to support the continuation of the ARI.

In its final lesson, the report says to be attentive to the local, state, and national policy environments related to reading. The national focus on reading in grades K–3 has made it difficult in Alabama to maintain the emphasis on literacy issues for older students—especially as funds have been devoted to expanding reading programs in the early grades. “Although ARI administrators maintain some support for secondary schools, they face an ongoing struggle to allocate funds and continue professional development related to Initiative approaches for teachers in grades 4 to 12,” the report reads. The report adds that the “current attention to adolescent literacy at the national level and through organizations like Carnegie and the Alliance for Excellent Education suggests that funding sources will be available to mount initiatives like ARI, and states and districts desiring to do so are advised to be attentive to possible ways to support their efforts.”

Although the report’s authors did not specifically examine test scores or other quantitative indicators, teachers and students reported positive outcomes as a result of the program. Teachers say that their teaching philosophies “had come to include awareness of the importance of reading in all content areas and their own personal responsibilities to address students’ reading difficulties.” They also report more collaboration across content areas as a “professional community developed among teachers around their shared intent to help their students read and learn more effectively.”

Students say that they have increased confidence in themselves as readers, find that they use the strategies they learned in ARI when reading on their own, and report personal accomplishments, such as better comprehension skills, increased vocabularies, and strengthened abilities to present ideas orally. Teachers also describe other qualitative measures of improved achievement in students, including a greater concern about academic success and increased aspiration for postsecondary education.

While the ARI has enjoyed success, it, much like rest of the nation, still has far to go in providing the necessary support to help older students become better readers. As the report notes, only 20% of students in middle schools, junior high schools, and high schools in Alabama attend schools that participate in the initiative.

The complete report is available at http://www.air.org/publications/documents/ARI%20Popular%20Report_final.pdf.

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