In 2011, Community of Peace Academy (CPA), a Minnesota charter school, knew they needed to make a change to their school’s approach to literacy instruction. CPA had been using literacy systems that came with a “boxed” curriculum with limited flexibility for adjustments and little training on how to implement the curriculum. After years of not seeing significant improvement in students’ literacy outcomes, CPA’s school leadership began looking for a new method for assessing and teaching literacy skills. They also needed a system that better supported teachers in literacy instruction. CPA applied for a grant from The McKnight Foundation that allowed them to partner with UChicago Impact to implement a new system for fostering literacy across grade levels.
UChicago Impact is a nonprofit group within the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute that develops diagnostic tools and supports for schools grounded in decades of rigorous, foundational education research on what matters most for school improvement and student success. UChicago Impact partners with schools to implement the Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress (STEP) system. STEP is a research-based formative assessment system designed to build teacher capacity for literacy instruction and provide educators with the data and professional learning necessary to improve student achievement in literacy across grade levels.
STEP provides educators with clear goals students should meet at each grade level to be considered on-track to reading proficiency. STEP also gives educators the ability to track each students’ progress throughout an academic year and tailor their instruction to student’s individual needs.
UChicago Impact’s STEP team has now worked with CPA for five years on interpreting student literacy data and improving literacy instruction.
When it came to improving literacy outcomes, CPA’s leadership team wanted to move away from following a “boxed”, one-size-fits-all reading curriculum and move toward using standards and assessments of students’ skills to influence and individualize instruction. While transitioning to this new approach to fostering literacy, CPA’s leadership was deliberate in making sure teachers were fully supported. After receiving the grant that would fund this effort, school leaders took their time with implementation—they spent a full year planning how to effectively switch to implement STEP.
School leadership began supporting, and continues to support, teachers in improving literacy instruction through regular feedback on lessons and instruction, fostering the belief among teachers that all students are capable of achieving at high levels in literacy, celebrating successes, and frequently discussing areas of opportunity.
“Here we believe strongly that if we’re going to implement something we’re going to do it well,” said Bao Vang, the elementary principal for Community of Peace Academy.
The school also hired a full-time literacy coach whose sole responsibility is to support teachers in literacy instruction. The literacy coach works with STEP’s Managers of Professional Learning on supporting teachers in assessing students’ literacy skills multiple times in an academic year, monitoring student progress, implementing interventions where needed, coaching teachers, and providing differentiated professional development.
In order to gain rich, meaningful data on individual students’ literacy skills, and allow teachers time in the academic year to implement instructional intervention where needed, the STEP assessment is administered four times a year. CPA staff administers the assessments for students in both the early and middle grades.
STEP’s early grade series, STEP Purple and Yellow, focuses on assessing students’ foundational literacy skills and ensuring more students are hitting critical reading milestones such as word solving and stamina.
School leadership also knew the importance of middle grades in achieving reading proficiency. In 2017, CPA implemented STEP’s recent expansion, STEP Gray and Burgundy. The STEP Gray and Burgundy series supports the middle grades and assesses students’ ability to comprehend nonfiction texts and structures. The series also engages students and teachers in deepening foundational literacy skills and improving reading comprehension.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for [STEP Gray and Burgundy],” said Melissa Jackson, CPA’s Literacy Coach. “What we like about Purple and Yellow is knowing the specific goals and strengths for each student and we wanted that same direction for our older grades.”
While their work to foster reading proficiency for all students isn’t over, CPA has made impressive gains since making a commitment to using data to inform and improve literacy instruction that is tailored to student’s individual needs.
Since implementing and using STEP, CPA’s school leaders have seen more teachers move beyond just strictly following a curriculum and, instead, think strategically about how their literacy instruction aligns to literacy standards and whether their instruction will ensure more students meet those standards. Teachers have also reported that students now understand the reading milestones they’re working towards and the strategies being used to help them reach those milestones.
In the course of just two academic years, between the end of the 2013/14 academic year and the end of the 2016/17 academic year, CPA saw the percentage of its students on-track to literacy proficiency increase by 24 percent.
In the year to come, CPA will continue its focus on fostering literacy among middle grades students using UChicago Impact’s new STEP Gray and Burgundy series. The CPA team is also working on more explicitly connecting subject- matter instruction to literacy and making learning experiences in literacy deeper and more meaningful for students across grade levels.