New commissioner: No problem with Pawtucket’s reading program

New commissioner: No problem with Pawtucket’s reading program

PAWTUCKET – Some questions about whether local schools’ new $1 million reading program aligned with best instruction practices were seemingly answered this week when new Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green appeared to give it the thumbs-up.

On Aug. 3, former educator and current blogger Erika Sanzi posted an article on Twitter making the case that many in Rhode Island education and elsewhere are still teaching reading theories that have long since been debunked, having students memorize words, use context to guess words, and skipping words they don’t know, among others, to get through. The thinking gets away from reading as a precise practice involving exact or detailed perception of letters and words, according to a story posted from apmreports.org.

According to Sanzi, only two teacher preparatory programs in Rhode Island train teachers in proven methods.

The Breeze posed the following statement and question to Sanzi, posting a link to a previous springtime Breeze story about the success of the American Reading Company program incorporated in Pawtucket last year: “Boiled down, it seems to center on a modern disdain for traditional phonics and memorizing rules,” stated the tweet to Sanzi. “It appears aspects of this program might be what they’re referring to as the wrong way.”

“Exactly,” she responded. “Children learn to read very differently than they learn to speak.” Just adding reading to the day won’t help most struggling readers/dyslexic children and English language learners who need to decode to be able to read, she said, adding that Commissioner Infante-Green is very knowledgeable about the topic.

Infante-Green then liked Sanzi’s tweet, prompting The Breeze to ask Pawtucket school officials about whether she’s expressed concern about their program. School officials said they haven’t heard from Infante-Green on the program, and haven’t approached her.

A spokeswoman for Infante-Green said this week that the commissioner was responding to the second part of Sanzi’s statement that children learn to read differently and just adding reading to the day won’t help most struggling readers.

“She was not making a value judgment on any specific curricula, and in fact, ARC (American Reading Company) is rated as a high-quality program by EdReports, a national, independent nonprofit the state has been working with to support districts with curriculum selection,” said Meg Geoghegan.

Interim Pawtucket Supt. Cheryl McWilliams noted that the ARC reading program is listed in green by EdReports, a nonprofit organization promoted by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

School Committee Chairman Jay Charbonneau said he’s heard nothing negative about the ARC program either from inside the district or outside. The district invested a lot of money in the program and there was a lot of public and open discussion about the adoption of it last year, with no one from RIDE ever expressing concerns, said Charbonneau.

Neither McWilliams nor Charbonneau have approached Infante-Green about her thoughts on the program.

“You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach in every district, particularly in a district as diverse as this one,” with upward of 9,000 students, Charbonneau said.

The Breeze reported in April that Pawtucket’s new ARC reading program was paying off in a big way, according to local school administrators. At the time, then-Supt. Patti DiCenso spoke of how it was replacing an earlier program featuring a heavy focus on phonics but lacking an emphasis on authentic reading comprehension.

“Substandard programs at this level set the entire system up for failure as children are falling behind starting in kindergarten,” said DiCenso.

The program, for students in grades K-2, helped the district achieve significant gains in reading comprehension, including nearly doubling in its first year the number of students considered actively engaged in reading, at 63 percent.

McWilliams last week noted that the state last year brought in David Liben, of Student Achievement Partners, to speak to curriculum directors on high-quality curriculum, including why a structured phonics program such as the one employed by ARC is effective.

“Numerous research findings have suggested that too few children are acquiring the decoding and fluent reading skills necessary to become competent readers,” stated a report by Liben. “We propose that one reason for these poor outcomes is the preponderance of initial reading programs that fail to provide students with adequate phonics knowledge.”

His paper made the case that structured phonics is the most effective reading curriculum “for ensuring students acquire knowledge of the letter-sound correspondences that are fundamental to becoming successful readers.”

According to Liben, a structured phonics program teaches students to apply knowledge to decode and spell words. When learners do this a few times for a given pattern, the spellings of individual words become glued in memory to their pronunciations and meanings.

On Sunday, Sanzi put out a tweet seeking more feedback from literacy experts on Pawtucket’s reading program, saying some of the quotes in the previous Breeze story put up flags for her. Expert Karen Vaites said Pawtucket is doing stellar work under Director of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction Jennifer Carney, and the ARC curriculum is a strong one designed around reading research, the only program to earn all green checkmarks with EdReports. A representative from American Reading then tweeted that the company is proud to offer the only curriculum earning all green reviews.

Sanzi then thanked everyone who contributed to the discussion, saying the feedback from a network of literacy professionals is very helpful for those who aren’t experts in the area but are looking to become more knowledgeable. She later told The Breeze it turns out that she was wrong to be concerned and Infante-Green was right.

“For a program to be ‘all green’ is pretty awesome,” she said.