How does the brain process written language? Per letter, per word, or entire lines of text?
Even for the fastest readers, the brain absorbs every letter, Alicia Sparks, a professional learning facilitator for teachers, told a group of Akron Public Schools early educators on a Friday morning at the Learning Center. community of Ellet.
This is how the brain can tell the difference between the words “house” and “horse”, she explained.
Sparks is from Lexia Learning, and the class was part of a Lexia training called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS).
The one-year intensive training is new this year for Akron teachers who work with the district’s youngest students. It aims to strengthen Akron teachers’ knowledge of the science of learning to read, while meeting the requirements of a new state law that is set to go into effect next school year. But with 60 hours required on top of other training, including the adoption of a new English language arts curriculum this year, some teachers have decried the training as contributing to an excessive workload.
Understanding the “Science of Reading”
Early literacy was a big sticking point for students last year coming out of the pandemic, when kids in Akron were home for an entire year. Even after students returned to school last year, the district received only one out of five stars for early literacy on the state report card, and only 37 percent of third-graders mastered their English test.
“We need to implement whatever recovery strategies we can get,” said Tamea Caver, the district’s new assistant superintendent and head of academics. “We need to implement all the best literacy teaching practices that are available.”
The school board voted in August, before those results were released, to approve the new teacher training. The cost was $350,360 for this year’s training and was paid for out of the district’s $96 million federal stimulus package that aims to help students recover academically and socially from the pandemic. The district must spend these dollars by September 2024.
Caver said the program is designed to teach the “science of reading” and takes a phonetics-based approach.
“It also helps teachers understand how students learn to read,” Caver said. “It will help teachers recognize why some students may have difficulty learning to read, and then it will help us determine what needs to be taught.”
Caver said the science behind it is “word recognition plus language comprehension equals reading comprehension.”
“So you have to have instructions on both sides of the equation in order to get the result,” she said.
Sparks described it to his class as the difference between a child seeing the word “nest” and being able to say the word, understanding each sound and how it fits together, versus seeing a picture on the page of a nest. bird and deduce that the word was probably “nest”.
After the first year, noted a teacher in the class, the images start to fade.
Teachers can be paid more, but workload issues remain
Akron is asking kindergarten and first grade teachers, as well as intervention specialists and ESL teachers, to take the training this year. A total of 247 teachers, including a few in second and third grade classes who are taking it voluntarily, are currently enrolled in the training. The full program actually lasts two years, but Caver said the district only requires teachers to complete the first year. Caver said the district will pay for teachers to take second grade, if they choose.
Teachers may also receive credit for college-level credit hours through the University of Akron for completing the training, at a cost to the district of $450 per teacher.
“Recognizing that it’s a lot like taking a college course, we wanted to try to reward them accordingly, as well as give them as many benefits as possible for taking this course,” Caver said.
A training year is 60 hours, containing four modules which must each be taken on certain dates throughout the year before a professional development day with a Lexia Learning trainer. The first day of training was October 7.
To supplement the training, teachers can either be paid outside of their regular working day or arrange for a substitute to cover their class while they complete the online course.
But a handful of teachers pushed back, noting that the district also adopted a new language arts curriculum and received minimal training on it before the start of the year. Half a dozen kindergarten and first grade teachers spoke at a council meeting last month about the significant hours they put in.
Pat Shipe, president of the Akron Education Association, said in a statement that the training is an example of teachers being pushed to their limits with an unsustainable workload. Teachers are leaving the district at a rapid rate — resignations last year were more than double what they were five years ago — and Shipe said workload concerns are going unheard , which contributed to the problem.
“Akron Public Schools is hemorrhaging exceptional educators due to a lack of genuine recognition, support and acknowledgment,” Shipe said. “They are exhausted. They are hanging on for the sake of their students and their families; however, APS is losing educators in record numbers.”
Shipe said teachers were concerned about the focus on LETRS training when curriculum training would be spread out over the year.
“Again, when educators expressed concern, they were told that curriculum training would be rolled out during the school year and that they should just do their best in the meantime,” he said. she stated.
The frustration is compounded, Shipe said, by the fact that the 60 hours of training required is significantly higher than the 18 hours required by the state — and still a year away from being mandatory.
The training meets the requirements of the new dyslexia law
The state legislature in 2021 passed a new law that requires school districts to screen elementary school students for dyslexia, a learning disability that can impact students’ ability to read. The law also requires at least 18 hours of training for kindergarten through third grade educators, starting with kindergarten and first grade teachers next year, then second and third grade teachers. in 2023-24.
Shipe said Akron’s choice of curriculum to meet these requirements is so much in excess of the required number of hours that it exhausts teachers.
“Professional development decisions are made by APS administrators, without teacher input, which far exceed any requirements imposed by the State of Ohio,” Shipe said. “LETRS training is just one example.”
But Caver said the district didn’t really have a choice. The state has a list of approved programs to choose from, she said, and none are only 18 hours long. All of them, she said, lasted over 40 hours or more. LETRS goes far beyond just teaching about dyslexia, but is one of the approved trainings that meets the requirements of the new law.
The state, she said, is working on developing an 18-hour course, but it is not yet available. Akron executives don’t yet know what that training will look like or how effective it will be, and didn’t want to wait until the last minute when training is needed to see if the 18-hour program will be enough to meet the need. Akron students.
Caver said the district is looking to be “proactive rather than reactive.”
“We have the opportunity to provide a great training program for our teachers,” Caver said. “And, quite honestly, with the (stimulus) funding available, it was a great opportunity to be able to provide something of that nature to our staff.”
Small neighborhoods in wait-and-see mode
Smaller districts, however, mostly didn’t get a big windfall of stimulus dollars, because stipends were based on Title I funding, which supports low-income students. Other districts in Summit County will soon have to decide whether to implement intensive and expensive training like LETRS or wait and see what the state comes up with.
In the Nordonia Hills City School District, director of curriculum and instruction Todd Stuart said a committee will review options and see what works best for the district of 3,300 students where 78 % of third graders were proficient in their language arts test last year.
Despite high accomplishments, the district has yet to provide training that meets requirements and has already spent the approximately $2.2 million in stimulus funds Nordonia has received. As a result, meeting the new dyslexia training requirement could prove costly for the district.
But even with high scores in reading, Stuart said there’s always room for improvement.
“We want to meet the needs of all children, and this law certainly helps some of the struggling students,” Stuart said. “Hopefully with the training and screening that will be put in place, these children will have their needs met.”
Contact educational journalist Jennifer Pignolet at [email protected], 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.