Jan Westerman-Beatty, a clinical professor in the Iowa State University School of Education, is part of a new statewide effort to improve third-grade literacy. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.
Jan Westerman-Beatty, a clinical professor in the Iowa State University School of Education, is part of a new statewide effort to improve third-grade literacy. Photo by Wyeth Lynch.

Iowa State part of new statewide effort to improve third-grade literacy

While teacher compensation is at the heart of Gov. Terry Branstad's $187 million education reform proposal this year, educators across the state are working quietly to make improvements in an area that was a key focus last year: third-grade literacy.

"Collaborating for Kids" is a new partnership between the Iowa Department of Education, area education agencies, and school districts aimed at getting all Iowa students reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. Four work teams met for the first time Thursday to begin tackling the issue. Changes are expected to take effect this fall.

"What we are trying to do is basically get all of the arrows pointing in the same direction in our efforts in improving third-grade reading proficiency," said Byron Darnall, chief of the state Bureau of Educator Quality in the Iowa Department of Education.

Only 33 percent of Iowa fourth graders were proficient or advanced in reading in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as The Nation's Report Card. Two-thirds fell below the proficiency level.

Iowa State University is part of the effort to address the issue. Collaborating for Kids includes 102 people in the statewide partnership, a 12-member steering committee, and an advisory group of school superintendents, principals, legislators, the School Administrators of Iowa, and the Iowa State Education Association.   

Jan Westerman-Beatty, a clinical professor in the Iowa State University School of Education who's been an educator for 40 years, is a member of one of the four work teams — one that's focused on educator quality. Three other teams are looking at school improvement, learner strategies and supports, and standards and curriculum.

"I remember early in my career figuring out I had kids in class who didn't read well or didn't read," said Beatty, a former language arts teacher and coach who's also been a principal and assistant superintendent. "As a high school teacher, I hadn't been trained to help them so I had to go back and do some learning."

Branstad last year proposed retaining students who can't read by the end of the third grade. But state lawmakers instead voted to give parents the choice of having their kids repeat the third grade or go to summer school, beginning in the 2016-17 school year. Schools can opt out if no money is provided. This year's effort by educators does not focus on retention.

“We don’t want to retain any third graders," Darnall said. "We shouldn’t get to that point. Instead, what are we doing to be proactive so we aren’t faced with that decision?”

Another key difference with this year's effort to improve literacy is it's happening outside of the political process. The partnership and its work teams are not appointed by the governor. Recommendations are not expected to require action by the Iowa Legislature. Instead, the effort is being led by existing education groups who don't plan to ask for any additional state money. Changes are expected to take effect this fall.

"We simply don't have any more time to waste," Darnall said. "The goal is to be in schools in August. When the new school year kicks off, we need to have our actionable plans available. We have the personnel to do that. That is the goal. Between now and mid-summer, we have to come up with our action plan and our research and our evidence."

The end of the third grade is the critical point where students transition from learning to read, to reading to learn, said Ralph Reynolds, director of the Iowa State School of Education. Children who cannot read at this point have only about a 20 percent chance of becoming accomplished adult readers, he said.

"If you cannot keep up during that reading-to-learn phase, if you don't have adequate initial reading skills or you might call them basic reading skills, you get further and further behind," said Reynolds, a past president of the international Society for the Scientific Study of Reading.

Darnall said people in the work groups are top experts in Iowa. He said members of the state partnership felt it was key to involve regent universities and teacher preparation programs in the effort. The group will determine what the state needs to do to support teachers in the field, as well as teachers preparing to go in the field, to meet the goal of improving third-grade reading proficiency.

Reading literacy is a signature area of expertise at Iowa State. The university offers a literacy endorsement for teachers. It is home to the Fred Duffelmeyer Reading Improvement Clinic, which offers tutoring for children in grades 1-12 who are struggling with reading, writing, and spelling. The co-director of that clinic is Donald Bear, a professor in the School of Education who's an international scholar in reading and literature.

Reynolds called the focus on third-grade literacy "thrilling" and said it's essential for the state. He also said educator quality plays an important role in improving reading proficiency.

"The biggest academic change agent in a student's life is his or her teacher," Reynolds said. "We have to make sure that those folks are the most well-trained professional people possible."

Children who read on grade level by the end of the third grade are more successful in school, work, and life, according to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others. About one out of every six students who are not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade do not graduate from high school in four years. Those who are proficient are more likely to graduate and pursue postsecondary education.


Byron Darnall, chief, Bureau of Educator Quality, Iowa Department of Education, 515-725-2873, Byron.Darnall@iowa.gov

Jan Westerman-Beatty, clinical professor, Iowa State University School of Education, co-director, Certificate of Advanced Studies Program (superintendent licensure), 515-720-7167,   jan1@iastate.edu

Ralph Reynolds, director, Iowa State University School of Education, 515-294-3265, ralphr@iastate.edu

Lynn Campbell, communications specialist, Iowa State University College of Human Sciences, 515-294-3689, lynnc@iastate.edu

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