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State tour finds disparity in school districts on reading programs

December 14, 2017

LINCOLN — Sitting at a semi-circle table, first-graders in Jean Manning-Kechely’s classroom at Randolph Elementary in Lincoln break down words to learn how each of their parts work together.

Wednesday’s lesson highlighted the long “O” sound in the different way it appears in the English language: Combined with another vowel as in “boat,” or standing alone when a word ends in “E” as in “joke” or “code.”

With workbooks open, the small group of students identify another word before quickly printing it on a growing list, eagerly moving on to the next example.

Other students are plugged into iPads, their ears vanishing into large headphones as they drag letters across the screen for a spelling game. A second small group drills down on high-frequency words appearing often in the reading material taught to the class of 23.

Two state senators — Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn — move about the classroom listening to how Manning-Kechely and others are instructing the first-graders.

The duo wrapped up a statewide tour Wednesday, part of an effort to study how schools teach reading as well as identify students with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

The study evolved out of a bill sponsored by Linehan that would require Nebraska schools to hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level and adopt reading-improvement plans tailored to individual students in lower elementary grades if they fall short of state test marks.

Pansing Brooks opposed Linehan’s bill, but the two are working together to gather perspective from educators and students on best practices for improving literacy across the state.

“It appears that each district is very focused on (reading), but they are at different levels of having a program in place,” Linehan said.

The senators said at some schools they toured, particularly smaller districts with fewer resources, no district-wide reading curriculum has been adopted, leaving instruction strategy and techniques up to individual teachers.

Districts like Lincoln Public Schools, in contrast, offer support to teachers on how to stage effective reading interventions, or to better manage a classroom — techniques that can boost the effectiveness of the teacher and lead to better outcomes for students.

Manning-Kechely’s class at Randolph, for example, uses the same curriculum as other first-grade classrooms across Lincoln Public Schools, while the veteran teacher said she can also substitute other materials she has found effective.

Pansing Brooks said lawmakers plan to examine teacher training and how it might be improved for future educators entering Nebraska’s classrooms, as well as how those teachers are taught to identify students who may be struggling due to a learning disability.

“This is a whole systemic issue,” she said. “It isn’t like we’re searching for one bad actor. What we’re really trying to do is look at the whole system — where might the most help be given.”

Linehan said she and other lawmakers could alter her bill’s language to offer guidance to schools on how to pursue best practices when it comes to literacy education.

“I think we need to encourage best practices across the board, across the state,” she said.