The Reading Now Network: Redefining value to chart a course to improvement

Group of elementary school pupils“Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so.” – Galileo

In Major League Baseball, game data have been a constant, with RBIs, batting averages, and ERAs long-serving as measurements of player and team performance. The end goal for all teams, year after year, has also been a constant: win a World Series championship. What has changed more recently are the metrics: measurements that are used to track and assess the status of progress. Thanks to Moneyball, most of us know the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team and their relentless commitment to dissecting player data in new ways, which helped them assemble a low-budget ball club that won more games and eventually entered the playoffs. Since then, many teams across the entire landscape of baseball have changed the way they do business. They’ve found a better way to use data to identify good players who were previously undervalued.

What if an entire region of schools and districts took a similar approach to addressing challenges with early literacy? What would that look like?

The Reading Now Network of West Michigan and its ongoing work on addressing challenges with early literacy could provide a glimpse of what is possible.

Overcoming status quo bias

One of the Network’s first initiatives was to analyze reading scores across its member elementary schools, which span more than 100 districts. Because student poverty levels had a strong negative correlation with academic achievement in Network member schools, their new approach compared scores from schools with similar economic makeup, rather than comparing all schools statewide (as traditional measures denoted). They evaluated student reading scores while controlling for the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, a common proxy used to measure school poverty. By slicing data in new ways, the study revealed a handful of bright spots. Among them, they noticed traditionally overlooked “outlier” schools that demonstrated a trend line of achieving significantly better reading outcomes for students as compared to peer schools.

As a result, new questions emerged for the Reading Now Network. Why were these outlier schools successful where their peer schools had struggled? What were they doing that led to more wins for students in reading? How did they focus teacher and administrator time and effort? What tools and techniques did they utilize? What initiatives did they employ?

The first step that the core members of the Reading Now Network took in looking at the averages was to distinguish between averages and averages that matter. The metrics needed to be tied to value, they realized. The Network decided to zoom out and question what mattered before settling into a “business as usual” approach to analysis.

As mentioned earlier, schools and districts across West Michigan traditionally focused on a metric of data that compared all elementary school reading assessment results against a state average. The leaders of the Reading Now Network challenged the value of this metric for all schools in the Network. They believed that focusing on comparisons to state average data would be problematic for both high-poverty and low-poverty schools in the region. A low-poverty school might interpret performance that is above state average as evidence of success and therefore have no sense of urgency to improve. Conversely, a high-poverty school might interpret the state average as an unrealistic goal, and therefore have no hope that success is attainable. Knowing that all schools needed to have a sense of urgency and hope about current achievement levels, they sought to inspire change at a regional or state level.

In their data review, controlling for the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch helped reinforce urgency and hope among all schools. Educators in low-poverty schools that had traditionally been above state average had a renewed sense of motivation to achieve as high as or higher than other schools with similar poverty levels. High-poverty schools discovered schools more “like them” that were attaining noteworthy outcomes for impoverished children and gained a renewed hope that success was possible in their school setting. Educators liked the conditions the new metric brought to the region and made it a cornerstone of their data systems.

Develop leaders as change agents and questioners

As McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin notes in his white paper, The Road Less Traveled: Changing Schools from the Inside Out, for genuine school improvement to happen, building and district leaders can no longer just be managers—they also need to be agents of change. It’s not feasible to simply look at the same data with the same status quo bias and expect more wins for their schools and districts. Developing leaders as change agents and questioners is an essential ingredient to success; a new way of thinking that starts with asking powerful questions that dig deeply into problems and reframe challenges to reveal new solutions. For the leaders of the Reading Now Network, they found a new way to shape the data to identify undervalued success and expose overlooked challenges.

Kyle Mayer 2Dr. Kyle Mayer is the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District in Michigan. A member of the Reading Now Network leadership team since the beginning, Kyle has been instrumental in the success of this 160-school district collaborative dedicated to making sure that all kids learn how to read by third grade. Kyle’s professional background includes being a school superintendent, principal, and teacher. He was recently appointed to Michigan’s PreK–12 Literacy Commission.

6a010536aec25c970b01b7c83cf862970bBen Cronkright, a former Michigan principal and a federal programs manager/academic officer for the Hawaii State Charter School Commission, is now a Michigan-based McREL consultant who works with schools, districts, and departments of education on increasing teacher effectiveness and students’ college- and career-readiness.


Learn more about how McREL can help districts and coalitions scale up bright spots to become high-reliability and high-performance systems, directing improvement efforts from the inside-out, and delivering effective change, continuous improvement, and innovation that supports student learning.

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