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Getting struggling students to read requires both data and compassion

Too many teachers simply move students along to be kind. Can the impartiality of data help?

When I became an administrator back in 2008, I realized there were too many students flying under the radar and not reading at their grade level. If there’s one thing I know as an educator, now a superintendent, it’s that reading level defines success—period. Research shows that if a student reads on grade level, his or her likelihood of being successful dramatically increases.

Early in my educational career, I learned first-hand the impact of using student achievement data to guide my instruction, but assessment results don’t tell the whole story of a student. As part of my mission to see that no student falls through the cracks, all are greater than average, and everyone graduates knowing how to read, I developed an idea called “Truthful Kindness and Necessary Action” to help me balance objective reporting and empathy for students.

The ‘compassionate rescue’ is not enough

In my district, we talk a lot about being kind to students. While my teachers are extremely kind, there are situations where students are what I call “compassionately rescued” from their struggles. In other words, teachers may be allowing struggling students to slide through, or rescue them from the necessary struggle of having to master key skills, when they haven’t shown mastery.

Many times I find this is done out of love for the students. As a teacher, I hated to watch a student struggle to read or fail academic assessments. To save students from falling behind the rest of the class or being singled out, many teachers move them forward with the expectation that they’ll catch on. Although these teachers believe they are being kind to the student at the time, this has a major impact on each student’s long-term educational development.

Next page: How data guides students to become successful

When I was a high school English teacher, I remember one tenth-grade student who refused to participate in any sort of activity and spent classes with his head down. During a meeting with the student, I discovered the core of the issue: His reading level was way below where it should have been for a high school student. I thought, “How is it that a tenth-grade student made it all through school not being able to read?”

That school year, I worked diligently to get this student up to speed on phonics and basic reading concepts, measuring his progress on a regular basis to ensure that he was improving. By measuring his progress often and using his test scores as a benchmark, I was able to adjust my lessons to move faster through parts he understood and spend more time on concepts he had a harder time grasping. It wasn’t always easy, but by the end of the school year, he caught up and was reading on grade level.

Moving from THINK to ‘Truthful Kindness’

My experience with that tenth-grader inspired me to revamp the old acronym THINK (Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind?). My goal was to help my teachers adopt the approach we call “Truthful Kindness and Necessary Action.”

Truthful Kindness is a concept where teachers use data to be transparent with students and parents about where the student measures compared to state standards and class averages. Data doesn’t lie when it comes to measuring if a student can read or not. Data can also tell you if a student is grasping a concept or where he or she may need additional intervention.

Keeping kindness in mind, teachers take necessary action to help each child reach his or her goals and become above average compared to standards. Instead of pushing kids along and compassionately rescuing them from their struggles, truthful kindness guides each teacher to take the time to help students become successful and meet standards before moving onto the next grade.

The No. 1 goal in my district is for students to be greater than average. To ensure each student is reading at grade level by third grade, my elementary schools use a software program called Reading Horizons to build a strong phonics foundation and help struggling readers catch up.

The digital curriculum helps students learn to decode the English language using a solid set of rules. Since we adopted Reading Horizons, we’ve been able to collect even more data on our students and provide appropriate intervention when necessary to make sure that they are greater than average according to the standards.

The idea of Truthful Kindness and Necessary Action can be adopted in any school. I assure my teachers that if they are truthfully kind and take necessary action, they will become the inspirational teacher they aim to be. Teachers who practice truthful kindness, apply appropriate rigor to each lesson, and hold themselves accountable to the learning of each student make it possible for all students to leave our schools able to read and prepared for life. Teachers and leaders like this are the ones who get remembered.

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