Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

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Lazy Lucy: Another Controversy for the Minneapolis Public School System

Controversies within the Minneapolis Public School System sometimes appear to be a dime a dozen.  Many are not really controversies at all; they are differences of opinion made to be controversies because political axes are in need of sharpening.  The most recent controversy, “Lazy Lucy,” involves the introduction of some readable text of questionable nature for first through third grade emerging readers.

On its face, the controversy involves the district spending 1.2 million dollars on an early literacy curriculum which is accompanied by short, decodable stories that students can easily read.  The “Lazy Lucy” story features Lucy, an African girl, who is too lazy to keep her hut clean.  Then there is “Nieko, the Hunting Girl” in which an American Indian girl, with her father, stalks a wooly mammoth.  There is also one about Kenya, where people run really fast.   It’s not a stretch to see why minority communities might question the subject matter, and it leaves one scratching one’s head as to how the decision was made to choose the curriculum.  Was there a committee charged with reviewing several curricula and making a recommendation as to which to purchase?  Did a heterogeneous group of teachers and administrators comprise that committee?  Or did a single individual make the decision to make the purchase?  Were there any checks and balances in place to ensure that the decision to purchase the curriculum was a good one?

If we peel back the skin of the onion a little further, we see that the controversy involves more than just choosing a curriculum containing stories that might be racist at worst or insensitive at best.  The curriculum decision also reflects the deep disagreement that exists within the district as to how reading should be taught.  The reading controversy has existed in the ten plus years I have been at Groves Academy, and I am sure it existed long before I arrived.  A controversy that has been brewing nationally for the past forty to fifty years, it pits whole language advocates versus “phonics fanatics.”

Unfortunately, over the years the reading wars’ pendulum has swung back and forth within the district as it has throughout the country.  When I first arrived at Groves Academy in 2005, it was quite clear that the district was following the whole language protocol.  There were leveled readers in the classroom, and students practiced daily guided reading with their teachers.  There was very little explicit reading instruction happening.  Instead, the belief was that if you exposed kids to great literature and gave them a little push, they would begin reading when they were ready, when their brains were mature enough.  Not surprisingly, many students didn’t score well on national reading tests, and a significant achievement gap between white middle class students and African American students continued to grow.

A few years after I arrived, the district changed the reading curriculum, presumably due to low test scores.  The district moved to supplement their whole language reading curriculum with some phonics instruction found in the workbook, Words Their Way.  The change was made late in the spring of 2009, and with teachers leaving for the summer, district administrators were scrambling to figure out how adequate professional development could take place.   After speaking with a few Minneapolis public school teachers the following fall, it was apparent that adequate professional development had not taken place.

When a school district does not thoroughly vet a reading curriculum, it inevitably will make a poor decision.  There is a lot of money to be made in education, and publishers attract attention and boost sales with slick marketing campaigns.  There doesn’t have to be much, if any, substance behind the marketing.  In fact, there are phonics reading curricula in the marketplace that are just as poorly anchored as whole language curricula.  Bad phonics curricula only serves whole language advocates as they can accurately exclaim, “See, I told you phonics doesn’t work!”  The pendulum then shifts back to whole language.  This is the story of the reading wars over the last forty to fifty years.  People get on their soapboxes, and children are harmed.

In truth, a good reading program for emerging and struggling readers does contain more phonics with explicit instruction than it does whole language.  In truth, controlled, decodable readers, like “Lazy Lucy,” which students can read easily, are more appropriate for these readers than is good, non-controlled literature with which young readers are forced to guess at a word’s identity.  But phonics alone is not enough.  Teachers need to be prepared to teach deep-level phonics, not just symbol-sound correspondences.  They also need to be well versed in phonology, morphology, vocabulary development, orthography, semantics, and syntax.  Teachers need to know more than just believing that reading comes naturally when the brain has developed and a good book is placed in front of their students.

On the surface, the latest Minneapolis Public School District controversy may be about race and insensitivity, but it’s really about much more.  It’s about how kids best learn to read.

John Alexander, Head of School



NY Times Opinion Piece

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently penned an interesting opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Teachers Aren’t Dumb.”

Willingham’s contention is that students aren’t learning like they could, or should be, not because their teachers lack smarts, but, rather, because their teachers haven’t been properly trained to be good teachers.  This is a common refrain of this literacy thread.  We train lots of teachers at Groves, not just our own teachers, but teachers from the community who come to learn more about literacy, math, and written expression through both workshops and through intense classes and practicums.  Many of these teachers spend their own money to become better prepared to teach their students.  Often they are dismayed and frustrated that the knowledge they acquire with us was not made available to them in their college teacher preparation programs.  For example, how can elementary school teachers be good teachers of reading when their professors can’t identify the phonemes (sounds) of a given word?  A study by a professor from Texas A&M found that 66 professors of reading instruction could correctly identify the sounds of a given word only 62% of the time.  They struggled even more with identifying morphemes of a word (a morpheme is the smallest unit of sound that conveys meaning), correctly identifying morphemes only 27% of the time.

It gets worse.  There are many professors across the country–including in Minnesota–who not only do not understand the structures of language like phonology, phonics, morphology, orthography, syntax, and semantics needed to become an effective reading teacher, they even remark that this understanding is not even needed to become a good teacher of reading.  These professors would rather offer guessing strategies to emerging and struggling readers.  Really?  If a child has not mastered symbol-sound correspondences (phonics), he is supposed to guess at the word based on visual features, the context of the sentence he cannot read, or picture clues?

If professors of education do not understand what it takes to teach reading, how is a teacher ever supposed to impart this knowledge to her students?

Something has to change.

John Alexander, Head of School

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Is Guessing An Effective Way to Teach Reading?

Believe it or not, emerging and struggling readers are taught that guessing at a word’s identity is an effective way of identifying the word.  Teachers teach students to guess at a word’s identity based on context, the visual appearance of the word, or even pictures on the page.  Many professors of education advocate for this practice, placing guessing at a word’s identity as a more valuable strategy than using letter-sound identification.  These are the people who are training our nation’s teachers, and using this approach to “read” a word is a primary reason for the literacy crisis we now face in this country, a crisis in which almost 40% of our nation’s fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level.  They can’t identify the words they are trying to read.  It’s a crisis in which almost two-thirds of our nation’s fourth graders do not read proficiently–with good comprehension.  Instead of looking at teaching practices which lead to instructional casualties, these purveyors of reading knowledge blame the students.  The students are not motivated to read; they come from homes which don’t value reading; they have parents who don’t read to them; there are not enough books in the home; etc.

Guessing is a terrible strategy for emerging or struggling readers to use to recognize words.  The simple example below will demonstrate this.  Using context and the first few letters of the words, identify the words that are missing letters.  (I apologize.  There are no picture cues to help you with this.)

From the Wikipedia definition of covariance:

“Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) is a general lin __ode__ which blends ANOVA and re__s__on. ANCOVA e___t__s whether po___tion means of a de___nt variable are equal across levels of a cat____ in____nt variable often called a tr____t, while statistically controlling for the effects of other c______s va____s that are not of p____ interest, known as covariates (CV) or n_____ variables. Mathematically, ANCOVA de____es the variance in the DV into v____ce explained by the CV(s), variance explained by the categorical IV, and re___al variance. Int____y, ANCOVA can be thought of as ‘ad___’ the DV by the group me__s of the CV(s).[1]

Clearly, guessing is not an effective strategy for identifying the missing words.  While guessing might work for skilled readers who have an adequate background knowledge of the subject matter, it is not an effective strategy for reading the above passage because most readers do not have the background knowledge to predict the identity of the missing words, even when letters are provided to aid the guessing process.

The following is the above passage with the missing letters of the words supplied.  Can you read the paragraph?  How did you read it?

“Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) is a general linear model which blends ANOVA and regression. ANCOVA evaluates whether population means of a dependent variable (DV) are equal across levels of a categorical independent variable (IV) often called a treatment, while statistically controlling for the effects of other continuous variables that are not of primary interest, known as covariates (CV) or nuisance variables. Mathematically, ANCOVA decomposes the variance in the DV into variance explained by the CV(s), variance explained by the categorical IV, and residual variance. Intuitively, ANCOVA can be thought of as ‘adjusting’ the DV by the group means of the CV(s).”[1]

More than likely, you used your knowledge of sound-symbol correspondence to decode the words in the above paragraph.  Emerging and struggling readers must have this knowledge to unlock the code.  Teaching another method as a primary means to recognize unfamiliar words not only does a disservice to emerging and struggling readers, it is unethical.

John Alexander, Head of School

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Did This Really Happen?

We recently assessed a student, “Sally,” about to enter seventh grade.  We wanted to know her proficiency with oral reading fluency.   Fluency is a student’s ability to read with adequate rate, accuracy, and with prosody.   It is a gatekeeper to reading for meaning.  If a student is an accurate decoder but spends a great deal of time pulling the printed word off of the page (decoding), he won’t have enough mental capacity left to make meaning of what he has decoded.  And, obviously, if a student reads quickly, but not accurately, he, likewise, will not comprehend what he reads.

Sally’s mother was thrilled because Sally had been tutored during the summer through a local school district.  Mom was told that the student was reading fluently at the seventh grade level.  When asked what took place during the thirteen tutoring sessions, I was told that the tutor, a public school reading teacher, taught Sally using Read Naturally Live as the primary intervention.

Using Read Naturally Live, the teacher scores the number of words read correctly for a given reading passage.  If a student does not reach the goal on the first reading, the student then practices reading the passage while listening to a recording of the passage.   No more than three practice readings with the recording of a given passage should be needed to obtain a preset words correct per minute (WCPM) goal (usually the 50th percentile of a given grade level).  Unfortunately for Sally, the teacher had Sally reading from seventh grade passages, and she had to practice many passages over 20 times to reach her goal; Sally even had to practice one passage 31 times before she reached her goal.  Sally wasn’t “reading” the passages; she was memorizing them.   This is not good reading instruction.  In fact, an argument could be made that not only was the tutoring time not well spent, the tutoring sessions could have created more harm than they did good as these practice sessions could have further eroded Sally’s confidence that she could learn to read.

We assessed Sally using the Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT) after her summer tutoring sessions had concluded.  She scored at the fifth percentile for reading rate, reading accuracy, and reading fluency.  Her grade equivalents for each of the measures was 2.2, yet just a few days before Sally’s mother was told by the tutor that Sally was reading fluently at the seventh grade level.  How could this be?  Again, Sally reached her fluency goals due to many repeated reading practice sessions.  She wasn’t reading; she was memorizing the passages given to her by her summer tutor.

Given Sally’s reading fluency was at the 5th percentile for her age as measured on the Gray Oral Reading Test, she clearly was placed at an inappropriate grade level for her Read Naturally Live tutoring work during the summer.  Sally’s experience this summer is a clear example of why we have a literacy issue in this country.  We have teachers who have not been provided with the proper professional development to teach reading.  They don’t understand what is important in reading instruction, and if you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you possibly teach students how to read?

John Alexander, Head of School

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Let’s Ease Licensure Restrictions

As Minnesota school principals, we appreciated the recent editorial on efforts to reform licensure for out-of-state teachers (“Streamline rules for teacher licensure,” April 13). Because we know how critical it is to bring more experienced educators into our classrooms, we wanted to chime in and explain how a fair and clear licensure system would benefit not only talented out-of-state teachers, but also our students.

Together, we represent a magnet school focused on the arts and sciences, as well as a literacy-intensive private school for students with learning disabilities and attention disorders. We’re specialized and we’re successful, thanks to the dedicated and gifted educators who work in our schools.

Yet, too often, when we seek to hire out-of-state instructors who have the unique skills and experiences we know work best for our students, we — and the candidates themselves — must jump through dizzying hoops to earn Minnesota licenses, all in the name of “high standards.”

Rather than consider these teachers’ classroom experience and effectiveness — as we do — these standards require that the Board of Teaching review out-of-state teachers college transcripts and course catalogs to determine whether their training was “essentially equivalent” to a Minnesota program.

Rather than welcome an experienced educator, these standards dictate that if a teacher’s license in another state is not exactly the same as its Minnesota equivalent, that teacher can’t gain a full license to teach our students.

For school leaders like us, it’s frustrating when we can’t hire the educators we know would be best for the job, and when we can’t even tell candidates how to navigate Minnesota’s licensure process. For our students, the impact is much bigger. They might miss out on life-changing educators whose teacher-preparation classes from years ago weren’t deemed equivalent to Minnesota courses.

Because when professional, proven educators learn they’ll have to return to school, pay thousands of dollars in tuition and even student teach to become licensed in Minnesota, it’s not surprising that many choose not to come to Minnesota at all. And who can blame them?

Minnesota is facing a growing teacher shortage, with rural and urban schools alike having a tough time attracting and retaining teachers, and with many crucial subject areas lacking specialized instructors. Over the past five years, nearly half of Greater Minnesota regions experienced a net loss of teachers, and statewide, Minnesota school districts report that it will be impossible or very difficult to fill vacancies in math (43 percent of districts), chemistry (48 percent) and special education (70 percent).

Minnesota is also facing a demographic gap: 30 percent of students are of color, compared with just 4 percent of our teachers. Since Minnesota graduates a lower percentage of high school students of color than almost any other state, and research consistently shows that students of color benefit from having teachers who look like them, we must get serious about diversifying the teaching force. Looking beyond our borders to attract diverse teachers is one important part of the solution.

We simply have to recruit out-of-state educators. The Legislature tried to fix our broken licensure system in 2011, passing a law to streamline the process teachers face when moving to Minnesota. But that law has not been successfully implemented; hurdles remain for talented teachers and the schools that need them.

Thankfully, we now have the opportunity to revisit, strengthen and implement that law, as both the Senate and House education omnibus bills include measures to establish fair and transparent pathways to licensure for out-of-state teachers.

Rather than lower standards, our Legislature has an opportunity to raise, clarify and streamline them, honoring the professional experiences of out-of-state educators and addressing the immediate needs of Minnesota schools and students.

We hope that bipartisan cooperation on this common-sense issue continues, empowering school leaders like us to hire the teachers who will lead all Minnesota students to success.

John Alexander is head of school at Groves Academy in St. Louis Park. Lynn DeLisi is principal at Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury, which is managed by the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

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A Review: “We’re Teaching Math All Wrong”

In a commentary titled “We’re Teaching Math All Wrong,” ( author Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College, states that we are approaching the teaching of math incorrectly and that for some students for whom math does not come naturally or easily we should teach them only arithmetic through third grade for 20 minutes a day.  Instead of teaching them math, Engel feels that we should allow these math-averse kids to gravitate towards reading and the kinds of play that involve abstract thinking and problem solving.

Clearly, Engle is thinking outside of the box.  She feels that the time invested in teaching math to hard to reach students isn’t worth it.  Instead, the time spent teaching math could be better spent developing abstract, critical thinking skills through different avenues.

Although not overtly stated, Engle’s approach seems to place the blame of not learning math on the student.  She is excusing the teacher and the curriculum.  According to this line of thinking, if a student isn’t good at something, let’s just ignore it and move to something that he can handle.  I wasn’t good at art in school.  (I still struggle producing creative pieces.)  Does that mean that I should have been excused from art classes so that I could go to gym class where I excelled?  If not for the art classes in which I struggled, I might never have grown to appreciate art as I do today.  Perhaps I appreciate art more as an adult because it was such a struggle for me as a child.

Rather than throwing in the towel with respect to teaching math in the early grades, let’s examine what we are teaching, why we teach what we do, and how we teach the subject matter.  I think we will find that we spend far too much time teaching math algorithms and procedures in the early grades instead of teaching number sense and conceptual mathematical principles.  If students aren’t grounded in number sense and early concepts of geometry, measurement, patterns, collecting and organizing, and classifying and categorizing, it makes absolutely no sense to be teaching them mathematical algorithms and operations.

Let’s not run away from teaching math to students for whom math is difficult.  As adults, let’s examine our approach to the teaching of math and see if we can do better in the way we deliver math instruction.

John Alexander

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Education Reform

True Education Reform


It is no secret.  America’s public education system is broken.  Underfunded and overcrowded, schools are expected not only to educate students in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but schools also extend hours for working parents and provide breakfast to students who otherwise might go to school hungry.   Schools have also been tasked with instilling morals and values within their students.    Our society has set a high bar for public education, and, unfortunately, many schools do not meet even minimum expectations, and teachers and administrators are then often blamed for not preparing students for college and the 21st century.  Even more alarming, a growing number of students never finish high school.  Many end up in prison where over 70% of inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level.  For over a decade, thought leaders and policymakers’ have debated education reform.  Some call for abolishing teachers’ unions; others opt for more charter schools; still others feel schools’ problems can be solved if more money was allocated to them; and, finally, a misinformed group feels that all of the problems in our public education system would be solved if only there was local control over the schools.


None of these supposed remedies will significantly move the needle with regard to educating our nation’s students.  Instead, discussions involving these solutions only serve to distract us from what must happen to truly make a difference.   The public, thought leaders, policymakers, and teachers and administrators must throw away old conceptions both of what the teaching profession is and how the profession needs to go about its business.


Teachers often complain that society does not value the profession.  They feel that many in the general public believe that teachers enter the profession because they want to work just nine months a year or that they couldn’t qualify for a job in a higher-paying, more respected profession.  We must change these public perceptions and in doing so elevate the status of the teaching profession.  But how?


A successful public school system starts with the teacher.  The profession needs extremely bright and motivated people who want to become teachers and who have had positive interactions with kids as coaches, youth church leaders, camp counselors, etc.  The teaching profession should be opened to bright liberal arts majors who have had these positive experiences with youth and who can be trained in both deep content knowledge and in best educational practices.  Liberal arts graduates have not been indoctrinated with erroneous information about how children learn to read or learn math.  Teachers with current licenses should be considered too as long as they are willing to accept professional development that offers a radically different perspective to the teaching profession than what they have been exposed to.


This new breed of teacher needs to be willing to work extremely hard to engage in deep professional development opportunities while engaging in meaningful conversations with respect to improving their craft.  To do this, they need to be willing to teach for ten months a year and then become engaged as students during six weeks of the summer so that they can deepen their knowledge base in reading, mathematics, and their content areas, while sharpening their instructional practices.  This summer professional development time should be an expectation throughout the tenure of every teacher.  As a society, we must raise the image of the teaching profession and be willing to pay teachers like we pay other professionals including attorneys and doctors.  Teachers hold the keys to our future.  They are literally our way to a better tomorrow and a more civilized and democratized country.  We cannot place too high a value on highly-competent teachers and the positive impact they have on both students and on society at large.  A strong argument can be made that teaching is the most important of all the professions, and society needs to value teachers as such.


For this new breed of teacher to emerge, the power of teachers’ unions will have to be curbed.  No longer should a union be able to protect teachers who are ineffective or who refuse to participate in all facets of the new profession.  When teachers are given the tools to be effective in the classroom and when society places the proper value on the profession, bright, motivated individuals will flock to teaching.  Politicians cannot continue to allow teachers’ unions to stand in the way of elevating the profession by blocking legitimate efforts either to raise the knowledge standards required to be an effective teacher or the standards of best instructional practice.  In the past, this has happened too often.


Even the very best trained teachers will not be effective if the school does not have capable and knowledgeable administrators who are willing to support teachers.  Principals and vice principals need to be more than good administrators, they also need to have content knowledge in reading and mathematics, and they must understand best instructional practices so that they can offer professional development for teachers that will provide them the needed tools to become most effective in the classroom.   After providing teachers with the professional development and administrative support required to develop highly-competent students, administrators must set high expectations for teachers, students, and parents and hold everyone accountable.


Finally, we must understand a decentralized approach to education that gives local districts and schools control of creating academic standards is foolhardy.   Our current educational system is largely decentralized with neighboring school, even schools within districts, taking very different approaches to the teaching of reading or math.  As one public school teacher recently noted, “The district can tell us what to teach, but as soon as my classroom door closes, I am on my own and can teach what I want, how I want to.”

John Alexander