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Brainerd School Board: District causes stir with plans to cut Accelerated Reader program

Tim Murtha, the director of teaching and learning for the Brainerd School District, tells the board the decision to cut the Accelerated Reader program was poorly communicated -- though, he said it represents a responsible decision for the district's budget, as well as the long-term education of students. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Melissa Lund, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Forestview Middle School, gives a prepared statement to the school board expressing her opposition to a recent decision to cut the Brainerd School District's Accelerated Reader Program. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

For many, the mention of the Accelerated Reader program is a point of nostalgia—a common experience for kids dating back to 1998, who learned how to read through its innovative and engaging form of literacy education.

The Brainerd School District has opted to forego the program for the coming 2018-19 school year, marking the end of the supplemental reading program after roughly 20 years of use throughout the district.

Monday's Brainerd School Board meeting brought the issue to the fore when Melissa Lund, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Forestview Middle School, took a moment to read a prepared statement regarding the district's decision.

In her statement, Lund said the district was cutting a proven and effective program vital to many educators. It was an unpopular decision teachers learned via an April 30 email from the department of teaching and learning because none of the teachers were consulted in the first place, she said.

While it's billed as a move to address the district's budget shortfalls, Lund said, teachers were "uneasy" with the decision in light of recent pushes for Open Educational Resources and the purchase of Chromebooks—expenditures, she said, they may not have backed if they knew the Accelerated Reader program was going to be cut.

In response, Tim Murtha, the district's director of teaching and learning, said the decision was made in unorthodox circumstances and, subsequently, was communicated poorly to faculty. That being said, the rationale behind the decision is sound, he noted, because it's a fiscally responsible move, as well as a move by the district to present a modern, more effective method to reach underperforming demographics among the student population.

The Accelerated Reader program utilizes a system of tests and reading metrics, tailored to each book and a reader's proficiency, that can be accessed by multiple students at any given time. By using the program, student performance records can be presented for students, teachers and parents to reference. The program is a mainstay for middle school education across the district and costs a yearly fee of $25,000 for the district to use.

Lund's position

"One of the main concerns was no middle school language arts teachers, including grade-level curriculum reps, were included in any conversations regarding a curriculum change of this magnitude," Lund said during her prepared statement to the board. "The explanation given after further questioning was that the decision to cut AR 'boiled down to budget and best practice,' and that 'AR is not a high-impact activity in terms of best practice, particularly for students in poverty or not reading at grade level.'"

Lund said district administrators were operating with assumptions based on claims "made by a website" and not an assessment of the district's own data—data, she noted, indicating eighth-grade students in the Brainerd School District performed significantly higher than the state average in MInnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests for reading.

Citing the personal anecdote of a student who qualified for free or reduced lunches and was performing poorly, Lund said her student was able to improve more than a full grade level in reading ability—an accomplishment, she said, largely pointing to the effectiveness of the Accelerated Reader program as it's implemented at Forestview Middle School.

"The look of satisfaction on his face when I hand back his AR log each month after he continuously meets his independent reading goal and his excitement when I was able to share his amazing MCA results are the reason why I am here tonight," Lund said. "This is just one of the many examples I could share."

Lund said she acknowledged there were other supplemental resources for independent reading. However, the AR program creates a reading environment that's more interactive and effective, she said, structured in a way that 30 or more students can take a quiz where information is then quickly accessible, objective and easily understood by parents.

"Also, the current Open Educational Resources, or OER, push by the district seems as though it too will remove any structure and consistency to our curriculum that remains, leading to a further discrepancy within grades," Lund said. "Teachers are not independent contractors and need to rely on the organization to provide consistent resources that can support our expertise in our work to achieve established goals. With the removal of AR, we are now left with 'Googling' our curriculum as our only option."

After the meeting, Lund told the Dispatch it was the position of her and other members of the eighth-grade faculty the AR program had proven its effectiveness time and again during its roughly two-decade lifespan. In the absence of a clearly identified and formulated replacement, she said teachers regarded these changes with "reluctance."

"It's the fear of the unknown right now. We don't know what those options are," Lund said. "We've really worked this well into our current program, our current curriculum and our day-to-day routine in our classroom. What are these other alternatives? How will it be received by students? How will it be managed?"

Murtha's position

"The Accelerated Reader was meant to be a independent reading motivational program. The assessment that's used asks questions that involve moderate- to low-level recall of information—just, 'Was the dog blue?''' Murtha said. "That's the core of it. The data that comes from that assessment is not going to be data that's going to help a teacher understand."

Murtha said studies at the national level indicate the AR program is a positive experience for a certain subset of students—typically average or above-average reading proficiency, Caucasian and female—while other subsets, particularly male and impoverished student populations, are actually inhibited in their growth.

"This experience becomes a negative motivator for the love of reading and prevents them from moving forward," he said. "Our largest group of students with an achievement gap at Forestview is students in poverty. If we strip away that layer of students who are proficient and subtract that achievement gap, that means our proficiency rate for our students in poverty is in the 40s and it's been so for a long time."

With that in mind, it's up to educators to find effective means to foster a love and capability in reading among underwhelming student populations, Murtha said. Instead of simplistic, one-dimensional assessments, students are better served through group discussions, journaling, book study and reading out loud.

"There are many different activities that can be done that promote the social activity of reading, which engages students at risk, that brings them back to where we don't have kids downstream that need massive interventions," Murtha said.

Murtha said the district would implement professional development training for its teachers in the spring, summer and fall to provide a framework and skills to properly meet the needs of classes larger than 20-30 students. In addition, some aspects of the AR program would remain—notably, goal-setting and student engagement. However, these goals are often better achieved by different kinds of assessments, as well as better implemented by of teachers.

In terms of the district's budget, training tools like book talks, reading out loud and journaling may not come across as user-friendly when compared to the Accelerated Reader program, but it comes at a fraction of the cost and there's data indicating it's more engaging for a larger swath of the student population, Murtha said.

"This doesn't cost us anything aside from the instructional time to do it and the teacher time to assess it," Murtha said. "That's why you want to vary it. Some of those methods are more labor intensive than others, that's why you've got to be sensitive when you're breaking that up. But by doing that we're probably going to have a better product for less."

Murtha described Lund's statement that the administration's position was based off "claims on a website" as a "disingenuous assertion"—a mischaracterization, he said, of assessments made with data provided by the What Works Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse is a federal depository of research information through the Institute of Education Services, which itself is an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Education. Murtha said administrators were "confident" in the methodology and data provided by this source.

Much of the issue comes down to a failure in communication, Murtha said—a mistake, as the director of teaching and learning, he said he takes responsibility for. The decision was made in unorthodox circumstances, while administrators were addressing the budget and not during talks regarding school curriculum.

By foregoing the AR program, the district is able to streamline its expenditures, while also pursuing a more effective framework of reading education, Murtha said.

"We saw an opportunity for something that no longer is the practice it was once, isn't expensive by $25,000 a year," Murtha said. "It seemed appropriate to take the opportunity to align that hard choice about cutting resources and identifying this practice."

At multiple points, both in the board meeting and in discussion with the Dispatch, Murtha said the issue is not one of failure—by the district, teachers or the AR program. His push for alternative methods of education is representative of his position there are more effective ways to reach students.

"Nobody is failing anyone," Murtha said. "We're just trying to do better."

In addition, Murtha said Lund was a "phenomenal" educator and she was a member of a staff who took a typically low point in children's reading competency—namely, eighth-grade, when students' scores take a dip—and turned it into a "fish hook," or a significant increase in proficiency by the end of the students' middle school careers.