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2014 ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership

2014 ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership

October 31–November 2, 2014, Orlando, Fla.

Learn the secrets to great leadership practices, and get immediate and practical solutions that address your needs.

 

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Sale Book (Jun 2007)

Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy

by Judith L. Irvin, Julie Meltzer and Melinda S. Dukes

Table of Contents

Chapter 5. Develop and Implement a Schoolwide Literacy Action Plan



Why is this component important? A schoolwide literacy action plan is an essential blueprint for improving student achievement. An effective plan requires the skillful use of data about student performance, literacy needs and expectations in the school and community, school capacity to support literacy development, current teaching practices, and effectiveness of the literacy program. To generate change, leaders must actively use a literacy action plan to guide decision making around instruction, programming, and resource allocation.

Designing an effective literacy action plan to guide a schoolwide literacy improvement effort is not easy; however, such a plan is essential for school leaders who are serious about addressing the literacy and learning needs of students. In Chapter 7, we describe how school leaders can use student performance data to focus the school on improving students' literacy and learning and make appropriate decisions about student placement. Certainly, student performance data constitute the most critical information that drives planning for literacy improvement. A good plan specifically indicates what types of student performance data are being collected and how the data will be used. However, to ensure that improvement is sustained, additional types of data are important to consider when developing and implementing a comprehensive literacy action plan. After a plan has been developed and implemented, school leaders must then collect data to monitor its success, including the effectiveness of specific literacy interventions.

The biggest concern about developing a data-based literacy action plan is that it will not guide action. Too many times a plan is developed only to be “left on the shelf.” Schmoker (2006) points out that most strategic planning in education is ineffective because the documents produced are fragmented, complicated, and convoluted, and often do not lead to improved student outcomes. In other words, the improvement plans are difficult to use, rarely used, or both. According to Schmoker, elaborate school improvement plans that do not focus exclusively and directly on curriculum implementation and improving instruction are not helpful to improving student achievement.

This does not mean that a literacy action plan is a bad idea. On the contrary, many schools we have worked with use their literacy action plan to focus their efforts and guide their work to improve student proficiency in reading and writing. However, school leaders must develop a data-based literacy action plan that they will actively use to guide ongoing decisions about instruction, programming, and resource allocation. School leaders need to obtain broad buy-in to the plan—it should not be developed by a small group of people and kept secret. It is important that the plan be measurable, coherent, concrete, and comprehensible to teachers and administrators. Last, it is important that the plan be seen as proactive, not as compliance to a mandate, even if a mandate is what prompted the plan's development. One principal told us that it was her school's literacy action plan that made the difference in how she was able to focus on instruction; now she thinks about how all decisions support or affect literacy development. Another credits her school's literacy action plan for their school's “staying the course” and making sure they are not distracted from the goal of improving literacy.

Implement a Literacy Action Plan is the top point in the graphic of the Leadership Model for Improving Adolescent Literacy and is the first action step. School leaders must work with their faculty to create a plan that brings together all of the other action steps discussed in the following chapters to ensure that every content area classroom and literacy intervention focuses on improving students' literacy habits and skills through emphasis on student motivation, engagement, and achievement.

In this chapter, we describe the key components of an effective literacy action plan and steps to develop this plan, along with approaches that leaders might use to collect and analyze relevant data. Then we describe a data-driven program-monitoring cycle that leaders can use to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan in action. Segments of a vignette describing how one middle school developed and used a literacy action plan are interspersed throughout the chapter. We conclude with key messages.

Essential Components of an Effective Literacy Action Plan

An effective schoolwide literacy plan guides action on many levels, focusing multiple activities toward increasing students' reading, writing, and thinking skills. A comprehensive literacy action plan has action steps related to five key areas:

  • Strengthening Literacy Development Across the Content Areas;
  • Literacy Interventions for Struggling Readers and Writers;
  • School Policies, Structures, and Culture for Supporting Literacy;
  • Building Leadership Capacity; and
  • Supporting Teachers to Improve Instruction.

The key components of the literacy action plan mirror components of the Leadership Model for Improving Adolescent Literacy because the action plan acts as a blueprint for implementing a schoolwide literacy improvement effort. Determining appropriate overall goals for literacy improvement requires the gathering and analyzing of relevant data. Then, based on the data, leaders can define and implement action steps related to each component.

In the following section, we describe each of the essential components of a comprehensive literacy action plan in more detail and note the types of data that leaders can collect and analyze for each. Each action plan component also includes a mini-chart showing two related action steps that are part of a sample literacy action plan. Of course, the appropriate action steps a particular middle or high school should take will depend upon what that school's data indicate.

Strengthening Literacy Development Across the Content Areas

As described in Chapters 1 and 2, motivating and engaging students and developing their literacy skills are necessary outcomes for any literacy improvement effort. A schoolwide literacy action plan needs to include specific steps to set the expectation and provide the support so that all content-area teachers implement classroom instruction that is motivating, engaging, and strategy based. Figure 5.1 shows two examples of action plan goals that target literacy development across content areas.


Figure 5.1. Action Plan Goals for Literacy Development Across Content Areas


Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Activate subject area/grade-level discussions on reading and writing strategies

School year

Schedule time for department meetings

Content area team leaders

Time on restructured days

Department minutes

Share effective strategies in faculty meetings

Teachers, literacy team members

Planning time

Faculty agendas

Include one strategy in each monthly faculty newsletter

Principal

Teacher suggestions and feedback

Monthly newsletters

Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Locate and use a variety of texts in subject areas

Summer School year

Assess and catalog available texts in subject areas

Media specialist and department chairs

Summer stipends, printing

List of texts

Form a partnership with Newspapers in Education (NIE)

English chair

Time to make contacts

Agendas of meetings; NIE resources in classrooms

Expand classroom libraries related to content

Principal and local school council

Time and budget for purchasing books

Number of libraries and books

Explore options for subscribing to electronic text databases

Principal

Subscription fee

Purchase of database


Literacy Interventions for Struggling Readers and Writers

As we note in Chapters 3 and 7, setting up literacy interventions for struggling readers and writers is an important component of school improvement efforts. Deciding on the methods and types of programs to offer for these interventions will depend on data about student needs, school capacity, and teacher knowledge. Figure 5.2 shows two examples of action plan goals that target literacy interventions for struggling readers and writers.


Figure 5.2. Action Plan Goals That Target Struggling Readers and Writers


Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Purchase and implement reading program to meet the needs of students scoring in the lowest quartile on the reading assessment

Summer School year

Identify students in lowest quartile

District and school test coordinator

Test data

Student lists

Research, identify, and purchase a validated reading programs for targeted students

Principal, reading specialist

Information on reading programs, funds

Research notes, meeting agendas

Identify an intensive reading course in master schedule

Principal, assistant principal for master schedule

Flexible master schedule

Finished master schedule

Assign qualified teachers to the reading course

Principal, human resources personnel

Qualified teachers

Teacher list with qualifications

Place students in course and monitor progress

Principal, reading teachers

Course materials, professional development

Student grades, promotions, improvements on assessments

Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Implement a schoolwide writing program

Summer School year

Research, identify, and purchase materials

Principal, assistant principals, teachers

Test data, grades, attendance data

Student reports sent to teachers

Provide literacy professional development

Principal, district supervisors of subject areas

Outside professional development consultants

Teacher surveys, evaluations, sign-in sheets

Provide time for cross-functional planning during the school day

Master schedule coordinator, department chairs

Flexible master schedule, instructional materials

Teacher surveys, minutes from planning meetings


School Policies, Structures, and Culture for Supporting Literacy

For many schools this is a “hidden” component not always articulated in a literacy action plan. Yet ignoring a school's policies, structures, and culture may mean that (1) there are aspects of these in place that will impede literacy improvement efforts if not addressed, and (2) action steps do not build on current school capacity in these areas, with the result that actions are not taken or sustained. For example, action steps that rely on a department structure for enactment may not be relevant if the school uses team-based instruction. Likewise, if a school faculty has had substantial training in a process for instructional planning or writing across the curriculum, it makes sense to build upon and connect the literacy effort to those areas of expertise instead of “replacing” earlier work. Figure 5.3 shows two examples of action plan goals that one middle school included in its literacy plan related to school policies, structures, and culture. Both goals focus on developing a school culture in which teachers coordinate their efforts to design and implement curriculum and instruction across subject areas, as well as to provide instruction based on a variety of assessment and performance options.


Figure 5.3. Action Plan Goals for School Policies, Structure, and Culture


Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Coordinate curriculum and instruction across subject areas

Summer School year

Form grade-level teams

Principal, assistant principals, curriculum chairs

Test data, grades, time to plan, summer stipends

Meeting agendas, formation of teams, assignment of students

Form curriculum committees to develop instructional goals that encompass subject areas

Curriculum chairs, principal, assistant principals

Time during summer to plan for instruction, leveled instructional materials and texts, Internet access

Committee roster, planning minutes, agendas

Develop themes and curriculum-integrated projects that support the themes

Curriculum chairs, department chairs

Instructional materials, planning time, summer stipends, district supervisors of subject areas

Teacher plan books, developed instructional materials

Provide time for cross-functional planning during the school day

Master schedule coordinator, department chairs

Flexible master schedule, instructional materials, Internet access

Minutes of planning meetings, teacher surveys, evaluations

Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Design and implement instruction that uses formal and informal assessment instruments

Summer School year

Form a cross-functional curriculum team to agree upon common assessment practice

Principal, assistant principals, teachers

Time to meet during the summer, stipends, assessment instruments

Meeting agendas, formation of teams

Create common rubrics

Grade-level teams, department chairs

Time to plan, substitute coverage, sample rubrics, Internet access

Planning minutes, agendas, developed and field-tested rubrics, students' work

Incorporate performance assessments in classroom instruction

Department chairs, teacher leaders

Sample performance assessments, planning time, summer stipends, district-level supervisors, support of testing director

Teacher plan books, developed performance tasks, student work and projects

Provide time for cross-functional assessment review

Master schedule coordinator, department chairs

Flexible schedule, time before/after school, restructured days

Minutes of planning meetings, teacher surveys, evaluations


Building Leadership Capacity

As we make clear in Chapter 8, principals cannot lead a literacy improvement effort alone. They need to figure out how to augment staff expertise in literacy and distribute roles and responsibilities for literacy improvement across the school. A literacy action plan should specifically describe ways to build leadership capacity. For example, it can specify allocation of resources for new positions and time for new committees to meet and for teams and department chairs to discuss implications of the plan for their work, and for specialists to coteach, meet, or mentor others. The two examples of action plan goals in Figure 5.4 focus on strategies to build the leadership capacity of teachers by establishing demonstration classrooms and offering support for classroom-based research that examines student work.


Figure 5.4. Action Plan Goals for Building Leadership Capacity


Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Establish two literacy demonstration classrooms in each content area

Summer School year

Identify teacher leaders who can provide classroom demonstrations and modeling for their peers

Principal

Time to meet during the summer, stipends, assessment instruments

Meeting agendas, formation of teams

Provide professional development to demonstration-classroom teachers

Principal

School literacy coach, outside professional development consultants

Classroom observations, teacher and student surveys, evaluations

Create opportunities for classroom visits to observe demonstrations and modeling

Principal, department and/or curriculum chairs

Time to plan, substitute coverage

Observation rubrics, teacher surveys, notes

Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Engage in classroom-based research by examining student work

Summer School year

Identify teachers and teacher teams to engage in classroom-based research

Curriculum and/or department chairs

Time to meet during the summer, stipends, assessment instruments

Meeting agendas, formation of teams

Design tuning protocols for examining student work

Department and/or curriculum chairs

Time to plan, substitute coverage, professional materials

Sample protocols, examined student work, teacher and student surveys

Provide common planning time

Principal

Substitutes; time for meeting outside of contract, if necessary; stipends; copying budget

Classroom observations, teacher and student surveys, evaluations

Provide time for constructive feedback and follow-up activities

Master schedule coordinator, department chairs

Flexible schedule, time before/after school, restructured days

Minutes of planning meetings, teacher surveys, evaluations, presentations of results


Supporting Teachers to Improve Instruction

Middle and high school teachers cannot be expected to implement literacy support for students without targeted professional development and support. An important component of the overall literacy action plan is a plan for the types of support and professional development necessary to help teachers improve content-area literacy instruction and successfully implement literacy interventions with struggling readers. (We present information about formats and options for teacher professional development in Chapters 6 and 9.)

The two examples of action plan goals in Figure 5.5 focus on supporting teachers by providing coaching, peer observation, and collaboration, as well as by offering them opportunities to attend and present at local, state, and national professional conferences. Ultimately, of course, the measure of effectiveness for each of these action steps will be increased student achievement.


Figure 5.5. Action Plan Goals for Supporting Teachers to Improve Instruction


Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Engage in coaching, peer observation, and collaborative planning

Summer School year

Identify teacher leaders who can provide classroom demonstrations and modeling for their peers

Principal

Time to meet during the summer, stipends, assessment instruments

Meeting agendas, formation of teams

Create opportunities for classroom visits to observe demonstrations and modeling

Principal, department and/or curriculum chairs

Time to plan, substitute coverage

Observation rubrics, teacher surveys, notes

Provide professional development in coaching and mentoring

Principal

District supervisors of subject areas, outside professional development consultants

Classroom observations, teacher and student surveys, evaluations

Provide time for constructive feedback and follow-up activities

Master schedule coordinator, department chairs

Flexible schedule, time before/after school, restructured days

Minutes of planning meetings, teacher surveys, evaluations

Goal

Time Line

Action Steps

Person(s) Responsible

Resources

Evidence of Success

Provide opportunities to attend and present at local, state, and national professional conferences

Summer School year

Provide department memberships in professional organizations

Principal

Funds for membership

Memberships and professional development materials

Research local, state, and national conferences and submit proposals for attendance and presentations

Curriculum and/or department chairs

Research time, Internet access

Submitted proposals

Send teachers and teacher teams to local, state, and national conferences

Principal

School and district funds

Teacher presentations to colleagues, conference evaluations

Provide time for constructive feedback and follow-up activities

Master schedule coordinator, department chairs

Flexible schedule, time before/after school, restructured days

Minutes of planning meetings, teacher surveys, evaluations


The Roles of School Leaders and the Literacy Team

As demonstrated in the charts associated with each component, leaders can apply sound action-planning principles to the context of literacy, setting data-driven goals, outlining action steps, delineating time lines and responsible parties, describing indicators of effectiveness, and allocating the necessary resources. Building this type of plan requires school leaders to have an understanding of issues related to student motivation and engagement, classroom contexts, and strategic interventions (see Chapters 1 through 3). Further, developing a schoolwide literacy action plan requires leaders to have an understanding of how to support teachers (Chapter 6), what types of student performance data are available to them (Chapter 7), and how to build leadership capacity (Chapter 8). In addition, it is important for leaders to have good information about school capacity, teacher knowledge and practice, and the literacy needs and expectations of the school and community.

The literacy team synthesizes the data on student performance, community input, teacher knowledge and use of literacy support strategies, and school support structures and policies to develop a clear picture of what currently exists and what is needed to improve literacy for all learners. Based on this review, school leaders set literacy goals that are data based, reasonable, and measurable. The team then develops a literacy action plan by assessing each goal and determining the action steps necessary to reach it. The action plan should include the person or persons responsible for each action step, the time line, and the measures of success.

Goal setting and action planning are the areas in which school leaders work with the literacy team to “put it all together.” A data-driven process for goal setting and action planning is important to ensure that thoughtful actions take place and can be sustained. A literacy action plan that is grounded in student performance data and supported by additional data from assessments of school capacity, school and community expectations, and teacher practices is more likely to support student literacy and learning.

School leaders must play two additional roles to ensure that the plan that is developed is implemented. The first is to set forth a vision that stakeholders can support. One way to do this is through brainstorming as a faculty what the literacy improvement initiative would look like if it were successful. What would students be doing? What would teachers be doing? What would the environment be like? Then, an overarching vision statement must be developed that can set the tone for the initiative and be used to communicate to parents, students, and the community what the school is attempting to accomplish. Having this vision, actively referring to it, and using it to guide how teachers and students are supported are three ways that school leaders can ensure that the initiative will stay focused.

The second role is getting everyone on board. For a plan to succeed, collaborative implementation must occur. Teachers need to “buy in,” or students will not receive equal access to quality reading and writing instruction and regular guided practice in content-area reading and writing. Having a common vision that is articulated, referenced, and used by school leaders will help, as will adequate and ongoing teacher professional development. (We provide ideas for how to work with reluctant teachers in Chapter 8.) The key point here is that it is the responsibility of school leaders to get everyone to be an active participant in enacting all the parts of the school's literacy action plan.

Leaders need to have and communicate a vision and secure the collaboration and effort of school staff. They also need to have a good plan, because without it, not much will change for students. This chapter focuses on the development of an effective literacy action plan. But we caution leaders to pay attention to the two issues of vision and collaborative implementation to ensure that the schoolwide literacy improvement effort is successful.

School leaders who have good data on students' reading and writing needs, measurable literacy goals, and specific action steps to address student needs can develop an effective literacy action plan. They can use this plan to guide the school's literacy improvement efforts over time. The next sections of this chapter outline how to gather and analyze this information and how this type of data can productively inform the processes of setting literacy improvement goals and creating a literacy action plan.

Using Multiple Data Sources to Develop a Literacy Action Plan

As we discuss in Chapter 7, student performance data are central to literacy improvement efforts in middle and high school. This type of data is critical when determining students' instructional needs as individuals and by grade-level cohort, determining the need for additional programming or types of intervention, and monitoring the success of support in the classroom.

Student performance data alone, however, are not sufficient for driving a literacy improvement effort because they do not take into account the school and community context within which learning and literacy development occur. Student performance data indicate what is needed but do not show how this can be put into place. Performance data also do not tell the specific actions required to ensure that the support structure is in place to sustain systemic improvement as opposed to something that will fade if key individuals retire or move to other schools. For example, in schools with high staff turnover, crafting a literacy action plan so that it incorporates new policies and support structures, grade-level or departmental agreements, and mentoring can make it more likely that changes will endure. Student performance data also do not inform school leaders about the level of support for literacy improvement that is already in place through school structures, policies, and resources and in terms of teachers' current knowledge and practice. For example, teachers may participate in professional development in content-area writing strategies that can be used to support reading comprehension. Professional learning communities may be in place that can provide a ready-made structure for a literacy improvement effort to build upon. Or the library collection may be outdated and limited, but the school may have available technology that can effectively support both reading and writing, as well as provide supplemental texts.

The goal of a literacy improvement effort is to create an organization that can sustain high levels of literacy and learning for current and future students. Few schools have unlimited resources to devote to literacy support; deciding how to use the available resources wisely requires gathering data about school and community priorities and expectations, current programs, structures and policies, and teacher professional development needs. Otherwise leaders may jump on bandwagons or select program options that do not maximize available resources, meet expectations, or address pressing needs. Figure 5.6 shows kinds of data in addition to student performance data that leaders can use as they develop a literacy action plan.


Figure 5.6. Additional Key Data for Developing Literacy Action Plans


In Order to . . .

Leaders Can Collect Data About . . .

Set appropriate and measurable literacy goals

School and community needs and expectations about literacy

Assess resource allocation and adequacy of current policy and practices and determine what needs to be put into place or improved

The school's current capacity to support literacy

Determine current literacy expertise in the school, support teacher use of literacy support strategies, and develop a targeted professional development plan

Current teaching practices that provide literacy support across the content areas or as part of specific programs of study


In the following vignette, we present an example of how school leaders used multiple sources of data to develop a literacy action plan. To create their plan, in addition to looking at student performance data, school administrators carried out a needs assessment, determined the school's capacity to meet the needs of different types of learners, and determined the professional development and types of support teachers needed to improve content-area literacy development. The vignette is divided into sections that show how leaders at this school gathered and used each type of data to craft their literacy action plan. Each section of the vignette is followed by a description and additional examples of how leaders can collect and analyze data to create a literacy action plan.

DeWitt Middle School is a Title I school serving about 900 students in grades 6 through 8. The town where the school is located is in transition from a mill town to a town with a tourist-based economy. Several river guide companies are beginning to flourish, artist studios are being installed in the old factory by the dam, and new bed-and-breakfast inns and restaurants now occupy the handsome 19th-century homes that once housed company managers. Before the mills closed, it was quite possible to make a living with an 8th grade education.

When DeWitt Middle School recently conducted a survey of parents' expectations about student achievement, more than 80 percent of the parents stated their expectation that students should graduate ready for college, career, and citizenship. Yet 8th grade scores on the state assessment showed more than 50 percent of students were not meeting the standard in reading, and almost 80 percent were not meeting the standard in writing.

Tim Hancock, the school's energetic new principal, saw a focus on literacy across the content areas as a way to close this gap between parent expectations and student performance. Tim brought together his leadership team, which had representatives from all grade levels and content areas, and told them that the school had district support to conduct a literacy audit to determine how to proceed. The audit would help the team collect vital information about the school's capacity to support literacy improvement. An outside literacy consultant would analyze this information, together with student performance data and data on teacher knowledge and current practice; the consultant would make recommendations for what they should include in their literacy action plan.

School and Community Needs and Expectations About Literacy

In the vignette, it was necessary for Tim to understand the community's needs and expectations, as well as the expectations of the school's staff, as part of developing an effective plan. He made sure to understand the school board's priorities and the district's goals and to align the school's efforts with them. The parent survey indicated a gap between expectations and perceptions of what was occurring at the school for students. The faculty was polled to determine how their own knowledge and the literacy expectations of their students might be contributing to how instructional needs were being met.

It is important to decipher school and community needs and expectations concerning literacy so that the school can set measurable literacy goals that are responsive and appropriate. By conducting a literacy needs assessment, school leaders evaluate how the school is currently meeting students' literacy needs. The process can focus stakeholders' attention on literacy and can uncover missed opportunities and underused resources. Data sources that can contribute to the needs assessment include

  • trends in state assessment results,
  • teacher questionnaires,
  • student surveys,
  • literacy goals in school improvement plans, and
  • focus groups and other discussions with teachers, students, and parents.
Based on the feedback received, school leaders can create or refine the school's plan for accomplishing its mission and identify areas of concern, thereby ensuring that its literacy goals match the expectations of students, teachers, parents, and the community.

The impact of this process will be different depending on the school and the community involved. Discovering the gap between assumptions and reality can be what enables one school to succeed with improving literacy where another fails to do so. Consider what would occur if the following community and school assumptions remained unchallenged:

  • School leaders in an area with a large percentage of English language learners think they are meeting expectations with their current options for English-as-a-second-language and bilingual programs, yet parents and students strongly prefer a sheltered-instruction approach.
  • Administrators assume that students have adequate access to computers, but due to scheduling, placement, and staffing issues, a majority of students are frustrated by their limited access.
  • Some teachers assume that parents do not care because they do not attend school meetings and functions but low attendance may, in fact, be due to language barriers, work schedules, transportation issues, cultural differences, and low parent reading levels.
  • Teachers' perceptions that a group of reluctant readers actually cannot read may be erroneous. It may be that these students will not or do not read what they see as irrelevant assigned reading but that they avidly read materials of interest outside of school. Thus, motivation instead of ability may emerge as an essential issue in addressing academic literacy development with certain students.

Examining assumptions such as these will provide key information school leaders can use when deciding what programs to put in place or what the school's literacy improvement goals should be. Setting literacy improvement goals without establishing baseline data to determine the starting point is not a productive way to proceed. Neither is setting a numerical improvement goal that does not address the differentiated needs of students with varying literacy abilities. For example, an arbitrary schoolwide goal of raising standardized test scores by a certain percent means little if disaggregation of the scores reveals that students in some programs are already scoring much higher than others. Thus, this arbitrary goal will allow the instructional needs of many students to remain unmet. By comparison, a goal of a 90 percent passing rate on the state reading test requires gathering current performance data about students at all levels of ability so that differential support can be put into place. In some cases, it might be necessary to set two goals to guide action—one for students on or above grade level and one for students whose reading level is below their current grade level.

Discovering the school and community expectations about literacy teaching and learning does not have to be an overwhelming task. Principals can work with their literacy team to determine what is known about

  • specific programs to address the school's mission,
  • students' reading and writing abilities,
  • parents' concerns about literacy achievement,
  • students' attitudes toward reading and writing, and
  • teachers' beliefs about student literacy and learning.
For example, the literacy team might compare attendance, dropout, and graduation rates with literacy performance to determine if weak literacy skills are a strong contributing factor to students' motivation to complete school. Or leaders might survey student attitudes toward literacy and learning to assess the impact of social and emotional factors on academic success or failure. Figure 5.7 outlines a four-step process for conducting a literacy needs assessment.


Figure 5.7. Four Steps for Conducting a Literacy Needs Assessment


  1. Agree on questions. The literacy team agrees upon a short list of important questions about literacy.
  2. Collect data. Literacy team members make and carry out a data collection plan to ensure that they will have the information they need to answer pressing questions.
  3. Review and summarize data. The literacy team reviews all of the information gathered and summarizes the data collected relative to each of the questions posed.
  4. Make recommendations and inform stakeholders. Based on the information collected, the literacy team establishes a list of recommendations that define the expectations of school and community members around literacy and distributes a copy of these recommendations to all staff and community members who contributed data, so they know that their voices have been heard.


Assessing School and Teacher Capacity to Improve Literacy

The next step in developing a literacy action plan is for the literacy team to investigate the current capacity of the school and the teachers to respond to these recommendations. Armed with those data, the literacy team can establish reasonable and measurable literacy goals. For each literacy goal, the team clarifies a rationale for its inclusion, develops action steps, and decides how the team will measure progress. This goal setting and action planning becomes the data-based blueprint for the school's literacy improvement effort.

The next part of the vignette describes how the DeWitt Middle School literacy team worked with a literacy consultant to conduct an inventory of school capacity and teacher knowledge and use of literacy strategies. To determine students' needs, the consultant analyzed student performance data. But to make recommendations to address these needs, the consultant relied on the additional data about school capacity and teacher practices.

The DeWitt Middle School literacy team worked with the literacy consultant to develop a school-capacity profile through several discussions about the school's current structures, policies, culture, and use of resources. All middle school teachers attended a presentation about adolescent literacy and then completed a comprehensive survey about their current teaching practices and knowledge about content-area literacy support. Tim also provided the consultant with the results from the diagnostic reading assessment administered individually to all 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

The consultant analyzed the data and provided a report that documented the implications of the data as well as a detailed set of recommendations for action in the areas of school structures, policies and culture, content-area literacy support, strategic interventions, and teacher professional development. An examination of various types of data helped inform the recommendations.

Student performance data.Teachers and administrators were aware that the percentage of students not meeting standards in reading was high. A closer look at the student performance data showed that although the vast majority of students tested “below grade level,” most were only one or two grade levels behind. The issue was that students were not making a year's worth of literacy growth in a year's time. The majority of students were actually entering middle school on grade level, a tribute to the district's strong elementary literacy program. But without frequent, purposeful literacy support as part of content-area teaching and learning, these same students were losing ground while at the middle school. In addition, a small number of students had test results that indicated a need for more intensive intervention.

Data on school capacity.Data from the school-capacity profile revealed that some existing resources to support literacy were underused, such as the well-stocked library and the fact that 7th and 8th grade students had laptop computers. Other school capacities were haphazard, such as a lack of consistent policies about homework, lack of teacher access to reading assessment results, inconsistent use of writing rubrics, and a lack of common materials used to teach similar courses. Persistent themes included the lack of professional learning communities at the school and minimal expectations in many classes for critical thinking except for the “high achievers.” In the opinion of the literacy team, the school did not have a strong culture of reading, writing, and thinking.

Teacher survey data.Analysis of the results of the teacher survey showed that most teachers had very limited strategies for providing scaffolding before, during, and after reading; widely varying expectations for reading and writing even in the same grade level; and few strategies to teach vocabulary besides “assign, define, and test.” Teachers said that students were not motivated to read and write but also said that they rarely allowed students to choose topics to read or write about.

Investigating the School's Current Capacity to Support Literacy Development

Once recommendations are developed based on the needs assessment, a different type of data is required to answer the question: What is the school's current capacity for supporting literacy? To find out, school leaders can inventory resource use and the structures and policies in place that either support or limit literacy development. In the DeWitt Middle School vignette, school leaders hired an outside consultant. Often an outside perspective or use of an externally developed, structured protocol can provide the greatest insight and an efficient process for developing a picture of the school's capacity. Another approach is to ask the literacy team to work with educators throughout the school to develop an abbreviated type of capacity profile and then discuss what is in place and working, what needs to be improved, and what needs to be put into place. Figure 5.8 lists examples for how each area of capacity might contribute to literacy support.


Figure 5.8. How School Capacity Can Support Literacy Improvement


Area of School Capacity

Examples That Support Literacy Improvement

School structures that support literacy

  • Additional strategic reading classes or reading/writing workshop
  • Beginning all classes with reading relevant to the day's work
  • Portfolio assessment and student exhibitions
  • Scheduled, schoolwide sustained silent reading time (3 to 5 times per week)
  • Quarterly joint meetings of literacy teams from high school and feeder middle schools

School resources that support literacy

  • Classroom libraries
  • Technology to support reading and writing instruction and assessment
  • Parallel curriculum materials at varying reading levels for units of study
  • Reading programs for learners with targeted literacy needs
  • Multilingual print resources and staff support
  • Literacy coach position
  • Teacher professional development

School policies that support literacy

  • Regularly scheduled reading assessments as part of students' educational experiences
  • Transition teams that consider reading assessment information when determining student placement
  • Weekly common planning periods focused on collaborative examination of student work
  • Use of common writing rubrics to assess student work
  • Teacher agreement by department or grade level to use common set of literacy strategies
  • Expectation that ELLs use their first language when necessary to support literacy development in English and content area learning


Based on these data, the team can figure out ways to improve capacities that exist but could be better used to support literacy development. Often these occur predominantly in five areas: time, technology, library, personnel, and schedule. Sometimes a brainstorming discussion is necessary to help transform what has typically been done into more effective support for literacy. (For more ideas about how to use resources effectively to support literacy improvement efforts, see Chapter 9.) Once the literacy team has created a school-capacity profile that outlines what capacities, structures, and policies can be put in place, the team will be well on its way to understanding the assets the school already has to contribute to the literacy effort.

Understanding Current Teaching Practices That Support Literacy

In the vignette about DeWitt Middle School, it was clear that data about teachers' current practices were central to developing the school's literacy action plan. Obtaining this information allowed school leaders to assess where there were gaps, plan the necessary time and content for teacher professional development, and focus the time of the newly hired literacy coach.

To determine how to best support teachers to improve literacy teaching and learning, leaders need data about current teacher practices, that is, what do teachers know and how do they currently develop literacy across the content areas? Answers to these questions will signal where teacher professional development and additional support are needed. They will also provide information about where strong instructional support exists for literacy development. To obtain good data about both, school leaders can survey, observe, and talk to teachers.

Survey teachers about the literacy strategies they know and use, the frequency with which they use them, and the areas in which they feel they need more information. A Teacher Knowledge Inventory (such as Figure A.1 in Appendix C) and questionnaires can be used to poll teachers about their knowledge and use of literacy support strategies. Principals might learn, for example, that teachers say that students have difficulty learning content-area vocabulary, but teachers do not know of vocabulary strategies they can use beyond “assign, define, and test.” These data can be used to plan targeted professional development that addresses this need. Survey data might also inform leaders of what types of writing and reading are typically occurring in each content area, leading to data-based policymaking. For example, if very little writing is going on, setting a number of required writing-to-learn assignments each week might be an appropriate policy response.

Observe teachers during literacy walk-throughs and classroom observations (as described in Chapter 6) and assess how teachers provide literacy support and what types of issues they find challenging. For example, a principal might observe that teachers are able to use note-taking strategies introduced in a teacher workshop quite easily but find it more challenging to differentiate the use of reading comprehension strategies to meet the needs of readers at various levels. Again, these data can be used to promote schoolwide conversations or study groups about using multiple texts with the same unit of study or how to use literacy support strategies to help struggling readers engage with challenging texts.

Talk with teachers individually in goals conferences, in department or team meetings, or in focus groups targeted around specific literacy issues such as motivation and engagement. Listen for recurring themes around areas of frustration—these then become data upon which to base decisions for increasing certain types of resources and support. For example, the literacy team might decide that ordering content-area periodicals is a valuable way to ensure the availability of relevant reading material for each content area. Or instructional coaching could be made available for those teachers who do not understand how to set up reciprocal teaching in their classrooms. A continuation of the DeWitt Middle School vignette illustrates how these principles might be put into action.

The consultant worked with the middle school leadership team to develop a literacy action plan that would guide the school over the next three years. Because the team had data about school capacity and teacher knowledge, the plan was practical and built directly on the school's strengths. It established goals in each priority area. DeWitt Middle School leaders decided that the amount of content-area reading and writing would be increased by 50 percent in all classes, that more opportunities for free-choice reading would be provided, and that teachers would be expected to learn and use five common “power strategies” across the school. Another goal focused on increased teacher knowledge and use of literacy support strategies in all content areas. To support teacher development, the school would hire a literacy coach, administrators would focus professional goals on literacy improvement, and teacher professional development over the next three years would focus on literacy. In addition, school leaders recognized that literacy interventions for students who were reading more than two years below grade level needed to be put into place and teachers providing that instruction would need additional professional development, given that the school did not have a reading specialist.

Some action steps in each priority area were enacted immediately. For example, teachers at the school prided themselves on the quality of their teaching, and when multiple copies of selected texts were made available for teacher study groups, many voluntarily began to increase their literacy knowledge. Because all 7th and 8th grade students had access to laptop computers, ongoing sessions of professional development in technology began to include ways to use computers to support reading and writing. The schedule was changed to permit sustained silent reading twice a week beginning the following semester. Literacy interventions were explored, and the school purchased a reading program to meet the needs of those still struggling with decoding and basic fluency.

Tim hired a literacy coach, and together they developed a grant proposal to support the work. When DeWitt Middle School received the grant, the whole staff was informed that literacy improvement would be the school's primary focus for the next three years. A plan for teacher professional development was put into place that matched the data-driven recommendations of the audit report and incorporated the knowledge and strengths of the new literacy coach. Learning strategies, based on student needs, were introduced to all faculty, and Tim made it clear to teachers that he expected to see the strategies used when he did his walk-throughs. Having a plan made it easier to determine next steps and stay on track.

Monitoring Program Effectiveness

School leaders have to know whether implementing the literacy action plan is helping the school meet its literacy goals. Administrators and members of the literacy team should also determine if the plan needs to be changed or modified. To do this, the literacy team can create an inquiry-driven process for program monitoring by following these five steps (see Figure 5.9):

  1. Determine what needs to be known. The literacy team begins the cycle by agreeing upon the questions to be answered; for example: Have we met this year's literacy goals? How will we know if a reading program is working? How will we know if our literacy action plan is successful and for whom? Are teachers in some departments using the literacy strategies more or differently than teachers in other departments? Do teachers who attend professional development provide more literacy support to students in the classroom versus teachers who do not attend?
  2. Select appropriate data sources to answer each question. These might include reading logs, portfolios, and several measures taken before and after implementation of the literacy action plan, such as surveys of student attitudes, student test scores, individual reading inventories, and surveys or observations of teachers. Many of these sources are already in place from the data collection stage and can be easily reformatted for this purpose.
  3. Describe evidence of success. In this step the literacy team articulates what success would look like for different groups of students. It is important that these measures be stated in data-based or observable terms and be reasonable to achieve.
  4. Collect and analyze the data. During this step the team deepens and refines its inquiry. For example, if there is a difference in how boys versus girls are responding to a computer-based reading program, is it a significant issue? What needs to occur for the students who are not being helped by the program? Or, if there is a difference in how teachers implement literacy support as a result of attending professional development, is there evidence that the difference is harmful? Are there specific groups of students who are not making a year's worth of literacy growth per academic year as a result?
  5. Decide what actions to take. If the literacy team sees that programs are working for some students but not others, what modifications or alternatives can be put in place? If some teachers are providing stellar literacy support but others show no changes in their classroom practice and evidence shows that students are missing out, how can this situation be remedied?

Figure 5.9. Inquiry Cycle for Program Monitoring

Source:Inquiry Cycle for Program Monitoring

Figure 5.9 shows the cyclical nature of this kind of five-step, data-driven process for program monitoring.

At DeWitt Middle School, implementation of the literacy action plan continued. But school leaders were concerned that they would not know if the plan was succeeding. They met and developed a set of indicators that would tell them if teachers and students were meeting the literacy improvement goals they had set, and they designed a set of data collection activities so they would be able to tell what was working.

School leaders observed that teachers who were initially reluctant were now on board as they saw success with the use of literacy support strategies in their classrooms. At weekly team meetings, formerly a time when teachers focused on logistics and issues with individual students, the literacy coach and principal were updated about how teachers were using various literacy support strategies. A math teacher reported that she was “asking the students to do QARs [Question-Answer Relationships] all the time, and their answers have really improved.” A science teacher said that he “used knowledge rating guides and Frayer models with the vocabulary words and retention went up a lot.” The social studies teacher reported that she “modeled all of the roles for reciprocal teaching and the students practiced them, and now the students seem to be engaging more with the reading.”

Despite these encouraging signs, a repeat of the reading assessment showed only slight progress for the majority of students, although the group of students who were further behind made gains. The literacy team reviewed the data and decided to recommend a number of refinements to their original literacy action plan to ensure that students were reading and writing more and receiving more reading and writing instruction. Time for the schoolwide sustained silent reading program was increased from twice a week to four times a week. The literacy consultant provided tips for improving the culture of reading during SSR, and the literacy coach shared them at team meetings. Teaching teams developed common agreements around what strategies would be used to support student learning across content areas. The principal explicitly indicated that he expected a specified amount of content-area reading and writing accompanied by instruction and modeling in every content area two to three times per week. In addition, the principal and assistant principal increased the number of walk-throughs they did each month from one to four. As a result of all these measures, more reading and writing instruction began taking place. The current reading assessment was not providing the information teachers needed and was requiring too many resources to administer, so school leaders researched options for a new reading assessment that provided more diagnostic information for every test taker. The literacy team made plans to repeat the audit in two years to assess the overall impact of interventions over time.

The district literacy goal is to have continuous improvement of at least 10 percent more students each year meeting and exceeding the standard on the state assessment in 4th grade and 8th grade, with a 10 percent drop each year in the percentage of students failing to meet the standard over the next five years. The district feels this will be possible through a focus on content-area literacy support and literacy interventions. Early results show that DeWitt Middle School is certainly doing its part to meet or exceed that goal.

If literacy goals are not being met, it is time to get some additional information as to why this is the case. When literacy goals have been met, then the literacy team can set new goals that further scaffold literacy learning for all students. These may include directly involving all teachers in the use of data to improve literacy and learning, and broadening the schoolwide use of data, as we describe in Chapter 7.

Sometimes data seem to show progress or lack of progress when the real issue is how the data are being analyzed. For the purposes of program monitoring, data disaggregation is essential. Figure 5.10 describes two typical mistakes in monitoring progress and the kinds of data analysis that can remedy the problem.


Figure 5.10. Mistakes in Monitoring Progress and How to Remedy Them


  • Total progress or progress of structural groups is presented without an understanding of the composition of learners in those groups. Use data to ensure that students are equally distributed (by gender, ability levels, ethnicity, economic levels) across academies or teams or are strategically clustered within/across small learning communities, teaching teams, or academies (e.g., clustering of ELLs or special education students to provide more intensive support through coteaching with ELL/bilingual or special education teachers on a particular team).
  • Year-to-year cohort comparison does not show “progress.” When monitoring the success of a literacy action plan, use trend-analysis strategies that look beyond year-to-year comparisons to determine if the program is truly making a difference or if what looks like positive results are only reflections of cohort differences. As a leader, ensure that the reported data are credible.


As the DeWitt Middle School vignette indicates, a solid blueprint for improving literacy schoolwide can be put into place through a literacy action plan that incorporates the features described in this chapter. Although other schools' demographics, priorities, school capacity, teachers' practices, and student assessment results may be different from those at DeWitt Middle School, adapting sound action-planning principles and using data wisely can help school leaders develop, implement, and monitor an effective plan.

Key Messages

In this chapter, we described how school leaders can use data to develop, implement, and monitor schoolwide literacy action plans that ensure that students have the academic literacy skills necessary to be successful at school, at work, and in citizenship. Equally important, by generating a culture of continuous improvement in which individuals ask questions, collect and analyze data, take actions, and then collect more data to examine the impact of what was done, leaders become fluent in the strategies needed to be databased decision makers. Focusing this data-driven inquiry process allows the principal and other school leaders to be in the driver's seat to improve literacy support and development for all students. Key messages in this chapter include the following:

  • An effective literacy action plan designed to meet the needs of all students in the school is essential to leading a comprehensive and coordinated literacy improvement effort. A literacy action plan allows all members of the school community to understand the school's current status, goals for the future, the actions to be taken to reach the goals, who is responsible, and how success will be measured.
  • Effective use of data is the key to a successful schoolwide literacy initiative. Data on student performance, school and community needs, school capacity, and teacher practices are helpful in developing an effective literacy action plan.
  • The leader of a school has many sources of data that can be used to clarify and articulate the vision for literacy and learning in the school, to develop a literacy action plan, and to monitor the plan's effectiveness.
  • A literacy action plan has five key components:
    1. Strengthening Literacy Development Across the Content Areas
    2. Strategic Interventions for Struggling Readers and Writers
    3. School Policies, Structures, and Culture for Supporting Literacy
    4. Building Leadership Capacity
    5. Teacher Professional Development

Using a data-driven plan to monitor the program is important to ensure that the literacy action plan is effective.

As school leaders know, having a plan does not guarantee the availability of resources to implement the plan. The data may indicate a need for clear actions that school resources do not appear to permit. For committed school leaders, this situation often makes it difficult to develop, implement, and monitor a data-driven literacy action plan. However, two points are important to keep in mind. With a data-driven plan in hand, it is often easier to obtain district, grant, and community resources to support the school's efforts. Second, sometimes the ways that resources have been used in the past constrict people's ideas of how they might be used differently. School leaders need to think creatively about how resources might be reallocated to support literacy improvement. (In Chapter 9 we discuss possible solutions to these and other issues related to resource use and limitations.)

A data-driven literacy action plan brings together all of the components of the Leadership Model for Improving Adolescent Literacy. Using this plan to chart the way forward, leaders will be able to keep their school on course for sustained improvement of literacy and learning for all of their students.

Appendix C provides a Teacher Knowledge Inventory that leaders can use as they develop a schoolwide, data-driven literacy action plan.