How a literacy program leveled the playing field for students

A district's collaboration with United2Read leads to dramatic increases in measurable reading proficiency
By: | October 16, 2020
Photo by Josh Applegate via Unsplash.

Jo Welter is former superintendent of the Ambridge Area School District. She served as an administrator in the Pittsburgh area for 28 years.

We have all experienced the difficulty of achieving reading success for children and have watched as the inability to read by third grade compounds itself for students.  Frustration, behavioral setbacks, failure, and decreasing graduation rates all give rise to the need for increased intervention strategies. The 2019 Nation’s Report Card revealed that only 36% of fourth-graders are reading at grade level nationally.  There is an urgency to this matter, and yet most of us are at a loss as to how to make real and lasting change.

As a superintendent, I was contacted by our local Intermediate Unit, an organization supporting schools. My district, the Ambridge Area School District, near Pittsburgh, was recommended to participate in a study because our population reflected underrepresented children. We partnered with United2Read – a group made up of Learning Ovations, MDRC, Digital Promise, and The University of California, Irvine. Funded by the Education Innovation Research Program, the group had conducted 13 years of research.  Through seven randomized control studies, they proved that 94% of students could read at or above grade level by grade three.  


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This was like no experience I’ve ever had before in education. We engaged in a comprehensive, three-year commitment to address literacy K-3.  There were many components to the process which shouldn’t surprise any of us who have undertaken educational initiatives. This group of researchers and educators had truly figured out how to put research into practice and implement it in a consistent, lasting, and systemic way.  

Using the science of reading as its foundation, the researchers created an algorithm to prescribe both code-focused and meaning-focused activities, specific to each individual child’s needs and using available English Language Arts resources. Students took brief online assessments every six weeks to determine their individualized instructional path. This was accomplished through years of research, observing teacher and student classroom behaviors, and determining what worked.  We talk at length about using assessment for instruction, but in reality, teachers don’t have the time to complete this task as rigorously as science suggests is needed. 

The instructional work was coupled with ongoing professional development. Professional development included monthly PLC’s, classroom visitations, virtual meetings, phone calls, emails, and customized support for each teacher. Our partners also worked with the teachers to ensure they were using the software effectively. Any administrator knows this is the only way to make lasting change, but principals simply don’t have the luxury of providing this type of extensive professional support.  Classrooms were transformed. I was delighted to visit and see engaged, happy, successful students, and reinvigorated teachers!

‘I was delighted to visit and see engaged, happy, successful students and reinvigorated teachers!’

Last year from September until March when schools closed for COVID, our kindergarten averaged 8 months of grade equivalency growth and 1.2 years of age equivalency growth. First grade averaged 1.3 years of grade equivalency growth and 1.8 years age equivalency growth. In retrospect, it was the technology that took away the challenge for teachers trying to figure out how to use data to drive instruction, and the ongoing third party support that ensured all teachers were implementing new strategies consistently and correctly.

Especially now, when teachers are finding it most difficult to assess our youngest and most vulnerable children, this could be of great help. Being able to read is one of the clear paths to creating equity for our kids. We are too often reminded of the growing achievement gap this generation of students is facing. If there’s anything we can do to make a positive impact on our students’ future, now is the time.    

Dr. Jo Welter served as an administrator in the Pittsburgh area for 28 years. She held all levels of principalships, was an assistant superintendent, and finally a superintendent.