Sherman Dorn says Florida’s elementary-level reading success was really about reading coaches. What does that say about what it would take to improve math and science achievement in Florida’s elementary schools?

When Sherman Dorn decided to leave Florida, he ended up in Arizona.

But his decision-making isn’t always that bad.

Sherman, who is now Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers’ College after leaving the University of South Florida in 2014, recently had a conversation with Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss about the success that Florida had during the years when Jeb Bush was governor and afterward in boosting the reading achievement of the state’s elementary school students.  Sherman pointed to the hiring of reading coaches in Florida’s elementary schools and the establishment of the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University as the primary factors in the rise of Florida’s young readers on the 4th grade reading exam of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  He was less enthusiastic about the importance of testing and 3rd grade retention policies – the policies most often trumpeted by Governor Bush – to the elementary reading success:

The most likely explanation [for the 3rd grade reading improvement] is a combination of reading coaches hired in the boom years in Florida and the creation of the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). FCRR provided technical support for the teaching of reading, and its activities started with the support of primary-grade students. With extra state and local revenues provided by the real-estate boom at the time, elementary schools were able to hire reading coaches. It is important to credit Bush for pushing for the creation of the FCRR. It is a shame that he never mentions that in public today. Bush usually credits all of his other policies, but the other policies affected multiple grades and subjects, all of which pale in comparison with the achievements in primary-grade reading instruction.

So let’s say Sherman is right – that the most important factor in improving student achievement in reading is to have coaches who are armed with more knowledge about how students learn reading.  What does that say about what Florida should do to improve student achievement in math and science, where the state lags on NAEP?  (Sherman pointed out the state’s unimpressive performance on NAEP in math.  Florida’s science results on NAEP are similarly unimpressive.) If highly qualified reading coaches can improve student learning in reading at the elementary level, then perhaps highly qualified coaches in math and science can improve elementary-level learning in those subjects.

How would we identify teachers who are qualified to be elementary math and science coaches?  Florida’s teachers can earn an endorsement in reading that certifies that they have taken extensive coursework focused on learning how students learn to read.  Perhaps the Florida Department of Education should offer endorsements in math and science as well.

To my knowledge, there are presently no programs in Florida’s postsecondary institutions for preparing elementary school teachers (neither pre-service nor in-service) to be specialists in math or science.  Recently, I looked into establishing a program to prepare elementary science specialists at FSU, but my colleagues in the College of Education told me that it would be difficult to generate interest among students unless the Department of Education recognized this specialized preparation with an endorsement in elementary science.  I taught a physical science course specially designed for elementary teachers in 2007-2008.  The course worked well, but after a few semesters it died for lack of demand.  So I can confirm from personal experience that my College of Education colleagues have it right.

Here’s an action item for the Florida Department of Education:  Establish endorsements in math and science for elementary math and science coaches.  Then people like me can start organizing programs in elementary math and science teaching that students will want to take.

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One Response to Sherman Dorn says Florida’s elementary-level reading success was really about reading coaches. What does that say about what it would take to improve math and science achievement in Florida’s elementary schools?

  1. Pingback: Giving all of Florida’s students the chance to run as fast as they can: Elementary and middle school math and science | Bridge to Tomorrow

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