Dr. Shawn Joseph Explores Developing A Literacy Plan Focused On Equity


Tony Watlington

In the United States, many marginalized children have been neglected in plans for higher reading achievement. Black children, Brown children, poor children, English language learners, and special education students have all been pushed to the wayside and their needs have been ignored.

Dr. Shawn Joseph makes a case for a new approach to literacy education leadership from superintendents focused on equity between races, ethnicities, abilities, and socioeconomic groups. He provides this advice to the areas where a superintendent should develop a literacy plan meant to bring fairness to their community.

Reading Statistics

In 2019, 34 percent of American fourth-graders read below grade level, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). The achievement gap between White and Black children stands at 27 points. Referencing Dr. Ivory Toldson, Professor of Counseling Psychology at Howard University and President of QEM, Dr. Joseph shares, “It is time for America to stop comparing Black and Brown children to their White counterparts. The fact is that there is poor achievement for all kids in America. It is time for us as a nation to reset and refocus on ‘absolute achievement’. We must double down on addressing the community barriers that mitigate the accelerated performance of all children, particularly Black and Brown children.”

What Superintendents Can Do to Improve Reading Levels

Superintendent leadership matters now more than ever. In the midst of a pandemic, and with more resources available than any other time in American history for public education, now is the time for superintendents to concentrate on reading achievement. Dr. Joseph states, “We know that an organization cannot exceed the capacity of its leadership. This is what worries me. Many school boards and superintendents have a tremendously difficult time focusing on what matters. At this moment, superintendents, in particular, must use the influence of their positions to galvanize communities to optimize collective impact and ensure that children are reading on grade level by third grade. The American literacy problem is not a school system problem—it is a community problem. Only the collective community, working together, will solve it.”

Emerging Case Study: Dr. Tony Watlington, Sr.

Dr. Tony Watlington Sr. is a new superintendent in the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina, which has more than 18,000 students. Prior to serving as superintendent, Dr. Watlington spent his career in Guilford County Schools, NC as a teacher, school based-administrator, and chief of schools. During his career in Guilford County, Dr. Watlington aggressively worked to address the equity challenges students of all backgrounds faced, most recently, under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Sharon Contreras where academic performance increased in every tested area, at all grade levels, and for all student groups. As Chief of Schools, Dr. Watlington was directly responsible for implementation of district strategy. His dynamic approach to equity in literacy had a significant impact on the children and young people in Guilford County Schools, and he has brought that passion and insight to Rowan-Salisbury School District.

1. Focus on Literacy in the Strategic Plan

In his first 100 days, Dr. Watlington has worked to galvanize his community by tapping Rowan-Salisbury’s greatest asset: its people. In developing a new strategic plan, he is collaborating withschool board members, teachers, business leaders, local universities, and parents. Central to Rowan-Salisbury’s development of a strategic plan are plans to dramatically accelerate literacy instruction within the school district.

Dr. Watlington is in a unique situation in North Carolina. He wields charter school like authority and autonomy in Rowan-Salisbury as a result of his school board’s bold decision to be the only “renewal school district” in the state of North Carolina. However, Dr. Watlington understands that the school district cannot help students overcome the challenges of growing poverty, growing racial and economic diversity, and increasingly poor community health outcomes working in isolation. He reflects, “Rowan-Salisbury is an extraordinary community. The talent in this community cannot be matched anywhere in the country. When we come together to identify and address our most pressing issues, we attack challenges with passion and a spirit of efficacy and determination.” He is in initial conversations with the Campaign for Third Grade Level Reading to best organize the collective thought and resources of Rowan-Salisbury to develop a comprehensive, literacy strategy that maximizes collective impact.

2. Utilize Adaptive Technologies to Accelerate and Remediate Learning

Dr. Watlington, an innovator and creative thinker, understands that the literacy deficits are too significant in Rowan-Salisbury to take a passive approach to both remediation and acceleration. He shared, “One of the greatest challenges teachers face, particularly in our high schools, is the lack of appropriate reading materials at a students’ reading level, particularly in content areas such as Science and Social Studies. Historically, it has also been a challenge to find materials that represent the “joys” of students of color and really speak to current day issues of social justice. School districts can’t afford to be “literacy poor” by not providing students with provocative literacy materials anytime, anywhere. Only a technology solution can help us address these issues in a manageable way.”

One such adaptive technology that has resulted in promising improvement in Rowan Salisbury has been the implementation of Achieve 3000 and Actively Learn district-wide. Through Achieve3000 Literacy and Actively Learn, EVERY child in Rowan-Salisbury is provided with anywhere, anytime access to a personalized library filled with thousands of articles and texts, as well as fiction, videos, and science simulations. Dr. Watlington commented, “Technology should be the great equalizer for kids. Our board of education had the vision to move our district to a full one-to-one device to student ratio in 2014 in partnership with Apple, prior to the pandemic and prior to Dr. Watlington arriving, but computers do not teach children how to read. We need great content that allows students at varying levels within the same classroom to be reading and engaging so that they can think critically and read current, authentic texts that are culturally appropriate. Achieve 3000 and Actively Learn have helped us solve the content problem. Now, we must work to ensure high levels of student engagement and build the cultural competence of our staff to help us continue to meet students where they are in a truly authentic way.” Rowan Salisbury students have been able to achieve 3X their expected Lexile growth, which is a measure of students’ growth in reading. Dr. Watlington shared, “Our strategic plan steering committee will address how to turn these gains into improved results on standardized reading assessments as well.”

3. Build Community Awareness and Inter-governmental Agency Support

Literacy is a community issue, not merely a school issue. Across the community, various programs can help adults who are struggling with literacy and children. In Rowan Salisbury, Dr. Watlington is bringing a diverse group of community and government leaders together to understand the literacy gaps within the community. Once community leaders across the government sector, business sector, and non-profit sector understand the issues, they plan on collectively devising a multi-faceted plan to meet students where they are throughout the community to support their literacy development. Dr. Watlington commented, “We are working to re-envision what data matters to us and we are going to make sure our community partners understand North Carolina standards and what is expected of students. One strategy we are going to employ this summer is providing high dosage tutoring in Reading for students in addition to ensuring they have greater access to high-quality reading materials. We want to empower adults in our community to be expert reading tutors for our students and scale it up over time.”

4. Make Sure that Plans Have Equity Provisions Built In

Equity is one of the most important provisions in a district literacy plan. Some students, particularly special education students and ELL students, will need more financial resources to ensure they can catch up. Targeted investments in technology that supports the unique learning needs of special education students and ELL students is critical to any comprehensive literacy plan that focuses on equity. Dr. Watlington shared, “In the Rowan-Salisbury School district, we will not consider adopting any materials that cannot be authentically translated into multiple languages. Our student body is too diverse, and it is just not acceptable to have materials that are not translated or do not reflect the true cultural norms and joys of diverse communities.”

Building a Solid Plan with Equity

Dr. Shawn Joseph shares the belief that school superintendents can positively influence students’ literacy rates. He shares, “No district will ever remediate itself into excellence. Superintendents and school board should be clear and intentional on how they are spending resources to ensure rigorous first instruction is happening within school districts. Districts that serve large numbers of Black and Brown children and large numbers of special education students cannot only make large investments in remedial supports. Remediation is necessary, but only after there are intentional plans to get first instruction correct.” Literacy plans need to go beyond data-driven models and include supportive community organizations and parents. Joseph recommends that all superintendents closely examine their literacy plans and decide whether they are based on current research and bring the full community into the plan to effectively engage and support students.

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