Just weeks into the new semester, Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray showed up to help in a classroom.
Among the 18 third-graders being taught by a long-term substitute at Sulphur Springs K-8 School, not one could read the sample questions to prepare for the state test they would take this month.
They could not string together three or four words, Gray, a teacher for 27 years, told fellow board members on Feb. 19.
“They could not read the multiple choice answers," she recalled. "What we have is a crisis.”
The numbers back her up.
Tens of thousands of Hillsborough school kids struggle to read, according to state testing data. Despite mountains of research and years of trial and error. Despite well-intentioned programs and millions of dollars spent.
Only half the Hillsborough students who took the state's reading test last spring passed it. Nearly a fourth scored in the lowest possible range, Level 1. That might mean they read too slowly to work their way through a long exam. Or, in the most extreme cases, they cannot read the word R-E-A-D.
District leaders acknowledge the severity of the problem. Since last fall, many of them have been meeting as a large literacy work group, and plans are in the works to commission an outside audit of the district’s programs and practices.
Officials are quick to note that reading scores are poor in many places across the state and nation, not just Hillsborough. And they are correct.
However, no district has more schools on Florida’s “persistently low-performing” list than Hillsborough. District schools make up more than a quarter of the list, a much poorer showing than bigger, urban systems. And year after year, Hillsborough has nearly 40 schools on another list — the state’s 300 lowest schools in reading.
To better understand Hillsborough’s reading problem, the Tampa Bay Times interviewed nearly 100 teachers, administrators, literacy experts and students.
Where Hillsborough stands
39 elementary schools are on the state’s “lowest 300” list for reading, leading the state for the last three years.
13 of 48 schools on the state’s list of “Persistently Low-Performing Schools” are Hillsborough County schools, the most of any district.
53 percent of Hillsborough third-graders are reading on grade level — 3 points worse than a year ago and 4 points worse than the statewide number.
Source: Florida Department of Education
They cited many issues that aren’t unique to Hillsborough, from a breakdown in student discipline to the challenge of learning English as a second language.
Other challenges, like the teacher shortage and poverty, are universal as well, although perhaps worse in Hillsborough.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins noted recently that the district has 94 schools with 80 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, compared with 24 schools in neighboring Pasco County. Many come from families that have been poor for generations, which could mean the children’s parents did not have a strong education, either.
Technology emerged as a common theme, too, as digital devices replace books in many classrooms. Some students do not like reading this way. They complained about eye strain and fatigue.
Personal devices play a role as well, distracting students with social media and gaming.
Experts — including Stacy Hahn, a School Board member who spent years as a University of South Florida education professor — pointed to a lack of consistency in teacher preparation.
Close to a fifth of all teachers enter the field through alternative certification programs, typically after majoring in something else in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And the district relies on substitutes to fill vacancies and cover for long leaves of absence. At latest count, 277 substitutes were in long-term assignments, according to Kelly Educational Staffing, which provides the instructors.
But, by far, students said the biggest reason they soured on reading was state-required tests and the classes that schools use to prepare for them.
They took issue with how often tests occur and how much importance teachers and administrators place on them. They said the tests are too long, and the reading passages are dense and boring.
Some said reading classes only make matters worse. They must pass the test to avoid having to take reading again, which makes reading feel like a punishment.
The state Department of Education declined requests to make its experts in testing and reading available for interviews. Instead, department officials responded with a seven-paragraph email touting Florida’s rising graduation rate and the increased number of students taking Advanced Placement courses. (See Appendix below.)
They pointed to a ranking that recently put Florida at No. 4 in the country for student performance and noted that the number of D and F schools has gone down.
They cited the state's performance in a national test taken by a sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students every two years: The reading score among Florida eighth-graders went up 4 points between 2015 and 2017.
Meanwhile, at Sulphur Springs, the school Gray visited, 64 percent of the fifth-grade class tested at Level 1 last spring. The school serves one of the most transient neighborhoods in Tampa.
It’s also one of 11 schools the Times found where more than half the students tested last year at Level 1, despite nearly $2 million spent on reading specialists earning as much as $66,000 a year.
Systemwide, more than $31 million was paid to teachers and administrators hired as reading specialists. More money went to curriculum purchases, licenses and special programs.
District leaders said that money is not doing all it can because many reading specialists are covering for teacher vacancies instead of working with children in small groups or helping teachers sharpen reading lessons.
Reading, writing and dollar amounts
Here are some of the Hillsborough County school system’s major expenses when it comes to teaching reading.
$31.2 million: Combined salaries of 598 Hillsborough County teachers, classroom coaches and specialists with the word “reading” in their job titles when the current school year began.
$3.4 million: Licenses for i-Ready, a software system that tests students in their reading and math levels and provides exercises they can work on at school or home.
$1.8 million: Salaries related to reading at 11 Hillsborough schools where more than half the students scored at Level 1 on the state English language arts test.
$1.32 million: Reading accounts for myOn, a system offering personal digital libraries for students.
$1.3 million: Classroom libraries to boost reading enjoyment in 50 low-income “Achievement Schools” in Hillsborough.
Julie Wade Hiltz, a media specialist at Woodson K-8 school, has had to close the media center for hours to fill in for other teachers, or supervise lunch, or because the room and its computers were needed for testing.
The media center is where students go to get their hands on a book. It used to be called the school library.
Last year, most of Woodson’s older students tested at Level 1.
“Teaching students to read should be like delivering the mail,” Hiltz said.
“How do the schools fail at their primary mission?”
Hillsborough County once had an enthusiastic reader in Jahniyah Parker.
At a school book fair when she was younger, she happened upon Fortune’s Magic Farm and fell in love with the story. She read it aloud to help correct her speech, a Virgin Islands accent that made her painfully self-conscious.
She called the book “my salvation.” But instead of fanning that small flame for reading, the school system helped snuff it out.
Borderline test scores landed Jahniyah in reading classes at Mulrennan Middle School. She looked around at the small group and thought, “I’m basically one of the dumb kids. And we would be reading passages and it was kind of the same passages we read in English class, so I wondered, ‘Why am I in here?’ ”
Extra reading classes continued at Durant High School, where Jahniyah now spends second period reading passages that might be two or three paragraphs, sometimes a few pages, and answering practice questions.
Students like the teacher, Teresa Tanski. They like the materials they are given in a new curriculum designed to pique their interest. One week, they read about Martin Luther King, Jr. Another week, it was an essay about the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.
But the work is tedious, and they read only excerpts. They are asked what the author meant by the title, or what evidence in paragraph four supports a statement in paragraph three.
Tanski is preparing her 26 students for the Florida Standards Assessment in English Language Arts, a requirement to receive a high school diploma. “It is my hope, as a teacher, that these skills will stick with them beyond the test and increase their ability in reading in general,” Tanski says.
But students feel the stress.
Jahniyah skims over the words to find the important part.
“I really don’t take my time like I’m supposed to,” she said. “But when I’m surrounded by reading passages, I really don’t want to read.”
An aspiring writer, she sometimes resents the way school has made her feel about reading.
Kelly Gallagher, a veteran English teacher in Anaheim, Calif., published a book in 2009 about the many ways the testing culture has destroyed students’ desire to read.
Schools do not stock enough interesting reading materials, he wrote. They shortchange subjects such as history and science that would give students knowledge to help them understand what they are reading. They assign fewer novels to allow teachers more time for test preparation.
“When we deny students the opportunity to read long, complex works, we are starving a part of their brains,” Gallagher wrote.
He called his book Readicide.
If it’s hard to believe that schools are not teaching students how to read, consider how long experts have argued about how the job should be done.
Rudolf Flesch, a Columbia University doctoral student, thought he would turn the educational world upside down with his landmark book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. It was published in 1955.
Flesch believed in phonics, a process of decoding every word — letter sound by letter sound. He researched the 19th century origin of the competing “whole word” method, in which readers figure out words through pictures and context.
Flesch wrote that children had been set up to fail, as there was no way they could guess or memorize all the words they would need when they reached more difficult texts. He blamed publishing houses for churning out books with limited vocabulary, and schools for buying them.
“Whole language” went further than “whole word,” suggesting that children could learn to read intuitively, much the way they learned to speak. A compromise came in “balanced literacy,” which includes phonics but still gets a lot of criticism.
"The teaching of reading — all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks — is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense," Flesch wrote. He hoped his book would settle the debate for good.
Congress did not get much further in 1997, when it convened experts to evaluate methods of reading instruction. Critics of the resulting 450-page report, which largely supported phonics and a similar approach called phonemics, especially in the earliest years, said it left out key research and outside factors that included reading at home and educational television.
The “reading war,” as scholars call it, continued.
As it did, the accountability movement swept the educational landscape. Students began to take tests to measure the value of their schools and teachers.
Cheating scandals ensued. Parents rebelled. But the testing continues, with much of it on computers, by state mandate.
None of this — not the reading war, not the controversy about testing — is immune from politics.
Whole language is said to be a progressive idea that survives because universities are bastions of liberal thinking. Phonics appeals more to conservatives.
Even the long-held concept of “word poverty” has come under fire.
Decades ago, researchers said children from poor families typically heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthy counterparts, placing them at a disadvantage when they learned to read. Critics of that theory, backed by newer research, say that word gap is much smaller, if it exists at all — and that the whole concept feeds into bigotry against people who are poor.
Jaime Gerding, the school leader at Booker T. Washington Elementary on the outskirts of Ybor City, is well-versed in the arguments.
On a recent morning, she allowed the Times to observe a lesson for three first-graders who are “on the bubble” between grade level and below-level skill.
Patti Gonzales — a specialist who works with small groups — showed the children how to sound out unfamiliar words by breaking them into components and how to prepare for a new book by looking at the pictures. She showed them how to discuss story lines with each other and how to pronounce lines of dialogue.
They left the classroom with Gonzales telling them, “You three are awesome and you are going to go far in life because you are awesome readers.”
That is the kind of instruction schools need more of, Gerding and Gonzales agreed.
But it doesn’t always happen, especially in schools where classroom teachers are in short supply. Which means scores of students get their reading instruction from substitutes.
Using September and October invoices from Kelly Educational Staffing, the Times analyzed per-student spending throughout the district. Students in the 11 schools that were mostly Level 1 were nearly twice as likely to be taught by a substitute.
Booker T. Washington itself is recovering from a poor reading year in 2016-17. That year, Gerding’s first at the school, only three fifth-graders could read on grade level. The school as a whole had the lowest reading scores in the state among district-run elementary schools.
Scores improved the next year by 9 points, although Washington is still among the lowest 300.
Gerding said the testing system puts her students, who live in lower-income East Tampa, at a disadvantage.
Students in marginalized communities come to school with different life experiences than those in more affluent neighborhoods, she said. They are likely to encounter more unfamiliar words on reading tests, so the passages feel dense and must be read slowly. But the tests are timed.
"The passages, and the framing of the questions, are built on cultural norms that are not the background of our Hispanic and black students," Gerding said.
She offered, for example, a fifth-grade test question based on the novel Bridge to Terabithia, which includes detailed descriptions of a forest.
The problems go well beyond unfamiliar words on tests, she said.
Theories about teaching change from one generation to the next. Limited time in the work day makes it hard to get teachers together to collaborate. And there’s a lot of turnover in high-poverty schools because teachers feel beaten down by the accountability system.
Right now, she said, teachers spend a lot of class time updating students on the idiosyncrasies of the state test — a new answer grid, for example — when those hours could be spent building vocabulary and immersing children in books they enjoy.
Jeannette Teeden is a reading coach at Durant High and the school’s Teacher of the Year. Her job places her on the front lines of an initiative from the superintendent — to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by the year 2020.
Durant has a 95.6 percent graduation rate, but many students accomplished that goal with a workaround: The state allows students who cannot pass the 10th-grade reading test to substitute the SAT or ACT, two college aptitude tests.
Students are taught strategy, like tackling the easiest passage first to make the best use of limited time. They learn to recognize the test maker’s tricks — like an answer that is factually true but not in the text. And for questions they absolutely cannot answer, they learn the best way to guess.
Teeden tells her students that if they read a lot before the test — it doesn’t matter what, just that they are reading — they can build stamina, as an athlete would.
She tries to keep the focus on reading for enjoyment. She recommends authors with multiple titles so she can always ask, “What are you reading next?”
At home, Teeden faces reading hurdles with her own two sons.
Logan, a sixth-grader at Tomlin Middle, has a reading difficulty that went undetected until recently.
Taylor, who is in eighth grade, used to read for fun. But when he entered middle school, he discovered Netflix, and Xbox, and the apps on his telephone. He got in the habit of reading book chapters only after he "died" in his Fortnite game. He told his mother, "When I'm reading, I think about Fortnite. But when I'm playing Fortnite, I don't think about reading."
To encourage the boys to read more, the Teedens organized a summer "Boys Book Club." Kids from the neighborhood discuss adventure books around a backyard fire pit. Days before the meetings, Teeden asks her boys, “Are you doing your reading?”
Despite the Teeden boys’ advantages — their father is a teacher as well — Taylor scores at Level 2 out of 5, or below satisfactory, on the state’s reading test. His parents say it is strange, as he scores at the highest level in the state civics test, and you have to read in order to take it.
But they aren’t wasting time. Teeden told her son he will take the SAT at the end of ninth grade, “just to see where you’re at.”
Explanations for poor reading scores are almost as plentiful — and different — as snowflakes.
Curriculum vendors complain about the way the district selects materials, passing over products that could get better results.
Teachers say they cannot possibly meet individual needs with so many students. To save money in recent years, Eakins has pushed class sizes to legal limits.
“I have 22 babies in my class, 22 students that are so emotionally and academically needy that I cannot meet their needs,” Kelly Colucci of Foster Elementary told the School Board during a meeting about teacher bonuses. Her school, with 39 percent reading at Level 1, was one of three with such poor records, the district was ordered to bring in an outside consultant.
“This is a day-by-day fight, and that’s what it feels like — a fight,” Colucci said.
At Town N’ Country’s Webb Middle School, where 72 percent of the students are Hispanic and almost a third test at Level 1, reading teacher Joseph Cool cited language barrier as an obvious factor.
"When you look in the eyes of a kid who has been here six months and then you put a test in front of them, I can't imagine what that must feel like,” he said. “You're not going to walk away with a good feeling from that."
But to blame Hillsborough’s reading problem on immigration or bilingualism would ignore the fact that Broward and Dade counties have higher percentages of English-language learners; nearly twice as high in the case of Dade. Poverty is greater in both counties. Yet their students are more likely to read on level.
Teachers sometimes blame the many instructions and initiatives that are handed down. A teacher evaluation system, launched in 2010, used peer observers who focused on how students responded to what was being taught.
Did it cause independent classroom reading to fall by the wayside? What about SpringBoard, a curriculum product that included a lot of hands-on classroom activities?
Debbie Cook, the district’s chief academic officer, said that “students need balanced learning to tackle literacy, and independent reading is definitely part of the balance.” But some teachers might have mistakenly thought it would jeopardize their jobs.
Then there is behavior. Four years ago, the district moved to a more lenient discipline system amid complaints that too many minority students were being suspended, fueling what civil rights leaders called a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Darius Troupe, 13, was part of the fifth-grade class at Booker T. Washington Elementary, where only three children could read at grade level. Now he goes to Greco Middle, where more than half the students were Level 1 readers last year.
Asked why he thinks Greco, with a full complement of reading teachers and coaches, has such low scores, Darius said: "It's not the teachers, it's the students at Greco. They spend a lot of time acting out. They're fighting, making noise, arguing and disrespecting the teachers. They are trying to make themselves cool. But they stop the other people from learning in class."
At Armwood High, which is 33 percent Level 1 despite a college dual-enrollment program, media specialist Rebecca Quinn stocks her fiction section with easy-to-read books on subjects of interest to teenagers.
It’s near the graphic novels, under a sign with a picture of the cartoon cat Garfield and the words, “I read … therefore, I SUCCEED!” When training her student assistants, Quinn instructs them not to giggle.
At Strawberry Crest High, 30 students meet weekly with struggling readers at Bailey Elementary, the school next door. The district stages a Student Literacy & Media Showcase yearly so students can exhibit their own artwork and videos, inspired by books.
Eakins is pledging to get at least 80 percent of third-graders on proper reading level by 2023. It’s unclear if this is a realistic goal, but he is encouraged by progress made in increasing graduation rates.
He’s also focusing heavily on early childhood education and has added nearly 400 seats to under-enrolled elementary schools this year. In an interview, he said the next step is to strengthen teaching skills in the preschools nearest to Hillsborough’s lower-performing schools.
He called it the district’s “next wave.” He wants to see more children enter kindergarten with the skills they need, such as recognizing their letters, numbers and colors. Right now, it’s about half.
“Once we change 50 to 80, the whole rest of the system changes,” Eakins said.
He agreed that harm can come from short-lived teaching initiatives and high-stakes testing that kicks in at grade 3.
At its monthly meetings, Eakins’ literacy work group looks for areas where the district might make inroads. Members — including principals, teachers, curriculum specialists and others — have discussed everything from gaps in teacher training to the hardship of children who are years behind what the state expects of them. Plans are now under way to bring in an outside organization that will conduct an audit of reading programs in the schools, and whether they are being carried out faithfully. A School Board vote is expected in May.
Among the group’s other ideas: a community-wide literacy campaign. Gary Brady, the principal at Hillsborough High and a member of the work group, suggested something like First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against drug abuse. Or, closer to home, the district’s successful drive last fall to raise the sales tax to pay for school air conditioners.
“They really hit us over the head with it,” Brady said. “But it worked.”
April Gillyard was part of the first wave of principals in 2017 to move from successful schools to struggling schools, something Eakins referred to as “answering the call.”
She went to Memorial, a central Tampa middle school where more than half the students read at Level 1 and teacher morale was almost the lowest in the district. Six straight D grades had placed Memorial in danger of a state takeover.
Reading had to improve.
Gillyard decided every child would take reading, not just those identified as needing extra work. They would read the same novels, one for each grade, for unity. It wasn’t a hard sell, as most students were below grade level. And it was a way to erase the stigma of reading class.
Gillyard worked with her reading coach to overhaul the curriculum. They selected books that were culturally relevant in a school that is two-thirds Hispanic, with many immigrants.
She talked up book clubs and allowed them to meet during the school day. Between bites of pizza on a recent Tuesday, students found plot holes in books with fairy tale themes.
How did a witch make a house from candy? Wouldn’t it become moldy? “Where did she find candy big enough to make a house?” asked Jazmin Turner, 13.
Already, Memorial’s percentage of Level 1 readers has dropped from 52 to 47 percent. The school earned a C last year and avoided state intervention.
Gillyard said she strives to balance the realities of testing with concern for students’ well-being.
After years in Westshore and South Tampa schools, Gillyard is keenly aware of the differences that come from wealth and the expectations that exist in more affluent communities.
“We have working-class families that work hard, and when they get home, our kids have a whole lot of other issues to deal with — helping out with their little brother and sister. Helping their parents — where sometimes the education and the schooling part, once they leave school, is kind of the least of their worries.”
Gillyard was dealing with one student’s personal crisis the day of her video interview with the Times. While she could not discuss the incident, it clearly weighed on her as she discussed the various social services the school offers.
“Because if you have all of this stuff going on outside of school, to think that they’re going to come and want to read today? Or do their work? We’ve got to repair the child before (we) can get them to learn.”
Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com. Follow @Marlenesokol. Story design by Lyra Solochek.
Ground zero for struggling readers
Florida’s English language arts test is given in grades 3 to 10, with the latest round of results based on testing in spring 2018. Below are the 11 Hillsborough County schools where at least half the students who were tested scored at Level 1 — the lowest of five categories. Level 1 means a student’s performance is “inadequate” and he or she will need “substantial” support to handle the next year’s school work.
Percent low-income: 92.3
Percent Level 1 readers: 51
Forest Hills Elementary
Percent low-income: 93.5
Percent Level 1 readers: 50
Percent low-income: 87
Percent Level 1 readers: 53
Percent low-income: 87.4
Percent Level 1 readers: 51/p>
Percent low-income: 98.8
Percent Level 1 readers: 52
Percent low-income: 98.1
Percent Level 1 readers: 52
Percent low-income: 94.6
Percent Level 1 readers: 53
Percent low-income: 97.4
Percent Level 1 readers: 51
Percent low-income: 91.8
Percent Level 1 readers: 52
Sulphur Springs K-8
Percent low-income: 97.4
Percent Level 1 readers: 54
Van Buren Middle (now a part of Woodson K-8)
Percent low-income: 95.7
Percent Level 1 readers: 54
Percent Level 1 readers: 24
Percent Level 1 readers: 22
The state of Florida’s response on testing, reading
The Florida Department of Education declined to make anyone available for an interview about state testing and reading instruction, and instead issued this statement in an email:
Florida has rigorous standards (Florida Standards) that guide instruction in all K-12 courses and grade levels, and the statewide standardized assessments are aligned to the Florida Standards. The Florida Standards were established with input from thousands of Florida stakeholders, including educators and local education leaders, students, parents and many other members of the public. These assessments are a component of Florida’s strong accountability system, which has proven results:
Florida’s high school graduation rate rose to 86.1 percent, an increase of 26.9 percentage points since 2003-04 and 3.8 percentage points over last year.
According to Education Week’s Quality Counts 2018 report, Florida ranks 4th in the nation for K-12 student achievement.
In April, the NAEP* results were announced, and Florida was the only state to have improved significantly in grade 4 mathematics, grade 8 reading, and grade 8 mathematics between 2015 and 2017.
The number of Florida schools graded “D” and “F” was cut nearly in half last year and today, 57 percent of Florida schools are rated “A” or “B” and only 7 percent are rated “D” or “F.”
As for reading instruction, schools are required by law to teach the Florida Standards in their elementary language arts classes that have an entire strand devoted to foundational reading skills (that) include phonological awareness, phonics and fluency. Further, per (Florida Statue No.) 1008.25, districts are required to provide to any student in kindergarten through Grade 3 who exhibits a substantial deficiency in reading “intensive, explicit, systematic and multisensory reading interventions immediately following the identification of the reading deficiency."
* National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.
Florida Department of Education