Program aims to close Connecticut’s reading achievement gap

To combat Connecticut’s achievement gap in reading levels — which is the largest in the nation — the Connecticut Commission on Children has launched a pilot program to improve educational standards in 15 public schools across the state.

The pilot program, now spreading to more schools in its third year, aims to train teachers in innovative methods of teaching literacy and to develop more accurate assessments to measure students’ reading levels. The program, which is targeted at low-income school districts, currently exists in West Haven, Norwalk, Naugatuck, Bristol and Waterbury. Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, said the organization’s biggest challenge in narrowing the achievement gap is not lack of resources, but of motivation to effect change.

“We know how to bake the bread and how to make the bread rise. It’s just a matter of having cooks in the kitchen,” she said.

Margie Gillis, the founder and president of Literacy How, said that the program was spurred by frustrations over teachers not being able to address students’ particular needs because the assessments used to determine their reading levels were not adequately detailed.

She added that results of these assessments could come a month or more after they were first administered, leaving teachers without necessary information to instruct their students. The new assessments being developed under the pilot program will use computer technology to deliver results faster, Gillis said.

“This was an attempt to bring educators into the 21st century,” she added.

In the pilot program’s first year, the Connecticut Commission on Children conducted studies that found vast disparities between the test performances of children from low-income and middle-class households. The studies also show that three-quarters of African-American and Hispanic students are not reading at their grade level. Now, in its third year, the program is combining its findings into a model that will be available for schools across the state to use in January, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman explained that the Reading Pilot Program operates on a two-tiered strategy. The first tier is directed at improving the quality of education for all students and more directly identifying students’ reading levels. The second tier targets students who are struggling by giving them specific instruction.

After conducting research, the pilot program tested new assessment technology and trained teachers and principals in more proactive and friendly teaching methods, Zimmerman said.

Correction: Oct. 28

A previous version of this article misstated the places where the pilot program currently exists. It should have said that the program exists in West Haven, Norwalk, Naugatuck, Bristol, and Waterbury.

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