September 24, 2007

Project focuses on young students' reading abilities

by K.C. Jaehnig


CARBONDALE, Ill. — You can't figure out why Johnny — and his friends — can't read if you don't know they have reading problems to begin with.

"Look at the school-wide data; that's where we begin," said Nancy A. Mundschenk, an associate professor in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education.

Mundschenk and colleague Regina M. Foley serve as southern regional coordinators for Illinois ASPIRE, an acronym that stands for Alliance for School-based Problem Solving and Resources in Education. A five-year, nearly $10 million project funded by the federal government and administered through the Illinois State Board of Education, it aims to try to ensure that all the state's kids from kindergarten through third grade can read at the appropriate level.

Media Advisory

Reporters are welcome at this year's first ASPIRE training session set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Williamson County Pavilion, 1602 Sioux Drive, in Marion.


"In the past, problem solving has been single focused — on Johnny, not the school," Mundschenk said.

"We want schools to ask, 'What percentage of our students are on target to meet reading expectations for their grade levels on the state assessment test?' If it's not 80 percent, they need to ask themselves why. Perhaps it's their core reading program that's the problem and not Johnny at all."

Boiled down, the ASPIRE approach is as simple as A, B, C.

  • Collect data on reading ability of all students and assess what it means.
  • Develop and implement solutions for identified problems and evaluate results.
  • Repeat as necessary, based on student needs.

Participating districts establish benchmarks on all students in kindergarten through third grade three times during the school year — in the fall, winter and spring — with assessments designed to show their performance in critical areas of reading, such as how many correct words they can read in one minute. Specially trained teams within each school then analyze the scores, both on a school-wide and an individual basis.

"This provides a structure for rapid response for students who might not be where we want them to be," Mundschenk said.

Think of the student population as a triangle, she explained. At the bottom are the majority of the students, those not having reading difficulties. The middle layer might need not different help, just more of it.

"We hope that by winter, these kids will be closing the gap with their peers, but if they don't they still have until the end of the year," Mundschenk said.

At the top is a much smaller group, maybe 1 to 2 percent, who need intensive help — not just more of it, but different types as well.

"The goal is still to close the gap, but it's done with prescriptive, laser-pointed instruction aimed at particular skills and deficits for longer periods of time every day," Mundschenk said.

While ASPIRE provides assessment tools and project organizers train representatives from participating districts in their use, responsibility for data collection, analysis, problem solving and evaluation resides at the local level.

"We are external coaches," Mundschenk said.

"We try to refine and strengthen their structures and use the skills and expertise of those who are already part of some school-based team to provide really good instruction for all students. That way, they will still function when the project ends."

Last year — the first training year in the five-year project — more than 90 school-based teams signed up for the six day-long training sessions held at various sites throughout the region.

"That first year, we had hoped that maybe 60 to 75 people would come to a session, but we have had over 100 every time," Mundschenk said.

Last year's teams have signed up for advanced training, and 153 "newbies" have enrolled in this year's first session set for Thursday, Sept. 27, in Marion's Williamson County Pavilion.

"There are lots of schools where they've heard about the project and want to be part of it, and that's really exciting for us," Mundschenk said.