Turning Kids into Readers

Published on Haaretz

One of the bright spots in the hard-hitting documentary “Expensive Education,” which aired on Channel 10 last week, was a classroom of fifth-graders at the Nordau school in Netanya, about a third of whom are Ethiopian, deeply and happily engaged in reading.

Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz, the popular morning-show hosts behind this prime-time special, asked the children if they liked books, and were startled when the kids said they loved to read and that Hebrew was their favorite class.
Meroz told them this made them strange, in comparison to other kids, but the young students insisted that they read both in school and in their free time at home. In footage that remained on the cutting-room floor, more than half the kids said they wanted to be writers when they grow up.

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It’s not by chance that these kids are falling in love with books and writing. The class is part of a reform program designed to create a school culture of success, operated by the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI ), which – full disclosure – I direct, as part of my job at the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation working in Israel. The initiative, the fruit of a five-year-old partnership between our organization, the Ministry of Education and six participating municipalities, targets elementary schools with high concentrations of pupils of Ethiopian origin, but works for the benefit of all the children in the schools.

Our kids read and write a lot: Every day they read for half an hour in class – there’s an in-class library of almost 1,000 books in every room – and they are encouraged to read at home. Teachers help students master skills that experienced readers take for granted: to visualize what’s happening in the books, to anticipate plot developments, to make connections to other books and to their lives. They are taught to write the way I was trained in college – to find an idea and develop it, and then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, adding detail, depth and emotion to stories, or making essay arguments clearer and more compelling.

At a time when most of the news about Ethiopian students in the Israeli school system is dismal, our program is quietly changing expectations. In classes tracked for three full years, the percentage of pupils reading at Ministry of Education grade-level standards on our tests jumped from under 40 percent to more than 70 percent. In last year’s sample of more than 1,500 students, about half of whom are of Ethiopian origin, three-quarters finished at the ministry standard, and almost half were well above standard. Ethiopian students, moreover, are making progress at exactly the same rate as the non-Ethiopian students in the program.

We know that principals need to lead any process of change in their school and that parents need to be turned into partners in their children’s learning. Retired principals mentor every principal who joins our program, and Ethiopian mediators work relentlessly to get parents more involved in school life, with attendance at parent-teacher assemblies and conferences topping 90 percent. Real learning is dependent on high-quality teaching. To this end, each school has a full-time literacy coach who brings teacher training into the classroom, spending days introducing the model to teachers. We do regular testing of all students and have created an online database with the results, which teachers use to plan their teaching, and because of our Ethiopian target population, we integrate second-language instructional techniques into all our work.

The use of a specific instructional model is key to raising achievements. Our teaching approach – balanced literacy (which combines an emphasis on comprehension and enjoyment with the imparting of technical skills ) using the workshop model of instruction – was developed over the past 20 years at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project of Columbia University, and was adapted for teaching Hebrew in Israel. It is the brainchild of Prof. Lucy Calkins, a recognized pioneer in literacy instruction, and it is in use in more than 600 schools in the United States and more than 20 countries worldwide.

The Moriah Fund got into this business six years ago because we feared Israel’s educational system was starting to give up on Ethiopian children (of whom there are more than 17,000 in public primary schools today) and that the Ethiopian community was beginning to despair. We hooked up with top-flight partners: the Fidel Association, Israel’s leading Ethiopian education NGO; the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, experts in turning around under-achieving schools, and Teachers College. In most of our 17 schools, expectations of teachers, students and parents have been dramatically increased. Much of what we do is applicable both to other subject areas and to any population group.

The program costs money, but we tell critics to consider the savings from remedial and social programs that hopefully won’t be needed. Expenses – about $200,000 per school – are shared equally by the Ministry of Education, the respective municipality and ICEI, which is supported by leading American, Israeli and European Jewish foundations and Federations.

Our experience has shown that, despite concerns about external organizations working in our education system, public-private partnerships with Israel’s education establishment that focus on the nuts and bolts of improving teaching and leadership can transform schools. Foundations and NGOS can take the lead to introduce innovation, so long as the government retains full oversight and responsibility. There are no quick fixes or miracle cures. But with a vision, a specific program, the right partners and a long-term commitment, it is possible to create hope and deliver results.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, and the director of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation.

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