The International Literacy Association (ILA) cosponsored the amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last week as part of a pending class action litigation that was initiated last fall on behalf of students in the City of Detroit’s public schools.
Latin for "friend of the court," an amicus brief is a supplemental pleading by persons who are not parties to the underlying case. Its purpose is to place additional pertinent facts and precedents on the record for the court to consult as it renders its decision. Moreover, the court can accept or not accept the brief, in its discretion.
Counsel representing the plaintiffs, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, drew national attention to the case by asserting that access to effective literacy instruction is a federal constitutional right their clients had been deprived of by the state’s neglectful administration, inadequate support, and poor oversight.
For ILA President of the Board William Teale, supporting the class action plaintiffs was an obvious choice. “ILA knows the critical importance of literacy, and we work around the globe to promote it,” Teale said. “Our mission compels us to support the children and families of Detroit in seeking reading and writing education that enables full participation in a democratic society.”
Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director, agreed. “This important lawsuit casts light on the critical issue of educational access as a central component to becoming literate,” she explained. “We simply have to address these inequities, or we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate future generations of people who are not literate.”
To support the plaintiffs’ claim, the complaint cited the persistent and pervasive failure of the city’s public school students to achieve grade-level results on standard literacy assessments as compared with students in other districts and schools in the state.
Lack of reading material and online access, unfocused teacher professional development, high levels of teacher turnover, and ineffectual intervention were also alleged.
The defendants—the governor of Michigan and a number of state education officials—filed a motion to dismiss the action last December on the grounds that a right to literacy cannot be found in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or in any U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never declared literacy to be a constitutional right, it opened the door for a future ruling on this point by commenting in the 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that some “identifiable quantum of education”—some small piece—might be a constitutionally protected prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of other legal rights.
Both the amicus brief ILA signed on to and the underlying complaint argue that basic literacy is the “identifiable quantum” contemplated in Rodriguez, the indispensable skill required to exercise First Amendment and other rights.
The brief further asserts that the development over the last 30 years of reliable measures of literacy attainment needed for things like getting a driver’s license, reading a W-2 form, or applying for employment provides the court with an appropriate standard for judging whether the dismal performance of Detroit’s schools rises to the level of a constitutional violation.
A ninth-grade Flesch–Kincaid or Lexile Framework reading level was suggested to the court as the minimum level for exercising constitutional rights, participating fully in the political process, and taking advantage of numerous other legal benefits.
Also joining the amicus brief were Kappa Delta Phi, the international honor society in education, and the National Association for Multicultural Education.
Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.
The International Literacy Association (ILA) released the 2017 What’s Hot in Literacy survey findings today, revealing wide gaps between what educators across the globe consider important topics in literacy education and those garnering the most attention. Among the surprising results: Digital literacy, as well as assessment and standards, although widely discussed in educator circles, rank lower in importance than other issues among the more than 1,500 literacy leaders from 89 countries and territories surveyed.
“An analysis of survey findings from a cross-sector of literacy leaders from Argentina to Zambia indicates a need to redirect conversations around literacy with a focus on what is important to literacy educators,” said ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post. “Identifying these gaps, and then developing solutions to narrow them, will help the global community move the needle on literacy.”
This year, respondents were asked to rate 17 topics in terms of how hot and important they are to literacy education at both their community and country levels. Hot was defined as trending—the topics related to literacy that are receiving the most attention in the classroom, in conversations with other educators, and in the media. Important was defined as topics that are most critical to advancing literacy for all learners.
Here’s a look at some of the key findings:
In addition to featuring report highlights and feedback from top literacy professionals in Literacy Today, the entire report is also available with open access on ILA’s website. On Thursday, Jan. 12, ILA’s monthly Twitter chat will feature What’s Hot results and Sam Patterson at 8:00 p.m. ET. Join the conversation on social media using #ILAchat during the chat or #ILAWhatsHot at any time.
The What’s Hot in Literacy survey was created 20 years ago by Jack Cassidy, past president of the International Reading Association (IRA), now ILA. Cassidy compiled responses from about two dozen literacy leaders on “hot” and “cold” topics each year. The results were published annually in IRA’s member newspaper, now Literacy Today magazine, and they traditionally helped foster relevant professional development, promote timely research, and shape conversations around literacy education. His last report was published in 2016.
April Hall is editor of Literacy Daily. A journalist for more than 20 years, she has specialized in education, writing and editing for newspapers, websites, and magazines.
In 2014, the Virginia State Reading Association (VSRA) created strategic goals as part of our transformation process alongside ILA—then the International Reading Association. One of our goals was to create an initiative that supported a specific area of literacy instruction in our state.
Through discussion with the Virginia Department of Education, our focus became nonfiction. In looking at statewide tests—graphs, charts, and maps appeared to be the most challenging to students—and thinking about students’ comprehension of nonfiction texts, we began to dive more deeply into our topic, and we narrowed our focus to informational texts.
We combined the I in informational and the T in texts to create the acronym in the title of our initiative: “Got IT?”
Developing Got IT?
Authors of informational texts use various formatting tools such as boldface, italics, color, captions, headings and subheadings, and graphics. These tools require readers to understand why the author uses them and how they inform readers of new information. Informational texts provide needed opportunities to support inference, cause and effect, and drawing conclusions skills that, regardless of fiction or nonfiction passages, are all areas that seem to need support on our statewide tests.
Our Got IT? mission is to explore this genre in depth, provide professional development opportunities for our members, and clarify misconceptions within the genre. In addition, we aim to improve students’ ability to navigate and to compose informational texts by improving their comprehension of how text features, graphics, and text structures work.
The first task for us after creating a timeline of what we wanted to accomplish was to lay the foundation for what informational text is so that we are all using the same language. Just like in an informational text, we created a glossary of terms with definitions we use within our work on our statewide initiative. Terms such as flowcharts, graphics, cross-section diagrams, insets, sidebars, and surface diagrams are among a list of 20 technical terms found within informational texts. This glossary list is on our website and can be disseminated to parents and educators across Virginia.
Throughout this past year, we completed the following items and activities to support our initiative and unify our focus.
Slover Library kickoff
Our kickoff activity was held at the Slover Library in Norfolk, VA, in August 2015. This was the first VSRA Board of Directors meeting for our new year. Members of the Board developed activities with informational texts and read books to students. For K–2 students, we introduced charts, diagrams, captions, and informational text vocabulary. For grades 3–5, we focused on bold wording, italics, the table of contents and index, headings, and informational text vocabulary. For the middle school level, we discussed the index and informational text vocabulary.
We spoke with parents about the types of informational texts their children may see in school. All students were invited to participate in a “make and take” workshop, and all participants were able to choose informational texts to take home with them. Bare Books, Lakeshore Publishing, Really Good Stuff, and Scholastic provided us with materials to give to students who attended.
Professional development activities
In the fall of 2015, our Leadership Team worked to determine activities we could accomplish throughout the year to support the initiative. For example, the Public Relations Committee hosted a Twitter chat to focus on informational texts used in the classroom. The Parents and Reading Committee focused on distributing informational texts to parents and students at our annual conference. The Young Writers Committee created a Got IT? writing contest with a focus of students producing informational texts about their summer vacations.
Our November 2015 Leadership Meeting focused completely on our initiative. We collaborated with the Virginia Science Museum, Radford University, and Lakeshore Publishing—all of which either provided staff development or donated materials. For example, the Virginia Science Museum shared online resources available to parents, students, and educators, while Radford University shared a list of professional informational science texts for educators.
Also during the meeting, we asked the leaders of our local councils and committee chairs to form four small groups based on their localities within the state. We call these groups “quads.” The purpose is for groups of leaders who live near each other to develop lists of resources around our state. Leaders in the quads identified authors, maps, science museums, local attractions, and anything that would support the Got IT? initiative. We combined the information and published it on our website so parents and educators would have access to resources in their local communities.
Last winter, we identified informational texts in our Virginia Readers’ Choice List, and we’ve developed a partnership with The Nature Generation, another nonprofit, to consider some of their award-winning books on next year’s voting ballot.
During our conference in March, we placed an emphasis on informational texts by inviting a representative from the Virginia Department of Education, who provided updates on our statewide tests, and speakers such as Nell Duke and Donalyn Miller, who shared insight on informational texts that support instruction.
The future of Got IT?
Our plan is to continue promoting our initiative and to capitalize on the idea of quads. We are hoping that we will be able to build strong collaboration among counties and local councils in the quads and that they may work together to provide professional development opportunities for members in their areas.
We also hope they may want to cross over the boundary lines so we can continue working together to reduce illiteracy across our state.
Tiffany Erdos Brocious is the 2015–2016 Virginia State Reading Association (VSRA) President. During her presidency, VSRA received the ILA Distinguished Council Award. An ILA member since 1991, she is a K–5 literacy coach for Loudoun County Public Schools.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
In the wake of an unprecedented and extraordinary presidential election, the literacy education community waited intently to learn who would be tapped for the top post at the U.S. Department of Education.
The answer came last month when President-elect Donald Trump announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, is his enthusiastic choice.
“Under her leadership, we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back, so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families,” Trump said.
Accepting the responsibility, DeVos said, “the status quo in education is not acceptable” and added that “together, we can work to make transformational change.”
DeVos, 58, is the daughter of the late Edgar Prince, a wealthy industrialist, and the sister of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the private security firm that made headlines during the Iraq war.
She is married to Dick DeVos, a one-time Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate and former president of Amway and the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
Betsy DeVos graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and political science. She would not be the first education secretary without an education degree.
Margaret Spellings, who served as Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, also had a degree in political science, and Richard Riley, who served under Bill Clinton, had a law degree.
As with Spellings and Riley, DeVos also has never worked in the public school system but is the founder and chair of the American Federation for Children, a group that works to expand charter schools and school voucher programs. She has twice led the Michigan GOP, and she and her family have donated millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates.
However, she did not support Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. As a convention delegate, she voted for Ohio Governor John Kasich.
She does have previous ties to the Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, who expanded Indiana’s school voucher system into one of the largest in the United States while he was governor.
As she explained in an interview with Philanthropy magazine, “What we are trying to do is tear down the mind-set that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their parents’ home.”
When candidate Trump announced his education plan, she commented, “We know that millions of children, mostly low-income and minority children, remain trapped in K–12 schools that are not meeting their needs.”
Many see her nomination as proof that Trump intends to follow through on his campaign pledge to spend $20 billion in block grants to expand private and charter school options for minority children, a prospect that may reignite the debate over making Title I funds portable.
Reactions to the DeVos nomination have predictably split along party lines. Rick Snyder, GOP governor of Michigan, said she will mean great things to Michigan and to the children of the nation.
James Goenner, president of the National Charter Schools Institute, said DeVos was a bold pick, an outspoken advocate for school choice and a challenger for the status quo.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush described DeVos as a phenomenal, strong woman and expressed his hope that the new administration will usher in an “earthquake” in terms of federal education funding.
However, there has also been harsh criticism of DeVos. American Federation of Teachers head, Randi Weingarten, said Trump has made it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on “privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”
Lonnie Scott, executive director of the advocacy group Progress Michigan, said the nomination proved that “having a shortage of experience means nothing as long as you don’t have a shortage of money.”
Diane Ravitch of the Network for Public Education issued a battle cry, saying that those who believe education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good, must resist her nomination.
Early next year, the DeVos nomination will go to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). Committee Chair, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), praised DeVos as an excellent choice “who will be able to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) just as Congress wrote it.”
The ranking member of HELP, U.S. Sen. Patti Murray (D-WA), was less optimistic, noting the president-elect had made a number of troubling statements over the course of the campaign on a range of issues that a future secretary of education will have to address. She promised “a robust hearing process.”
Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.
Nathan Lang is all about enthusiasm. As the school year marches on, it’s a real possibility that educators can become complacent or, at worst, burned out, but Lang has a wealth of experience to help rejuvenate educators as 2017 approaches.
Join us on Twitter Thursday, December 8, at 8:00 p.m. ET when Lang will offer suggestions on how to treat—and avoid—classroom burnout.
Lang is a speaker, writer, professional learning facilitator, and education pioneer in the United States. He is currently a consultant with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and was formerly Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.
For all of these roles, he draws from his experience as a high school science teacher, assistant principal at both the elementary and high school levels, a university adjunct professor, and an education supervisor at the NASA-Johnson Space Center.
Thursday’s chat will include tips on valuing small victories with students and how to enhance classroom time while balancing current responsibilities.
Follow Lang on Twitter and be sure to follow #ILAchat and @ILAToday on December 8 at 8:00 p.m. ET to join the conversation.