Toward Widespread Improvement of Literacy in Secondary Schools: Taking Reading Apprenticeship to Scale

High School student looking off camera

Briefly

  • Reading Apprenticeship is WestEd’s signature approach to improving literacy in subject matter classes at the secondary school level.
  • Evaluations of a five-year scale-up effort indicate the approach’s positive impact and have generated lessons on how to reach large numbers of schools, teachers, and students.
  • Among key elements of scale-up were teacher leaders supporting Reading Apprenticeship from within schools; well-structured, multifaceted professional learning spread through the year; and integrated support from national, state, and local levels.

Thirty years into her high school English teaching career, Lori Wojtowicz first made the acquaintance of Reading Apprenticeship, a WestEd-developed approach for improving secondary students’ literacy. She was intrigued enough to make the leap and embrace this approach in her practice. “It had a huge impact on my teaching, but also humbled me to my core,” she says, explaining that external feedback had led her to believe that she was already a strong teacher.

In 2010, a decade after developing the Reading Apprenticeship framework, its creators also took a big leap to scale up the approach with an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Their initiative, Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE), spanned five years and five states, bringing Reading Apprenticeship to 274 high schools, more than 1,900 high school teachers, and more than 600,000 students.

Reading Apprenticeship, the foundation of RAISE

Reading Apprenticeship professional learning experiences seek to transform the teacher’s role from being a provider of information to being someone who apprentices students into ways of reading, writing, speaking, and thinking in a particular subject, says WestEd’s Ruth Schoenbach, Co-Director of RAISE.

Through Reading Apprenticeship professional learning, teachers learn to make visible their own “invisible” expertise — they begin to recognize, and make accessible to students, the internal thought processes that teachers use to read and understand challenging texts in their subject areas. As they practice doing so, teachers also learn to apprentice students into the literacy skills of their fields. They model discipline-specific literacy skills and guide students to build high-level strategies for comprehension and communication. One distinctive attribute of the approach is that teachers purposefully focus on the Social and Personal dimensions of the Reading Apprenticeship framework, creating classrooms in which active group problem solving, nurtured in a collaborative learning environment, is the norm.

To learn the Reading Apprenticeship framework, teams of RAISE teachers (representing grade 9 English, grade 10 biology, and grade 11 U.S. history) from five states (California, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Utah) attended 10 days of professional learning over 12 months. RAISE also supported these teachers through monthly onsite meetings facilitated by a teacher leader at each school.

In addition, RAISE funded a state coordinator in each involved state to organize the state’s professional learning and serve as the main point of contact between a state’s participants, its school teams, and the national project staff. These state coordinators were an important force for innovation in the project, says Schoenbach, and “they brought a special understanding of the local culture and sensibilities, which was essential to being able to scale up in the different contexts of each state.”

Schoenbach adds that one of the coordinators’ most important suggestions was to initiate three face-to-face meetings each year for teacher leaders across a region or state. In these meetings, state coordinators modeled inquiry-based protocols and facilitated discussions and problem-solving exchanges, building leaders’ capacity to deepen Reading Apprenticeship practice in their schools.

Wojtowicz, a teacher leader from Michigan, describes these meetings with other schools’ teacher leaders as “powerful” — among the first truly professional encounters that she’d experienced in three decades as a teacher. “Encouraged by peers, we found we were motivated to do more,” she says.

“[State coordinators] brought a special understanding of the local culture and sensibilities, which was essential to being able to scale up.”

Another way that RAISE increased local capacity for the scale-up effort was by creating a Consultant-in-Training program for approximately 100 teachers and professional development providers, preparing them to facilitate Reading Apprenticeship professional learning. A range of tools and online supports were developed to train facilitators and provide feedback. “Although our facilitator certification process is still a work in progress, assuring quality and having facilitation standards were central to the success of the scale-up,” says Schoenbach.

Positive impact

Two independent evaluation studies were integral to the i3 grant. The findings of both studies indicate that this high-quality professional learning can be scaled, positively impacting instructional practice and students’ literacy skills. One of the studies was a comprehensive impact study, which randomly assigned each of 42 schools to be in either the intervention group or the control group. The other was a scale-up study that used surveys, focus groups, and case studies in the full set of all other participating schools besides those in the impact study. The scale-up study provided formative data to project leaders during RAISE implementation and helped elucidate challenges as well as school-level factors that made the initiative successful.

The impact study found that teachers and students in schools using Reading Apprenticeship reported significantly more opportunities to share reading processes and engage in problem solving, and indicated that reading instruction was more integrated into content-area learning, in comparison to what teachers and students in the control group reported. Intervention teachers also reported gaining greater confidence delivering literacy instruction, and that students became more engaged, independent readers.

According to the independent evaluation’s final report on the impact study, “Findings from this study demonstrate the success of the RAISE project in providing teachers with training and support at scale to help them change their instructional practices in order to foster metacognitive inquiry and support comprehension, particularly in science. These findings are consistent with positive findings from other studies of Reading Apprenticeship.”

Key ingredients of success: Collaboration and leadership

Cathleen C. Kral, Multi-State Coordinator for RAISE, who supported all five state coordinators, identified key ingredients of the initiative’s success: collaboration, a consistent structure, and support from administrators. Collaboration was critical throughout all levels of RAISE, she says. “There were facilitator teams, site coordinator teams, teacher leader teams, and teams at each of the schools, all helping people to be connected and supported.”

The scale-up evaluation found that establishment of team meetings early was a predictor of which schools would continue and deepen Reading Apprenticeship implementation rather than letting the implementation atrophy. Teachers reported that collaboration with colleagues was the most effective way to build capacity for implementation.

Wojtowicz confirms that a consistent structure was also essential for ensuring success, noting that RAISE professional learning “was not a ‘one-and-done’ workshop.” Instead, RAISE interspersed professional learning experiences and teacher meetings throughout the year to provide consistent support, giving teachers opportunities to receive guidance especially when they started to feel bogged down.

“Where teachers felt empowered to make a difference in their own classrooms — through collaborative work and a universal framework using the same practices in different academic subjects — teacher-led team meetings at schools sometimes continued to be held for four years and beyond, deepening the work and leading to incredible progress,” says Kral. “Where organization and meetings were more haphazard, there wasn’t that kind of progress.”

The role of school leaders was key, she adds. “To implement a new program like RAISE and keep it going, you really need administrative support.” She says that good relationships and communication between principals and teacher leaders are vital.

Pennsylvania’s Reading High School is a case in point. “The principal really supported the teachers in learning new ways to teach,” says Schoenbach. “This has made a noticeable difference in students’ engagement, learning, and scores in a low-income high school that had not been doing very well.” Now, having implemented Reading Apprenticeship, this school has made strides in closing achievement gaps, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education has given the school official recognition for improvements in reading, biology, literature, and math, and for being in the top 5 percent of all Title I schools in the state.

Wojtowicz notes that the administration at her school (in Ann Arbor, Michigan) was also supportive of RAISE, allowing teachers to meet one morning per month for a year — a fairly big commitment, she adds. Along the way, as the school’s RAISE teacher leader, she encouraged classroom visits by the principal, and she shared samples of students’ writing with the principal to illustrate progress made.

Models for wider replication

Reading Apprenticeship leaders continue to explore ways to expand replication. A series of grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement have enabled development and testing of an all-online professional learning model and two versions of a hybrid model using both face-to-face and online professional learning.

With the ongoing educational focus on college and career readiness, continuing to ramp up Reading Apprenticeship may be one of the best ways to raise the bar for higher-level academic literacy in core subjects. As one teacher said early in the RAISE initiative: “The new standards tell us what to do; Reading Apprenticeship shows us how.

In addition to receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Education, RAISE received matching funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, JP Morgan Foundation, National Philanthropic Trust, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.