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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Should Shelby County Schools invest $15 million with literacy consultant?

The $15 million Educational Epiphany “is overwhelmingly supported by teachers and school leaders,” SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray told the board Tuesday. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
The $15 million Educational Epiphany “is overwhelmingly supported by teachers and school leaders,” SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray told the board Tuesday. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

The beginning of the school year was more difficult and complicated than usual for teachers in Shelby County Schools.

The pandemic forced classes to begin three weeks late and remotely. Teachers had to learn to deliver their daily lessons online on a digital platform called Microsoft Teams.

Many teachers also began the year with a brand new $7.3 million English/Language Arts curriculum called Wonders, the district’s third major reading curriculum shift in six years.

And not long after classes started, teachers were told to use an unorthodox new instructional approach called Educational Epiphany , developed by Dr. Donyall Dickey, a consultant based in Washington D.C.

“Dr. Dickey and his words,” some teachers call it.

Since 2018, SCS has paid Educational Epiphany $1.1 million for Dickey and his words — instructional training and literacy materials that began with a pilot program in nine schools and expanded to all schools in September.

Donyall Dickey
Donyall Dickey

Now, as students and teachers prepare to return to school buildings, the district is proposing to spend up to $15 million more on Educational Epiphany products and services over the next five years.

The school board is scheduled to vote Feb. 23 on $5.75 million for the first year of the proposed contract.

Meanwhile, board members and teachers are raising questions about Educational Epiphany:

  • Whether it aligns to the new curriculum, and also duplicates parts of it.
  • Whether teachers support it and find it useful and helpful to students.
  • Whether parents will want it and use it as instructed.
  • Whether it will conflict with or duplicate the big, expensive changes in early literacy instruction at the state level.
  • Whether it works and is worth the cost.

“This seems like an awful lot of money for one person,” school board member Sheleah Harris, a former high school teacher, told SCS officials in an academic committee meeting Feb. 2. “I want to make sure (Educational Epiphany) is actually working first.”

Board member Stephanie Love expressed support for the proposal Tuesday, but asked how parents would be involved. “I’m really not interested in wasting funds, if parents don’t want it,” she said.

Dickey, a former school district administrator in Atlanta and Philadelphia, says Educational Epiphany will “result in unparalleled and sustainable improvements in student achievement and educator effectiveness.”

So far, local results are incomplete.

Nine SCS elementary schools began “piloting” Educational Epiphany in 2018.

In 2018, SCS officials reported that seven of the nine schools showed gains of 1-7 percent in TNReady reading scores. Two other schools showed losses of 2 and 8 percent.

The board approved contracts with Dickey’s company for $200,000 in 2018, and for $250,000 in 2019, to continue the pilot program.

Last June, in another presentation to the board, SCS officials used 2018 data from six of the schools (two of the nine had closed). Five made literacy growth gains. One school held steady. The board approved a third contract with Dickey for $650,000 for the 2020-2021 school year.

SCS administrators say they don’t have more current data on the pilot schools. The 2018 TNReady tests were compromised by technical problems, and last year’s TNReady tests were cancelled because of the pandemic.

They also say it’s too early in this school year to tell what impact Dickey’s approach is having on student achievement across the district. They hope to see gains registered in the upcoming TNReady standardized tests this spring.

At last Tuesday’s board work session, Supt. Dr. Joris Ray and members of his staff tried to alleviate any concerns.

“I whole-heartedly believe in Educational Epiphany,” Ray told board members. “Educational Epiphany has laid out a road map for how to teach literacy.”

Dickey’s ‘Integrated Approach’

Dickey says his “integrated approach” to teaching “will promote seismic shifts in your school’s/district’s instructional program.”

That clearly has happened.

Since September, SCS teachers have been required to spend 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of every lesson “unpacking” the “academic language” of the particular state learning standard being taught that day.

Academic standards are specific learning goals established by the Tennessee Board of Education. There are dozens of standards for each subject in each grade.

For example, third-graders this year are being taught to “use text features to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.”

They also are being taught to “distinguish reader perspective from that of the narrator or the perspectives of the characters and identify the point of view of a text.”

Teachers use the standards — and curriculum aligned to the standards — to plan and deliver their daily lessons.

The annual TNReady standardized tests measure how well students have “mastered” their grade-level standards.

“Standards are what we expect students to know or be able to do by the end of a course or a grade,” said Dr. Angela Nichols, principal of Willow Oaks Elementary, one of the pilot schools. “With Dr. Dickey’s method, now the students also understand what it expected of them and why we are teaching the lessons we are teaching.”

Dickey says “academic language” shouldn’t just be used by adults.

The language used in state standards is the same language publishers use to develop curriculum, the same language teachers use to create daily lessons, and the same language test makers use to form questions on annual standardized assessments, Dickey says.

Too many students — especially students who grow up in socioeconomically disadvantaged homes — are unfamiliar with academic language, Dickey says.

As a result, they don’t understand the texts, the lessons, or the test questions because they don’t conceptually understand the “academic language” they are reading or hearing, Dickey argues.

Academic language commonly found in grade 3-5 standards include words like analyze, cite, determine, identify, integrate, procedure, topic, summary, and text features.

“Students should be exposed to a single, operational definition of these vocabulary words so that they can subsequently and readily transfer their knowledge of the words across content areas and grade bands as they read, think, write, take formative assessments, and sit for annual standardized assessments that will undoubtedly use the aforementioned words,” Dickey argues.

Dickey believes his instructional methods should be “integrated” into all lessons in all subjects, not just reading and English, and in all grades.

Students should be “consistently exposed to the academic language of the standards, knowing well that these words will be used to pose the questions that can subsequently lock them out of proficiency and close doors in their face for years to come.”

As part of his consulting contract, Dickey “decoded” every Tennessee state standard for reading/English in grades K-12; math from grade 3 to Algebra 1; and literacy standards for social studies, science and technical subjects in grades 6-12.

Dickey’s “decoded” state standards become the “performance-based objectives” of all lessons.

According to the district’s classroom observations:

  • 75 percent of SCS teachers are using Dickey’s performance-based objectives.
  • 69 percent of SCS teachers are defining and explaining academic vocabulary found in the standards.

“Our students deserve to be taught by teachers who possess both expert-level knowledge of the content standards and expert-level ability to plan and deliver instruction aligned to the nuanced expectations of the standards, consistent with how students will be assessed on high stakes exams at the end of the school year and/or at the end of each core content area course,” Dr. Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support, told the school board last June.

Dickey’s ‘Performance-Based Objectives’

Here’s what Dickey’s instructional method looks like in a typical third-grade class.

In this “virtual” school year, the daily “unpacking” process begins with a series of slides.

The first slide shows students the exact state standard that will be unpacked for that lesson.

Today, all over Tennessee, 3rd graders just like you are using various text features (keywords, hyperlinks, sidebars, etc.) to locate key facts or information in texts efficiently. (RI.3.5)

The next slide shows the standard reworded as a “performance-based objective” (PBO), as described by Dickey. Dickey’s version always includes the acronyms SWBAT (student will be able to) and IOT (in order to). The PBO must be printed somewhere on every slide used for the entire lesson.

SWBAT identify types of text features and examples of each IOT use them to locate information relevant to a given topic.

The next slide shows definitions of every key “academic” word in the standard/PBO, as chosen and defined by Dickey.

identify: to recognize and name

text features: a unique characteristic of a text that emphasizes an important idea or detail

examples: one of a group of things, or a part of something, represents the whole

locate: find

information: facts about someone or something

The teacher uses subsequent slides to help students practice applying the words — for example, “practice finding ‘text features’ such as a title, heading, table of content, glossary or caption” in a particular reading.

Then the teacher asks students to describe (via chat) the state standard and its key vocabulary words in their own words.

Once the daily standard has been “unpacked”, the teacher proceeds to the actual reading lesson — for example, a textbook chapter on the Little Rock Nine.

The district wants teachers to follow the same procedure in nearly every grade and subject at the beginning of every 30-, 45-, 60- or 90-class or lesson. Teachers also are supposed to refer back to the standard during the lesson and after it’s over.

”Before, students were unsure, confused about what I was asking them to do,” said Miesha Bolden, a third-grade teacher at Willow Oaks. “Now they know what’s expected every year. My third-graders came in better prepared because they did all of this last year. This works. I love it.”

Teachers have questions

Not all teachers are as enthusiastic.

The Institute for Public Service Reporting interviewed 15 other teachers in seven grades at 14 other SCS schools.

The teachers agreed to talk about Educational Epiphany only if they weren’t identified by name or school. SCS teachers have been reprimanded for failing to adhere to board policy that states: “SCS employees providing information to the media shall disclose whether he/she is providing an official statement on behalf of the District or expressing personal views and/or opinions.” 

Nearly all of the teachers say they see value in Dickey’s approach, especially in helping students understand “academic language” that is directly relevant to the lesson.

But the teachers raised questions and concerns about a number of aspects of Dickey’s approach.

Using the same “unpacking” method in all grades isn’t developmentally appropriate.

Kindergarten teachers “unpack” 47 standards for their five-year-olds, such as this one: “Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills when decoding isolated words and in connected text.” Teachers wonder how helpful it is for five-year-olds to recite the definitions of “word analysis” and “connected text.”

Some PreK teachers are told to include the written standards or PBO’s in online chats or slides, even though most of their four-year-olds can’t read.

Unpacking the same academic language every day can be redundant.

High school teachers unpack 95 standards for their U.S. history students during the year.

One example: “Describe the rise of trusts and monopolies, their impact on consumers and workers, and the government’s response, including the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.”

The teacher and students go over the definitions of describe, rise, trusts, monopolies, impact, consumer, worker, government, response, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and Clayton Anti-Trust Act. Then they proceed to the history lesson about those same concepts. They do it all over again the next day.

The order in which standards are taught in Dickey’s program often don’t align with the curriculum.

Some teachers try to adjust the curriculum to fit Dickey’s schedule. Some do the opposite. Some just follow Dickey’s schedule and all but ignore the curriculum. Some just present Dickey’s standards when they know they are being observed.

Unpacking the standards for every lesson takes away valuable instruction time.

”It took me so long to unpack the standard, then to go over it in the middle of the lesson, and then at the end,” said a fifth-grade math teacher. “I didn’t teach math today. I taught vocabulary.”

Teachers say what they need is more consistent and reliable support, resources, and time to do their jobs.

“I’ve been a teacher five years and this is my fourth curriculum,” said a third-grade teacher. “They don’t call this a curriculum but it is. The last new thing didn’t work so let’s try this new thing. That’s the problem. They never stick with anything long enough to give it a chance to work.”

Dickey says he understands why some teachers feel like “unpacking” the standards “is just one more new thing” they have to do.

“And the last thing teachers need is another thing to do,” he said. “But this is not about another thing to do before instruction begins. This is instruction. This is about teaching content, making sure students in all grades understand the vocabulary that gives them access to the content.”

Nichols, the Willow Oaks principal, agrees.

“This works,” she said. “The only way for students to meet the demands of the standards is to unpack every word inside the standards. When they understand what’s expected, they perform better. It’s like sports. The more you understand the play, the better you perform.”

Dickey’s epiphany

Dickey was born and grew up in Texas City, Texas, and earned a degree in public relations at the University of Texas.

But he began his career in education in Baltimore as a third-grade teacher in a low-income neighborhood in 1997.

“For the life of me, I could not figure out why my 8-year-olds were reading like kindergartners,” he said.

He began to realize there wasn’t one reason, there were many, and they were all connected.

Too many of his students didn’t have the structure, support, skills and knowledge they needed to be successful students.

And too many teachers, like him, didn’t have the support, skills, knowledge and resources needed to help those students.

That was his “epiphany”.

“ZIP Code should not determine the academic achievement or academic capacity of a student,” he said. “Every student needs and deserves access to consistent high-quality instruction and content.”

Dickey spent two years teaching third-graders, then two years as a high school English teacher, then six years as an assistant principal and principal of a middle school. He preached the primacy of literacy at every level.

In 2007, he was hired as principal of Murray Hill Middle School in Howard County, Maryland, in suburban Baltimore.

Murray Hill had failed to make adequate yearly progress on state standardized tests two years in a row. It was in danger of being taken over by the state, under the No Child Left Behind program.

Under Dickey’s leadership, teachers began “unpacking” state standards in all grades and subjects.

“It is inappropriate to expect the vast majority of our students— let alone students who are ‘striving’ to read and comprehend, to demonstrate proficiency without instruction that’s focused on a conceptual understanding of the standards’ language,” he explained later.

Over the next four years, the percentage of Murray Hill students who met “proficiency” standards in reading/ELA increased from 73 to 91.

The proficiency percentages for students receiving free- or reduced-lunches increased from 54 to 86. For English-language learners, proficient-level students increased from 26 to 67 percent.

Parents, teachers push back

In 2009, the Howard County Board of Education decided to bring Dickey’s “Integrated Approach” to 20 additional schools.

Some teachers and parents began to push back, saying they were not consulted or prepared for such a big change, and they were unconvinced the program was anything more than an effort to “teach to the test.”

“It is counterproductive to begin a new program in a large number of schools without fully assessing the merits and potential constraints of the program and without the preparation and collaboration of staff and administrators, students and parents,” Ann De Lacy, then president of the Howard County Education Association, wrote in 2009.

Three parents examined state testing data and submitted a report to the board, claiming in part that some Murray Hill students were “simultaneously receiving multiple sources of remediation making it impossible to measure the benefit of Integrated Approach in these demographics.”

The board asked the district’s administrative staff to study and respond to the parents’ report.

The staff agreed that because of the variety of interventions at Murray Hill, “separating the effect of the Integrated Approach on students’ performance is difficult.”

But the staff concluded that “the most dramatic decreases in the number and percentage of (students scoring below proficient) have occurred in tandem with the implementation of the Integrated Approach in 2007 and 2008.”

In 2009, Dickey outlined his instructional methods in a book called “The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement”. He also started an educational consulting firm, Educational Epiphany.

In 2011, some teachers and parents raised questions about Dickey’s extracurricular work. Dickey asked the Howard County school systems’ ethics panel to review it.

“You explained that you wrote the book (about the Integrated Approach) during the course of 5 days at your house. No school system resources were used in the writing,” the panel said in its June 2011 letter to Dickey.

“You have also established an educational consulting company specializing in the (Integrated Approach). You now market (IA) across the country, serving as a consultant in school systems, selling (IA) materials off your website, and promoting your book. (And) you contracted with approximately half a dozen HCPSS teachers to do work for (Educational Epiphany).”

The panel concluded that the school system’s ethics regulations “prevents you from contracting with any employees assigned to your building. You can, however, use HCPSS employees assigned to other schools.”

The ethics panel also told Dickey that he couldn’t reference his employment with Howard County in promotional materials, he needed to use approved leave time for consulting or speaking engagements, and he could use “school data only as it appears in a public domain.”

As Dickey began to sell his instructional approach to other schools, Howard County’s commitment to the approach waned.

In 2010, Maryland adopted more rigorous Common Core standards, and new state standards and assessments in 2013.

“Murray Hill Middle School did not make AYP (adequate yearly progress) under Dickey’s approach,” said Connie Morris, president of the Howard County Education Association. “Although there were some other issues surrounding the discontinuation of Dickey’s ‘Integrated Approach’, it was not successful and was discontinued shortly after the introduction at other schools.”

Dickey left Howard County in 2013 to become a regional superintendent and then chief academic officer of schools in Philadelphia.

Two years later, he became chief academic officer of Atlanta Public Schools in 2015.

In March 2017, Dickey was named the lone finalist for the job of superintendent of Portland (Ore.) Public Schools

“His repeated success in turning around underperforming schools in large urban school districts in a short amount of time demonstrates his unique ability to put in place operational systematic changes that support teachers, spur student achievement and improve schools,” Tom Koehler, Portland’s school board chairman, said in a statement.

Two months later, Dickey withdrew his candidacy.

Koehler told The Oregonian that the board had soured on Dickey because of his “lack of candor” about a handful of minor court cases going back to his days as a college undergraduate.

Dickey told the Portland Tribune that he withdrew because of questions about salary and whether he would be allowed to continue his education consulting business.

“After deep reflection I have decided to pursue other PreK-12 opportunities and to continue my consulting work, supporting other school districts in their effort to implement reforms that improve achievement for all students,” Dickey wrote in a letter to the Portland board.

In June 2018, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission revoked Dickey’s educational leadership license for issues related to the Portland superintendent search.

A “proven model”

SCS’s Whitelaw made the case for Educational Epiphany at school board meetings last June, Feb. 2, and again at last Tuesday’s work session.

She noted that Educational Epiphany is “published with Scholastics.”

In December 2018, Scholastic Literacy published Dickey’s 12-page paper on “Equity and Standards-Informed Literacy Instruction.”

Scholastic Inc. is one of the largest education publishers in the country. Its products include Scholastic Literacy, K-6 curriculum. Dickey is identified as a “lead author” for Scholastic Literacy.

Whitelaw also said that Educational Epiphany is a “proven model” that “promotes double-digit gains among all student groups in one school year”.

She cited two sets of data that showed big gains in reading and math scores in two school districts in Maryland.

The first set was from an unidentified “A Maryland Public School”.

The data comes from Murray Hill Middle School 2008-2011, when Dickey was principal.

Dickey used the same “Secondary School Study” to support his Scholastic article. The same data also can be found on the “Impact Data” tab of Educational Epiphany’s website.

The second set of data on Whitelaw’s Power Point showed similar reading gains “after year 1 with Educational Epiphany Service” in three Baltimore City Schools in 2009.

All Baltimore schools stopped using Dickey’s approach in 2013. One of the schools closed in 2015, another in 2016. The third school reported 11 percent of its students passing the state’s new standardized tests in 2016.

Dickey’s website includes 2009 data from another school, Daniel Goldfarb Elementary School in Las Vegas.

“DGES demonstrated the most significant gains in the state of Nevada after the school had previously failed to meet adequate yearly progress for 4 consecutive years prior to working with Educational Epiphany,” Dickey wrote.

The school’s principal, Jacqueline S. Conarton (later Gillespie), was an elementary school teacher and administrator in Howard County, Maryland, before she took the job at Goldfarb in 2007. She retired last month. Conarton wrote the foreword for Dickey’s 2010 book.

“Our students took the state test after less than a year of working with Donyall and achieved a total of 48% growth in reading and math 24% in each area,” Conarton wrote. “We have much work to still do but will rely on the adoption of the Integrated Approach to continue our journey.”

Goldfarb’s reading scores on state tests improved from 50 in 2008 to 62 in 2009.

Nevada adopted more rigorous Common Core standards in 2010, and new state assessments in 2014. Goldfarb switched to another literacy program called Reading Rangers.

Words and Wonders

Dr. Dickey and his words aren’t limited to the academic language in state standards.

Dickey encourages all teachers — not just reading teachers —to devote part of every lesson to “general and content-specific vocabulary.”

That means teaching younger students to decode words — to sound them out by connecting letters and letter patterns (graphemes) to the sounds they represent (phonemes).

But phonics isn’t enough, Dickey says.

“Calling out words isn’t reading,” Dickey said. “Readers must understand 95 percent of the words they read. Otherwise, they can’t analyze or summarize or even understand what they are reading.”

To aid comprehension, Dickey encourages teachers to help all students understand longer or more difficult words by breaking them down into roots, prefixes and suffixes.

“When students decode & create meaning fluently, they will read at or above expectations,” Dickey tweeted to SCS Supt. Joris Ray and others after he spoke to 6,000 SCS teachers remotely for a training session in September.

“Our new literacy kit contains: the 44 phonemes; the 144 graphemes necessary to decode fluently plus the 30 most commonly used prefixes, roots, & suffixes necessary to create meaning fluently,”

Ray (@SCSSuptRay) replied with a Tweet: “Brilliant!!!! How much for the kit?”

Dickey’s response: “It’s very affordable sir. I will inbox you the costs.”

The cost of Educational Epiphany’s Literacy Cards turns out to be $5.575 million for the first year, and $8.956 million for years 2-5.

At Tuesday’s work session, SCS administrators showed the board four slides that asked the same question: “What is preventing our students from reading at the grade level expectation or beyond?”

Three out of four Memphis third-graders, and two in three across Tennessee and the U.S., don’t read on grade level, according to standardized tests.

According to the first slide, one of the obstacles in Shelby County Schools is lack of knowledge of 44 phonemes144 graphemes and 7 categories of sounds.

“Educational Epiphany will help SCS faculty, staff, students, and parents to understand and gain access to knowledge and resources necessary to teach phonemes, graphemes, and categories of sounds necessary to resolve our longstanding literacy issue,” the slide concluded.

But teachers say the new Wonders curriculum includes weekly “Word Work” in on Phonemic and Phonological Awareness, including but not limited to Phoneme Identity and Isolation, Phoneme Blending, Phoneme Segmentation, Phoneme Addition and Deletion, Vowel Sounds, Consonant Sounds, Consonant Blends, Vowel Digraphs, Inflectional Endings, and Syllabic Patterns.

According to the second and third slides presented Tuesday, the obstacles to grade-level reading include lack of knowledge of the 30 most commonly occurring prefixes, suffixes and root words, and what Dickey calls the “universal language of literacy” — the academic language found in state standards.

“Educational Epiphany will help SCS faculty, staff, students, and parents to understand and gain access to knowledge and resources necessary to teach the most commonly occurring prefixes, root words, suffixes, and universal language of literacy necessary to resolve our longstanding literacy issue,” the slides concluded.

But teachers say the new Wonders curriculum includes explicit instruction in prefixes, suffixes, and root words. And the comprehension strategies and “text talk” outlined in Wonders explicitly teach the academic vocabulary that Dickey is calling “the language of literacy.”

The fourth slide added two more obstacles to grade-level reading: Lack of knowledge of 315 Dolch sight words and 1,000 Fry Sight Words.

“Educational Epiphany,” the slide concluded, will provide understanding and “access to this knowledge.”

But teacher say Wonders incorporates weekly “High-Frequency Words,” most of which are taken from the Dolch and Fry lists. They are explicitly taught in context rather than in isolation.

Teachers also note that the phonemes, graphemes, affixes and root words, academic language, and sight words included on the slides are available for free online.

The proposed new contract with Educational Epiphany also would provide all district educators, administrators and parents “with professional learning opportunities designed to ensure that all students have consistent access to high-quality reading proficiency instruction,” according to a briefing document prepared for Tuesday’s board work session.

Dickey says the training and materials that come with his literacy kits will complement and improve the delivery of the Wonders curriculum, as well as literacy instruction in general.

“Any curriculum you purchase has holes in it,” Dickey said. “And too often people don’t know what to do with the curriculum, especially when you have so many students performing under grade level.”

Board members’ questions

At Tuesday’s work session, school board members raised questions about the proposal to spend up to $15 million on Educational Epiphany’s literacy kits and accompanying training.

Board member Shonte Avant asked how new Educational Epiphany materials would fit in with big changes coming this year in the state’s early literacy priorities.

Gov. Bill Lee’s budget includes spending $110 million to support a new statewide phonics-based reading initiative called Reading 360. It includes phonics kits with decodable books and online activities that will be sent home with kids.

The $15 million SCS proposal would be used to purchase Educational Epiphany Literacy Cards for every classroom. All K-12 students also would be allowed to take a set home or gain access to a digital version.

“It is a very unique program that is not a duplication of services offered within the district,” SCS officials told board members at their work session Tuesday.

But some teachers say the new instructional resources being offered by Educational Epiphany duplicate those already provided in the new Wonders curriculum. They also are readily available online for free.

Board member Harris asked what teachers think of Educational Epiphany. “I just want to make sure we’re using things the majority, if not all, teachers find beneficial,” she said.

“Educational Epiphany is overwhelmingly supported by teachers and school leaders,” Dr. Joris Ray, SCS superintendent, told the board Tuesday.

As proof, SCS officials showed board members the results of 6,000 surveys from 10,000 teachers who attended Educational Epiphany training sessions in September, October, November and December.

But the survey asked teachers how well they understood Dickey’s instructional practices, whether the training helped, and which practice required more training.

The teacher survey also asked two “open-ended” questions, but both questions — and the 30 listed responses — were about the training and the use of Dickey’s practices.

None of the questions asked teachers what they thought about Educational Epiphany or whether it was helpful or useful to students.

Avant also asked if the district had more current “data to support” Educational Epiphany’s impact on achievement scores here or elsewhere.

SCS officials showed the board improvements in achievement test scores from Pulaski County Special School District in Little Rock, Atlanta Public Schools, and Dougherty County (Ga.) Public Schools.

Dickey provided professional development for some of Pulaski County’s 25 schools. One school, Mills University Studies High, demonstrated high growth on the Arkansas ACT Aspire exam in 2019.

Principal Duane Clayton thanked Dickey for “opening my eyes to start my evolution to become an instructional leader,” in a 2019 tweet. “You are welcome, Principal Clayton,” Dickey tweeted back. “I have heard great news coming back from schools that allowed Educational Epiphany to partner last year.”

“That was the last year Educational Epiphany was used,” said Jessica Duff, the district’s executive director of communications. “We terminated all contracts with consultants entering the 2018-2019 school year. The program has not been in use since the 2017-2018 school year.”

In Dougherty County, Georgia, the school system’s 21 public schools with 17,000 students began using Educational Epiphany in 2018.

The next year, Dougherty County schools had closed the achievement gap between the school system and the state in 60 percent of the subjects tested in Georgia Milestones, the state’s annual standardized tests.

“The single factor with the biggest impact on student achievement is effective instruction,” Supt. Kenneth Dyer wrote in the Albany Herald in 2018. “A critical component of an effective instructional system is the common understanding of and approach to what to teach. Educational Epiphany’s work goes to the very core of that goal, as it will address curriculum and instruction in a systemic manner to foster common language and understanding across the district.”

Atlanta Public Schools and its 55,000 students achieved their highest proficiency rates on Georgia Milestones in 2018 and again in 2019.

APS officials credit its “Turnaround Strategy” that began in 2016, when Dickey was academic chief.

Seventeen of the district’s lowest performing schools added reading and math specialists, high-impact tutoring, and additional wraparound supports designed to improve academic performance.

In 2016, the majority of students at those 17 schools were performing at the beginning learner level. Over the next two years, all schools saw a decrease in the percentage of students performing at the lowest level. Six of these schools achieved a double-digit decrease.

“There is one thing that I am certain of,” Dickey tweeted to @SCSK12Unified after he delivered a training session to SCS educators in October. “When our children have equitable access to high-quality instruction taught by folks who possess deep conceptual understanding of content, both the opportunity and achievement gap will close and remain closed.”

UPDATE: On Feb. 23, 2021, Supt. Joris Ray pulled the proposed $14.5 million Educational Epiphany contract from the school board’s regular business meeting agenda. The proposal has not been reintroduced. On June 27, 2021, the board approved a $750,000 contract with the company to continue teacher training for another school year.

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Rachel Heimann Mercader
Contributing Author

Rachel Heimann Mercader is a freelance journalist in Memphis. She is a 2020 graduate of Rhodes College and a recent editorial assistant for the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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