By Sara Hoover
Dr. Mark Conley doesn’t make time machines, but he’s created something very close.
Dr. Mark Conley
The associate professor of instruction and curriculum leadership in the College of
Education has written a tailored curriculum for the Memphis Literacy Corps, an intervention
program that pairs college-age tutors with third- through fifth-grade elementary students.
The Memphis City School children are overage for their grade, struggling academically
and have been held back at least once.
The goal of the 10-week tutoring, held from February to April, was to help the students
pass the TCAP achievement test and get their reading up to grade level. Tutors met
three times a week for one-hour sessions.
The college students were paid with a one-time grant from the Memphis City Council,
totaling $2.4 million.
More than 700 tutors provided individualized tutoring to about 2,200 students enrolled
at 98 elementary schools. The program is the first of its kind in Memphis, and because
of its magnitude and scope, is thought to be a first in the United States as well.
“It’s never been done before on this scale,” said Conley. “The biggest program that
I’ve been able to locate is about 250 students a year out of the University of Virginia
tutoring 500 to 600 kids. The other thing, too, that’s important to know is that people
have done pieces, but they’ve never brought the pieces together the way we have. The
Virginia program, for example, only has two components of what we’re dealing with.
Most other tutoring programs are with early elementary kids and these kids are much
Besides the size, the range of readers covered has not been done before. Participants
were categorized into three levels: early readers, emergent readers and comprehenders.
Students took pre-tests to determine which category they would be placed in and will
have post-tests in.
Conley wrote the curriculum for the three strands and created the pre-tests and post-tests
as well, all on a volunteer basis.
“I am doing this totally for free. I’ve had professors call me an idiot for that,”
said Conley. “I’m trying to develop a new paradigm here, which is about research and
service. The District has been wonderful. As much as I’ve donated my time, they’ve
reciprocated in terms of helping me understand the district better, what it’s like
to be a teacher in the district. We’ve all collaborated to make sure we have an impact
on the kids.”
One of the reasons Conley decided to get involved is to head off snake-oil sellers.
“I’m so sick and tired of people coming in to the school districts, ripping people
off and selling snake oil,” said Conley. “So many school districts across the country
were exposed to all sorts of (things) pushed on them. I wanted to make sure that what
we were doing had a real legitimate kind of base and a good chance of working. The
evaluation model comes from that; the instruction comes from that.” Conley’s curriculum
was molded for the needs of Memphis City Schools.
“Most times in the past when we had tutoring programs, we bought ‘canned programs,’
which means you go to vendors and say, ‘I want whatever program you’re using, I’ll
just buy it,’” said Brenda Harris, district literacy specialist for Memphis City Schools.
“But this one, we designed it from the ground up. We hand-picked certain materials
to go with his curriculum. It’s really very much a specific program designed for these
The team started working on the project in September and Conley’s first semester with
the U of M after a new tutoring mandate from Superintendent Kriner Cash and Irving
Hamer, deputy superintendent.
“Irving Hamer, when he came in, was shocked because there are upwards of 10,000 of
these children across the entire district. The research says kids that have that profile
are highly likely to dropout. So, he wanted to target third-, fourth- and fifth-graders
— just before they go to middle school where they will really experience a lot of
failure — to beef up their literacy skills,” said Conley.
Tutor training sessions, held in January, taught “brainology,” which is brain research
that connects effort to success or efficacy.
“They found work where they talk about your brain actually grows. You can tell kids,
‘You’re not doomed. You may have had some failure, but you can increase through effort.’
I was just floored with the impact that motivation work had on the kids early on,”
Of the 773 tutors, 80 percent are U of M students. Rhodes College, LeMoyne-Owen College
and Christian Brothers University are also represented. The majority of the tutors
were not education majors but had to be enrolled and in good academic standing.
The program has had positive feedback, including tutor feedback: I had a purpose for wanting to be part of a Memphis Literacy Corps. I wanted to make
a differ - ence for at least one child. My second-grade teacher gave me hope. I was
going through some issues at home and felt no one loved me. She lifted my chin and
looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You are somebody. Not because I say so, but
because it is so.’ This has stayed with me all these years and now I am somebody.
I’m a senior in college, working toward a degree in elemen - tary education and I’m
working with children from my school, helping them on their way to becoming some -
body, too. My students are excited and I am already see - ing progress in fluency
and comprehension. I couldn’t be more proud of what I’m doing and of the kids I’m
serv - ing. Wherever my teacher is now, I hope that she knows that this somebody is
passing her love on.
The literacy support doesn’t end with the Literacy Corps. The next step is a summer
reading clinic for the kids who’ve completed the Literacy Corps. At the U of M, Conley
and Dr. Jerrie Scott will provide a three-hour master’s level reading course to approximately
60 teachers to train them in teaching literacy to these students. The students will
participate in an intense, 23-day program taught by MCS teachers. If they are successful,
they may be eligible to be advanced a grade.
“The student who has been through the program could potentially go from ending third-grade
this year, take his fourth-grade work during the summer and then start with his peers
in the fifth-grade,” said Harris.