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River Forest District 90 buys 5th and 6th grade books for 7th graders

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

One hundred twelve of the 118 “on benchmark” books recently purchased from Heinemann for 7th graders were below 7th grade reading level, according to a Freedom of Information Act request of River Forest District 90.


FOIA results (1, 2, 3) included a list of 118 books from the Adventure, Mystery, and Biography categories with the invoice indicating these books were purchased for 7th grade. The collection packing list provides the title, author, and a reference to the Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient. The Gradient Level uses letters to indicate a match between text complexity and grade level, and Fountas and Pinnell says the system is “the most recognized and trusted tool for selecting books for small-group reading instruction”.


Just six of the 118 books corresponded to the reading ability expected for 7th grade students. Most (80) books target ability levels expected for 6th grade, and many more (30) at the 5th grade level or lower (2).

Other Heinemann book collections purchased for 7th grade were from categories “Fantasy and Dystopia”, “Investigating Characterization Book Clubs”, “Historical Fiction”, “High Interest Fiction”, and “High Interest Non-Fiction”.


The District's decision to abandon high-performing reading and writing curriculum and instructional practices came in 2016 after a unanimous board vote to elevate a social program above curriculum and instruction. In particular, the changes opted to disregard what is known about effective reading instruction, changes that coincide with an immediate decline in student achievement and a widening of the black/white student achievement gap.


Practically, the District abandoned curricula and instructional practices designed to help classroom teachers simultaneously challenge different student ability levels - differentiated instruction. Instead, curriculum director Alison Hawley instituted new classroom libraries suited to the “balanced literacy” instructional approach de-emphasizing phonics and allowing students to choose their own books. Classroom libraries are populated with books according to the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, founded by the controversial Lucy Calkins and sold through Heinemann.


APM reports investigated the connection between Heinemann and Calkins, and Illinois is not one of more than 25 states working on legislation to align reading instruction with what the evidence actually says about optimal early reading instruction.


The FOIA requested evidence of all District 90 English language arts purchases back to January 2015. The district responded with records back to April 2019.


In 2022, 37.8% of District 90 students were reading below grade level according to The Illinois State Board of Education report card.




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