There are lots of problems in education that are fundamentally difficult. Ensuring success in early reading, however, is an exception. We know what skills children need in order to succeed in reading. No area of teaching has a better basis in high-quality research. Yet the reading performance of America’s children is not improving at an adequate pace. Reading scores have hardly changed in the past decade, and gaps between white, African-American, and Hispanic students have been resistant to change. In light of the rapid growth in the evidence base, and of the policy focus on early reading at the federal and state levels, this is shameful. We already know a great deal about how to improve early reading, and we know how to learn more. Yet our knowledge is not translating into improved practice and improved outcomes on a large enough scale.
There are lots of complex problems in education, and complex solutions. But here’s a really simple solution:
Over the past 30 years researchers have experimented with all sorts of approaches to improve students’ reading achievement. There are many proven and promising classroom approaches, and such programs should be used with all students in initial teaching as broadly as possible. Effective classroom instruction, universal access to eyeglasses, and other proven approaches could surely reduce the number of students who need tutors. But at the end of the day, every child must read well. And the only tool we have that can reliably make a substantial difference at scale with struggling readers is tutors, using proven one-to-one or small-group methods.
I realized again why tutors are so important in a proposal I’m making to the State of Maryland, which wants to bring all or nearly all students to “proficient” on its state test, the PARCC. “Proficient” on the PARCC is a score of 750, with a standard deviation of about 50. The state mean is currently around 740. I made a colorful chart (below) showing “bands” of scores below 750 to show how far students have to go to get to 750.
Each band covers an effect size of 0.20. There are several classroom reading programs with effect sizes this large, so if schools adopted them, they could move children scoring at 740 to 750. These programs can be found at www.evidenceforessa.org. But implementing these programs alone still leaves half of the state’s children not reaching “proficient.”
Now think about students at 730. They need to advance 20 points, or an effect size of +0.40. This puts us in a region only occupied by tutoring. I am not aware of any approach other than proven one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring models that has high-quality replicated evidence of improving standardized tests by an effect size of +0.40.
What about students at 720? They need 30 points, or +0.60. The best one-to-one tutoring can achieve outcomes like this, but these are the only solutions that can.
Here are mean effect sizes for various reading tutoring programs with strong evidence:
As this chart shows, one-to-one tutoring, by well-trained teachers or paraprofessionals using proven programs, can potentially have the impacts needed to bring most students scoring 720 (needing 30 points or an effect size of +0.60) to proficiency (750). Three programs have reported effect sizes of at least +0.60, and several others have approached this level. But what about students scoring below 720?
So far I’ve been sticking to established facts, studies of tutoring that are, in most cases, already being disseminated. Now I’m entering the region of well-justified supposition. Almost all studies of tutoring occupy just one year or less. But what if the lowest achievers could receive multiple years of tutoring, if necessary?
One study, over 2½ years, did find an effect size of +0.68 for one-to-one tutoring. Could we do better that that? Most likely. In addition to providing multiple years of tutoring, it should be possible to design programs to achieve one-year effect sizes of +1.00 or more. These may incorporate technology or personalized approaches specific to the needs of individual children. Using the best programs for multiple years, if necessary, could increase outcomes further. Also, as noted earlier, using proven programs other than tutoring for all students may increase outcomes for students who also receive tutoring.
But isn’t tutoring expensive? Yes it is. But it is not as expensive as the costs of reading failure: Remediation, special education, disappointment, and delinquency. If we could greatly improve the reading performance of low achievers, this would of course reduce inequities across the board. Reducing inequities in educational outcomes could reduce inequities in our entire society, an outcome of enormous importance.
Even providing a substantial amount of teacher tutoring could, by my calculations, increase total state education expenditures (in Maryland) by only about 12%. These costs could be reduced greatly or even eliminated by reducing expenditures on ineffective programs, reducing special education placements, and other savings. Having some tutoring done by part time teachers may reduce costs. Using small-group tutoring (fewer than 6 students at a time) for students with milder problems may save a great deal of money. Even at full cost, the necessary funding could be phased in over a period of 6 years at 2% a year.
The bottom line is that the low levels of achievement and high levels of gaps according to economic and racial differences could be improved a great deal using methods already proven to be effective and already widely available. Educators and policy makers are always promising policies that bring every child to proficiency: “No Child Left Behind” and “Every Student Succeeds” come to mind. Yet if these outcomes are truly possible, why shouldn’t we be pursuing them, with every resource at our disposal?
This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation