How Evidence-Based Reform Saved Patrick

Several years ago, I heard a touching story. There was a fourth grader in a school in Southern Maryland who had not learned to read. I’ll call him Patrick. A proven reading program came to the school and replaced the school’s haphazard reading approach with a systematic, phonetic model, with extensive teacher training and coaching. By the end of the school year, Patrick was reading near grade level.

Toward the end of the year, Patrick’s mother came to the school to thank his teacher for what she’d done for him. She showed Patrick’s teacher a box in which Patrick had saved every one of his phonetic readers. “Patrick calls this his treasure box,” she said. “He says he is going to keep these books forever, so that if he ever has a child of his own, he can teach him how to read.”

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If you follow my blogs, or other writings on evidence-based practice, they often sound a little dry, full of effect sizes and wonkiness. Yet all of those effect sizes and policy proposals mean nothing unless they are changing the lives of children.

Traditional educational practices are perhaps fine for most kids, but there are millions of kids like Patrick who are not succeeding in school but could be, if they experienced proven programs and practices. In particular, there is no problem in education we know more about than early reading failure. A recent review we just released on programs for struggling readers identified 61 very high-quality studies of 48 programs. 22 of these programs meet the “strong” or “moderate” effectiveness standards for ESSA. Eleven programs had effect sizes from +0.30 to +0.86. There are proven one-to-one and small-group tutoring programs, classroom interventions, and whole-school approaches. They differ in costs, impacts, and practicability in various settings, but it is clear that reading failure can be prevented or remediated before third grade for nearly all children. Yet most struggling young readers do not receive any of these programs.

Patrick, at age 10, had the foresight to prepare to someday help his own child avoid the pain and humiliation he had experienced. Why is it so hard for caring grownups in positions of authority to come to the same understanding?

Patrick must be about 30 by now. Perhaps he has a child of his own. Wherever he is, I’m certain he remembers how close he came to a life of illiteracy and failure. I wonder if he still has his treasure box with the books inside it.

Patrick probably does not know where those books came from, the research supporting their use, or the effect sizes from the many evaluations. He doesn’t need to be a researcher to understand what happened to him. What he does know is that someone cared enough to give him an opportunity to learn to read.

Why does what happened to Patrick have to be such a rare occurrence? If you understand what the evidence means and you see educators and policy makers continuing to ignore it, shouldn’t you be furious?

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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