Lessons from Innovators: Children’s Learning Initiative

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The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the two foundations, will highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

Today’s post focuses on the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI). It is based on conversations between the Forum and CLI’s Executive Director, Kelly Hunter, on what it takes to maintain fidelity to a complex model in light of constant change in urban school districts. A summary of her comments is as follows.

Plan for change and stick to your core. School systems are in constant flux and developers must be prepared for instability. The Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) tries to do that by using training, coaching and other supports to promote quality teaching to ensure that students in low performing, urban districts are proficient readers, writers and thinkers by the end of third grade. They are currently attempting to scale their effort to four new districts, Camden, Chicago, Newark and Philadelphia. This is easier said than done. Such districts experience frequent teacher and administrator turnover, school closures and mergers, and charter formation. Hunter suggests that if you want to implement with fidelity you first have to take a long and hard look at your model, make decisions about what is core, and then message those core ingredients in a way that respects where schools are coming from. Hunter notes, “We realized that we were struggling with messaging our change model. Even though research shows quality teaching is the number one school factor, funders and others were focused on other reforms that are sexy today. We didn’t want to focus on being negative or bad mouthing other reforms. We just knew we had to be strong in our position, share the research, and stay clear about our message and core ingredients.”

Identify the right champions. Kelly and her partners at CLI have learned that regional superintendents are a critical ingredient for sustained change. These area leaders have considerable influence over principals. “At the beginning,” Hunter notes, “we would get central office and schools to sign off, but not the regional superintendents. Then we would be off and running but all of a sudden the regionals were messaging something different than what we were doing.” When regional leaders began to understand the importance of fidelity and appreciate the core ingredients, they were then able to share their enthusiasm with principals or set standards to reinforce values and practices consistent with the model.

Partner to multiply resources and minimize obstacles. As they push towards scale, leaders at CLI have also learned the importance of cultivating new and varied partnerships. In addition to district staff, especially important partners include local funders and other program providers. Local funders are essential from a sustainability standpoint. It is also critical to partner with other entities that provide related services or technical assistance within a building or district – even when they involve a different subject matter or grade. These partnerships can allow for more comprehensive and coherent supports across disciplines and grade levels and minimize confusion among and competing demands on district staff. “It’s about enhancing what we are doing, not changing it,” comments Hunter. For example, in one i3 school in West Philadelphia, Drexel University was providing coaching services in math while CLI was providing literacy coaching. By working together, they were able to make coaching across these topics more consistent and communication more streamlined.

Scale back to scale up. Implementing innovative practices is complicated and labor intensive. Regional knowledge is necessary to help align external needs and resources with your own organizations’ demands and capacities. Networking locally is a great way to learn about a school, community or district, and to identify key stakeholders, funders, and advocates. But building this knowledge and these relationships takes staff, time, and energy. To address this challenge, CLI revisited their initial plan and decided to concentrate energy and resources on implementing the model deeply in four cities rather than spread themselves thinly across ten. According to Hunter, “we knew that in some communities, we didn’t have enough local influence, networking and outreach to raise the dollars and implement the model with fidelity. We were chasing dollars and our model was being compromised. Ultimately that compromises student achievement.” Instead, she says, “over time we hope to build our presence in and around our four hubs and eventually serve as a model for other communities as they scale to surrounding schools and districts.”

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Reading by Third Grade: Thinking Beyond Retention

Everyone agrees that children who read well by third grade are far more likely than those who do not to succeed in later education and in life. For example, a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that poor readers in third grade were four times more likely than adequate readers to eventually drop out of school. Based on this kind of information, many states have passed or are considering legislation requiring that students not reading at an established level by the end of third grade to repeat the grade. Usually, the legislation also includes some funding for schools to help struggling students meet the standard.

These state initiatives raise important questions. Are they good for the students who were retained? And are they good for the overall school system?

Retention has been studied for many years, and the research is reasonably clear. Children who repeat a grade do very poorly in reading and, ultimately, graduation rates compared similarly to their low-achieving age mates who were promoted. In comparison to their new grade mates, they show a short-term gain because they are older when they take the test, but this advantage wears off within a few years.

Reading-by-third-grade policies could end up being beneficial, however, because they provide substantial incentives to use effective strategies to prevent reading failure. Holding a child back is very expensive, incurring an extra year of per-pupil cost (roughly $10,000). Many states or districts have as many as 50 percent of third graders who might not meet the standards, so a school of 500 students holding back 50 percent of third graders would be failing about 35 children at a cost of $350,000 per year.

School leaders now have whatever their state gives them to reduce retentions, and they have a good reason to spend whatever it takes to reduce their retention rates and save a lot of money; $350,000 is a lot of money to solve a well-defined problem concentrated in pre-K through third grade.

There is no aspect of school improvement more extensively studied than preventing reading failure in the early grades. There are many proven programs, especially one-to-one and small-group tutoring, cooperative learning, and whole-school reform models.

But many schools in reading-by-third-grade states are simply hiring reading specialists to tutor children one-to-one. While tutoring can be very effective, in most schools one reading specialist cannot possibly tutor enough students to put them all over the line.

The research would suggest that different types of intervention are needed for different children depending on their age and how far behind they are, as in the made-up curve below. In this curve, students in the green section are likely to be reading at grade level, though high-quality teaching is still needed to keep them on track. Those in the yellow section are not on track for success, but are not too far from the criterion. Those in the orange and red zones need intensive help to reach grade level.

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A school strategy only focused on the orange and red zones, with one-to-one tutoring, would not be very effective, as they have such a long way to go. Using tutors just for students in the yellow zone is ethically questionable and is still unlikely to get to enough children.

Instead, schools need a thoughtful, integrated strategy to get the maximum number of students to the standard. This could involve using proven but relatively inexpensive strategies for all students, high-quality small group tutoring for students in the yellow and orange zones, and high-quality one-to-one tutoring for children in the red zone, as illustrated below.

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If schools use the reading-by-third-grade movement as an opportunity to use proven practices throughout the primary grades, they can reap substantial savings by avoiding unnecessary retentions, and most importantly, they can make a life-changing difference for all of their students.