One of the great frustrations of evidence-based reform in education is that while we do have some interventions that have a strong impact on students’ learning, these outcomes usually fade over time. The classic example is intensive, high-quality preschool programs. There is no question about the short-term impacts of quality preschool, but after fifty years, the Perry Preschool study remains the only case in which a randomized experiment found long-term positive impacts of preschool. I think the belief in the Perry Preschool’s long-term impacts conditioned many of us to expect amazing long-term impacts of early interventions of all kinds, but the Perry Preschool evaluation was flawed in several ways, and later randomized studies such as the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program do not find such lasting impacts. There have been similar difficulties documenting long-term impacts of the Reading Recovery tutoring program. I have been looking at research on summer school (Neitzel et al., 2020), and found a few summer programs for kindergarteners and first graders that had exceptional impacts on end-of-summer reading effects, but these had faded by the following spring.
Advocates for these and other intensive interventions frequently express an expectation that resource-intensive interventions at key developmental turning points can transform the achievement trajectories of students performing below grade level or otherwise at risk. Many educators and researchers believe that after successful early intervention, students can participate in regular classroom teaching and will continue to advance with their agemates. However, for many students, this is unlikely. For example, imagine a struggling third grade girl reading at the first grade level. After sixteen weeks of daily 30-minute tutoring, she has advanced to grade level reading. However, after finishing her course of tutoring, the girl may experience slow progress. She will probably not forget what she has learned, but other students, who reached grade level reading without tutoring, may make more rapid progress than she does, because whatever factors caused her to be two years below grade level in the third grade may continue to slow her progress even after tutoring succeeds. By sixth grade, without continuing intervention, she might be well below grade level again, perhaps better off than she would have been without tutoring, but not at grade level.
But what if we knew, as the evidence clearly suggests, that one year of Perry Preschool or 60 lessons of Reading Recovery or seven weeks of intensive reading summer school was not sufficient to ensure long-lasting gains in achievement? What could we do to see that successful investments in intensive early interventions are built upon in subsequent years, so that formerly at-risk students not only maintain what they learned, but continue afterwards to make exceptional gains?
Clearly, we could build on early gains by continuing to provide intensive intervention every year, if that is what is needed, but that would be extremely expensive. Instead, imagine that each school had within it a small group of teachers and teacher assistants, whose job was to provide initial tutoring for students at risk, and then to monitor students’ progress and to strategically intervene to keep students on track. For the moment, I’ll call them an Excellence in Learning Team (XLT). This team would keep close track of the achievement of all at-risk and formerly at-risk students on frequent assessments, at least in reading and math. These staff members would track students’ trajectories toward grade level performance. If students fall off of that trajectory, members of the XLT would provide tutoring to the students, as long as necessary. My assumption is that a student who made brilliant progress with 60 tutoring sessions, for example, would not need another 60 sessions each year to stay on track toward grade level, but that perhaps 10 or 20 sessions would be sufficient.
The XLT would need effective, targeted tools to quickly and efficiently help students whose progress is stumbling. For example, XLT tutors might have available computer-assisted tutoring modules to assist students who, for example, mastered phonics, but are having difficulty with fluency, or multi-syllabic words, or comprehension of narrative or factual text. In mathematics, they might have specific computer-assisted tutoring modules on place value, fractions, or word problems. The idea is precision and personalization, so that the time of every XLT member is used to maximum effect. From the students’ perspective, assistance from the XLT is not a designation (like special or remedial education), but rather time-limited assistance to enable all students to achieve ambitious and challenging goals.
XLT, would be most effective, I believe, if students have started with intensive tutoring, intensive summer school, or other focused interventions that can bring about rapid progress. This is essential early in students’ progression. Rapid progress at the outset not only sets students up for success, in an academic sense, but it also convinces the student and his or her teachers that he or she is capable of extraordinary progress. Such confidence is crucial.
As an analogy to what I am describing here, consider how you cook a stew. You first bring the stew to a boil, and then simmer for a long time. If you only brought the stew to a boil and then turned off the stove, the stew would never cook. If you only set the stove on simmer, but did not first bring the stew to a boil, it might take hours to cook, if it ever did. It is the sequence of intense energy followed by less intense but lengthy support that does the job. Or consider a rocket to the moon, which needs enormous energy to reach escape velocity, followed by continued but less intense energy to complete the trip. In education, high-quality preschool or tutoring or intensive summer school can play the part of the boil, but this needs to be followed by long-term, lower-intensity, precisely targeted support.
I would love to see a program of research designed to figure out how to implement long-term support to enable at-risk students to experience rapid success and then build on that success for many years. This is how we will finally leverage our demonstrated ability to make big differences in intensive early intervention, by linking it to multi-year, life-changing services that ensure students’ success in the long term, where it really matters.
Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2020). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at *www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication. *This new review of research on elementary programs for struggling readers had to be taken down because it is under review at a journal. For a copy of the current draft, contact Amanda Neitzel (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.