Recently, I got a “case study” from one of our Success for All schools in England, Applegarth Academy in Croydon, a disadvantaged area south of London. I’ve written about Applegarth before as the flagship school of the STEP Trust, a multi-academy trust, which serves an impoverished, multi-ethnic student body. In the most recent national rankings, Applegarth scored sixth among the more than roughly 16,700 primary schools in all of England.
This case study, which you can see here, involves a child using a U.K. adaptation of our Tutoring With Alphie program. However, this story is not really about Success for All, or Tutoring With Alphie, or the STEP Trust. It is about something far more fundamental.
What happened is that a student I’ll call Richard moved to Applegarth in Year 6 (like fifth grade). England closed its schools in March due to the Covid crisis, and then re-opened them in June and July just for the equivalent of kindergarten, first grade, and fifth grade. Applegarth staff used this opportunity to prepare its Year 6 students for secondary school.
Applegarth tested Richard, and was astonished to find out that he had nearly zero reading skills. He scored at the kindergarten level. Applegarth was piloting the Tutoring With Alphie program, usually used with four children at a time. However, the school made a decision in this extraordinary case to give Richard 90 minutes a day of one-to-one tutoring.
In three weeks, Richard could read. He was not at grade level, but he gained 2.2 years. He could read The Hodgeheg! Richard was thrilled and now hopes to go on to read Harry Potter books.
By itself, this is a heartwarming story. But to me it is also infuriating. Tutoring With Alphie is not magic. If Richard could learn to read in three weeks, this says to me that he could have learned to read in Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, or Year 5. He was described as a bright, sweet child, eager to learn. Yet somehow his previous school was unable to teach him to read in the five or six years they had him. Perhaps it did not occur to anyone that this was a crisis, literally a life in the balance: A bright child who obviously could have learned to read at any time but did not. If Applegarth’s staff had not noticed Richard’s problem or had not had the resources to help him, Richard would have headed into secondary school in September with no reading skills. Do you know what happens in secondary schools to kids who can’t read? Do you know what happens in life to people who can’t read?
Richard’s situation before he came to Applegarth is all too common. A while back, I wrote about a book by my friend Buzzy Hettleman, called Mislabeled as Disabled. This book presents example after example of bright, eager, well-behaved students in Baltimore who end up in high school reading at the kindergarten or first grade levels.
The problem in all of these cases is that education systems are designed to move very large numbers of students from grade to grade. That system works, sort of, for most students, but there is a large minority of students for whom it does not work. And one way or another, with or without special education services, too many of these students just slide by. Educators may be aware of a child’s poor performance, but do not have the time, resources, or support to stop the conveyor belt and say, “We have to do whatever is necessary to see that this child learns.” In Richard’s case, he got lucky. How often does any non-reading fifth grader in any school anywhere get 90 minutes of high-quality tutoring every day for three weeks, until they begin to make rapid progress? Almost never. Yet there are millions of Richards in our schools, millions who absolutely could succeed, but do not get what they need to do so.
As my readers know, England and the Netherlands are investing heavily in tutoring to help overcome losses students have experienced due to Covid-19 school closures. Perhaps someday, similar investments will be made in the U.S. As a result of the English and Dutch investments, hundreds of thousands of students will receive intensive tutoring in reading and mathematics. And even though these tutoring services will be provided to solve the learning effects of a pandemic, perhaps educators will notice that students who are in academic difficulty will make dramatic gains. Perhaps they will wonder why similar services shouldn’t be provided to all students who need them, pandemic or no pandemic.
In the U.S., the U.K., and many other countries, millions of little Richards are entering our schools. With appropriate help, every one of them should be able to learn to read the first time they are taught, or soon after they are found to have difficulties. It’s so obvious, it’s so simple. Why does it take a pandemic to find it out?
Photo credit: Arungir / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
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