Last July, I wrote a blog about a Year 6 (fifth grade) student in England, “Richard,” who just happened to transfer to one of our Success for All schools in spring, 2020. The school staff tested him. He had no reading skills at all. None.
Because they only had a few months to prepare him to go to secondary school, the staff decided to use our Tutoring With the Lightning Squad program with Richard for 90 minutes a day for three weeks (it’s usually used 30 minutes a day for at least 60 days). He gained 2.2 grade levels. To his delight, he could read The Hodgeheg, and was looking forward to reading Harry Potter books!
Recently, I discovered that the gains Richard made were not unique to him.
Last summer, we were approached by John Erickson, the founder of NorthBay Education, which had a campus called NorthBay at the top of the Chesapeake. For many years, NorthBay has provided week-long outdoor education and social and emotional learning experiences for sixth graders across Maryland. However, due to Covid, this was impossible, so Erickson and NorthBay Director of Education, Rick Garber, wanted to use their staff and campus to provide an extended educational experience for students who were particularly vulnerable due to their life circumstances. Erickson and Garber wanted us (at Johns Hopkins University and the Success for All Foundation) to provide daily tutoring in reading to these students. We were delighted to agree, so in October, the program got under way. The students had to participate in remote instruction, like other Baltimore students, for six hours a day, and then had a half-hour tutoring session taught by NorthBay staff, trained by SFA coaches. The students stayed all week at the camp, and then went home over each weekend.
I can’t say that all went smoothly, but after a while NorthBay was operating well.
There were two sessions, October to January and February to June. Some students stayed for only the first session and were replaced by others. Others dropped out for a variety of reasons along the way.
I just received the test scores for the 31 students who were pretested in October and posttested on March 2, on the Gray Silent Reading Test (GSRT). Because of all the coming and going, we cannot say anything scientific about the data. We do not know if the gains were representative of all students who attended, and there was no control group. However, something extraordinary happened, and I wanted to share it.
At pretest, eight of the sixth grade students tested at the beginning first grade level (1.0), and one at 1.2. The average for these nine former non-readers at posttest was 4.1. That’s a gain of 3 grade levels in four months. Every non-reader but one reached a grade equivalent of at least 3.0. The exception got to 2.8. One got to 5.8, and one to 9.2!
I had been impressed that Richard, in England, went from zero to Hodgeheg in three weeks, but he was getting the equivalent of three tutoring sessions a day. In four months, with one session a day, every one of the nine non-reading NorthBay students went from zero to Hodgeheg, and some from zero to Harry Potter.
Other students also made astonishing gains. One went from 1.8 to 5.8. One, from 2.0 to 5.0. One from 3.0 to 7.5. One from 3.5 to 9.8.
There were many things going on in this experience, of course. The students were living at a beautiful, peaceful place for four months, with caring staff, good food, and great outdoor activities. They were experiencing the Baltimore City online curriculum, with good computer linkages and plenty of on-site assistance. Tutoring is not all they were getting.
The most important conclusion from the NorthBay experience is that these kids, mostly from very difficult backgrounds, could learn to read. The NorthBay experience suggests that they always could have learned to read under the right circumstances. Had they had the opportunity to make these gains earlier in elementary school, and reached the third grade level or better by, say, third grade, perhaps they would now be at grade level in sixth grade.
The message of NorthBay is that the problems kids face in learning to read are not usually due to anything wrong with the kids. It is not due to anything wrong with the capable and heroic teachers who have done their very best. It is the system, far beyond Baltimore, that does not allocate the funding needed to provide every struggling reader whatever is necessary to learn to read.
Today, Baltimore City Public Schools is about to receive significant funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and other sources. They cannot send everyone to NorthBay, though that would be wonderful. But they can use the new funds to create the teaching and tutoring resources that made such a difference. And so can any school or district in America.
This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.
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In speaking and writing about tutoring, I am often asked about where limited tutoring resources should be concentrated. My answer is this: “Make certain that every single child in America who needs it gets enough tutoring to be proficient in phonics. All other priorities are tied for second place.”
There are many pragmatic reasons why early reading should be the focus. First, the largest number of proven tutoring programs focus on grades K-2 or K-3 reading, and these programs tend to have spectacular impacts on measures of reading comprehension as well as phonics. Second, reading is fundamental. Very few students end up in special education, or are held back in grade, due to failure in any other subject, for example. Most other subjects depend on reading, of course. But also, a student’s academic self-esteem depends primarily on his or her self-perception as a reader.
Note that “early reading” in this case does not only mean reading in grades K-3. The great majority of students who are failing in reading in grades 4-12 do not have solid phonics skills, typically taught in grades K-2. There are no proven middle school reading programs in the U.S., but there are two in England, and both were adapted from K-2 programs, with a strong focus on phonics.
My point about focusing on phonics first is influenced by the fact that very poor reading skills (defined here as scoring “below basic” on NAEP) are very widespread, especially among disadvantaged and minority students. On the 2019 4th grade NAEP, 34% of all students, but 52% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students, scored below basic. At 8th grade, it’s 27% below basic for all, 46% for Black students, and 37% for Hispanic students. Using these numbers, I’d estimate that 9.5 million elementary and 7.3 million secondary students are scoring below basic on NAEP reading, and surely need tutoring. While we wait for someone to create and evaluate secondary reading tutoring programs, could we start with the 9.5 million elementary students? This is a mighty big job in itself. We could also use proven upper-elementary tutoring programs to work with some proportion of secondary students reading far below grade level.
Even leaving aside the importance of immediate capacity, demonstrated impact, and the obvious importance of reading in elementary schools, consider the huge role of the reading gap on the most important social problem in our nation: Inequality by race and social class. In large part, racial and social class disparities cause the reading gap, but they are also caused by reading gaps. And it is possible to close the reading gaps, alongside other efforts focusing on closing economic, housing, criminal justice, and other gaps. If we made sure that every American child could read at the fifth grade level by fifth grade, the reading gap would be no longer be a major problem.
The numbers I have been citing are from 2019, before the pandemic. Now things are much worse, and there are surely a lot more than 9.5 million elementary students and 7.3 million secondary students who would score below “basic” on NAEP. Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan Act is providing substantial resources to combat Covid learning losses, and low achievement in general. Covid or no Covid, we have an opportunity and a clear pressing need to close the reading gap and provide a strong foundation for reading for today’s students.
Note that I do not mean to minimize the importance of mathematics, or of secondary school reading and math. These are crucial as well, and we need to solve these problems too. But first out of the gate, in 2021-2022, let’s make sure we use the proven tools we have at hand to solve the problem we happen to be best placed to solve, which happens to be the most important educational problem we face at this moment.
This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.
Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
How is it possible that the “reading wars” are back on? The reading wars primarily revolve around what are often called the five pillars of early reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Actually, there is little debate about the importance of comprehension, vocabulary, or fluency, so the reading wars are mainly about phonemic awareness and phonics. Diehard anti-phonics advocates exist, but in all of educational research, there are few issues that have been more convincingly settled by high-quality evidence. The National Reading Panel (2000), the source of the five pillars, has been widely cited as conclusive evidence that success in the early stages of reading depends on ensuring that students are all successful in phonemic awareness, phonics, and the other pillars. I was invited to serve on that panel, but declined, because I thought it was redundant. Just a short time earlier, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) had covered essentially the same ground and came to essentially the same conclusion, as had Marilyn Adams’ (1990) Beginning to Read, and many individual studies. To my knowledge, there is little credible evidence to the contrary. Certainly, then and now there have been many students who learn to read successfully with or without a focus on phonemic awareness and phonics. However, I do not think there are many students who could succeed with non-phonetic approaches but cannot learn to read with phonics-emphasis methods. In other words, there is little if any evidence that phonemic awareness or phonics cause harm, but a great deal of evidence that for perhaps more than half of students, effective instruction emphasizing phonemic awareness and phonics are essential. Since it is impossible to know in advance which students will need phonics and which will not, it just makes sense to teach using methods likely to maximize the chances that all children (those who need phonics and those who would succeed with or without them) will succeed in reading.
The importance of the five pillars of the National Reading Panel (NRP) catechism are not in doubt among people who believe in rigorous evidence, as far as I know. The reading wars ended in the 2000s and the five pillars won. However, this does not mean that knowing all about these pillars and the evidence behind them is sufficient to solve America’s reading problems. The NRP pillars describe essential elements of curriculum, but not of instruction.
Improving reading outcomes for all children requires the five pillars, but they are not enough. The five pillars could be extensively and accurately taught in every school of education, and this would surely help, but it would not solve the problem. State and district standards could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but would not solve the problem. Reading textbooks, software, and professional development could emphasize the five pillars and this would help, but it would not solve the problem.
The reason that such necessary policies would still not be sufficient is that teaching effectiveness does not just depend on getting curriculum right. It also depends on the nature of instruction, classroom management, grouping, and other factors. Teaching reading without teaching phonics is surely harmful to large numbers of students, but teaching phonics does not guarantee success.
As one example, consider grouping. For a very long time, most reading teachers have used homogeneous reading groups. For example, the “Stars” might contain the highest-performing readers, the “Rockets” the middle readers, and the “Planets” the lowest readers. The teacher calls up groups one at a time. No problem there, but what are the students doing back at their desks? Mostly worksheets, on paper or computers. The problem is that if there are three groups, each student spends two thirds of reading class time doing, well, not much of value. Worse, the students are sitting for long periods of time, with not much to do, and the teacher is fully occupied elsewhere. Does anyone see the potential for idle hands to become the devil’s playground? The kids do.
There are alternatives to reading groups, such as the Joplin Plan (cross-grade grouping by reading level), forms of whole-class instruction, or forms of cooperative learning. These provide active teaching to all students all period. There is good evidence for these alternatives (Slavin, 1994, 2017). My main point is that a reading strategy that follows NRP guidelines 100% may still succeed or fail based on its grouping strategy. The same could be true of the use of proven classroom management strategies or motivational strategies during reading periods.
To make the point most strongly, imagine that a district’s teachers have all thoroughly mastered all five pillars of science of reading, which (we’ll assume) are strongly supported by their district and state. In an experiment, 40 teachers of grades 1 to 3 are selected, and 20 of these are chosen at random to receive sufficient tutors to work with their lowest-achieving 33% of students in groups of four, using a proven model based on science of reading principles. The other 20 schools just use their usual materials and methods, also emphasizing science of reading curricula and methods.
The evidence from many studies of tutoring (Inns et al., 2020), as well as common sense, tell us what would happen. The teachers supported by tutors would produce far greater achievement among their lowest readers than would the other equally science-of-reading-oriented teachers in the control group.
None of these examples diminish the importance of science of reading. But they illustrate that knowing science of reading is not enough.
At www.evidenceforessa.org, you can find 65 elementary reading programs of all kinds that meet high standards of effectiveness. Almost all of these use approaches that emphasize the five pillars. Yet Evidence for ESSA also lists many programs that equally emphasize the five pillars and yet have not found positive impacts. Rather than re-starting our thirty-year-old pillar fight, don’t you think we might move on to advocating programs that not only use the right curricula, but are also proven to get excellent results for kids?
Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Inns, 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.
National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Slavin, R. E. (1994). School and classroom organization in beginning reading: Class size, aides, and instructional grouping. In R. E. Slavin, N. L. Karweit, and B. A. Wasik (Eds.), Preventing early school failure. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Slavin, R. E. (2017). Instruction based on cooperative learning. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of research on learning and instruction. New York: Routledge.
Snow, C.E., Burns, S.M., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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.
Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to email@example.com.
On a recent trip to Norway, I visited the Fram Museum in Oslo. The Fram was Roald Amundson’s ship, used to transport a small crew to the South Pole in 1911. The museum is built around the Fram itself, and visitors can go aboard this amazing ship, surrounded by information and displays about polar exploration. What was most impressive about the Fram is the meticulous attention to detail in every aspect of the expedition. Amundson had undertaken other trips to the polar seas to prepare for his trip, and had carefully studied the experiences of other polar explorers. The ship’s hull was special built to withstand crushing from the shifting of polar ice. He carried many huskies to pull sleds over the ice, and trained them to work in teams.. Every possible problem was carefully anticipated in light of experience, and exact amounts of food for men and dogs were allocated and stored. Amundson said that forgetting “a single trouser button” could doom the effort. As it unfolded, everything worked as anticipated, and all the men and dogs returned safely after reaching the South Pole.
The story of Amundson and the Fram is an illustration of how to overcome major obstacles to achieve audacious goals. I’d like to build on it to return to a topic I’ve touched on in two previous blogs. The audacious goal: Overcoming the substantial gap in elementary reading achievement between students who qualify for free lunch and those who do not, between African American and White students, and between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), each of these gaps is about one half of a standard deviation, also known as an effect size of +0.50. This is a very large gap, but it has been overcome in a very small number of intensive programs. These programs were able to increase the achievement of disadvantaged students by an effect size of more than +0.50, but few were able to reproduce these gains under normal circumstances. Our goal is to enable thousands of ordinary schools serving disadvantaged students to achieve such outcomes, at a cost of no more than 5% beyond ordinary per-pupil costs.
Educational Reform and Audacious Goals
Researchers have long been creating and evaluating many different approaches to improving reading achievement. This is necessary in the research and development process to find “what works” and build up from there. However, each individual program or practice has a modest effect on key outcomes, and we rarely combine proven programs to achieve an effect large enough to, for example, overcome the achievement gap. This is not what Amundson, or the Wright Brothers, or the worldwide team that achieved eradication of smallpox did. Instead, they set audacious goals and kept at them systematically, using what works, until they were achieved.
I would argue that we should and could do the same in education. The reading achievement gap is the largest problem of educational practice and policy in the U.S. We need to use everything we know how to do to solve it. This means stating in advance that our goal is to find strategies capable of eliminating reading gaps at scale, and refusing to declare victory until this goal is achieved. We need to establish that the goal can be achieved, by ordinary teachers and principals in ordinary schools serving disadvantaged students.
Tutoring Our Way to the Goal
In a previous blog I proposed that the goal of +0.50 could be reached by providing disadvantaged, low-achieving students tutoring in small groups or, when necessary, one-to-one. As I argued there and elsewhere, there is no reading intervention as effective as tutoring. Recent reviews of research have found that well-qualified teaching assistants using proven methods can achieve outcomes as good as those achieved by certified teachers working as tutors, thereby making tutoring much less expensive and more replicable (Inns et al., 2019). Providing schools with significant numbers of well-trained tutors is one likely means of reaching ES=+0.50 for disadvantaged students. Inns et al. (2019) found an average effect size of +0.38 for tutoring by teaching assistants, but several programs had effect sizes of +0.40 to +0.47. This is not +0.50, but it is within striking distance of the goal. However, each school would need multiple tutors in order to provide high-quality tutoring to most students, to extend the known positive effects of tutoring to the whole school.
Combining Intensive Tutoring With Success for All
Tutoring may be sufficient by itself, but research on tutoring has rarely used tutoring schoolwide, to benefit all students in high-poverty schools. It may be more effective to combine widespread tutoring for students who most need it with other proven strategies designed for the whole school, rather than simply extending a program designed for individuals and small groups. One logical strategy to reach the goal of +0.50 in reading might be to combine intensive tutoring with our Success for All whole-school reform model.
Success for All adds to intensive tutoring in several ways. It provides teachers with professional development on proven reading strategies, as well as cooperative learning and classroom management strategies at all levels. Strengthening core reading instruction reduces the number of children at great risk, and even for students who are receiving tutoring, it provides a setting in which students can apply and extend their skills. For students who do not need tutoring, Success for All provides acceleration. In high-poverty schools, students who are meeting reading standards are likely to still be performing below their potential, and improving instruction for all is likely to help these students excel.
Success for All was created in the late 1980s in an attempt to achieve a goal similar to the +0.50 challenge. In its first major evaluation, a matched study in six high-poverty Baltimore elementary schools, Success for All achieved a schoolwide reading effect size of at least +0.50 schoolwide in grades 1-5 on individually administered reading measures. For students in the lowest 25% of the sample at pretest, the effect size averaged +0.75 (Madden et al., 1993). That experiment provided two to six certified teacher tutors per school, who worked one to one with the lowest-achieving first and second graders. The tutors supplemented a detailed reading program, which used cooperative learning, phonics, proven classroom management methods, parent involvement, frequent assessment, distributed leadership, and other elements (as Success for All still does).
An independent follow-up assessment found that the effect maintained to the eighth grade, and also showed a halving of retentions in grade and a halving of assignments to special education, compared to the control group (Borman & Hewes, 2002). Schools using Success for All since that time have rarely been able to afford so many tutors, instead averaging one or two tutors. Many schools using SFA have not been able to afford even one tutor. Still, across 28 qualifying studies, mostly by third parties, the Success for All effect size has averaged +0.27 (Cheung et al., in press). This is impressive, but it is not +0.50. For the lowest achievers, the mean effect size was +0.62, but again, our goal is +0.50 for all disadvantaged students, not just the lowest achievers.
Over a period of years, could schools using Success for All with five or more teaching assistant tutors reach the +0.50 goal? I’m certain of it. Could we go even further, perhaps creating a similar approach for secondary schools or adding in an emphasis on mathematics? That would be the next frontier.
The Policy Importance of +0.50
If we can routinely achieve an effect size of +0.50 in reading in most Title I schools, this would provide a real challenge for policy makers. Many policy makers argue that money does not make much difference in education, or that housing, employment, and other basic economic improvements are needed before major improvements in the education of disadvantaged students will be possible. But what if it became widely known that outcomes in high-poverty schools could be reliably and substantially improved at a modest cost, compared to the outcomes? Policy makers would hopefully focus on finding ways to provide the resources needed if they could be confident in the outcomes.
As Amundson knew, difficult goals can be attained with meticulous planning and high-quality implementation. Every element of his expedition had been tested extensively in real arctic conditions, and had been found to be effective and practical. We would propose taking a similar path to universal success in reading. Each component of a practical plan to reach an effect size of +0.50 or more must be proven to be effective in schools serving many disadvantaged students. Combining proven approaches, we can add sufficiently to the reading achievement of disadvantaged schools to enable them to perform as well as middle class students do. It just takes an audacious goal and the commitment and resources to accomplish it.
Borman, G., & Hewes, G. (2002). Long-term effects and cost effectiveness of Success for All. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24 (2), 243-266.
Cheung, A., Xie, C., Zhang, T., & Slavin, R. E. (in press). Success for All: A quantitative synthesis of evaluations. Education Research Review.
Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2019). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Madden, N. A., Slavin, R. E., Karweit, N. L., Dolan, L., & Wasik, B. (1993). Success for All: Longitudinal effects of a schoolwide elementary restructuring program. American Educational Reseach Journal, 30, 123-148.
When I was thirteen, I spent a summer as a volunteer at a giant orphanage in Washington, DC. Every child was African-American, and from an extremely disadvantaged background. Every one had surely experienced unspeakable trauma: death or desertion of parents, abuse, and neglect.
I was assigned to work with fourth and fifth grade boys. We played games, sang songs, did crafts, and generally had a good time. There was a kind volunteer coordinator who gave each of us volunteers a few materials and suggestions, but otherwise, as I recall, each one or two of us volunteers, age 13 to 16, was responsible for about 20 kids, all day.
I know this sounds like a recipe for chaos and disaster, but it was just the opposite. The kids were terrific, every one. They were so eager for attention that everywhere I went, I had three or four kids hanging on to me. But the kids were happy, engaged, loving, and active. I do not recall a single fight or discipline problem all summer. I think this summer experience had a big impact on my own choice of career.
There are two reasons I bring up Junior Village. First, it is to reinforce the experience that most elementary school teachers have, even in the most challenged and challenging schools. There are many problems in such schools, but the kids are great. Elementary-aged kids everywhere respond positively to just a little kindness and attention. I’ve visited hundreds of elementary schools over my career, and with few exceptions, these are happy and productive places with sweet and loving kids, no matter where they are.
Second, the observation that elementary-aged children are so wonderful should make it clear that this is the time to make certain that every one of them is successful in school. Middle and high school students are usually wonderful too, but if they are significantly behind in academics, many are likely to start a process that leads to disengagement, failure, acting out, and dropping out.
Evidence is mounting that it is possible to ensure that every child from any background, even the most disadvantaged, can be successful in elementary school (see www.evidenceforessa.org). Use of proven whole-school and whole-class approaches, followed up by one-to-small group and one-to-one tutoring for those who need them, can ensure success for nearly all students. A lot can be done in secondary school too, but building on a solid foundation from sixth grade forward is about a million times easier than trying to remediate serious problems (a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious).
Nationwide, we spend a lot more on secondary schools than on elementary schools. Yet investing in proven programs and practices in elementary school can ensure uniformly successful students leaving elementary school ready and eager to achieve success in secondary school.
I remember participating many years ago in a meeting of middle school principals in Philadelphia. The district was going to allocate some money for innovations. A district leader asked the principals if they would rather have the money themselves, or have it spent on improving outcomes in the elementary grades. Every one said, “Spend it early. Send us kids who can read.”
If you think it is not possible to ensure the success of virtually every child by the end of elementary school, I’d encourage you to look at all the effective whole-school, whole-class, one-to-small group, and one-to-one tutoring programs proven effective in the elementary grades. But in addition, go visit kids in any nearby elementary school, no matter how disadvantaged the kids are. Like my kids at Junior Village, they will revive your sense of what is possible. These kids need a fair shot at success, but they will repay it many times over.
If you wear reading glasses, please remove them for a moment, and continue reading.
Back to normal? For a moment, you had an experience like that of about 30% of Baltimore students. Some have myopia (nearsightedness) and some hyperopia (farsightedness), and some other problems. But few have glasses. A study in grades 2-3 found that only 6% of students had glasses in school, and 30% needed them. Kids being kids, even those who have glasses may soon lose or break them, and glasses are rarely replaced for kids in inner-city schools. As a result, some students can’t see the whiteboard, some can’t see their books, and many quietly think they are not smart because they struggle to focus on the printed word. In Maryland, students’ vision is tested only at school entry (usually pre-k), first grade, and eighth grade. If routine screenings find a problem, a note goes to parents asking them to get a formal assessment. In Baltimore, this results in about 10% of children who need glasses getting them. And then what do you think happens to those glasses between first and eighth grade?
I’ve been involved with studies of vision in inner-city schools along with colleagues Megan Collins, David Friedman, Michael Repka, and others from the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and Nancy Madden and others from the Johns Hopkins School of Education. The name of the project is Vision for Baltimore, and it operates under the authority of the Baltimore City Health Department, which has been a strong supporter. What we are finding is in one sense a privileged glimpse into the perfectly obvious. Inner city children who need glasses don’t often get them. We tested all students in grades 2-3 in 12 high-poverty Baltimore schools, and we gave those who needed them free glasses. We also followed up to make sure the students were wearing glasses, and we replaced those that were lost or broken. Students who received the glasses gained significantly on reading tests in comparison to those who never needed glasses. Of course. Yet this was the first U.S. study of its kind to show an effect of glasses on reading (two Chinese studies had found the same).
We are now doing a much larger study. A philanthropic group called Vision to Learn (VTL) wanted to provide assessments and free glasses to every elementary and middle school student in Baltimore over a three-year period. VTL has mobile vision vans, staffed with an optometrist and an optician. The vans can test all students who were found in screening to need assessment, and then provide free glasses if needed. With funding from Baltimore’s Abell Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we arranged to randomly assign schools to receive their vision services either in the first, second, or third year, enabling us to find the impact of these services in reading and math performance, mostly on state tests.
It will be a couple of years before we will know the results of our research, but I can tell you this much. As in our smaller study, we found that very few children already had glasses, and about 30% needed them. This fall, the first glasses are arriving, and the students are blown away. One fifth grade girl said, “Is this the way things are supposed to look?”
Now think about that girl. If she needs glasses now, she has probably needed them for years. How much damage was done to her essential early education? How much was her self-esteem damaged by learning problems due to nothing more than poor vision?
I should hasten to add that eyeglasses for students who need them are an inexpensive intervention. In the enormous quantities involved, a pair of glasses that kids are eager to wear may cost less than $20. Further, Medicaid pays for eyeglasses for all children who qualify as low income, which equates to nearly every child in Baltimore. Vision to Learn has worked out ways to make this easy to administer, so that modest funds from an existing federal program can be used for this essential service.
Vision is important. We hope our work and that of others around the U.S. will develop simple, replicable means of improving the achievement of disadvantaged children by giving them needed eyeglasses. But what I really want to talk about today is not vision, but blindness. Moral blindness. Policy blindness. Pragmatic blindness.
It so happens that vision is an excellent case to illustrate our moral, policy, and pragmatic blindness. We spend approximately $11,000 per child per year, on average, to educate a child. From all that expenditure, we want successful, capable, skilled students, who can enter higher education or the workforce with confidence and well-founded hopes of success. We want students who will follow the rules because they know that they can succeed if they do.
Yet we let $20 worth of eyeglasses stand in their way.
We spend vast amounts of money on special education, remedial services, even tutoring. Yet some proportion of the children who receive these services just needed eyeglasses instead. The policy world has tried for years to reduce special education costs and integrate children in regular classes. Many likely never needed special education to begin with.
Yet we let $20 worth of eyeglasses per child stand in our way.
We know that young people who fail in school are far more likely to become delinquent and later criminal. The costs of policing and incarceration are huge, and we need to reduce them.
Yet we let $20 worth of eyeglasses per child stand in our way.
There are lots of very difficult problems in education. This does not happen to be one of them. Can we all agree to put glasses on every disadvantaged child who needs them? This will not solve all of our problems, but if would be a heck of a start. While we’re at it, we also ought to look into hearing and other medical problems that hold kids back.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
In an earlier version of this blog, I forgot to mention the name of the project and the authority under which is operates. I apologize for the omission.
A few years ago, I was touring a ruined abbey in Scotland. In a small museum containing objects found in excavations of the site were a pair of eyeglasses worn by monks in the 13th century.
The relationship between vision and reading is not exactly news. Since most adults eventually need reading glasses, most people reading this blog probably have personal experience with the transformational impact they can have.
Along with colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Wilmer Eye Clinic and the Johns Hopkins School of Education, we are doing a study of the relationship between vision and reading in inner-city schools in Baltimore. Our project is not finished, so I can’t report on all aspects of our findings. But what we have found so far is profoundly disturbing.
We are giving comprehensive vision tests to second- and third-graders in some of the most impoverished schools in the city. We are finding high rates of visual impairment, which can be corrected by eyeglasses. Yet only 1 to 3 percent of the children have glasses in school.
The state of Maryland requires vision screening in first grade, and many of these children were found to need glasses previously. Yet a hundred things go wrong in getting glasses on kids’ faces in inner-city schools. Some kids are missed in the screening. Those who are identified get a letter sent to the parents, who may or may not follow up. Some cannot afford glasses, while others qualify for assistance to purchase glasses but do not know how to go through the procedures to get them. Glasses frequently get broken or lost or stolen, and there are no procedures to replace them. As a result, few kids who need them have glasses in school, even just one year after the screening year.
A key factor in all of this is that vision is seen as a health problem, not the school’s problem. Schools do not have resources for eyeglasses, so even though they are accountable for children’s reading, and even though school leaders and teachers know full well that a lot of their kids just need glasses, they feel helpless in solving this simple problem. Title I funds, for example, cannot be used for glasses. The result is that many children are receiving very expensive remedial services, tutoring, or special education, when a $20 pair of glasses would actually solve the problem.
In our project, we are testing kids, and, for those who need them, we are providing two pairs of glasses, one for home and one for school. Teachers are given craft boxes to hold the glasses and facilitate distributing them each day. If glasses are broken, they are replaced. Eyeglasses are in these days, and the kids are very proud of their glasses. Compared with other interventions for struggling readers, the cost of a few pairs of glasses is trivial. Not every struggling reader is struggling due to poor eyesight, but imagine if 20 or 10 or even 5 percent of children in high-poverty schools are struggling in reading or other subjects due to vision problems that are easily remediated with ordinary eyeglasses.
I’m always reluctant to get ahead of the data, but imagine for a moment what it would mean if we do find that significant numbers of inner-city kids are failing year after year just because they lack glasses. Hopefully, this finding would lead to government and private programs throughout the U.S. providing eyeglasses in schools and giving teachers and administrators responsibility to see that children receive and use their glasses. This could make a huge difference in one easily recognizable subgroup of struggling readers.
At a larger level, think what such a finding might say about poverty and education. Educators naturally seek educational solutions to educational problems in high-poverty schools, reasoning that they cannot solve problems of housing, crime, unemployment, and so on. Yet there may be some non-educational interventions that they could use to improve student outcomes. What matters is the outcomes, and it is crucial that proven solutions be allowed to cross traditional boundaries if they require it.
At a larger level still, consider how families get into poverty in the first place. How many kids with poor eyesight fail in school, lose motivation, and ultimately lose access to positive futures? How many impoverished parents were once children with poor eyesight, or other easily solved health difficulties? How many inner-city communities suffer from having many young people who perceive no hope due to reading difficulties that could have been prevented?
Eyeglasses are not new, and they are not magic. Yet they may well be part of a solution to fundamental and persistent problems of education.