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.

Could Proven Programs Eliminate Gaps in Elementary Reading Achievement?

What if every child in America could read at grade level or better? What if the number of students in special education for learning disabilities, or retained in grade, could be cut in half?

What if students who become behavior problems or give up on learning because of nothing more than reading difficulties could instead succeed in reading and no longer be frustrated by failure?

Today these kinds of outcomes are only pipe dreams. Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars directed toward remedial and special education, reading levels have barely increased.  Gaps between middle class and economically disadvantaged students remain wide, as do gaps between ethnic groups. We’ve done so much, you might think, and nothing has really worked at scale.

Yet today we have many solutions to the problems of struggling readers, solutions so effective that if widely and effectively implemented, they could substantially change not only the reading skills, but the life chances of students who are struggling in reading.

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How do I know this is possible? The answer is that the evidence is there for all to see.

This week, my colleagues and I released a review of research on programs for struggling readers. The review, written by Amanda Inns, Cynthia Lake, Marta Pellegrini, and myself, uses academic language and rigorous review methods. But you don’t have to be a research expert to understand what we found out. In ten minutes, just reading this blog, you will know what needs to be done to have a powerful impact on struggling readers.

Everyone knows that there are substantial gaps in student reading performance according to social class and race. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, here are key gaps in terms of effect sizes at fourth grade:

Gap in Effect Sizes
No Free/Reduced lunch/

Free/Reduced lunch

0.56
White/African American 0.52
White/Hispanic 0.46

These are big differences. In order to eliminate these gaps, we’d have to provide schools serving disadvantaged and minority students with programs or services sufficient to increase their reading scores by about a half standard deviation. Is this really possible?

Can We Really Eliminate Such Big and Longstanding Gaps?

Yes, we can. And we can do it cost-effectively.

Our review examined thousands of studies of programs intended to improve the reading performance of struggling readers. We found 59 studies of 39 different programs that met very high standards of research quality. 73% of the qualifying studies used random assignment to experimental or control groups, just as the most rigorous medical studies do. We organized the programs into response to intervention (RTI) tiers:

Tier 1 means whole-class programs, not just for struggling readers

Tier 2 means targeted services for students who are struggling to read

Tier 3 means intensive services for students who have serious difficulties.

Our categories were as follows:

Multi-Tier (Tier 1 + tutoring for students who need it)

Tier 1:

  • Whole-class programs

Tier 2:

  • Technology programs
  • One-to-small group tutoring

Tier 3:

  • One-to-one tutoring

We are not advocating for RTI itself, because the data on RTI are unclear. But it is just common sense to use proven programs with all students, then proven remedial approaches with struggling readers, then intensive services for students for whom Tier 2 is not sufficient.

Do We Have Proven Programs Able to Overcome the Gaps?

The table below shows average effect sizes for specific reading approaches. Wherever you see effect sizes that approach or exceed +0.50, you are looking at proven solutions to the gaps, or at least programs that could become a component in a schoolwide plan to ensure the success of all struggling readers.

Programs That Work for Struggling Elementary Readers

Multi-Tier Approaches Grades Proven No. of Studies Mean Effect Size
      Success for All K-5 3 +0.35
      Enhanced Core Reading Instruction 1 1 +0.24
Tier 1 – Classroom Approaches      
     Cooperative Integrated Reading                        & Composition (CIRC) 2-6 3 +0.11
      PALS 1 1 +0.65
Tier 2 – One-to-Small Group Tutoring      
      Read, Write, & Type (T 1-3) 1 1 +0.42
      Lindamood (T 1-3) 1 1 +0.65
      SHIP (T 1-3) K-3 1 +0.39
      Passport to Literacy (TA 1-4/7) 4 4 +0.15
      Quick Reads (TA 1-2) 2-3 2 +0.22
Tier 3 One-to-One Tutoring
      Reading Recovery (T) 1 3 +0.47
      Targeted Reading Intervention (T) K-1 2 +0.50
      Early Steps (T) 1 1 +0.86
      Lindamood (T) K-2 1 +0.69
      Reading Rescue (T or TA) 1 1 +0.40
      Sound Partners (TA) K-1 2 +0.43
      SMART (PV) K-1 1 +0.40
      SPARK (PV) K-2 1 +0.51

Key:    T: Certified teacher tutors

TA: Teaching assistant tutors

PV: Paid volunteers (e.g., AmeriCorps members)

1-X: For small group tutoring, the usual group size for tutoring (e.g., 1-2, 1-4)

(For more information on each program, see www.evidenceforessa.org)

The table is a road map to eliminating the achievement gaps that our schools have wrestled with for so long. It only lists programs that succeeded at a high level, relative to others at the same tier levels. See the full report or www.evidenceforessa for information on all programs.

It is important to note that there is little evidence of the effectiveness of tutoring in grades 3-5. Almost all of the evidence is from grades K-2. However, studies done in England in secondary schools have found positive effects of three reading tutoring programs in the English equivalent of U.S. grades 6-7. These findings suggest that when well-designed tutoring programs for grades 3-5 are evaluated, they will also show very positive impacts. See our review on secondary reading programs at www.bestevidence.org for information on these English middle school tutoring studies. On the same website, you can also see a review of research on elementary mathematics programs, which reports that most of the successful studies of tutoring in math took place in grades 2-5, another indicator that reading tutoring is also likely to be effective in these grades.

Some of the individual programs have shown effects large enough to overcome gaps all by themselves if they are well implemented (i.e., ES = +0.50 or more). Others have effect sizes lower than +0.50 but if combined with other programs elsewhere on the list, or if used over longer time periods, are likely to eliminate gaps. For example, one-to-one tutoring by certified teachers is very effective, but very expensive. A school might implement a Tier 1 or multi-tier approach to solve all the easy problems inexpensively, then use cost-effective one-to-small group methods for students with moderate reading problems, and only then use one-to-one tutoring with the small number of students with the greatest needs.

Schools, districts, and states should consider the availability, practicality, and cost of these solutions to arrive at a workable solution. They then need to make sure that the programs are implemented well enough and long enough to obtain the outcomes seen in the research, or to improve on them.

But the inescapable conclusion from our review is that the gaps can be closed, using proven models that already exist. That’s big news, news that demands big changes.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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.

Mislabeled as Disabled

Kenny is a 10th grader in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He is an African American from a disadvantaged neighborhood, attending a high school that requires high grades and test scores. He has good attendance, and has never had any behavior problems. A good kid, by all accounts but one.

Kenny reads at the kindergarten level.

Kenny has spent most of his time in school in special education. He received extensive and expensive services, following an Individual Education Program (IEP) made and updated over time just for him, tailored to his needs.

Yet despite all of this, he is still reading at the kindergarten level in 10th grade.

Kenny’s story starts off a remarkable book, Mislabeled as Disabled, by my friend Kalman (Buzzy) Hettleman. A lawyer by training, Hettleman has spent many years volunteering in Baltimore City schools to help children being considered for special education obtain the targeted assistance they need to either avoid special education or succeed in it. What he has seen, and describes in detail in his book, is nothing short of heartbreaking. In fact, it makes you furious. Here is a system designed to improve the lives of vulnerable children, spending vast amounts of money to enable talented and hard-working teachers to work with children. Yet the outcomes are appalling. It’s not just Kenny. Thousands of students in Baltimore, and in every other city and state, are failing. These are mostly children with specific learning disabilities or other mild, “high-incidence” categories. Or they are struggling readers not in special education who are not doing much better. Many of the students who are categorized as having mild disabilities are not disabled, and would have done at least as well with appropriate services in the regular classroom. Instead, what they get is an IEP. Such children are “mislabeled as disabled,” and obtain little benefit from the experience.

blog_4-4-19_BuzzyHettleman_500x333Buzzy has worked at many levels of this system. He was on the Baltimore school board for many years. He taught social work at the University of Maryland. He has been an activist, fighting relentlessly for the rights of struggling students (and at 84 years of age still is). Most recently, he has served on the Kirwan Commission, appointed to advise the state legislature on reform policies and new funding formulas for the state’s schools. Buzzy has seen it all, from every angle. His book is deeply perceptive and informed, and makes many recommendations for policy and practice. But his message is infuriating. What he documents is a misguided system that is obsessed with rules and policies but pays little attention to what actually works for struggling learners.

What most struggling readers need is proven, well-implemented programs in a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework. Mostly, this boils down to tutoring. Most struggling students can benefit enormously from one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified teaching assistants (paraprofessionals), so tutoring need not be terribly expensive. Others may need certified teachers or one-to-one. Some struggling readers can succeed with well-implemented proven, strategies in the regular classroom (Tier 1). Those who do not succeed in Tier 1 should receive proven one-to-small group tutoring approaches (Tier 2). If that is not sufficient, a small number of students may need one-to-one tutoring, although research tells us that one-to-small group is almost as effective as one-to-one, and is a lot less expensive.

Tutoring is the missing dynamic in the special education system for struggling readers, whether or not they have IEPs. Yes, some districts do provide tutoring to struggling readers, and if the tutoring model they implement is proven in rigorous research it is generally effective. The problem is that there are few schools or districts that provide enough tutoring to enough struggling readers to move the needle.

Buzzy described a policy he devised with Baltimore’s then-superintendent, Andres Alonso. They called it “one year plus.” It was designed to ensure that all students with high-incidence disabilities, such as those with specific learning disabilities, must receive instruction sufficient to enable them to make one year’s progress or more every 12 months.  If students could do this, they would, over time, close the gap between their reading level and their grade level. This was a radical idea, and its implementation it fell far short. But the concept is exactly right. Students with mild disabilities, who are the majority of those with IEPs, can surely make such gains. In recent years, research has identified a variety of tutoring approaches that can ensure one year or more of progress in a year for most students with IEPs, at a cost a state like Maryland could surely afford.

            Mislabeled as Disabled is written about Buzzy’s personal experience in Baltimore. However, what he describes is happening in districts and states throughout the U.S., rich as well as poor. This dismal cycle can stop anywhere we choose to stop it. Buzzy Hettleman describes in plain, powerful language how this could happen, and most importantly, why it must.

Reference

Hettleman, K. R. (2019). Mislabeled as disabled. New York: Radius.

 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.

Miss Evers’ Boys (And Girls)

Most people who have ever been involved with human subjects’ rights know about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This was a study of untreated syphilis, in which 622 poor, African American sharecroppers, some with syphilis and some without, were evaluated over 40 years.

The study, funded and overseen by the U.S. Public Health Service, started in 1932. In 1940, researchers elsewhere discovered that penicillin cured syphilis. By 1947, penicillin was “standard of care” for syphilis, meaning that patients with syphilis received penicillin as a matter of course, anywhere in the U.S.

But not in Tuskegee. Not in 1940. Not in 1947. Not until 1972, when a whistle-blower made the press aware of what was happening. In the meantime, many of the men died of syphilis, 40 of their wives contracted the disease, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis. The men had never even been told the nature of the study, they were not informed in 1940 or 1947 that there was now a cure, and they were not offered that cure. Leaders of the U.S. Public Health Service were well aware that there was a cure for syphilis, but for various reasons, they did not stop the study. Not in 1940, not in 1947, not even when whistle-blowers told them what was going on. They stopped it only when the press found out.

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In 1997 a movie on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was released. It was called Miss Evers’ Boys. Miss Evers (actually, Eunice Rivers) was the African-American public health nurse who was the main point of contact for the men over the whole 40 years. She deeply believed that she, and the study, were doing good for the men and their community, and she formed close relationships with them. She believed in the USPHS leadership, and thought they would never harm her “boys.”

The Tuskegee study was such a crime and scandal that it utterly changed procedures for medical research in the U.S. and most of the world. Today, participants in research with any level of risk, or their parents if they are children, must give informed consent for participation in research, and even if they are in a control group, they must receive at least “standard of care”: currently accepted, evidence-based practices.

If you’ve read my blogs, you’ll know where I’m going with this. Failure to use proven educational treatments, unlike medical ones, is rarely fatal, at least not in the short term. But otherwise, our profession carries out Tuskegee crimes all the time. It condemns failing students to ineffective programs and practices when effective ones are known. It fails to even inform parents or children, much less teachers and principals, that proven programs exist: Proven, practical, replicable solutions for the problems they face every day.

Like Miss Rivers, front-line educators care deeply about their charges. Most work very hard and give their absolute best to help all of their children to succeed. Teaching is too much hard work and too little money for anyone to do it for any reason but for the love of children.

But somewhere up the line, where the big decisions are made, where the people are who know or who should know which programs and practices are proven to work and which are not, this information just does not matter. There are exceptions, real heroes, but in general, educational leaders who believe that schools should use proven programs have to fight hard for this position. The problem is that the vast majority of educational expenditures—textbooks, software, professional development, and so on—lack even a shred of evidence. Not a scintilla. Some have evidence that they do not work. Yet advocates for those expenditures (such as sales reps and educators who like the programs) argue strenuously for programs with no evidence, and it’s just easier to go along. Whole states frequently adopt or require textbooks, software, and services of no known value in terms of improving student achievement. The ESSA evidence standards were intended to focus educators on evidence and incentivize use of proven programs, at least for the lowest-achieving 5% of schools in each state, but so far it’s been slow going.

Yet there are proven alternatives. Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org) lists more than 100 PK-12 reading and math programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards. The majority meet the top level, “Strong.” And most of the programs were researched with struggling students. Yet I am not perceiving a rush to find out about proven programs. I am hearing a lot of new interest in evidence, but my suspicion, growing every day, is that many educational leaders do not really care about the evidence, but are instead just trying to find a way to keep using the programs and providers they already have and already like, and are looking for evidence to justify keeping things as they are.

Every school has some number of struggling students. If these children are provided with the same approaches that have not worked with them or with millions like them, it is highly likely that most will fail, with all the consequences that flow from school failure: Retention. Assignment to special education. Frustration. Low expectations. Dropout. Limited futures. Poverty. Unemployment. There are 50 million children in grades PK to 12 in the U.S. This is the grinding reality for perhaps 10 to 20 million of them. Solutions are readily available, but not known or used by caring and skilled front-line educators.

In what way is this situation unlike Tuskegee in 1940?

 Photo credit: By National Archives Atlanta, GA (U.S. government) ([1], originally from National Archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Response to Proven Instruction (RTPI)

Response to Intervention (RTI) is one of those great policy ideas caring policymakers always come up with that is carefully crafted and enthusiastically announced, then inconsistently implemented, evaluated at great cost, and found to have minimal impacts, if any.   In the case of RTI, the policy is genuinely sensible, but the 2015 MDRC evaluation (Balu et al., 2015) found that the implementation was poor and outcomes were nil, at least as measured in a much-criticized regression discontinuity design (see Fuchs & Fuchs, 2017).  An improvement on RTI, multi-tier systems of support (MTSS), adds in some good ideas, but I don’t think it will be enough.

The problem, I think, relates to something I wrote about at the time the MDRC study appeared. In fact, I gave the phenomenon a name: Bob’s Law, which states that any policy or intervention that is not well defined will not be well implemented and therefore will not work, no matter how sensible it may be. In the case of RTI/MTSS, everyone has a pretty good idea what “tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3” are in concept, but no one knows what they are actually composed of. So each district and school and teacher makes up their own strategies to do general teaching followed by remediation if needed, followed by intensive services if necessary. The problem is that since the actual programs provided in each tier are not specified, everyone will do pretty much what they would have done if RTI had not existed. And guess what?  If both RTI and non-RTI teachers are drawing from the same universally accepted basket of teaching methods, there is no reason to believe that outcomes will be better than ordinary practice if the RTI group is doing more or less the same thing as the non-RTI group.  This is not to say that standard methods are deficient, but why would we expect outcomes to differ if practices don’t?

Response to Proven Instruction (RTPI).

I recently wrote an article proposing a new approach to RTI/MTSS (Slavin, Inns, Pellegrini, & Lake, 2018).  The idea is simple. Why not insist that struggling learners receive tier 1, tier 2, and (if necessary) tier 3 services, each of which is proven to work in rigorous research?  In the article I listed numerous tier 2 and tier 3 services for reading and math that have all been successfully evaluated, with significant outcomes and effect sizes in excess of +0.20.  Every one of these programs involved tutoring, one to one or one to small group, by teachers or paraprofessionals. I also listed tier 1 services found to be very effective for struggling learners.  All of these programs are described at www.evidenceforessa.org.

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If there are so many effective approaches for struggling learners, these should form the core of RTI/MTSS services. I would argue that tier 1 should be composed of proven whole class or whole school programs; tier 2, one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified paraprofessionals using proven approaches; and tier 3, one-to-one tutoring by paraprofessionals or teachers using proven approaches (see Figure 1).

The result would have to be substantial improvements in the achievement of struggling learners, and reductions in special education and retentions.  These outcomes are assured, as long as implementation is strong, because the programs themselves are proven to work.  Over time, better and more cost-effective programs would be sure to appear, but we could surely do a lot better today with the programs we have now.

Millions of children live in the cruel borderlands between low reading groups and special education. These students are perfectly normal, except from 9:00 to 3:00 on school days. They start school with enthusiasm, but then slide over the years into failure, despair, and then dropout or delinquency.  If we have proven approaches and can use them in a coherent system to ensure success for all of these children, why would we not use them?

Children have a right to have every chance to succeed.  We have a moral imperative to see that they receive what they need, whatever it takes.

References

Balu, R., Zhu, P., Doolittle, F., Schiller, E., Jenkins, J., & Gersten, R. (2015). Evaluation of response to intervention practices for elementary school reading. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, NCEE 2016-4000.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S. (2017). Critique of the National Evaluation of Response to Intervention: A case for simpler frameworks. Exceptional Children, 83 (3), 1-14.

Slavin, R.E., Inns, A., Pellegrini, M., & Lake, C. (2018). Response to proven instruction (RTPI): Enabling struggling learners. Manuscript submitted for publication.

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.

Two Years of Second Grade? Really?

In a recent blog, Mike Petrilli, President of the Fordham Institute, floated an interesting idea. Given the large numbers of students in high-poverty schools who finish elementary school far behind, what if we gave them all a second year of second grade? (he calls it “2.5”). This, he says, would give disadvantaged schools another year to catch kids up, without all the shame and fuss of retaining them.

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At one level, I love this idea, but not on its merits. One more year of second grade would cost school districts or states the national average per-pupil cost of $11,400. So would I like to have $11,400 more for every child in a school district serving many disadvantaged students? You betcha. But another year of second grade is not in the top hundred things I’d do with it.

Just to give you an idea of what we’re talking about, my state, Maryland, has about 900,000 students in grades K-12. Adding a year of second grade for all of them would cost about $10,260,000,000. If half of them are, say, in Title 1 schools (one indicator of high poverty), that’s roughly $5 billion and change. Thanks, Mike! To be fair, this $5 billion would be spent over a 12-year period, as students go through year 2.5, so let’s say only a half billion a year.

What could Maryland’s schools do with a half billion dollars a year?  Actually, I wrote them a plan, arguing that if Maryland were realistically planning to ensure the success of every child on that state tests, they could do it, but it would not be cheap.

What Maryland, or any state, could do with serious money would be to spend it on proven programs, especially for struggling learners. As one example, consider tutoring. The well-known Reading Recovery program, for instance, uses a very well-trained tutor working one-to-one with a struggling first grader for about 16 weeks. The cost was estimated by Hollands et al. (2016) at roughly $4600. So Petrilli’s second grade offer could be traded for about three years of tutoring, not just for struggling first graders, but for every single student in a high-poverty school. And there are much less expensive forms of tutoring. It would be easy to figure out how every single student in, say, Baltimore, could receive tutoring every single year of elementary school using paraprofessionals and small groups for students with less serious problems and one-to-one tutoring for those with more serious problems (see Slavin, Inns, & Pellegrini, 2018).

Our Evidence for ESSA website lists many proven, highly effective approaches in reading and math. These are all ready to go; the only reason that they are not universally used is that they cost money, or so I assume. And not that much money, in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t understand why, even in this thought experiment, Mike Petrili is unwilling to consider the possibility of spending serious money on programs and practices that have actually been proven to work. But in case anyone wants to follow up on his idea, or at least pilot it in Maryland, please mail me $5 billion, and I will make certain that every student in every high-poverty school in the state does in fact reach the end of elementary school performing at or near grade level. Just don’t expect to see double when you check in on our second graders.

References

Hollands, F. M., Kieffer, M. J., Shand, R., Pan, Y., Cheng, H., & Levin, H. M. (2016). Cost-effectiveness analysis of early reading programs: A demonstration with recommendations for future research. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness9(1), 30-53.

Slavin, R. E., Inns, A., Pellegrini, M. & Lake (2018).  Response to proven instruction (RTPI): Enabling struggling learners. Submitted for publication.

Photo credit: By Petty Officer 1st Class Jerry Foltz (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/383907) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Beyond the Spaghetti Bridge: Why Response to Intervention is Not Enough

I know an engineer at Johns Hopkins University who invented the Spaghetti Bridge Challenge. Teams of students are given dry, uncooked spaghetti and glue, and are challenged to build a bridge over a 500-millimeter gap. The bridge that can support the most weight wins.

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Spaghetti Bridge tournaments are now held all over the world, and they are wonderful for building interest in engineering. But I don’t think any engineer would actually build a real bridge based on a winning spaghetti bridge prototype. Much as spaghetti bridges do resemble the designs of real bridges, there are many more factors a real engineer has to take into account: Weight of materials, tensile strength, flexibility (in case of high winds or earthquakes), durability, and so on.

In educational innovation and reform, we have lots of great ideas that resemble spaghetti bridges. That’s because they would probably work great if only their components were ideal. An example like this is Response to Intervention (RTI), or its latest version, Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). Both RTI and MTSS start with a terrific idea: Instead of just testing struggling students to decide whether or not to assign them to special education, provide them with high-quality instruction (Tier 1), supplemented by modest assistance if that is not sufficient (Tier 2), supplemented by intensive instruction if Tier 2 is not sufficient (Tier 3). In law, or at least in theory, struggling readers must have had a chance to succeed in high-quality Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 instruction before they can be assigned to special education.

The problem is that there is no way to ensure that struggling students truly received high-quality instruction at each tier level. Teachers do their best, but it is difficult to make up effective approaches from scratch. MTSS or RTI is a great idea, but their success depends on the effectiveness of whatever struggling students receive as Tier 1, 2, and 3 instruction.

This is where spaghetti bridges come in. Many bridge designs can work in theory (or in spaghetti), but whether or not a bridge really works in the real world depends on how it is made, and with what materials in light of the demands that will be placed on it.

The best way to ensure that all components of RTI or MTSS policy are likely to be effective is to select approaches for each tier that have themselves been proven to work. Fortunately, there is now a great deal of research establishing the effectiveness of programs, proven effective for struggling students that use whole-school or whole-class methods (Tier 1), one-to-small group tutoring (Tier 2), or one-to-one tutoring (Tier 3). Many of these tutoring models are particularly cost-effective because they successfully provide struggling readers with tutoring from well-qualified paraprofessionals, usually ones with bachelor’s degrees but not teaching certificates. Research on both reading and math tutoring has clearly established that such paraprofessional tutors, using structured models, have tutees who gain at least as much as do tutors who are certified teachers. This is important not only because paraprofessionals cost about half as much as teachers, but also because there are chronic teacher shortages in high-poverty areas, such as inner-city and rural locations, so certified teacher tutors may not be available at any cost.

If schools choose proven components for their MTSS/RTI models, and implement them with thought and care, they are sure to see enhanced outcomes for their struggling students. The concept of MTSS/RTI is sound, and the components are proven. How could the outcomes be less than stellar? And in addition to improved achievement for vulnerable learners, hiring many paraprofessionals to serve as tutors in disadvantaged schools could enable schools to attract and identify capable, caring young people with bachelor’s degrees to offer accelerated certification, enriching the local teaching force.

With a spaghetti bridge, a good design is necessary but not sufficient. The components of that design, its ingredients, and its implementation, determine whether the bridge stands or falls in practice. So it is with MTSS and RTI. An approach based on strong evidence of effectiveness is essential to enable these good designs achieve their goals.

Photo credit: CSUF Photos (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via flickr

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.