Reading by Third Grade – Or Else


Is it possible to legislate reading proficiency? An increasing number of states seem to think so. A recent article in the New York Times reported on laws in effect in 14 states (so far) requiring that third graders be reading at grade level or be retained. The article was about a six-week summer school program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, for students at risk for retention. About 1,500 third graders are taking summer school, or one in eight of Charlotte’s third grade population.

The problem of education reform is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of good ideas sensibly implemented. Ensuring that virtually all children read by third grade is an essential and attainable goal. Reading by third grade is indeed a key predictor of high school graduation. I understand and sympathize with the state legislators who passed these laws. They were justifiably impatient with the continuing failure of school systems to solve the early reading problem. Sad to say, however, the strategies being used in the states with mandatory retention laws are misguided.

First, as the article notes, most of the summer school children are far behind, and six weeks of summer school will not bring them to grade level. Every educator knows that the struggling children needed help from pre-kindergarten to grade 3, not just summer school at the end of three years of failure. Other than Florida, the original mandatory retention state, other states have provided few resources to help children meet the standards for promotion.

Second, retention is rarely an effective or necessary policy. It looks good for a while because the retained children are a year older than their (new) classmates. For example, a ten-year-old in fourth grade immediately gains in apparent performance if transferred to the third grade — the score doesn’t change, but the reference group does. However, these apparent benefits wear off in a few years. This result has been found in many studies over the years, and the article reported that Florida, which has had a mandatory retention policy since 2002, reported retained children performing better than similar (but younger) non-retained children for several years, but by eighth grade the differences had faded away.

Third, both summer school and retention are incredibly expensive solutions. Retention means giving children one more year of elementary school, at a cost of roughly $10,000 per child, using national average per-pupil costs. Summer school is also an expensive solution, as it requires six more weeks to employ teachers and keep schools open. Further, the evidence for the effectiveness of summer school is weak.

Finally, and most importantly, there are much more effective strategies for ensuring that virtually all children are reading by third grade. In fact, I counted 28 separate elementary reading programs with data accepted by the What Works Clearinghouse. These programs all meet the U. S. Department of Education’s EDGAR standards for “strong” or “moderate” evidence of effectiveness. All are being actively disseminated today. The programs include one-to-one tutoring by teachers or paraprofessionals, one-to-small-group programs, classroom programs, technology approaches, and whole-school reform approaches, including our Success for All program. There were no summer school or after school programs that made the list.

Besides their evidence of effectiveness, these approaches have several important benefits. They are designed to be replicated and are ready to go. Also, they use staff already in the school, which both adds greatly to cost-effectiveness and improves the skills of the participating staff for all aspects of their jobs.

Amazingly, there are states during difficult economic times that are willing to spend an additional $10,000 per child to retain thousands of children, not to mention costs of summer school and other last-minute remediation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to use these resources instead on proven and replicable approaches that could actually solve the problem on a scale that would matter? Early reading is perhaps the one area in which proven programs of all sorts are most available. Given the well-founded concern about third grade reading, you’d imagine that policymakers would be rushing to implement proven approaches. But the reality is otherwise.


Summer: The Missing Link in Education Reform

By Gary Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Research has long documented the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Over the three-month summer vacation, children forget some of what they have learned during the previous school year. It’s an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the ideal of a lazy, fun-filled summer.

Most youth lose about two months in grade equivalents in math computational skills over the summer. Low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement while their middle-income peers make slight gains.

Worse, these losses are cumulative, contributing to a widening achievement gap. A study by Johns Hopkins University’s Karl Alexander found that summer learning loss in the elementary school years results in low-income students being as much as 2.5 years behind their higher-income peers by the end of 5th grade. It also leads to placement in less rigorous high school courses, higher high school dropout rates, and lower college attendance. Further, when students lose hard-won skills over the summer, teachers waste time re-teaching at the beginning of every school year.

The learning losses, and the wasted time, are preventable.

There is evidence that students who attend high-quality summer programs can avoid summer losses, but what makes a high-quality program? Not surprisingly, such programs offer strong, individualized instruction, have parents who are involved, and feature small class sizes and engaging activities, according to the RAND Corporation’s 2011 report Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. They’re typically full-day programs that run from five to six weeks.

There are examples of successful summer learning programs in school districts and communities throughout the country. These high-quality programs effectively blend academics and enrichment activities to help students avoid learning losses, and even experience gains. These have nothing in common with the punitive summer schools I recall from my childhood. Rather, this new vision for summer school has kids reading in the morning and visiting museums in the afternoon. Math lessons are followed by art and music – subjects often squeezed out of the strained school day.

Outcomes are impressive. As part of the Smarter Summers initiative the National Summer Learning Association launched in 10 cities last year with support from the Walmart Foundation, middle school students attending Summer Advantage USA in Chicago and Indianapolis gained an average of 2.1 months in grade equivalents in literacy and math skills.

In Oakland, Calif., more than half of 1,000 elementary students who attended a summer program were found by the district to be performing at or above the benchmark in English/language arts scores after the program, compared with 36 percent in the spring. In Baltimore’s expanded summer learning program, elementary school students registered double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests from spring to fall 2010. Recently, Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres Alonso said that summer school is no longer just for children who are failing, but an important part of his strategy for helping all students to succeed.

Research is now underway on wide scale implementation and on sustained gains. The reality is that if we ever hope to close the persistent academic achievement gap, districts need to consider summer learning as part of their school improvement strategies. Summer school shouldn’t be seen as punitive, and shouldn’t be the first sacrifice in a tight budget year. It’s a link in the chain that’s been broken for far too long.