Message From NorthBay: All Students Can Learn to Read

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!

Photo credit: NorthBay Media Arts

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.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Prioritize Tutoring for Low-Achieving Readers

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 thebee@bestevidence.org