Love, Hope, and Evidence in Secondary Reading

I am pleased to announce that our article reviewing research on effective secondary reading programs has just been posted on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia, aka the BEE. Written with my colleagues Ariane Baye, Cynthia Lake, and Amanda Inns, our review found 64 studies of 49 reading programs for students in grades 6 to 12, which had to meet very high standards of quality. For example, 55 of the studies used random assignment to conditions.

But before I get all nerdy about the technical standards of the review, I want to reflect on what we learned. I’ve already written about one thing we learned, that simply providing more instructional time made little difference in outcomes. In 22 of the studies, students got an extra period for reading beyond what control students got for at least an entire year, yet programs (other than tutoring) that provided extra time did no better than those that did not.

If time doesn’t help struggling readers, what does? I think I can summarize our findings with three words: love, hope, and evidence.

Love and hope are exactly what students who are reading below grade level are lacking. They are no longer naive. They know exactly what it means to be a poor reader in a high-poverty secondary school (almost all of the schools in our review served disadvantaged adolescents). If you can’t read well, college is out of the question. Decent jobs without a degree are scarce. If you have no hope, you cannot be motivated, or you may be motivated in antisocial directions that give you at least a chance for money and recognition. Every child needs love, but poor readers in secondary schools are too often looking for love in all the wrong places.

The successful programs in our review were ones that give adolescents a chance to earn the hope and love they crave. One category, all studies done in England, involved one-to-one and small group tutoring. How better to build close relationships between students and caring adults than to have individual or very small group time with them? And the one-to-one or small group setting allows tutors to personalize instruction, giving students a sense of hope that this time, their efforts will pay off (as the evidence says it will).

But the largest impacts in our review came from two related programs – The Reading Edge and Talent Development High School (TDHS). These both developed in our research center at Johns Hopkins University in the 1990s, so I have to be very modest here. But beyond these individual programs, I think there is a larger message.

Both The Reading Edge (for middle schools) and TDHS (for high schools) organize students into mixed-ability cooperative teams. The team members work on activities designed to build reading comprehension and related skills. Students are frequently assessed and on the basis of those assessments, they can earn recognition for their teams. Teachers introduce lessons, and then, as students work with each other on reading activities, teachers can cruise around the class looking in on students who need encouragement or help, solving problems, and building relationships. Students are on task, eager to learn, and seeing the progress they are making, but students and teachers are laughing together, sharing easy banter, and encouraging each other. Yes, this really happens. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in secondary schools throughout the U.S. and England.

Many of the most successful programs in our review also are based on principles of love and hope. BARR, a high school program, is an excellent example. It uses block scheduling to build positive relationships among a group of students and teachers, adding regular meetings between teachers and students to review their progress in all areas, social as well as academic. The program focuses on building positive social-emotional skills and behaviors, and helping students describe their desired futures, make plans to get there, and regularly review progress on their plans with their teachers and peers. Love and hope.

California’s Expository Reading and Writing Course helps 12th graders hoping to attend California State Universities prepare to pass the test used to determine whether students have to take remedial English (a key factor in college dropout). The students work in groups, helping each other to build reading, writing, and discussion skills, and helping students to visualize a future for themselves. Love and hope.

A few technology programs showed promising outcomes, especially Achieve3000 and Read 180. These do not replace teachers and peers with technology, but instead cycle students through small group, teacher-led, and computer-assisted activities. Pure technology programs did not work so well, but models taking advantage of relationships as well as personalization did best. Love and hope.

Of course, love and hope are not sufficient. We also need evidence that students are learning more than they might have been. To produce positive achievement effects requires outstanding teaching strategies, professional development, curricular approaches, assessments, and more. Love and hope may be necessary but they are not sufficient.

Our review applied the toughest evidence standards we have ever applied. Most of the studies we reviewed did not show positive impacts on reading achievement. But the ones that did so inspire that much more confidence. The very fact that we could apply these standards and still find plenty of studies that meet them shows how much our field is maturing. This in itself fills me with hope.

And love.

Apology

In a recent blog, I wrote about work we are doing to measure the impact on reading and math performance of a citywide campaign to provide assessments and eyeglasses to every child in Baltimore, from pre-k to grade 8. I forgot to mention the name of the project, Vision for Baltimore, and neglected to say that the project operates under the authority of the Baltimore City Health Department, which has been a strong supporter. I apologize for the omission.

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Brokering Proven Programs to Schools

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I dislike holiday shopping. The problem is that there are way too many choices. Have you ever walked into a store looking for something specific and been so overwhelmed with the number and range of choices that you turned around and left? I know I have. Much as we all like to have choices, too many of them with too many factors differentiating them can be overwhelming.

In the case of disseminating proven educational programs, this problem is even worse. On paper, all programs look pretty much alike, but it takes a long time to look at videos or visit schools to consider what programs really do. Even in schools in which everyone knows that change is needed, it is difficult to get consensus on a particular direction. It may be easier to just keep the same programs and hope that, somehow, kids will do better next year. Also, school leaders are always being hustled to adopt all sorts of textbooks, electronic hardware and software, and professional development approaches, usually lacking a shred of evidence, so they may decide to go with a product offered by a given sales person because he or she is friendly or persuasive.

If evidence-based reform is ever to take hold, there will need to be local brokers capable of helping school leaders learn about programs that could potentially be helpful to them. Local brokers might collect sets of materials for local leaders to view for many programs on a given topic (e.g., reading, math, whole-school reform). They might organize visits to local schools already using programs with strong evidence. They might organize or locally publicize webinars on various programs in which participants have an opportunity to learn about the programs and ask follow-up questions. Local brokers would know a lot about local resources, circumstances, and needs, and could thereby use that information to help school leaders choose proven programs as well as preparing program developers.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the National Diffusion Network (NDN) funded a system of state facilitators who worked within their states to help districts and schools adopt programs that met a set of standards. Small grants to some “developer/disseminators” also helped them build capacity to disseminate their programs. By the end of the NDN, there were thousands of schools using one of more than 500 programs.

If brokers could become trusted local guides to the complex world of educational innovation, school leaders could start making wise and informed choices, and developers could spend more of their time and energy on development and evaluation. Kids would benefit right away, and the system would then have an opportunity to get smarter both about the models and about the brokering process itself.