Long, long ago, I heard about a really crazy idea. Apparently, a few private high schools were trying a scheduling plan in which instead of having students take all of their subjects every day, they would take one subject at a time for a month or six weeks. The idea was that with a total concentration on one subject, with no time lost in changing classes, students could make astonishing progress. At the end of each week, they could see the progress they’d made, and really feel learning happening.
Of course, I could not talk anyone into trying this. I almost got a Catholic school to try it, but when they realized that kids would have to take religion all day, that was that.
However, in these awful days, with schools nationwide closing for months due to Covid, I was thinking about a way to use a similar concept with students who have fallen far behind, or actually with any students who are far behind grade level for any reason.
What happens now with students who are far behind in, say, reading, is that they get a daily period of remedial instruction, or special education. For most of them, despite the very best efforts of dedicated teachers, this is not very effective. Day after day after day, they get instruction that at best moves them forward at a slow, steady pace. But after a while, students lose any hope of truly catching up, and when you lose hope, you lose motivation, and no one learns without motivation.
So here is my proposal. What if students who were far behind could enroll in a six-week intensive service designed to teach them to read, no matter what? They would attend an intensive class, perhaps all day, in which they receive a promise: this time, you’ll make it. No excuses. This is the best chance you’ll ever have. Students would be carefully assessed, including their vision and hearing as well as their reading levels. They would be assigned to one-to-small group or, if necessary, one-to-one instruction for much of the day. There might be music or sports or other activities between sessions, but imagine that students got three 40-minute tutoring sessions a day, on content exactly appropriate to their needs. The idea, as in intensive education, would be to enable the students to feel the thrill of learning, to see unmistakable gains in a day, extraordinary gains in a week. The tutoring could be to groups of four for most students, but students with the most difficult, most unusual problems could receive one-to-one tutoring.
The ideal time to do this intensive tutoring would be summer school. Actually, this has been done in a few studies. Schacter & Jo (2005) provided intensive phonics instruction to students after first grade in three disadvantaged schools in Los Angeles. The seven-week experience increased their test scores by an effect size of +1.16, compared to similar students who did not have the opportunity to attend summer school. Zvoch & Stevens (2015) also provided intensive phonics instruction in small groups in a 5-week reading summer school. The students were disadvantaged kindergartners and first graders in a medium-sized city in the Pacific Northwest. The effect sizes were +0.60 for kindergarten, +0.78 for first grade.
Summer is not the only good time for intensive reading instruction. Reading is so important that it would be arguably worthwhile to provide intensive six-week instruction (with time out for mathematics) and breaks for, say, sports and music, during the school year.
If intensive education were as effective as ordinary 40-minute daily tutoring, it might be no more expensive. A usual course of tutoring is 20 weeks, so triple tutoring sessions for six weeks would cost almost the same as 18 weeks of ordinary tutoring. In other words, if intensive tutoring is more effective than ordinary tutoring, then the additional benefits might cost little or nothing.
Intensive tutoring would make particular sense to try during summer, 2021, when millions of students will still be far behind in reading because of the lengthy school closures they will have experienced. I have no idea whether intensive tutoring will be more or less effective than ordinary one-to-small group tutoring (which is very, very effective; see here and here). Planfully concentrating tutoring during an intensive period of time certainly seems worth a try!
Schacter, J., & Jo, B. (2005). Learning when school is not in session: A reading summer day-camp intervention to improve the achievement of exiting first-grade students who are economically disadvantaged. Journal of Research in Reading, 28, 158-169. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2005.00260.x
Zvoch, K., & Stevens, J. J. (2013). Summer school effects in a randomized field trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 24-32. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.05.002
Photo credit: American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action, (CC BY-NC 4.0)
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