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.

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Reading by Third Grade – Or Else

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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.