Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading

Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading

In my experience, most people are smart, few are brilliant.  One of my definitions of brilliant is someone who can ask one question that changes completely how I think about something.

I don’t know Ken Reeves personally, but I know he was on the Cambridge City Council for more than two decades, including in the role of Mayor. He came to Cambridge to attend Harvard College and then went on to become a lawyer. He was also instrumental in bringing ideas to Cambridge from the Harlem Children’s Zone, including Baby University.

Last month I chatted briefly with Ken Reeves at a reception for the new City Council.  I described the report that Leslie Brunetta and I wrote about inequitable staffing across CPS elementary schools, which we titled “Unequal Schools.” Discussing the definition of “equity” versus “equality,” I asked him, “If one school with 150 low-income students has one reading specialist and another school with 150 low-income students has three reading specialists, is that equitable?”

Ken Reeves looked at me as if he felt sorry for me that I so missed the point.  “Maybe what our schools each need are twelve reading specialists.”

That pretty much ended the conversation, because my response was to gape like a fish: Why was I thinking so unimaginatively, advocating for just one more crumb?  Instead of asking,  “Do we need another reading specialist at School X or School Y?” (though that’s certainly better than nothing), why aren’t we asking, “How many reading specialists, classroom teachers, and other educators do we need in our schools if we want all children to have the opportunity to be successful in our schools, including being ready for higher level academic work when they leave elementary school?”

Consider this:  In this year’s budget, we have roughly 16 full-time reading specialists distributed across our 12 elementary schools.  Our most recent standardized test results showed that one-third of last year’s 3rd-5th graders scored below Proficient on the MCAS reading tests, with the struggling students disproportionately Black and Latino. (Black students also showed lower 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 10th grade growth rates in reading than White students last year, meaning that MCAS-wise, Black and Latino students are falling  further behind White students each year.)  With a 1st-5th grade enrollment of 2,400 students, that means there are roughly 800 students in our elementary schools who need extra help with reading this year. Fortunately, the research suggests that specialized reading instruction can accelerate progress.  Whether we call it “tutoring,” “intervention,” or plain old “extra help,” it works.  But it must be frequent, intensive, sustained, and of high quality. 

In other words, it doesn’t help to give struggling readers one or two extra sessions of reading per week in a group of 5-6 other struggling readers.  Best practice research suggests that struggling readers should have roughly 30 minutes per day of intensive instruction, either one-to-one or in groups no larger than three.  If we have 800 struggling readers in our elementary schools every year, we need enough reading teachers to teach a minimum of 265 small reading groups, taught in morning when kids are alert.  If one teacher can teach 4-5 individual or small-group sessions per day, that means we need 55-65 reading teachers across our elementary schools, not 16.

Am I claiming that hiring 50 reading specialists will “close the achievement gap” so “Let’s do it!”  No, of course not.  There are very few certainties in education and child development. That’s why it’s important to pilot new approaches and observe the results.  But we need to expand the conversation and our imaginations so that hiring 50 additional reading specialists is one option to think about.  It would cost $4-$5 million, roughly the cost of extending the school day by an hour.   We might also, for the same amount, staff every 1st- and 2nd grade classroom with two teachers or reduce class sizes in those grades to 16 students.  Or we could experiment with all three of those options but in different schools.

One of the most well-known books about the Harlem Children’s Zone is Whatever it Takes, by Paul Tough.  What would it take to teach all kids to read well in CPS elementary schools? Would it take more reading teachers, smaller class sizes, more paraprofessionals, all three combined? How much would it cost?  How would we finance it? Let’s open up that conversation.

Comments encouraged.  Feel free to forward, report, or share.  Buttons below.

Postscript:  Ken Reeves isn’t the only one thinking this way. In 2010, an organization called Strategies for Children, Inc., commissioned a report by Harvard reading expert Nonie Lesaux entitled, “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success.” CPS educator Chris Colbath-Hess and current CPS parent/former CPS educator Paul Toner both served on the Advisory Committee for the report.  Noting that many students are still not learning to read well in Massachusetts schools, Lesaux wrote (on pg. 7, emphases mine):

Reaching the tipping point for changing behaviors so as to improve children’s reading outcomes requires a deep, sustained investment of time and effort.  Yet the dosage levels, intensity and depth of services matter—such as how much time is spent in the program, how often it happens, or the frequency of contact with participants.  For many language and reading supports, these increments are too small; consider the weekly tutoring session or the periodic parent education night that never gains enough traction to influence behaviors and, in turn, make a difference to reading outcomes.  Often the basic elements of the program are theoretically sound, research-based, and practically feasible–they make good sense for the population and fit the context. However, the design with respect to depth and intensity is under-powered, or not sufficient to make a difference.

So we may think we need more or new programs when in fact what we may need to do is to increase the intensity and depth of our existing ones and see if that works. When we successfully solve the dosage problem, we may be left with the (good) problem of how to bring the program to scale. With a proven remedy for moving students’ reading outcomes, there should be many viable opportunities to build political will and even pool limited resources to get programs to scale. Investing in these remedies does not necessarily require an increase in spending; it involves recapturing monies we are currently spending on less effective programming as well as on the individual and societal costs associated with reading failure.

Perhaps Ken Reeves and Nonie Lesaux will have a chance to meet in Harvard Square for coffee this winter. I think they’d have a lot to talk about



Lesaux, 2010:  Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success

Dexter & Brunetta, 2014:  Unequal Schools: Unequal Demographic, Staffing, and Neighborhood Challenges that Create Unequal Opportunities for Low-Income Students to Learn in CPS Elementary Schools: FY15




6 thoughts on “Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading

  1. Below are the great comments I received by from former CPS parent and elementary school teacher Jan Shafer. (She said I could post them to this strand.) Jan currently works as Elementary Director for Discovering Justice:


    I agree that we need to provide enough support so that every child who is capable has an equal chance of learning to read. However, I have a few caveats:

    1. I think we need to be careful about using language like “dosages of intervention.” I’m concerned about treating children as patients instead of as children who are learning something new, and in some cases, something very difficult. Reading instruction should not feel like bad-tasting medicine, but in many cases it does. I think that reading specialists are often former teachers who didn’t like being classroom teachers. They don’t have the patience for children the way a classroom teacher does, and they very often are missing the joy that a classroom teacher brings to her job. I’ve seen this a lot.

    2. I’m also concerned we are pushing children to learn to read too early. Will more reading intervention specialists mean more academics in pre-K and K? Will students who can’t read by age 6 be targeted for intervention? I hope not.

    3. I think we should focus more on what students can do instead of what they can’t. The deficit model is destructive. Let’s turn to an asset model. What can students do? Let’s celebrate those accomplishments and build on them. What are children still working on? Let’s meet them where they are and stop focusing on where they “should” be.

    4. Finally (and maybe redundantly), reading intervention sounds awfully clinical. Reading should be pleasurable or it won’t be done outside the classroom. I’ve seen countless children turned off to reading because they had to log their reading, and constantly journal about it. Not to mention the dreadfully boring passages that children are given and forced to “comprehend” and answer questions about. We need to be careful, very careful, to let children select books they want to read and to provide full-length stories and informational text that excites and engages them.

    From a teacher perspective, I completely get that some children need differentiated instruction that is targeted and comes from an additional reading specialist (who loves teaching and loves children). I do have some thoughts about allocation of funds in schools and my worries about too much being spent on reading specialists and not enough on classroom teachers- making class sizes too large.

    Those are my thoughts- just my two cents.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bill. I’m glad to see that Cambridge is moving forward with trying to ensure that all Cambridge kids have high quality early childhood education options, and certainly that’s extremely important. But I think we already know that that is not all that is required. A lot of CPS students, including many from families with lower incomes, already come to kindergarten with good preschool experiences, whether in DHS preschools, Special Start, or other preschool programs in the city; and some of those students are still behind their peers in reading and will not have good life options as a result.

    We also know that preschool is not an inoculation: the positive effects can “wear off” if kids don’t also have good elementary education options. It’s also a matter of the root cause of the child’s difficulty. For some kids, it might be something we’d call a disability, like dyslexia, and they need a particular approach to instruction. For other kids, it may be that they do not get the middle-class life experiences that build up the background knowledge necessary for academic/literary reading, and a small reading group can provide more focused time to talk about the books than a large reading group.

    Or their parents may have health or income constraints that prevent them from giving the child a lot of one-to-one book time or dinner table talk. Etc. All in all, I’m not convinced that all our students are getting as much attention and as much opportunity to talk with adults during the school day as they require; kids need different amounts depending on how much adult attention they get outside of school, and their own individual characteristics. As a teacher, you are probably hearing a new term, “school-dependent students,” i.e. students who rely on school for experiences that other children might get at home or in their communities.

    There was a very good study of preschools conducted about 20 years ago by an education researcher at Harvard named David Dickinson. (He may be at a university in Florida, now, I’m not sure.) He studied preschool classrooms and found that in many preschools, kids spent very little time in “extended conversation” with adults. This is not a big problem for kids who have a lot of access to adults at home and a lot of opportunities to have these conversations outside of school. But not all kids have that. Small reading groups can provide opportunity not just for intensive “instruction,” but opportunities for high-quality conversations about books, all of which help reading comprehension and critical thinking.

    Sometimes we might have a lot of adults in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean that the kids are getting a chance to engage in a lot of high-quality, extended, small-group conversations, which is what they need to build up the oral language skills–speaking and listening– that are the foundation for literacy.


  3. Lauren and Joan–Thank you for describing your own and your children’s experience.

    I don’t know the training of all our current reading specialists, but I think CPS should have reading professionals with a variety of types of training, since different students have different reading difficulties. The question is not only whether our specialists have the right kind of training, but whether we have ENOUGH specialists to meet the needs of all students who are struggling with reading and literacy. One way to find out would be to pilot a project in which a school is allocated the number of reading specialists that their MCAS scores (or some other measure) suggest are needed, and to observe Dr. Nonie Lesaux’s assertion that too many interventions offered in schools are “under-powered.” Another way to put this would be “to fully staff RTI” (Response to Intervention).

    I also agree about the value of one-to-one intervention, whether we call it “tutoring,” “intervention,” “intensive teaching,” etc. That’s why I say the MAXIMUM group size should be three students. There is also the issue of “maintenance” interventions. For some students, intensive interventions might accelerate them to where they should be, but if they receive no special supports afterwards, they will again fall behind.


  4. Would love to talk more about this.
    My youngest daughter is dyslexic .
    Fortunately her astute 1-2 grade King Open CPS teacher picked up on her struggles and she was evaluated and put on an IEP.

    She received small group intervention 2 times a week in 2nd -4th grade.
    We also had the resources to get her once weekly individual Orton-Gillingham, one to one tutoring.
    By the end of 4th grade she was reading according to testing, at grade level.
    However, it was apparent to all that her writing level was probably 2 grades behind her peers.
    Knowing that the rich and rigorous curriculum of the 5th/6th grades would be very writing intensive, we knew she would be overwhelmed.

    We knew she needed more than CPS could realistically offer and that an outside placement was her best chance at getting the support she needed.
    Because she was technically reading at grade level, she was not eligible for district funded placement, which we thought was fair.

    Fortunately, we were in a position to pay for tutition and our daughter was able to attend The Carroll School in Lincoln, Ma.for her 5th and 6th grade years.
    All the teachers at Carroll School are trained in Orton-Gillingham reading approach, no matter what subject or grade.
    Individual tutoring takes places 2-3 times a week for new students.

    The emotional side of each student is also of importance.
    Most students at Carroll have experienced failure, shame and are discouraged learners
    Much attention is given to boosting their self esteem and resilience through activities such as an on site Ropes Course, camping trips, sports, art and theatre.
    Parents and students are provided with lectures by people who have succeeded in life despite reading disabilities.

    I was initially concerned on the impact of moving my daughter of color to a very much less diverse community.
    I asked her if she had thought at all about how she might feel being the only child of color in her classrooms.
    Her reply moved me.
    ” I like King Open and my friends there but, I feel different already because they can read and write so much better than me. ”

    My daughter flourished at The Carroll School.
    At the end of 6th grade, she had caught up sufficiently to returned to the CPS district until her graduation from CRLS.
    She was a successful student because she had the skills, strategies and determination to accomplish her educational goals.
    She was an exchange student in her junior year at CRLS for 6 months in Italy and attended an Italian only school there.
    She learned the language with the help of her host family.
    Impressive feat when so many dyslexic people are discouraged from learning another language.

    My daughter iattended and graduated from Wheaton College and earned dual degrees in Sociolgy and Psychology.
    She submitted and defended a 90 page dissertation paper to earn her Sociolgy degree.
    She is currently in working on her Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education at Wheelock .

    I share all of this not because I expect that CPS can duplicate what The Carroll School offers but, to attest to the fact that intensive interventions pay off.
    I do think however that there are models of intervention all around Cambridge that should be studied and adapted for our school system.

    It is also worth examining whether or not more substantially separate , intensive reading programs may yield the best results for struggling students.
    One on one time is also important to success.
    I realize it is expensive but, individual tutoring is extremely important and I believe cost effective in the long run.
    I suspect that many struggling readers in our schools have similar special learning differences that are not being met sufficiently by current offerings.

    The two years of intensive intervention payed off and set the stage for the success my daughter has achieved.
    I feel that all such students should have the same services that we were able to get for our daughter regardless of their family income.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think you and Ken Reeves are right. My daughter had a learning disability and for 2nd, and 3rd grades had a CPSD reading specialist 3 times per week for 30 minutes each and then she was reading at grade level and now is in the college of her choice. This means that so many kids aren’t getting the help they need and they aren’t disabled or maybe didn’t get the testing they needed to get the disability designation. CPSD needs to totally change its approach.


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