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.
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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