Greater Greater Education

Thousands of DC kids will become dropouts unless they're tutored in reading. Here are two ways to help them.

Well over half of DC's 3rd graders read below grade level, a key indicator of trouble ahead. Two nonprofit programs aim to address that problem through tutoring. Both are getting promising results, but can either expand enough to serve the thousands of kids that need help?


Photo by Official U.S. Navy Page on Flickr.

Children who can't read on grade level by 3rd grade are 4 times more likely to drop out of school. Low-income minority kids in that category are as much as 8 times more likely to become dropouts.

And last year, only only 34% of low-income 3rd graders in DC schools were reading at grade level, according to DC's standardized test, the DC CAS. Although math scores for this group have gone up significantly in recent years, reading scores have barely budged. With about 20,000 kids enrolled in DCPS in preschool through 3rd grade, and an overall 3rd grade proficiency rate of 44%, there may be as many as 11,000 kids at risk of falling behind in reading.

And that's just DCPS. The charter school sector does a better job with economically disadvantaged kids, but no doubt many of the 44% of DC public school students who attend charters are also in need of tutoring to reach grade levels in reading.

What many of these kids need is one-on-one instruction, something a teacher with a class of 25 or more kids can't possibly provide. But it's possible that two organizations active in DCReading Corps, a project of an organization called the Literacy Lab, and Reading Partnerscan help. In one case the tutors are paid, and in the other they're volunteers. It's not clear whether one model works better than the other, but surprisingly, the program that uses volunteers costs almost twice as much on a per-pupil basis.

Using paid tutors

The Literacy Lab, a DC-based nonprofit, has been deploying professional reading tutors to work with at-risk kids outside of school hours since 2009. They now serve about 300 students in DC through that program. But this year they're launching a more intensive program that puts tutors in schools during the school day.

Replicating a successful program in Minnesota called Reading Corps, the Literacy Lab has trained young AmeriCorps members to use various techniques targeted to specific literacy skills. AmeriCorps is a national service program sponsored by the federal government that provides members with a modest living allowance.

This year DC Reading Corps is working in 18 schools and preschools, including several in Alexandria, serving a total of about 800 kids. Ten DCPS schools are hosting the program, including 7 that are among the system's lowest-performing elementary schoolshalf of the total of 14 in that category.

Working with kids from age 3 through 3rd grade, each two-person team of tutors is based in a particular school. They work one-on-one with students who have been identified as reading below grade level in daily 20-minute sessions.

In Minnesota, where the program has been in operation for almost 10 years, results have been impressive. Students who completed the Reading Corps program achieved an 80% pass rate on 3rd-grade reading tests in 2012, equaling the state's average, even though they had been at risk of failure before starting the program.

The volunteer model

Reading Partners, a nationwide program that has been in DC since 2010, has a different model. Instead of using paid (albeit low-paid) tutors, the organization recruits and trains volunteers. This year it has about 600 volunteers working with approximately the same number of at-risk students in 11 high-poverty DC elementary schools, 5 DCPS and 6 charter. Students get 45 minutes of tutoring after school during or after school hours twice a week, and volunteers are a mix of working professionals, retirees, and high school and college students.

Nationally, students participating in the program gain 1.6 months of reading skills every month, as compared to only .6 per month before they joined. Reading Partners says that in DC, 99% of students in the program accelerated their progress in reading. The highly regarded research group MDRC is now conducting a study of the program at 19 schools across the country, with results expected sometime late next year.

It's hard to say, at this point, whether one program gets better results than the other. Students in both programs receive about the same amount of tutoring time, 90 to 100 minutes per week, although Reading Corps students get tutoring daily rather than twice a week. And tutors in both programs are supplied with instructional materials, along with suggested questions and language to guide them in helping kids learn.

In addition to training, tutors in both programs get multiple levels of professional coaching. Both programs also ensure that there's communication between tutors and students' classroom teachers.

Using volunteers can sometimes be problematic, and Ashley Johnson, co-executive director of the Literacy Lab, says Reading Corps relies on paid tutors to ensure "reliability, quality, and consistency." But Lisa Lazarus, executive director of Reading Partners for the mid-Atlantic region, says volunteers for her program have proven highly reliable.

Volunteer program costs more

What's really puzzling is the difference in per-pupil cost. You would think a program that relies on volunteers would be cheaper, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Reading Corps says the costs for its K-3rd grade program are about $960 per student, compared to a nationwide average for Reading Partners of about $1,800.

Reading Partners' Lazarus cautions that it's sometimes hard to compare one nonprofit's costs to another, since cost models are different and not all information is public. She also says that as each region serves more students, its per-pupil costs drop. But even in Silicon Valley, where Reading Partners serves 1,100 students, its cost per pupil is $1,400over $400 more than Reading Corps.

Reading Corps is also a bargain for DCPS, at least for now. A participating school's only contribution is 10% of a faculty member's time to serve as a school-based coach for tutors. The rest of the funding comes from AmeriCorps, which provides a little more than half, and private funders, with Target leading the way.

Reading Partners, on the other hand, asks each school to contribute $25,000 a year, which is then matched three-to-one by a combination of AmeriCorps and private funds. (Reading Partners uses AmeriCorps members to manage tutoring sites and help recruit volunteers.)

But Johnson and her co-executive director Tom Dillon hope that DCPS's contribution to Reading Corps will increase if the program gets results. In Minnesota, the state's contribution to the program started at $150,000 in 2003. Over the years it's gradually increased, and last year it was $4.1 million. The program combines that amount with $12.6 million in federal funds and $1.5 million in private donations, for a total of over $18 million.

If DC is willing to make that kind of commitment, Reading Corps should be able to reach the thousands of DC students who need literacy tutoring: in Minnesota, the program serves over 21,000 kids. (Perhaps surprisingly, Minnesota has one of the largest gaps in the nation in achievement between minorities and whites.) The per-pupil cost works out to about $850, even lower than the cost of Reading Corps in DC.

It would be great to know why Reading Partners' per pupil costs are so much higher, and whether there's some way the organization could reduce them. For the time being, though, we clearly need more than one program trying to address the need for literacy tutoring, even if one model is more expensive than the other.

And while the primary focus should be on helping kids, programs that involve volunteers from the community have benefits beyond that. Volunteers not only get the satisfaction of seeing they're having a positive effect on a child's life, they may also develop an interest in public education more generally.

And if we're going to get our schools up to the level where they should be, we need as many people as possible to take an interest in them.

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Natalie Wexler is a board member at DC Scholars Public Charter School and a volunteer tutor in a DC Public School. She also serves on the board of The Writing Revolution, an organization that brings the teaching of analytical writing to underserved schools. She has been a lawyer, a historian, and a journalist, and is the author of three novels. 

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Thanks for highlighting these programs, Natalie. When I was in college, I was a literacy tutor through D.C. Reads, which was a federal work-study job. Didn't pay a lot, obviously, but it really incentivized participation in a way that pure volunteering might not have.

My biggest takeaway would be something like this: it quickly becomes clear that the tutors are providing one-on-one instruction of a sort that is filled by parents (or, more rarely, private tutors) in higher-SES families. In almost ever case, the value added was tangible. Even the kids whose reading skills only improved from "non-existent" to "extremely sub-par" nonetheless demonstrated other positive gains, such as attitude toward school and work, responsiveness, engagement, effort, etc.

The glaring challenge was sustaining this positive impact, both at a micro level (tutors move on, get rotated to other students, etc.) and at the macro level (throughout the student's career). In particular, sustaining this throughout middle and high school is really difficult. Younger kids put up far fewer walls and face far fewer distractions that negatively impact learning.

by Dizzy on Dec 24, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

I am sure these programs are meant to do good work, but they reenforce the problem of why these kids can't read. They are focused on skills, not knowledge. Too often kids can decode fine, but they don't know the vocabulary, the story context or even the more complex grammar of advanced materials. Without some focus, these tutors are being asked to throw darts but never told where the board is, a somewhat pointless exercise. Friends of mine that have done volunteer tutoring find even basic words like giraffe or patio may be unknown to kids as old as 4th or fifth grades. We would be better off is these tutors would focus reading to these children history, folk tales, mythology, high quality literature, pieces that explain science. One resource my friend found useful, just to bolster basic background knowledge was an academic word list Tennessee has put together. http://www.tn.gov/education/ci/doc/VOCABULARY.pdf

by DC Parent on Dec 24, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

@DC Parent: You're absolutely right that kids need to have background information to understand what they're reading, not just the skill of reading (or "decoding")itself. But I believe both of these programs go beyond decoding skills to ensure that students are actually comprehending what they're reading -- at least, I know that Reading Corps does, because I watched as a tutor assessed a student's comprehension of what she had read. There's no reason why a tutoring program can't focus on comprehension as well as decoding--but of course, you need to focus on the decoding first.

by Natalie Wexler on Dec 24, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

@Natalie

I am sure they are doing some comprehension, but comprehending some part of something is not the same as have a grounding in an important topic in history or science or vocabulary or frankly grammar.

You teach writing, what happens if you have been taught all the rules for capitalization, periods and exclamation marks, but missed commas and question marks. What you read starts to get quite confusing, you miss important subclauses that are critical to understanding the point of the passage. You may not realize that an author is questioning a passage instead of making a statement. A tutor may or may not grasp that this deficit exists and may know how to remediate it. I was working with a community college student who did not know that domestication meant that an animal was tamed way back in history. He could not understand the whole point of the chapter. He was so confused that he did not know what he did not know.

My point in pushing back here is that part of the reason you and so many people are trying to help kids is because the 8 hours of the day they are spending at school are still too arbitrary. DC needs to say this is the content kids need to know, not just that a kid needs to be able to write a paragraph with two supporting points. I am not naive to think kids won't have deficits, things happen, but tutoring and other supports could get a lot better.

One of the questions we need to ask is what Dizzy raises above, how do we move the needle in a more meaningful way. I just don't believe we are there yet.

by DC Parent on Dec 25, 2013 9:50 am • linkreport

@DC Parent: Yes, of course we need to move the needle in a more meaningful way, and middle and high school are often the places where gains in elementary school seem to disappear. And yes, bringing coherence to the regular school day is crucial.

But (a) in order to get there, young kids need to start with comprehending whatever it is they're reading, which will certainly acquaint them with some concepts and vocabulary they might not otherwise have been exposed to; and (b) I'm not sure it really makes sense to mandate the teaching of a range of specific concepts and vocabulary.

There are just far too many concepts and words out there to ensure that you'll be able to teach students all the ones they'll need. And they're constantly changing. Better, I think, to equip them with enough knowledge to "know what they don't know," as you put it -- and to give them the tools to fill in the gaps, like discerning meaning from context and, if that doesn't work, actually looking up the meaning of a word.

But I don't mean to suggest that these tutoring programs are all that students will need to ensure they make it through high school.

by Natalie Wexler on Dec 25, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

I have volunteered with Reading Partners as a tutor for over 3 years now. I think that the one on one time is what is most important for these students. Teachers do not have that luxury even with smaller class sizes.

The program encompasses grammar, writing/reading skills and comprehension. Some of the students I have tutored like reading history books others about athletes or cartoons. I think the most important thing is to build and foster a love for reading no matter the topic. Being a confident reader helps develop into a better all around student and adds an overall confidence with learning that is not seen when the students are struggling.

I hope to see both programs expand and continue to improve.

by Sally on Dec 27, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

Natalie thank you. And Dizzy thank you for sharing your experience too - at least for confirming my suspicions of what the role really requires.

It sure looks like it works. Why not roll it out further by targeting specific schools in DC that need the assistance, raise the money to run it, and find volunteers?

Sure, in a program like this it's to be expected that as kids get older there will be new challenges and some will drop out of it without efforts to meet their new needs. The program could be modified to include new aspects, not just reading, as students get older.

As far as students not knowing what particular words are, isn't it possible to train volunteers to recognize when students might not be familiar with words and interject commentary or discussion into the reading? For example, it's not great that a kid doesn't know what a giraffe is but talk about it guilt free and move on. Tell me if I'm wrong but I don't envision this program as school tutoring so much as proverbial sitting down on the couch and reading a book with a kid that reading but that hasn't gotten any of that at home. Help them learn to help themselves and see themselves as a person of worth with the ability to grow & change.

This looks like first it's a reading intervention, then a social intervention, a lesson in building trust intervention, a soft skills intervention... all based on the initial need to read. I think volunteers could get as much out of it as students. The organization needs to train volunteers to ask for help or know when to ask for help and how to transition with a student into providing what they really need in the next stage of their schooling and life.

by Cap Hill Resident on Dec 27, 2013 4:39 pm • linkreport

I wonder if we need to go beyond this type of tutoring, the scale of what needs to be done for these kids just can't be accomplished a couple hours at a time. This story on NPR this morning made me wonder if we need to be tutoring both the child and parent together to make a difference:

http://www.npr.org/2013/12/29/257922222/closing-the-word-gap-between-rich-and-poor

Research since then has revealed that the "word gap" factors into a compounding achievement gap between the poor and the better-off in school and life. The "word gap" remains as wide today, and new research from Stanford University found an intellectual processing gap appearing as early as 18 months.

That study led to some increased calls for universal preschool, but some say that's not early enough.

"I recognized that we need to really start in the cradle," says Angel Taveras, mayor of Providence, R.I.

by DC Parent on Dec 29, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

@DC Parent: You might be interested in the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which is trying to bring a "cradle-to-career" approach to the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood. One of their many objectives is working with parents on early literacy skills: http://dcpni.org/early-learning/.

by Natalie Wexler on Dec 29, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

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