A Great Reading Program at No Extra Cost

by Nathan Levenson

In real estate, as the adage goes, only three things matter — location, location and location. Likewise, to raise student achievement, only three things matter — reading, reading and reading.

Nationwide, 40 percent of all students in special education have reading as their core challenge, according to the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, a Massachusetts school reform group based in Cambridge. The vast majority of high school students who drop out were struggling readers in elementary school. Reading is the gateway to all other learning.

Fortunately, the National Reading Panel, a group of experts brought together by Congress, laid out a clear, effective plan to get at least 95 percent of students reading on grade level. The results that we were able to achieve during my time in Arlington attest to the potential of the plan.

Previously, the district estimated only 10 percent of elementary students who started the year below grade level eventually reached grade level by year’s end. After the reform effort, more than 65 percent of struggling readers became proficient readers during the course of the year. Overall, in grades K-5, the number of struggling readers declined by 68 percent, with 92.5 percent of all students reading at grade level.

The biggest surprise was no extra spending was needed.

Top Practices
Effective reading programs encompass eight best practices, all of which we implemented in Arlington. They were:

•  clear and rigorous grade-level expectations for reading proficiency;

•  frequent measurement of student achievement and growth;

•  early identification of struggling readers, starting in kindergarten;

•  immediate and intensive additional instruction for struggling readers, averaging 30 minutes a day and using more than one strategy;

•  remediation and intervention that are seamlessly connected to each day’s full class instruction;

•  balanced instruction in the five areas of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) as part of a 90-minute per day literacy block;

•  explicit instruction in phonics in the early grades and comprehension in the later grades; and 

•  skilled teachers trained in reading instruction.

Adequate Resources
The National Reading Panel plan, first published in 2000, has worked wonders in many districts, yet it is still uncommon. The program requires common curricula, assessments and practices. This means that the historical silos of classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, reading teachers, Title 1 tutors, special education teachers and speech pathologists must be merged into one coherent, cross-departmental reading program. For both academic as well as financial reasons, one endeavor is better than six separate initiatives.

Few educators question the merits of a comprehensive reading program, but few believe it is affordable. If every struggling reader receives 30 extra minutes a day of small-group instruction from a certified, skilled reading teacher, it must be a budget buster. Surprisingly, most districts already spend much more on less effective programs. Do the math.

A typical K-12 district with 5,000 students will have 2,500 elementary students and about 500 struggling readers. This would require about 12 reading teachers to fully implement the NRP program and the extra 30 minutes per day of small-group instruction.

While this seems like a daunting expense in tight financial times, most districts already devote more resources, but they are scattered across many departments. In Arlington, this included seven special education teachers providing academic support; 10 paraprofessionals providing academic assistance; five speech and language pathologists providing reading-related support; five Title I tutors; and two reading teachers. Total staff: 29.

After adjusting for the higher cost of teachers compared to paraprofessionals, most districts spend two to three times more on elementary academic support than the cost of a great reading program. Departmental turf battles, scattered efforts and tradition may get in the way, but it won’t be the budget.