What costs $1,000 per student and can help kids learn to read?

To try to compensate for the loss of learning caused by the pandemic, educators and policymakers have been looking for solutions that work and — just as importantly — are cost-effective.

Now a new studyreleased Monday, reports positive results from a California reading program that emphasized training teachers in the principles of reading science, a movement focused on foundational skills such as phonics, vocabulary and comprehension.

The program in about 70 low-performing schools produced test scores for third-graders in 2022 and 2023 comparable to those who attended school for an extra quarter of a year in English and 12 percent of the year in math, according to a paper by graduate school researchers. of Education from Stanford University.

For about $1,000 per student per year, the program retrained teachers and administrators and paid for new classroom materials better aligned with cognitive research.

The study, conducted by Sarah Novicoff, a graduate student at Stanford, and Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education, compared schools that participated in the program with a similar set of schools that did not. Not yet reviewed.

Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the paper’s results left him “very cautiously optimistic.”

He noted that education reforms that focus on the early grades often show positive results, but as students age into more conceptual learning, the improvements fade. “Are schools going to build on this in any way?” he asked. “I’m nervous about interventions that only target the youngest children.”

The results are likely to draw the attention of policymakers and educators because they come from some of the children hardest hit by the pandemic — those from low-income families who were in kindergarten or first grade when the crisis began in March 2020 and are the least able to effectively participate in distance learning.

The intervention also took place during difficult years, with high rates of student absenteeism, mental health problems and school staff shortages.

The program was significantly less expensive than reducing class sizes to the point where similar gains in learning would be likely, Professor Dee and Ms. Novicoff noted. And the price was equal to or less than many high-quality tutoring programs, another popular response to the pandemic.

The study could fuel political pressure to overhaul reading instruction. For decades, cognitive research has provided a clear picture of what children need to become strong readers, such as a wide vocabulary and understanding of phonics.

But evidence from classrooms was less common. Reading First, a federal program under President George W. Bush that emphasized those foundational skills, improved decoding but not comprehension. Rather, some research suggested that state-level structured literacy reform may need other politically divisive elements to succeed, such as requiring struggling students to repeat third grade.

A California study offers hope that carefully crafted reforms to reading science can work, without changes to retention policies.

Some advocates of reading science have advocated strict limits on the curricula and teaching methods available to schools, an approach adopted by New York City in its reading reform efforts.

But educators involved in the California program, called the Elementary Literacy Support Block Grant, said a key element of its success has been policymakers working with school staff, rather than imposing a narrow set of reforms.

The program did not prescribe curricula. Instead, after training school staff on reading research and using data for improvement, principals and their teams could chart their own path forward.

The program stems from a 2020 legal settlement between the state and a group of students and parents. They sued years earlier, claiming California was defying its own state constitution by failing to provide “adequate access to literacy” in its schools. The state has agreed to pay $53 million to help 75 low-performing elementary schools overhaul their reading programs.

At Joshua Elementary School in Lancaster, California, just north of Los Angeles, employees are paid to attend intensive training sessions. Lorraine Zapata, the principal, said her teachers have embraced new evidence-based methods and willingly abandoned ineffective popular strategies such as triple cue, in which children are encouraged to guess words by looking at pictures and other context clues, rather than sounding out letters.

While it can be difficult — even painful — for professionals to rethink long-held practices, Ms. Zapata said the key is to help teachers understand the motivation for doing so.

“I never lost the message of ‘Reading is a civil right,'” she said.

Susan Neuman, an early reading expert at New York University, characterized the gains reported by the study as modest.

She noted that the researchers did not offer information on what specific classroom-level changes led to improvements, and that the study considered only one outcome — third-grade test scores — and not more detailed data, such as how kindergarteners performed on specific voices. assessments.

It’s not uncommon for promising educational achievement to fail to scale — a problem California policymakers say they want to avoid.

That grant program is ending, but Becky Sullivan, the Sacramento literacy expert who led the effort, will use another state grant to train staff at 800 schools, she said. She will also work with some California teacher colleges to change the way they prepare future teachers.

The young plaintiffs in the reading lawsuit that sparked so many changes have since aged out of the early classes affected by the settlement. Thus, while some of their schools participated in the state program, the plaintiffs did not directly benefit.

“These kids don’t have a year to waste,” said Mark Rosenbaum, one of the lawyers on the case. “They never get it back.”

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