Student Achievement Opinion

Get to Know a C.E.O., with Michael Lombardo

By Tom Segal — May 01, 2013 13 min read
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Over the weekend, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Sean Reardon, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford, titled “No Rich Child Left Behind.” For an aspiring ed-tech blogger like myself, it was a hard piece to miss, mostly because it was retweeted by nearly everyone I follow on Twitter. The post tells a familiar tale of the achievement gap in education. We all know the disparity between the rich and the poor in educational achievement, but Reardon pushes this further by demonstrating that in fact the gap between the upper class and the middle class has become as wide as that of the middle class and the lower class. Before 1980, the gap between upper class and middle class students had been minimal if present at all. Reardon then goes on to list a number of “myths” regarding the achievement gap, and which ones actually hold some truth to them.

The achievement gap created in the years leading up to Kindergarten is most often neither closed nor widened: it is, in fact, pretty thoroughly maintained. Our public schools seem to do a rather excellent job at progressing each student at a relatively consistent pace, or at least until high school (where dropout rates radically distort such statistics with some students continuing on to become lifelong learners and others simply dropping off the learning map for good). Reardon estimates that this gap grows by less than 10% between Kindergarten and high school, a relatively low figure compared to what you might assume. In fact, there is evidence to support that the gap narrows during the school year, but is then widened during the summer, when affluent students are presented with myriad options for their development, and poor students are often left to slog through until the school year begins anew.

With that said, it seems clear that in order to narrow the achievement gap, we must look beyond just the school (as public education appears to holding up to its end of the bargain) and understand how we can engage the community to foster academic growth and passion for learning. Fortunately, there are numerous organizations currently fighting this very battle. I was recently introduced to one in particular by Jennifer Carolan of NewSchools Venture Fund that I believe is making significant strides in instilling a passion for reading that can help narrow this achievement gap.

This group, Reading Partners, is a nonprofit literacy organization led by CEO Michael Lombardo that works with schools, public servants, volunteers, and high-level initiatives to spread a joy of reading to lower class communities through targeted programs. Reading Partners was founded in 1999 when three community leaders (Mary Wright Shaw, Molly McCrory, and Jean Bacigalupi) launched a one-on-one tutoring program to help children with the poorest reading skills at Belle Haven Community School in East Menlo Park, California. Since then, it has grown to serve roughly 5,000 students across the country and engaged thousands of local volunteers.

You all know what’s coming next... let’s get to know Michael Lombardo:

Elevator pitch: what is Reading Partners and what problem are you trying to solve?

Reading Partners is a national nonprofit that is working to close the early reading achievement gap in Title I schools. We provide school-embedded programs that identify students with significant gaps in their reading skills and provide them with one-on-one tutoring support to get them back on track. The innovation in our model is the ability to provide one-on-one tutoring to large numbers of students and large numbers of schools at relatively low cost. We do that by engaging community volunteerism and harnessing the power of the community to help schools achieve their reading objectives. We have created a structured approach that is organized, that is research-based, and that uses data so that volunteers can be really effective at helping kids in very high-need schools to really make incredible progress in their reading.

Who is it that makes up your volunteer base? How do you recruit/retain your volunteers?

That is the number one question I get. The answer is that it is an incredibly diverse base of people. They are as young as high school students all the way up through retired folks, and every school is different. The Reading Partners philosophy is really about working with struggling schools and helping them lower the drawbridges and bring in the community. The community surrounding that school is going to look very different if it’s in the south Bronx versus east L.A. We really try to take all the elements of that individual neighborhood and that unique school into account in coming up with a detailed, grass roots outreach plan for the school.

Nationally speaking, about a third of our volunteers are high school and college students, about a third are working professionals who come on their lunch breaks or on their way to and from work (we also work with a number of companies that offer paid time off for volunteer service which we are huge supporters of), about 10% are senior citizens, and about 20% fall into a variety of other categories: people that are transitioning, people that are stay-at-home parents. As I said, it’s a really diverse group of people and every school is different.

How is the organization financed?

It is a truly public-private partnership. We have revenue that comes from the school itself where they will typically kick in about a quarter of the cost of the program. We are federally funded (an AmeriCorps program, which we are very proud of), and we are one of a handful of organizations to receive multiple Social Innovation Fund grants. In some cases, we also get city or state funding, and that depends on the city and state. We operate in about 40 school districts in six states, so this is very different from place to place. We balance this all out with private philanthropy. Generally speaking, it’s about 50/50 public money and private money.

We work in a number of SIG schools around the country, and in those cases the public piece tends to be a larger portion of the revenue as these schools tend to have a larger amount of resources to work with, and we help them harness these resources in ways that bring in the community.

What role does your Board of Directors play in the success of Reading Partners? Where is their influence most felt?

The Board, first and foremost, is my thought partner in planning for the organization’s strategy and growth. The issue that we are addressing (the early literacy achievement gap) is an enormous one. There are nine million children across the United States that who are reading below their grade level just in elementary school, and the demand for what we do is enormous. For every school we currently serve we have three schools on a waitlist. The National Board of Directors is first and foremost working with me on how we can scale up to meet that demand and rise to meet the tremendous challenge we have as a country in early reading.

When I started here in 2006, we had six employees and an operating budget of about $400,000. Today, we have about 200 employees and an operating budget of around $13,000,000. We have grown pretty quickly over a short period of time, and the number one thing I look to the Board to do is to make sure that we don’t run the wheels off the wagon and balance the momentum we have as an organization, the tremendous demand for what we are doing, and the urgency of the problem we are addressing with prudent, sustainable growth and with an eye toward creating an institution that will be able to serve kids all around the country until this problem is solved.

I have been particularly impressed with Julian Castro’s work to expand early childhood education, and obviously that goes a long way toward addressing literacy. Who are some politicians, or perhaps some political initiatives regarding literacy that you are particularly keen on or fond of?

One of the closest allies for early reading across the country is Colorado state senator Mike Johnston who we worked closely with on the development of the READ Act in Colorado, which I think is a national model for how to structure a real state-wide focus on early reading. As you might know, there is a tremendous movement in state legislatures right now around what are called mandatory retention laws, which are pieces of legislation that say that if a student is not reading at a certain level of proficiency by the end of, say, third grade, they are automatically retained and can’t go on to fourth grade. In the last year alone, 13 states have adopted these laws, including Colorado. Most of the policy leadership for this concept comes from former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, which instituted the first state-wide mandatory retention law. We have seen a lot of activity happening in state houses all around the country around this (as I said, 13 states have adopted these laws in the past year, and at least another 12 states are having these laws move through their state houses right now).

Reading Partners is right now neutral on whether mandatory retention is the right approach for states to take. There is not enough data at this point to know whether it works or whether it doesn’t, but we are excited about the opportunity to work with policy makers to implement mandatory retention in a way that has the necessary early identification requirements and supports for kids. We think there is a right way to do it if you are going to go down the road of mandatory retention, and we love to have the opportunity to work with policy makers like Mike Johnston to execute on that.

Candidly, I think we are disappointed that there hasn’t been more leadership at the federal level on the early reading issue. I recently published a piece in the Washington Post calling for more federal involvement to provide guidance, highlight the best practices, and give leadership on the issue of mandatory retention.

There are a number of great educational leaders in congress at the federal level: George Miller for example, whose district we program in, has been a great friend to us, as well as Michael Bennett from Colorado. We are excited about the opportunity to work with congressional leaders to address this issue so the federal government can provide leadership and guidance to states as they begin to experiment with new policies.

Where have you seen technology play a role in reading? I have encountered a number of programs recently from Unbound Concepts to LightSail that are focused on personalizing the reading experience for students and supporting a teacher managing 20 kids at once. Are there any similar systems that you know to be particularly effective?

First and foremost, reading is a fundamentally human experience and, as a father of three kids, I know that what’s happening when I read with those children isn’t just about them mastering the skills of reading; it’s also about them deciding to be readers and embracing a love of reading that I hope will last them their whole lives. As much as technology can be a powerful tool in supporting that, I think there will never be a substitute for the magic that happens when a caring adult and a child sit down and read together.

That said, we are tremendously excited about some of the developments in educational technology over just the last few years. At Reading Partners, we leverage technology mostly for the purpose of data collection and analysis, assessing our students, understanding what their needs are, and organizing learning plans for students that can be serving thousands of children across the country. We also utilize technology for incentive programs, so we can give kids the opportunity to read text on an iPad or do word games, usually as a reward for making significant progress in their reading. We also work with a lot of schools that are implementing computer-based instructional approaches that we can augment with a more human and differentiated approach. Read180, for example, is very popular in a lot of the schools we work with, and some of the products you mentioned as well.

But I think at the end of the day, our overall philosophy about the instruction of reading is first and foremost about differentiation, about meeting a student where they are and really personalizing their reading experience, and addressing that in a way that’s really going to help the student make the most amount of progress they can make - not just addressing the technical issues with their reading but also their emotional development and making them lifelong readers.

What sort of assessment do you believe is most effective in both gauging skill and encouraging progress in reading? Frequent contextual questioning? More high-level discussion?

I’m a big fan of taking multiple approaches with student assessments. We use one common assessment across all of our schools for the Reading Partners programs so that we have an apples-to-apples comparison for all these students in all these different states. The assessment is a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt product called the “Rigby.” It’s a running record approach that has a comprehension element as well. The students read the book aloud, they are observed for fluency, they do a retell on the story, and then they answer some comprehension questions about it. I think that kind of engaged and personalized assessment is in many ways the most effective way to determine where a student is with his reading, but I also am a fan of augmenting that with quicker snapshot assessments, with products that do a deeper dive like the DIBELS or DRA. Fountas and Pinnell is another high quality assessment.

It’s like that poem: there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. Reading is such a complex skill set for kids and it is so deeply tied to cognition that there is no one assessment that is ever going to tell you everything about how a student is reading and what their needs are. Part of our relationship with schools involves a data sharing agreement where we are able to see all their assessment data (from state assessments to sight-based assessments) as well as our own assessments, so we really are taking a comprehensive look at the students and not just saying, ‘well, according to the California standards test, the student is proficient, and so therefore they are proficient.’ We are really trying to think holistically about them, to look at all the domains of reading and see how the student progresses through them.

Final question: which teacher was most influential in your development, and why?

I was fortunate to have a lot of amazing teachers throughout my academic career. I am proud that I am a lifelong product of public education from kindergarten through college, and it’s hard to pick just one... but I would have to say it was probably Mrs. Kurtz (author’s note: the horror...the horror...) who was the faculty advisor for the student newspaper at my high school. Like a lot of teenagers, I think I hadn’t really figured myself out and didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, and fell into newspaper mostly because it seemed like other people that I thought were cool were doing it. Mrs. Kurtz helped me understand what it was to be somebody that was engaging in a project and was trying to accomplish something and say something in the world. I went from being a back bench staff writer who was just sort of there accidentally to being the editor of the news page within two years, and it was so exciting for me to feel like I understood who I was within the school and I understood what it meant to have a voice. That in many ways shaped the person that I became and set me on my trajectory to end up where I am today.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.