A new study examines the rollout of a law in Florida that forces the lowest-performing elementary schools in reading to extend the school day by an hour for supplemental instruction.
The study by researchers with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southeast at Florida State University found that students in the participating schools made reading gains, but the increases were statistically insignificant.
So can we say that providing an extra hour of reading instruction doesn’t work? Not exactly.
“While there, of course, was a desire to know does it work, there’s no way possible for us to determine if it works because of the way that it was rolled out,” said Jessica Sidler Folsom, the study’s primary investigator.
To determine causality, she said, ideally you’d want to use, “a randomized control trial where schools would be randomly assigned to either provide that extra hour of instruction or to not provide that extra hour of instruction. Then you’re completely isolating who is getting that extra hour of instruction and then you could actually look to see whether that was effective or not.”
The REL focused instead on how schools implemented this change. The law went into effect with the 2012-13 school year. The researchers analyzed surveys conducted by the Just Read, Florida! office and found that the schools did use that additional hour to provide reading instruction, but how they were using it differed. Initially, the law requiring the extra hour of instruction wasn’t very explicit in how that had to be done.
“So some schools just did a little bit of extra time here and there but maybe didn’t extend the school day by a full hour,” said Folsom. “They may have just rearranged the schedule. The majority of schools were ending the school day later as well as rearranging the school schedule, so that extra hour of reading instruction was provided.”
The law requires schools to staff the supplementary lessons with a teacher who has a record of effectiveness in teaching reading, but it doesn’t specify how that was supposed to be defined. In 29 percent of the schools, students’ regular classroom teachers provided the instruction, and only 13 percent of the schools used completely different staff members, such as reading coaches. The majority (58 percent) used a combination of classroom teachers and other staff.
The implementation of this law led many schools to hire additional staff. More than 50 percent of the schools hired reading coaches, and nearly 75 percent hired additional teachers.
This extra hour of instruction also was supposed to be differentiated from regular classroom instruction, and the researchers did find some evidence of that.
“About 28 percent of schools used exclusively small-group instruction during that extended hour, and only a very, very small percentage, only 3 percent, used exclusively large-group instruction,” said Folsom. “The use of a combination of large group and small group would lead you to think that they were differentiating instruction during that time.”
Another factor that led investigators to believe these schools were differentiating instruction was how students were grouped during the extra hour. In 56 percent of schools, students were grouped by ability, in what researchers said was an indication that schools were changing things up from regular class time.
Suggestions for Improvement
The researchers did quibble with how Florida selected the 100 lowest-performing schools in reading. The schools were identified based on the sum of the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in reading on state achievement tests and the percentage of students making reading gains on those tests.
“When using rank order,” the authors write, “a school could have the same school reading performance in multiple years and be considered a lowest-performing school one year and not the next... Using multiple years of baseline data to identify the lowest-performing schools could result in schools that are truly lowest-performing being identified rather than schools that are having a poor year.”
Folsom said this type of ranking system also doesn’t account for the statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean whereby a school with a very low score one year is likely to improve slightly the next year, while a school with a very high score one year is likely to see a slight decrease the next year.
So the researchers recommended that data from multiple years be used to rank the lowest-performing schools.
In the 2014-15 school year, Florida extended the law to include the 300 lowest-performing schools. Surveys and interviews were conducted with them, and researchers are working on a second part of this report.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.