Special Report
School & District Management

Staffing Shortages Are Hurting Students Who Need Extra Reading Support

By Mark Lieberman — January 04, 2022 6 min read
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Kattie Hogan spends two 56-minute periods each day helping small groups of 6th and 7th graders at a suburban middle school in Detroit with reading, writing, speaking, and listening. She’s having more trouble than ever this year keeping students engaged and on task.

Six staffers at the school, including teachers and a social worker, have left since the start of the school year. Hogan has had to serve as a substitute for some of those openings and for teachers who are out sick or in quarantine at home. Those duties eat up much of the time Hogan, the part-time reading intervention teacher, would spend planning lessons.

Some days, she has to shift her students into another class of 25 to 30 students.

“It’s challenging at best because you’re trying to take what somebody else has done, your plans for the day, and try to combine them in this weird mishmash,” Hogan said. “We’re going to attempt writing, but you’re teaching social studies, so we’re going to do writing about social studies. I hope everyone gets something.”

Hogan is hardly alone in her experience. As schools try to provide support this year to older students who need extra help getting their language arts skills on track, they’re bumping up against the limitations of pandemic-era schooling. The ongoing spread of the disease, coupled with nationwide shortages of qualified employees willing or able to work in schools under the current conditions, have observers worried about providing enough reading support to students who need it.

“One person in a class of 25, they can only do so much,” said Kesa Summers, a reading specialist who teaches English at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, Md. “Even with the planning time, you can’t ask a person to be three different people.”

Students need extra attention and reassurance, but they aren’t always getting it.

Experts on reading instruction say students struggling with reading in upper grades need reading teachers who integrate supplemental reading exercises around comprehension and decoding into their regular whole-class lessons. Some also need supplemental intervention in a classroom environment separate from their regular courses.

One person in a class of 25, they can only do so much. Even with the planning time, you can’t ask a person to be three different people.

Skills they should be practicing regularly in those environments include summarizing and discussing texts, systematically studying new words, and showing students how to find the main idea, said Jade Wexler, an associate professor of special education at the University of Maryland. Students may need a lot of help and support navigating those tasks, particularly if they’re also struggling with motivation.

“They need coaches—that’s the first thing that gets cut,” Wexler said. “They need instructional leaders, people who are supporting them. There need to be more bodies.”

Many schools use standardized assessments like NWEA’s Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP test, to determine whether students need extra reading support. In theory, those could cut down on the amount of work that’s necessary for a teacher or specialist to do. But it doesn’t always work that way.

The test result “kind of breaks it down for you, but maybe they’re not a good test-taker, maybe they didn’t feel well that day. You read with them and you think, ‘Hmm, that doesn’t really match up with your test,’” said Stephanie Northway, who teaches high school English at My Virtual Academy, an online provider that serves students across Michigan.

She’s seen students with low scores in reading proficiency immediately become more confident when she helps them sound out confusing words in biology test questions. “The challenge is to really find out where they’re at”—and that takes more intensive involvement from staff.

Tackling Staff Shortages: What Schools Can Do

  • Raise wages and benefits to attract workers. The labor market is competitive right now as workers seek better conditions and more-robust compensation for their efforts. Many schools are finding value in offering more money to acknowledge the challenges teachers and instructional aides face on a daily basis.
  • Get creative with federal money. Districts that received substantial allocations from three rounds of federal emergency aid since March 2020 can use some of that money to create new positions, transform part-time positions into full-time ones, and purchase new curriculum materials and instructional software.
  • Plan for multiple contingencies. Some schools are worried about having to cut investments they’ve made with federal dollars once the money runs out in three years. Developing a long-term plan for alternate sources of funding for popular or effective investments—including raising taxes, securing grants, or lobbying for more state support—can help ensure that what’s working doesn’t fall victim to the whims of funding.
  • Get students reading. Teachers who think regularly about supporting students who need extra help with reading told Education Week they believe the priority should always be on giving students more opportunities to practice essential skills. The easiest way to offer practice opportunities is simply to get students reading, even in classwork that isn’t specifically centered around language arts instruction.

Older students need reassurance that they’re capable of doing the work that interventionists are asking of them, said Tricia Proffitt, a dual-language teacher at Belvidere Central Middle School in Illinois. Proffitt served for seven years as a full-time reading interventionist until 2018.

“Just because they’re in an intervention, it doesn’t mean they’re incapable. They can do it,” Proffitt said. “But sometimes, they just need someone to believe in them.”

Providing that assurance in a meaningful way is even trickier this year than usual because students had such varied experiences with learning during the pandemic, Northway said. Some students have been learning in person since September 2020, while others only broke away from remote learning this fall. Some students are struggling mightily with the mental-health strain the pandemic has brought on, while others aren’t feeling it as acutely. Instructors can’t approach these challenges with easy one-size-fits-all solutions, but they also sometimes lack the time and resources to differentiate instruction.

Taking advantage of a rare opportunity for more resources

Some schools are taking advantage of federal COVID-relief funds to put more resources toward robust reading instruction for older students.

At Torrington High School in Wyoming’s Goshen district, administrators are using federal money to pay for an interventionist whose only job is to help students improve their reading ability, said Chase Christensen, the school’s principal.

For the last few years, the school has offered a “Stay in School” English class designed to support students who need more help with reading than they’re getting in their regular classes. That course didn’t have an assigned teacher, however, and sometimes was covered by a substitute or a staff member who typically teaches something unrelated.

Now, the course is covered by someone who specializes in reading instruction. And not a moment too soon—more so than before the pandemic, Christensen said, students in reading-intervention courses are struggling with motivation.

Just because they’re in an intervention, it doesn’t mean they’re incapable. They can do it. But sometimes, they just need someone to believe in them.

“Sometimes, we’ve got students that aren’t feeling the necessity of school,” he said. “It’s carried forward last year and into this year with real attendance battles.”

Some students got full-time jobs during the pandemic to help their families out. Others simply “lost the value that they saw in school,” Christensen said.

Rebuilding those relationships will take time. But time isn’t on the school’s side. Funding for the reading-interventionist position will run out in 2024. With the district’s enrollment and state-level budgets on a downward slope, finding another source of cash to keep the interventionist likely won’t be possible.

See Also

Ashley Palmer, a kindergarten teacher in Matthews, Mo., works with students on letter names using flashcards.
Ashley Palmer, a kindergarten teacher in Matthews, Mo., works with students on letter names using flashcards.
Houston Cofield for Education Week

Instead, the district hopes to use the interventionist’s current efforts to plant seeds at the elementary level for some of that work to continue among existing employees once the high school interventionist’s role drops off.

“After two years, we may have less of a need, because we’ve got that instruction from the bottom up,” Christensen said.

Others are less optimistic about the future. Summers, the District of Columbia teacher, said she and colleagues feel overburdened by expectations of teaching students at grade level even if they come in struggling to read proficiently.

“It makes differentiation harder when the classes are bigger and you don’t have as many resources,” she said. At times, co-teachers haven’t been in her classrooms when they’re needed the most because they’ve been covering for other people who are absent.

These challenges aren’t likely to recede immediately. Slightly more than half of principals and district leaders who responded to a recent EdWeek Research Center survey said their staffing-shortage challenges have become more severe since the start of the school year—the opposite of what usually happens when hiring is slow or positions aren’t filled in August or September.

Summers believes students benefit most from instruction that’s centered around giving them ample time to experience reading. She prefers to think of students as possessing different literacy-based skills depending on their background and experiences, rather than adopting a “deficit mindset.”

Shifting that thinking won’t be possible, though, without overcoming the challenges around staffing.

“Ideally, you would be giving as much access to the students where they are as possible, but you’re supporting them with scaffolds and modifications in order to access the higher-level standards that they’re wanting to reach,” Summers said. “But that takes a lot of planning and a lot of time and a lot of energy.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2022 edition of Education Week as Staff Shortages Are a Barrier To Getting Students Extra Reading Aid

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