‘Striving Readers’ Tough to Measure

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 09, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount that each Chicago Striving Readers school receives annually to put toward its school library. The correct amount is $5,000.

Rayshad Harris, a 7th grader at Edward Coles Model for Excellence World Language Academy here on the city’s South Side, disliked reading, but that changed with his participation in the federal government’s first reading program focused solely on adolescents.

Through after-school reading lessons Rayshad took last school year with a literacy-intervention teacher at Edward Coles, paid for by the Striving Readers program, the boy learned strategies that helped him overcome his frustration with reading.

“I used to read the story, and I didn’t know what the story was about,” Rayshad said. “Now, we know how to break the story down. We’ll read a paragraph and then ask what the paragraph is about.”

Plenty of students here at Edward Coles or Rachel Carson Elementary School, another Chicago school that takes part in Striving Readers, say they came to enjoy reading for the first time or became better readers through the program, now in its fourth year.

More difficult to gauge is what impact the small federal program has had in the eight sites nationwide where it has been implemented, and thus, whether President Barack Obama’s proposal to double funding for it in the fiscal 2010 budget, to $70.4 million, is a good idea.

Expansion Planned

Members of Congress have also drafted a comprehensive literacy bill that would greatly expand funding for adolescent literacy, and includes many of the same components as Striving Readers.

The federal program supports the implementation and evaluation of “research-based” reading interventions for schools that are at risk of not making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act or have large proportions of students who are reading below grade level. Grantees select their own curriculum.

Malik Barrett looks over his vocabulary homework, part of the Striving Readers program.

“There needs to be intervention within secondary schools, and we know there needs to be funding for it, but we’re not at the point of saying this particular program is effective because we haven’t seen the data yet,” said Marcy Miller, who as a senior policy associate for the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, co-wrote a recent policy brief on lessons learned from Striving Readers.

The brief was based on a meeting of Striving Readers literacy coaches and teachers convened by the alliance, an advocacy group, after the federal program’s first year.

“No one [at the meeting] was saying, ‘I think this is a waste of money.’ They were saying, ‘We really need this in schools,’ ” said Ms. Miller, now a graduate student in school psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released evaluations of Striving Readers’ effect on student achievement during the initiative’s second year of implementation, the 2007-08 school year. The evaluators concluded that students in Striving Readers programs in five of the seven participating districts, including Chicago, did not improve significantly more in reading than did their peers in those same districts who didn’t take part in the initiative.

In the Portland, Ore., and San Diego school districts, Striving Readers had a statistically significant effect on student achievement, according to at least one test. The reading program implemented in juvenile-correction facilities by the Ohio Department of Youth Services also showed a significant impact, the study says.

But even where Striving Readers demonstrated an impact on student achievement, the effect was small, Michael L. Kamil, a reading expert at Stanford University, pointed out after a quick examination of the data released last week.

Striving Readers Program

The Obama administration has proposed increased funding for Striving Readers program, a federal program targeting adolescent literacy. Students from the Edward Coles Model for Excellence World Language Academy in Chicago discuss their experience in the program.
—Video by Mary Ann Zehr/Education Week

“The significant differences are not encouraging,” he added. “For struggling readers, particularly those in high school, this is simply insufficient to make a substantial difference in academic achievement for these students.”

Early Days

But Braden Goetz, the group leader for high school programs for the Education Department, said he views the study results as “encouraging,” particularly since only five or six years ago, many reading experts weren’t sure it was possible to have an impact on adolescent literacy.

“In fact, we can have an impact, and we can help kids,” he said.

Mr. Goetz noted that the evaluation covers only one full school year of implementation, since the first year of the program was spent on getting it up and running.

“You have to take note of the reading achievement of the students who were in this intervention,” he said. “We’re talking about a very low level of achievement. ... I hope that people aren’t anticipating that with one year of instruction, we’re going to get all these kids up to grade level.”

Some of the Ohio students, he said, fall in the 11th percentile in reading on standardized tests, which shows they are in great need of reading help.

Teacher Strategies

Just because Striving Readers didn’t have a significant impact on student achievement in Chicago doesn’t mean that the test scores of participants aren’t improving, according to Jonathan Tunik, a senior associate for Metis Associates Inc., a New York City-based consulting group, and the author of the Chicago impact study.

The principals of the Edward Coles and Rachel Carson schools credit Striving Readers with helping to increase their middle school students’ scores on Illinois’ standardized reading test.

“All of the other schools are doing their own thing in literacy,” Mr. Tunik said. “We’re not comparing the impact of Striving Readers to business as usual but to other kinds of efforts.”

Elizabeth Cardenas-Lopez, the Striving Readers manager for the 408,000-student Chicago district, said students there who were once reading two or three years below grade level are showing growth with Striving Readers. Still, she said, “we’re not capturing that by the standardized measurements yet.”

The Chicago impact study does show, however, that Striving Readers succeeded in changing content-area teachers’ practices in classrooms across whole schools. In year two, for example, the impact study says, “a substantially greater proportion of treatment classrooms were observed using small groups and/or pairs.” Reading-comprehension strategies were used more frequently in treatment classrooms than control classrooms during both the first and second years of the program, with a “marked increase” in the second year, the study says.

Meanwhile, some teachers were using good practices to improve adolescent literacy in control classrooms as well as treatment classrooms, according to the study. For example, the reading strategies of inferring and predicting were more evident in control classrooms than treatment classrooms.

Unlike some participants in Striving Readers, the Chicago district did not rely on a commercial program, such as Read 180. Instead, with the help of consultants from the city’s National-Louis University, it created a home-grown model aimed at increasing teacher capacity to teach literacy at the middle school level.

That model includes ongoing professional development for content-area teachers, financing for a literacy-intervention teacher in every participating school, and support for after-school reading lessons for students who are at least two grade levels behind their peers in reading.

Teachers receive classroom technology, such as sets of Palm Pilots, and $1,000 a year to buy books for their own classroom libraries; the schools receive $5,000 annually for the school library.

Joe Becker, a social studies teacher at Rachel Carson, said the professional development gave him “a ton of strategies” to teach reading, something he didn’t get from his preparation program in college.

One approach promoted by Striving Readers in Chicago that has taken off at Rachel Carson is Partner Reading and Content, Too. Students take turns reading a book aloud to each other and asking each other questions about the book.

“It gives them a systematic approach to reading with a partner,” Mr. Becker said. “Before that, one would read, and the other would zone off.”

Pondering Words

Both at Rachel Carson and at Edward Coles, teachers employ an approach to vocabulary instruction developed by researcher Robert J. Marzano, a founder of Marzano Research Laboratory, an Englewood-Colo.-based company that provides educational consulting. Teachers direct students to put a definition for a word into their own words, draw a picture to represent the word, and write a synonym.

Audrey Mason, a science teacher at Edward Coles, recently used that approach to help students learn words, such as “hypothesis,” related to the scientific process.

Then she asked her students to work in small groups to write a hypothesis and steps for a couple of experiments, such as comparing how fast different kinds of mints dissolve in water.

Reflecting later on the lesson, she observed that her students move more easily into an interactive activity after she’s helped them understand the vocabulary involved.

“They are thinking and discussing,” Ms. Mason said. “They were getting a bit rowdy, but they did get to it.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Striving Readers’ Tough to Measure


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