Since Labor Day, BookNook students have logged more than 45,000 sessions of guided reading, reading intervention, and tutoring on our platform, and we couldn’t be more proud of all the hard work they’ve put in–and the resourcefulness we’ve seen from schools and nonprofits as they navigate distance learning.
These students have shown us mastery of specific state standards nearly 15,000 times and gained a collective 1,062 reading levels, all in just 9 weeks. But most exciting of all is what we’re able to see when we analyze the progress students are making as they recover from the learning losses related to Covid-19.
How We Measure Reading Skill Growth
BookNook’s patented technology collects and analyzes data every time students log on, allowing us to understand in real time their strengths and areas for improvement. This progress monitoring is invaluable to educators, helping them to adapt to each student’s unique needs without having to conduct a formal reading assessment every time they want to check up on a struggling reader.
Having current and actionable assessment data for reading can be difficult for administrators and educators even in the best of times, much more so during the pandemic–so having data that allows for quick adjustments to instruction has proven to be critical in successfully addressing “Covid slide.”
While we track many different metrics that predict student reading proficiency, the one we focus on the most is a student’s independent reading level as it relates to expected grade level, or benchmark. We measure both where a student begins relative to grade level and then the progress they are making while they use BookNook.
Because we are gathering data in real time, we can assess how many months of reading skill growth students are making during each month they use the program. This gives us a universal progress metric across students who have participated in the program for different lengths of time, and who had different gaps to grade level when they began.
Students are Closing Gaps to Grade Level Reading
Looking at a subset of data from our K-3 students who logged at least 10 sessions during this period, a clear picture is emerging that rigorous reading instruction can make a difference, even under the challenging circumstances of distance learning.
On average, we saw students more than doubling the pace of their reading skill growth, going from falling behind during spring and summer, to catching up while using BookNook in the fall.
The result is that students began rapidly catching up to their expected grade level in reading while using BookNook, narrowing the reading opportunity gap. This fall, our average K-3 student began using the app roughly 5 months below grade level in reading, and by mid November that had already reduced that gap to just 1.5 months.
What More Can We Do for Students?
Results like this truly take a village. It starts with determined students, eager to learn, aided by thousands of parents, tutors, caregivers, educators, paraprofessionals, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers. To date, BookNook is now in 34 states with new city and district-wide partnerships blossoming every week, from urban non-profit coalitions in Detroit, MI, to coastal schools across California, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and Maryland–and almost every state in between.
While we are encouraged by these results, there is still much more work to do. First and foremost, we hope to see many more students joining the BookNook community, which is why we’ve created free access for individual teachers and parents/guardians here. We also encourage families and educators to check out some of the best practices we’ve written about on our blog, such as how to create a literacy rich environment at home.
But most of all, we all need to stay focused on the importance of reading proficiency for students. The pandemic has created so many needs for children, families and educators. Our data show that with concerted effort and rigorous tools, students can make tremendous gains, so let’s keep making reading the priority that it needs to be to ensure students are successful in school, and in life.
It’s become an all-too-familiar tradition: every fall of an odd-numbered year the federal government releases the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP, also called ‘the Nation’s Report Card) showing little to no improvement in reading and math proficiency.
Cue the responses. Teachers say we need to spend more on education. (Which is true: most states still aren’t back to pre-recession levels of spending.) Charter schools say we need more choices for parents to opt of failing district-run schools. And leaders of nonprofits supporting education update their powerpoint decks with the latest grim numbers to show why their program needs more funding.
But this year is different. This year we didn’t just fail to make meaningful progress in 4th grade reading, we actually went backwards. And not just a little. The 2019 NAEP shows the same level of achievement nationally as 2009.
To put it another way: despite billions of public and philanthropic dollars spent, despite dozens of nonprofits launching or growing to serve more students, despite all the rigorous research published showing the effectiveness of different programs, despite 17 states adopting legislation specifically targeting 4th grade reading proficiency, nationally we’re no better off than we were 10 years ago.
Why good work doesn’t add up to population level impact
I am reminded of my first meeting with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, when I was leading a national nonprofit partnering with more than a dozen OUSD schools on reading. There are all these programs, she told me, and they all say they are getting great results, so then why aren’t my city-wide scores improving?
The answer to this riddle is scale. My nonprofit was working with about 20% of the elementary schools in Oakland at the time, and within those schools we were working with maybe 10% of students in grades K-4, which meant we were reaching just 2% of the students who needed us.
And since even very good programs aren’t 100% effective and since the reading gains driven by these programs aren’t enough to get every student served all the way to proficiency, the true impact coefficient of all that work was ultimately probably a fraction of a percent on a citywide basis. Even aggregating the work done by 5 or 10 organizations it’s hard to see how you could meaningfully move the needle without serving a much, much bigger segment of the student body.
We owe it to students to think about scale
If there is only one takeaway from this seeming lost decade of efforts to improve 4th grade reading proficiency, it’s this: we all need to be thinking more about scale.
Programs that get great results for 500 or even 5,000 students should be a part of the equation only if there is a clear pathway to reaching hundreds of thousands of students. If a program costs thousands of dollars per student to deliver, I don’t care how amazing the results are–there is no way to scale that across millions of struggling readers.
There’s nothing wrong with starting small with when designing and testing new programs, but rather than going after linear growth by trying to double impact by doubling dollars spent, we should be thinking about how we can quadruple impact with the same dollars spent. Leaders should be regularly asking themselves how program innovation can help them expand their reach to more students.
We also need to much more directly confront the systems change elements of the work. As our advisor Shawn Joseph, former Superintendent of the Metro Nashville school district, has said many times “we can’t remediate our way to excellence.” We have to directly address core classroom instruction, which means grappling with how teachers are prepared for their jobs, what materials they have at their disposal for teaching, and how they are supported and developed over time.
Systems change needs to happen outside the classroom too. Principals and administrators need to be equipped to be literacy leaders, to make good decisions about what programs and materials are deployed to which students and communities. Most importantly, administrators need to move with much greater urgency and agility in addressing students’ needs. While it’s important that we are deliberate in how taxpayer dollars are spent, multi-year adoption cycles are out of step with the pace of innovation. Imagine if smartphone or laptop makers only released new models every five years!
The bottom line is that we’re not falling short on reading because of a lack of good ideas for how to address proficiency gaps, we’re falling short because we’re not focusing our energy on systems change and scalable innovations that can move the needle for very large numbers of students. As long as we’re trying to remediate our way out of the problem in a piecemeal manner, we’re going to see the early reading opportunity gap persist.