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.