In March 2020, the United States and much of the world abruptly shut down due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools, businesses, sporting events, houses of worship and public gatherings were closed in order to reduce transmission of the virus through human contact. This has an enormous effect on everyone, but the impacts are not evenly distributed. Increasingly, economists and policymakers are worried about a “K-shaped” recovery of the economy. The idea is that some people and businesses will recover financially better and faster, while others will continue to struggle and decline. For our children, we are in danger of a similar “K-shaped recovery” for early literacy.
Early literacy is vitally important. Children who read on grade-level by third grade are more likely to be successful in school. Ensuring children living in low-income homes read proficiently by third grade increases their chances of graduating high school on time. However, failure to ensure children read proficiently by third grade quadruples their chances of dropping out of high school.
The Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the “opportunity gap” for children in our country. Education during the pandemic, whether virtual or hybrid, depends upon a minimum level of access to critical resources outside of the school house. Some children are fortunate to be raised in households with parents who can work from home, provide stable housing and meals, secure access to broadband Internet and offer productive learning opportunities. Some are participating in “learning pods” designed to make sure their learning stays on track.
But other children with the same inherent potential don’t have similar opportunities. Their parents are either not able to work from home or are likely to have lost their job due to the pandemic. Many of their parents have not been able to keep up with housing payments and are behind on paying their utility bills. These children don’t have the same security of their next warm meal. They may not have Internet access at home or access to a computer to do school work. A quiet place for learning does not exist in their home. There are no opportunities for learning pods for these children. If they are fortunate they might be able to find a community organization that provides a safe place to learn with access to Internet and computers.
Harvard economist Raj Chetty is tracking the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people, businesses and communities. Looking at student participation in Zearn Math, a popular paper-based and online K-5 math program, Professor Chetty found that prior to mid-March, the rate at which students progressed through the online math program were roughly equivalent between children attending schools in high income and low income areas. But after the national health emergency was declared in mid-March, progress sharply diverged. Compared to the start of the year, progress for children living in high income areas increased by 37%. By comparison, progress for children living in high poverty areas declined by 11%.
We don’t (yet) have similarly clear data for literacy, but I’d safely wager that a K-shaped split already occurred for children’s progress in reading. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were already enormous challenges with getting K-3 students reading proficiently. Large and persistent gaps in reading outcomes existed for minority, low-income and non-native English speakers.
We can’t continue to use the same playbook from before the pandemic to solve this crisis. We’ve tried changing standards, curriculum and textbooks. We’ve used data to drive instruction. We focused on the “five parts of reading.” In some cases we were able to make an impact on adult teaching practices. But closing gaps in reading outcomes remained elusive. Just like we’ve changed our approach to developing vaccines for the pandemic, so too do we need to change our approach to reading instruction to avoid a K-shaped recovery for literacy.
A Five-Point Plan
Avoiding a K-shaped recovery for literacy requires setting aside “business as usual.” This will require a scalable strategy capable of meeting the individual needs of each child. The key challenge we must solve is equipping our teachers with the tools they need for this fight, and enlisting and supporting families and others in the community in this effort. This will require an all-out, coordinated effort for at least 24 months after the pandemic ends.
1)Leverage the “Four Types of Reading Instruction” to meet the specific reading needs of each child. Education researcher Carol Connor discovered there is an underlying mechanism that determines whether children are successfully taught to read or not. Reading instruction falls along two dimensions. It either focuses on teaching children to recognize, or “decode,” words by matching letters to sounds (code-focused) or derive meaning from, or “comprehend,” written texts (meaning-focused). And it’s either directed by teachers (or another adult) or by the child through independent or group work. Together these comprise the “four types of reading instruction.” Vocabulary, word reading and comprehension skills together are the building blocks of reading success. Based upon a child’s skills, they need different amounts of these four types of reading instruction at different times from PreK through 3rd grade to get to grade-level reading each school year. Dr. Connor’s research is one of the most robust and consequential findings in education research. There is real-world evidence that focusing on the type and amount of instruction each child receives improves reading outcomes. This is not yet widely used in classrooms, but it will have to be in order to avoid a K-shaped literacy recovery.
2)Teach to the standards and to the child. Over the past two decades there has been a marked shift towards focus on grade-level standards and high-quality instructional materials aligned with these standards. Support organizations have sprung up to help educators make the “instructional shifts” to help children meet “college and career ready” standards. Groups like EdReports rate the quality of core curricula and supplemental materials in aligning with English language arts standards. These grade-level standards are important and serve as guideposts for the literacy recovery. However, they are less helpful if we ignore the specific reading needs of children who’ve fallen behind during the pandemic due to interruptions in regular schooling and socioeconomic-based challenges at home. We don’t have to choose between meeting the individual needs of children and focusing on grade-level standards. It’s possible for us to do both.
3)Equip teachers with support systems for decision-making like other professionals. A “decision support system” is a computerized program used to support determinations, judgments, and courses of action in an organization. It sifts through and analyzes massive amounts of data, compiling information that can be used to solve problems and for decision-making. Professionals in many industries use decision support systems everyday. Doctors and nurses use them to make evidence-based decisions in providing health care. Airlines use them to manage ground operations at airports and reduce travel delays. Farmers use them to make decisions about planting, harvesting and crop cultivation. When it comes to elementary school teachers, however, we expect wizardry: use data to diagnose student reading needs; know everything about literacy (as well as other subjects); deliver whole group, small group and individual student interventions; differentiate instruction; and, make adjustments on the fly as needed. Providing teachers with student data is not enough. We need to make it easier for teachers to use these data to make evidence-informed instructional decisions that meet the reading needs of each individual child in their classroom. To meet the challenge created by the pandemic, we must empower teachers with the types of decision support tools that other professionals employ in their work.
4)Rethink the purpose of student assessments. Since No Child Left Behind, schools have been required to collect and report student outcome data by subgroups. These data have been used largely for two purposes: accountability and evaluation. Schools get graded in part on these data. We also use these data to evaluate teachers. It’s hard to see how either of these strategies will help in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. I propose, for 24 months after the end of the pandemic, we set aside the focus on data for accountability and evaluation and instead focus on reading instruction. Many literacy assessments can tell us where individual students fall in a national comparison (percentiles, Lexile, etc.). But these assessments fall short in two areas. First, as Dr. Connor has demonstrated, it’s the combination of vocabulary, word reading and comprehension skills together on which we need to focus. Missing any of these components or focusing narrowly on a literacy sub-skill is not sufficient. Second, assessments of learning can tell us where a student ranks compared to other students, but they don’t tell us how to tailor instruction to meet their individual reading needs. A strong decision support system will not only tell educators about their students’ needs, but will recommend an evidence-based course of action to get them to grade-level reading. The old approach of data-driven instruction was not working. Let’s not waste the opportunity this crisis presents to re-think our approach to data and instruction.
5)Get all hands on deck. Educators obviously will play a critical role in the fight to avoid a K-shaped recovery for literacy. But to give our children the best chance to recover, we have to get all hands on deck. This means we have to equip and support families, nonprofit programs and others to also support children’s reading development outside of school. For families, this means offering workshops for parents and caregivers how to do a good interactive read-aloud with their children. At Read Charlotte, we call this “Active Reading.” By asking questions, building vocabulary and connecting the books with children’s worlds, families can help build children language, vocabulary and comprehension skills. We should also provide them with targeted family-friendly activities that can be done at home. And, of course, it’s important to ensure children and families have access to diverse, inclusive books across multiple genres that serve as windows to the outside world and mirrors that reflect their own identities. For tutoring and out-of-school programs, the “Four Types of Reading Instruction” is a useful framework for coordination and alignment of local efforts to provide reading support for children. Within individual communities, training and support can help integrate efforts across organizations and accelerate progress. Local efforts will have to rise to meet the magnitude of the challenge we face. This means getting everyone — schools, families and others — working together to put our students back on the road to recovery.
The Fight of Our Children’s Lifetimes
The health crisis exacerbates the pre-existing “opportunity gap,” which lays bare the horrible truth that all children do not have an equal and fair chance to become proficient readers. This is not their fault; children don’t teach themselves to read. We know that there are other forces that impact children’s learning, such as housing, food, physical health and mental health. Each of these are important and we need to find ways to provide support that children and families need to make it through the pandemic. But none of these directly teach children to read. If we look at reading outcomes from before the pandemic, it’s clear that despite our best efforts the combination of strategies we used to teach children to read did not work. We must do better.
We know there is no silver bullet. The specific reading strategies that work for one child will not necessarily hold true for the next child. But just as we’ve made advances in precision medicine, so too can we push our knowledge and actions forward to provide precise support for each child based upon their individual needs. The chaotic circumstances of school disruption this year require us to rise up to this challenge. The need is greater than ever for proven strategies to rapidly recover learning loss. Otherwise, the hurt for these children could last a lifetime.