In retrospect, San Diego’s reading reforms worked
Former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin is long gone, pushed out by a school board and teachers union that he alienated. But one positive legacy may be Blueprint for Student Success, a districtwide reading improvement program that was viewed sceptically at its start and largely dismantled by the time Bersin’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2005.
It turns out that it was more successful in improving reading skills of elementary and middle school students than acknowledged at the time, though not in high school, where it was largely a failure. Researchers for the Public Policy Institute of California, which released a study of the program yesterday, believe it may be worth replicating elsewhere in the state.
“Rigorous evaluations have yet to reveal much about the best ways to help struggling students,” the authors wrote. “This study provides long-term evidence on one such intervention in San Diego.”
The Blueprint consisted of extra classroom time for reading development – through combinations of summer school, an extended day, and longer English classes — and teacher training. It was districtwide and comprehensive, with teachers in every school given professional development and peer coaches.
Co-authors Julian Betts, chair of economics at the University of California-San Diego, Andrew Zau, a senior statistician at the university, and Cory Koedell, an assistant economics professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, found particularly big jumps in scores of struggling middle school students who were assigned double-length English classes and ninth graders behind grade level who were given triple-length English classes. They experienced “very big shifts” in scores: 12.6 percentile points higher than expected without intervention at the end of three years.
In elementary schools, an extended year for lowest achieving “focus schools” also brought up scores significantly. Less effective was an extended day reading program, in which first through ninth grade students lagging behind their peers were assigned three 90-minute periods each week of supervised reading before or after school.
But what worked in middle and elementary schools backfired in high school, with students assigned to double and triple length classes actually regressing in their scores. Betts and others speculated that high school students felt stigmatized or that some high school English teachers, used to teaching literature, disliked remediation instruction. The district abandoned several components after a year or two.
Many teachers and parents opposed the Blueprint, and resistance grew as the district faced financial pressures. The district used federal Title I dollars and $33 million in foundation grants to fund the program.
Bersin’s top-down style – ordering the program districtwide very quickly – alienated many in the district. The advantage was that it was consistent and comprehensive. But had Bersin gone slower, he could have avoided friction and avoided problems in high schools.
But the study also found that many adverse effects that leaders, particularly in the Latino community, predicted didn’t happen. Except in middle school, the remedial programs in English didn’t contribute to absenteeism, increase the droput rate significantly in high school or cause a decline in math scores. Students taking the Blueprint programs ended up taking fewer A-G courses needed for admission to CSU and UC schools, but many of these students were far behind to start with and wouldn’t have been on track for A-G requirements, the study said.
Betts and others concluded that extra classroom time for students who are behind in reading, combined with teacher training “can lead to meaningful gains in literacy.” An extended school year in middle school for students who are behind showed the most promise. The failure of the programs to take root in high school underscored the value of intensive intervention in elementary and middle school. “Early intervention to aid students who lag behind in reading might be far more effective than intervention in high school,” the study concluded.
The authors recommended that the federal and state governments give districts more flexibility to use Title I and earmarked money to institute reforms like the Blueprint. And noting that it took several years for the positive effects of peer coaching to show up, they said, “An obvious lesson here is that school district leaders everywhere, when they implement reforms, must show considerable patience in their quest for improved student literacy.”
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