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Reading by Third Grade: Tutoring Interventions in Baltimore City Public Schools

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According to studies from the National Research Council, third-grade reading scores can be used to predict the likelihood of high school completion with reasonable accuracy; in fact, students reading below grade level in elementary school are four times less likely to graduate high school than their peers. In Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools), unfortunately, only 14 percent of fourth-grade children are reading at a proficient or higher level, as determined by the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) 2013 testing.

Yet, there is expanding evidence that well-trained tutors delivering early, targeted, evidence-based interventions to low-performing children are improving reading proficiency. Aligned with Baltimore’s Grade Level Reading Campaign, The Abell Foundation has funded several new initiatives that provide literacy tutoring interventions to supplement classroom instruction in City Schools. A key goal is to determine the effectiveness of these various individualized and small group tutoring programs that are designed to have all children reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

1. Success for All: Tutoring with Alphie

Beginning in 2012, Baltimore City Public Schools partnered with the nationally-recognized Success for All (SFA) to implement its evidenced-based reading program in 16 of Baltimore’s lowest-performing elementary schools. Unfortunately, funding to implement the tutoring component of the Success for All program was not available.  With a grant from The Abell Foundation, 8 of the 16 SFA schools were randomly designated as sites for SFA’s Tutoring with Alphie, a computer-assisted small group tutoring model that enables a paraprofessional to work effectively with six students at a time on reading intervention. Below-grade level students in 1st -3rd grades are referred to Tutoring with Alphie for 25-minute sessions daily. Success for All uses a quick assessment to place students of like abilities in a tutoring plan delivered online to help develop phonics, word skills, fluency and comprehension skills.  Students work in pairs and are regrouped after 8 tutoring sessions; many “graduate” from tutoring at that point.

In its first school year, the Tutoring with Alphie program served 438 students in the 8 school;

two-thirds of the tutored students were performing at an entering first grade reading level or below when tutoring began. On a schoolwide basis, there was a statistically significant impact for having a funded tutor on overall reading growth for early elementary students. Across all students, growth in schools receiving an Abell-funded tutor was significantly higher than growth in the non-Abell SFA schools. 

2. Cecil Elementary “Push-In” tutoring

With the support of an Abell grant, Cecil Principal Roxanne Forr deployed her school’s Reading Specialist and hired 2 part-time reading coaches to serve every student in Kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms (6 classrooms and 125 children). Along with the classroom teacher, the reading experts divide each classroom into 4 homogenous groups and provide targeted literacy tutoring each day for 40 minutes, in what is considered a “push-in” model of intervention. The school’s Reading Specialist coordinates the instruction and supports classroom teachers and part-time reading coaches. Daily lessons focus on phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension using literacy resources that City Schools has provided to every elementary school: for example, K-3 Fundations Phonics, Building Vocabularies, Open Court, and Intervention by Design.  Progress monitoring of students is done every three weeks and regrouping occurs as needed.

In its second year, the Cecil tutoring model ensured that 83% of Cecil kindergartners met the proficient benchmark in DIBELS composite reading at the end of the year as opposed to only 58% before the tutoring began.   As compared to the district overall, Cecil’s kindergartners demonstrated a 12 percentage point growth from September to June versus a 1 point decrease in percent proficient for the district.        

The impact of the tutoring carries over to first grade:  this year only 31% of incoming 1st graders after a year of tutoring scored at the basic level as compared with 72% the previous year.  Cecil’s first graders also demonstrated twice as much growth over the year in reading proficiency as did the overall district.

It is noteworthy that this tutoring approach also appears to provide enrichment to students meeting the benchmark:  as a result, 33 percent of first graders scored as Advanced in total reading comprehension

3. Reading Partners

Reading Partners is a national nonprofit that recruits, trains, and supports community volunteers to increase the amount of time and personnel available during the school day to deliver data-driven, one-on-one tutoring to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.  With Abell Foundation start-up support, Reading Partners launched programming in Baltimore in 2012; in the 2015-16 school year, they will serve 1,000 elementary students in 16 Title 1 schools.

Reading Partners operates fully stocked and staffed reading centers in each school, where they recruit and train volunteers to provide one-on-one literacy tutoring to K-5 students. The program specifically targets low-performing readers in regular education classes (those children reading six months to two years below benchmark with basic English skills). Reading Partners offers tutoring both during and after the school day four days a week, and recruits and trains approximately 50 volunteers for each school.

Each student is assessed and receives an individual reading plan that guides the instruction that volunteers use twice weekly for one-on-one, 45-minute sessions of tutoring. In-school tutoring is complemented by the “Million Minute” Reading at Home program that encourages out-of-school reading, and builds home involvement by giving students age- and skill-appropriate reading materials for home use – on average, children receive 30 books per year. 

In a national random-assignment study, MDRC (a nonprofit education and social policy research organization) found that Reading Partners had a positive and statistically significant impact on reading comprehension, fluency, and sight word reading resulting in two months of additional growth. In 2013-2014, some 91 percent of Baltimore’s Reading Partners students accelerated their rate of learning; likewise 71 percent narrowed their gap to their peers reading on a proficient level.