Credit: AP Photo/Ron Harris
High-stakes year begins for kids still learning to read
Five of the 19 students in teacher Chelsea Grant's third grade classroom are reading below grade level.
When it's time to read aloud on a recent Friday, the students show vastly different levels of skill and confidence.
"Remember you read with expression, feeling and fluency," Grant told her Atlanta students. "I want to feel it."
Two girls puff up their chests and read like they're trying out for the school play, while the rest stay seated. Some read slowly and haltingly. Many trip over tricky words – "phosphorescent" and "radiance" – and a few get stuck on simpler ones. Others don't volunteer at all.
Grant's students -– "my babies" as she calls them –- spent the better part of the 2020-2021 school year learning from home. It was first grade, a crucial year for learning to read.
Many are still far behind.
Mounting evidence from around the country shows that students who spent most of the time learning remotely during the 2020-2021 school year, many of them Black and Latino, lost about half of an academic year of learning. That's twice as much as their peers who studied in person that year.
Third graders are at a particularly delicate moment. This is the year when they must master reading or risk school failure. Everything after third grade will require reading comprehension to learn math, social studies and science. Students who don't read fluently by the end of third grade are more likely to struggle in the future, and even drop out, studies show.
"Those students are very vulnerable," said John King Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for improving access to high-quality education for low-income students and students of color.
"You just worry, are kids going to get all they need? If not, there's the risk of a lost generation of students."
Atlanta has taken more drastic steps than most other cities to make up for that lost learning. The 50,000-student district was one of the only school systems to extend the school day. Elementary school students attend seven hours of school, half an hour more than before the pandemic.
"We know that part of the best practice (to improve) performance is to have time with students," said Atlanta Superintendent Lisa Herring in a recent interview.
She and her team settled on adding time to the school day because it was one of the only things they could control, she said. They also added summer school seats, but couldn't require it for most students.
During the extra 30 minutes, students who are behind attend small-group tutoring. If done well, tutoring has a greater impact than most other interventions, studies show.
Grant's student Malaysia Thomas, 8, attended summer school for reading and math, and now attends small-group tutoring for both subjects. "It's fun," Thomas said of tutoring. "But there are all of these big words I can't read."
Her mother, Diamond Anderson, interjects: "I have seen her tremendously improve … and I'm grateful for any extra help," she said.
Brandi Thomas noticed her daughter Drew, who is also in Grant's class, fell behind during the pandemic. Her daughter wasn't able to solve problems or answer questions as quickly as most of the other students. And she couldn't read well. "She was frustrated that she couldn't keep up. It was hard to watch her struggle," Thomas said.
Drew wasn't able to attend summer school because her mother, a single parent and hairdresser, needed to work as many hours as possible during the summer to support her family. But Drew has attended tutoring at school.
Thomas went a step further last year and hired her own tutor for Drew, three times a week." I just knew it would take a village to get her up to speed," she said. With that extra help, Drew can now "read backwards and forwards," said Thomas.
Even with all Atlanta is doing, some experts are wondering if that city, never mind other districts, is doing enough to help students become proficient readers and master other subjects.
Los Angeles added four optional days to this year's school calendar, added summer school capacity and has left it up to schools to decide how to provide tutoring. New York City created an afterschool program for students with special needs to receive tutoring and other services and plans to reduce class sizes at certain schools. Boston adopted a new approach to teaching children to read, added summer school seats and contracted an online tutoring company for students to use at home.
Evidence from around the country shows that even when schools provide some of these services, such as optional after school tutoring or summer school, many parents aren't using them.
"I don't think most school districts have a realistic sense of what it's actually going to take to make up for the losses," said Harvard University economist Thomas Kane, who has studied the impact of the pandemic on student learning. He advocates for extending the school year by four to five weeks, for a couple of years, although he admits the idea is politically unpopular.
Atlanta's plan, which extends the school day and offers tutoring for a total of three years, "would seem to be enough –- at least on paper," Kane wrote in an email. Students would need to attend enough days of summer school, which is often a challenge for districts, and small group tutoring sessions would need to be small with three children or fewer.
He estimates Atlanta students lost a total of 18 weeks of instruction in math and 12 weeks in reading between March 2020 and the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The longer school day and summer school give those kids a little less than six weeks in extra time.
Atlanta school leaders say their testing shows students are making improvements, but wouldn't say what percentage are seeing growth or whether they're on track to become proficient.
"There's clearly some areas where we need to hone in even more," said Herring. "We've got some work to do. … But there is urgency to make up for the disruptions."
In the meantime, some parents won't wait and are finding the extra resources on their own. Brandi Thomas says hiring her own tutor for her daughter was the right thing to do.
The other day the mother and daughter were at a stop light, and Drew started reading a billboard advertising a law firm. "She read the words 'attorney' and 'settlement,' " Brandi said. "I was like, 'OK! You can read.' "
Thomas doesn't plan to give up the private tutor for her daughter. "I just can't let her fall behind," she said.