Economics, Reading Intervention, and the Stevenson Program

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Recent Article from Spring 2010 – Installment 2:

Some Practical Points

Some public school systems have suffered much more than others from our national economic problems. However, two things are clear: no school system is in better financial condition than it was two or three years ago; and even the ones who had relatively few problems in the recent past are, with good reason, very worried about the future.

In some systems, last year’s federal funding helped minimize the number of teacher layoffs and/or cutbacks in supplies and equipment. In the 2010-2011 school year, money from the stimulus plan will continue to flow into public schools, but the amount will be smaller. Currently some major Title I funding is being distributed to State Departments of Education, but this money is narrowly targeted (see Turnaround Money in the left hand column). Most school departments are acutely aware of the temporary nature of the federal stimulus funds, and every system is either cutting expenses or planning to cut them.

So what is the likely impact on reading instruction? We do not have a crystal ball, but we can apply some basic logic to make a few useful points.

Choosing Wisely

Administrators and taxpayers will have to make difficult choices when it comes to cutting costs. There are not many obvious ways to reduce expenses that are not already being implemented. Nevertheless, if people can avoid simplistic, fear-based actions, some real money can be saved over time.

Reading is an essential, core skill that affects every other area of learning, so schools can not afford to cut back on reading instruction – unless that instruction is already so effective that students need little help. Perhaps the good readers will have to deal with older, more worn-out books for a while. However, students who struggle with basic reading and writing require more instruction, more testing and more administering than students who acquire the skills easily. The simplistic reaction is to cut at least some of the services to these students. However, if these vulnerable pupils falter even more now, they will require more assistance later on as well as more help in all their other subjects.

Early Intervention

You cannot really save any money by reducing your commitment to struggling readers. You might, however, find a few ways to maintain, or even increase, this commitment while spending less. One way to do so is already well known, and it is being implemented increasingly across the country. It is usually called RTI – Response to Intervention – but the name is not important. What is important is the idea of trying to reach struggling students early, not wait for them to fail.

For decades, students were not usually given any alternative reading instruction until they had been identified for Special Education. Students would usually receive minimal help until it was obvious that there was a large discrepancy between what they had achieved and what they reasonably could be expected to achieve. This approach delayed action, caused students to be further behind and then to require even more services to catch up. Often these services involved Special Education, and, as everyone knows, Special Education is expensive.

A more economical approach involves intervening when the first signs of problems appear. Nonetheless, old habits die hard. Although struggling readers may receive more help earlier in school than they did before RTI, many school systems are still reluctant to try alternative methods of instruction. There is still a strong tendency to keep using the same methods and materials with the struggling reader as is used with the “average” or “above average” reader. The struggling students are then asked to do the same work over and over again, only in smaller groups or with one-to-one assistance. One-to-one assistance is, not surprisingly, expensive.

At Stevenson Learning Skills, we are particularly sensitive to this reluctance to trying alternatives. Many students are put into the Stevenson Program as a “last resort.” We welcome these students, because our unusual mnemonic clues and different phonics sequence usually work when other approaches do not. However, we can only wonder what would have happened if Stevenson had been considered as a “first resort” – or even a second one. Repeating instruction that is not working costs more money than trying something new that works. And it certainly does not help the student.

Cost Effectiveness

Another way to save money, besides early intervention, is a very simple idea that is used all the time in the business. It is called “cost-effectiveness,” and it is really just common sense. If two different tools do the same job equally well and one costs less, the cheaper on is more cost effective.

Of course, in education it is complicated and difficult to figure out whether two different methods of instruction work equally well. People outside of education may not understand this fact, but teachers certainly do. The biggest complicating factor is that human beings vary a great deal from individual to individual. Some respond very well to one kind of reading instruction and others respond much better to a different method. Another complicating factor is that methods of measuring progress and judging effectiveness are not nearly as simple and reliable as some people think. Different assessments may render different results as to whether or not a student is learning to read well. (See our last installment of Food For Thought – click here.)

Even with the inherent difficulties of judging effectiveness, however, schools can still apply the general concept of cost-effectiveness. Unfortunately, in the area of reading intervention in recent years, few schools have done so. During the last decade or so, there has been a huge emphasis on using “research-based” reading methods backed by data. As honorable as these values may be, there was little attention paid to the cost of the interventions being used to improve reading. Companies who could afford to engage more people in more research and to accumulate more data would often be chosen. They might often charge more as well.

You may have seen some examples of this in your own schools. We have seen several different computer-based reading support tools that do essentially the same tasks and noticed that they can have very different costs. The tool made by the company with the larger reputation and larger volume of research data is often chosen, even though that tool often costs considerably more (perhaps two or three times as much as a comparable product). In the current economy, that kind of thinking will have to change. If no research backs up the usefulness of the tool, there is no reason to buy it. But the volume of research data is not as important as whether the tool does the job and how much it costs. The tool needs to be evaluated by the people who use it. If two tools work equally well, the less expensive one makes more sense.

Anyone who has purchased and used the Stevenson Language Skills Program knows that it costs less to implement than the large majority of similar programs on the market. This is true whether you look at materials or training or both. It is true both for initial costs and recurring costs. It is also true that there are many students who do not respond well to conventional phonics, or even other multi-sensory phonics, but who do respond well to our mnemonic approach. So the cost savings also comes with an increase in value.

The Stevenson Program is research based, fun to use and affordable. It is not a panacea. It is not the only reading material you will need. It is not free. It does, however, represent one of the most cost-effective decisions you can make in the area of reading intervention. In today’s economy, cost-effectiveness matters, and it will probably continue to matter for years to come.