Temper Your Expectations for Post-2015 Reading

By Jennifer Brookland

March 24, 2015

The successes of early grade reading programs have created among some a sense of unbridled enthusiasm that rapid and significant change is not just possible, but expected.

Global education experts are now advocating to have reading indicators and learning outcomes included in the world’s next set of development goals. But agreement that these goals should be included does not cancel out controversy about what can be reasonably achieved.

Experts at the 2015 Comparative and International Education Systems conference reminded that while some early grade reading pilots have shown impressive success, these “hothouse” experiments have no guarantee of achieving similar results once taken to scale.

The environment matters

Parental enthusiasm, educational policies that support reading instruction and practice time and even the pace at which printers can create new materials are all factors that shape the success of pilot projects that grow up.

Not to mention circumstances that affect education systems in drastic ways, such as conflict, corruption and systemic weaknesses like poor supervision, teacher absences, and poor teacher preparation.

Karen Tietjen, Technical Director of Creative Associates International’s Education for Development Division, pointed out that no matter how promising a pilot, results may be harder to achieve when faced with the realities of weak institutions, large class sizes, inefficient inspectorates and chronic underfunding.

She added a surprising factor that should be considered in setting expectations for the pace of change: Ministry of Education support. While government ownership is critical for scaling-up reading programs, it can have unanticipated consequences if turnover is high or budgets constrict.

“MOE ownership is essential to progress but it also may slow it,” said Tietjen. “As more people own it, there are more voices, more stakeholders, the political stakes get higher, and we need to factor that into our scheduling for the development and rollout of these programs.”

An honest look at reading gains

A girl in Chipata, Zambia practices reading with her mother. The impressive results of some pilot reading projects might be replicable at scale, but are not guaranteed.

USAID made reading a priority in 2011 when it set improved reading skills for 100 million children in primary grades by 2015 as Goal One in its education strategy, and outcomes from some early grade reading programs have been impressive.

Young students in Egypt who participated in reading programs were able to read meaningfully more words per minute, according to another panelist at the CIES conference.

“We were basically able to turn second graders into third graders,” said Amber Gove, Director of Research at RTI, which implemented the Egypt project. “For Liberia it was about twice that. We turned the second graders into fourth graders.”

Tietjen presented the results of Creative’s USAID-funded early grade reading projects in Yemen and Zambia—projects she said had “gratifyingly high” effect sizes in children’s listening comprehension and ability to identify sounds and letters.

In Yemen, for example, after four months of instruction under Crea­tive’s early grade reading program, first and second graders could read 16.3 correct words per minute, compared to students in control schools who managed just six.

However, Tietjen pointed out that positive changes dropped off at more advanced skills such as word decoding, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

“We’ve had really huge increases, we’re proud of ourselves for being able to move them from where we were at baseline,” said Tietjen of the first cohort of second grade students evaluated in Yemen. “But nonetheless we’re woefully under what we could consider acceptable.”

Lower your expectations?

Taking interventions to scale is key to USAID’s efforts to achieve Goal One. It’s All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development partnership continues to work toward creating cost-effective reading interventions that can be grown from classrooms to countries.

But panelists agreed from experience that promising results in small-scale projects should not lead to assumptions about anticipated success when those initiatives are scaled up.

“We’ve not really looked across all these projects to see what it would take to really move the needle on reading, said Audrey-Marie Schuh Moore, Director of Monitoring, Evaluation and Research at FHI360.

“Each project has targets, but we need a more comprehensive cross-donor look on what actually works and what really influences education outcomes.”

As more evidence is collected from reading pilots, practitioners will be able to better understand why gains that were high in a pilot may not play out in the same way when taken to scale. The duration of the project, the “dosage” students and teachers received, and the context in which the project takes place are critical variables that development organizations must tease apart when evaluating what works.

Until then, expectation management is key.

“Maybe expecting half as you move from 60 schools to several thousand might be reasonable, maybe it’s a third,” said RTI’s Gove. “I think we’ll have to let that play out and see.”

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