Photo from Resources for Inner City Children

Many students in DC’s high-poverty middle and high schools have reading skills far below their grade level, and they’ve become disengaged from school as a result. We can get them back on track if we’re willing to invest in paid, professional tutors who will work with them intensively.

In Ward 8’s three DC Public School middle schools, only about 25% of students read on grade level, and when they leave many are several grade levels below where they should be. The percentage of students reading at grade level in Ward 8’s two high schools, Ballou and Anacostia, is even lower, about 17%.

I run an organization that has partnered with DCPS to provide professional, paid tutors to students at Ballou and Anacostia, and about 10% of our freshmen read at the first-grade level or lower.

Currently, struggling readers in DCPS middle and high schools get help in the form of smaller classes, reading circles, and tutoring from fellow students. But from what I’ve seen, these strategies aren’t working.

An expanded volunteer tutor base won’t solve the problem

Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a plan to recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with male students of color in DC Public Schools. While that may be a worthy effort, it won’t address the difficult problem of students reading far below grade level in high school.

For one thing, Bowser is partnering with tutoring organizations that primarily serve elementary school students. Moreover, middle and high school students who are three years or more behind grade level in reading need experienced, professional tutors who can work with them at least three hours a week.

Improvement won’t happen overnight, but a student receiving that kind of consistent, intensive tutoring during school hours could be back on track in two years.

My organization, Resources for Inner City Children (RICH), has seen good results: almost all the low readers we have worked with who attended 80% or more of tutoring sessions made significant reading gains for the first time in years. During the four years we partnered with Anacostia High School, approximately 40% of the 90 students we targeted moved up three or more grade levels in reading.

The vast majority who didn’t make significant progress were students who simply stopped coming to school regularly because it just became too hard and discouraging. That’s why even intensive, professional tutoring isn’t enough. We also need a well-coordinated effort by school administrators and social service workers to re-engage students who have become disaffected.

A truant, dyslexic child can’t wait for a bureaucratic process that involves mailing letters, making threats, and scheduling meetings. School personnel need to visit students’ homes and tell them a tutor is ready to shepherd them along a path that has become too overwhelming for them to navigate alone.

Professional tutors are expensive, but not having them is even more costly

Of course, all this will cost money. Professional tutoring can be expensive. RICH has been able to pay its tutors well below the market rate, $40 an hour, because the individuals we hire feel a sense of mission for helping low-income students. At that rate, three hours of weekly tutoring over the course of a school year adds up to about $4,000 per student.

It’s also very possible that the school system would need to pay more than $40 an hour for professional tutors who meet the need.

One way to lower costs would be to tutor students in pairs or even threesomes that are compatible both socially and in terms of ability level. One model that uses a semi-professional tutor corps has found that one-to-two is an ideal tutor-to-student ratio.

But the cost of not addressing this problem is much more daunting. Consider that only 39% of the freshmen entering at Anacostia in 2010 graduated on time. That number only got up to 50% at Ballou. Nationally, over half of African-American males who drop out of high school have prison records by their early thirties.

And at each of those schools, 29% of students qualify for special education. Individuals in that category are disproportionately represented in the prison population.

Recruiting volunteer tutors to work with younger children is a well-meaning, and low-cost, effort. But if we want to solve the most intractable aspects of DC’s reading crisis, we’ll need to invest in luring our most disconnected older students back to school and providing them with high-quality professional tutoring once they get there.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Paul Penniman founded Resources for Inner City Children (RICH) in 2003.  Before that he chaired the mathematics department at the Edmund Burke School and ran a a math tutoring business.  RICH has been working in District schools since 2010.  Paul has lived in Anacostia since 2011.  Paul holds bachelor’s degrees in mathematical sciences and psychology from Johns Hopkins University.