We could teach almost every student
to read by the end of 1st grade.
So why aren't we doing it?
Few students in the United States read at a desirable level. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, roughly one-third of U.S. students read at or above the proficient level, one-third read at the basic level, and one-third read at the below basic level (Rampey, Dion, & Donahue, 2009). In other words, two of every three students in U.S. schools have reading proficiencies below the level needed to adequately do grade-level work.
At the same time, studies have shown that virtually every student could be reading on grade level by the end of 1st grade (Mathes et al., 2005; Phillips & Smith, 2010; Scanlon, Gelzheiser, Vellutino, Schatschneider, & Sweeney, 2010; Vellutino, Scanlon, Sipay, et al., 1996) and that the cost of achieving this goal is substantially less than the current system of remediation, special education, and grade retention. This raises the question, Why are so few schools doing what they need to do to help their at-risk readers?
The RTI Breakthrough
Although Congress can share the blame for creating the education system we now see in almost every U.S. school, we should also recognize that in 2004, Congress provided educators with an option that just might help us undo some of the mistakes of the past and close the current reading achievement gap: the Response to Intervention (RTI) initiative.
The legislation and accompanying regulations have a dual focus: (1) to provide increasingly intensive expert reading instruction to ensure that students having difficulty learning to read are not simply getting too little or too inexpert reading instruction; and (2) to locate students who exhibit difficulties even after receiving intensive reading instruction (Johnston, in press), who will now be identified as students with learning disabilities.
Although the federal law doesn't mention tiers of instruction, a three-tiered model has become the most common form in RTI initiatives. The first tier is the classroom reading lessons that the student receives. The second tier is additional expert reading instruction typically offered daily in a small group. The third and final tier provides one-on-one daily tutorials. Participating in high-quality reading lessons in each of the three tiers as needed should dramatically reduce the numbers of students experiencing difficulties in learning to read.
What I like about this legislation is that it allows school districts to use up to 15 percent of a district's total budget for special education to support the RTI process. However, the legislation makes it clear that RTI is a general education initiative; this funding is turned over to a general education team to fund the general education effort to teach everyone to read—in other words, to fund the three tiers of the RTI intervention. I also like the fact that Congress left almost all implementation decisions up to the local education agency. At the same time, this creates the possibility that in too many schools, no one will take up the responsibility of providing three tiers of high-quality, expert reading instruction...