Eager to Read

AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation

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Charles M. Payne begins his recent book, “So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools,” with the following quotation by G.K. Chesterton, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”

AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation believes the main problem facing education is the persistent achievement gap in American public schools, particularly urban schools, that is caused, largely, by language, vocabulary and literacy deficits that are a by-product of poverty; and prevent the affected population from succeeding in school, work and life.

The Problem

This achievement gap exacts a devastating human cost: special education, lower student performance, grade retention, truancy, increased drop-out rates, lower graduation rates, increased cases of teen-age pregnancy, welfare, crime and incarceration.

If the achievement gap were a disease, it would be considered an epidemic. General Colin Powell, of America’s Promise, released a study on April 1, 2008 noting that only 49% of Native Americans, 53.4% of African Americans, and 57.8% of Hispanic Americans graduate from high school each year. That means nearly half of all disadvantaged students are being lost in failing public schools.

America’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” is like the “boiling frog syndrome.” If one throws a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if one places a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turns up the heat, the frog will boil to death. And so it is with the achievement gap. America has grown too accustomed to urban schools’ failure to educate nearly half of our most at-risk students.

Perhaps the worst example is, ironically, in Washington, DC, the Nation’s Capital. Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores rank the District of Columbia Public Schools among the worst in America. Sixty-six percent of 4th graders cannot read at a basic level of comprehension! The disparity between white and black children’s performance in Washington is greater than in any state. The children who are most at-risk for school failure in Washington, due to their high-poverty backgrounds, come to school two or three years behind their more-advantaged peers. They will never catch up without a systematic, research-based, publicly funded intervention before they enter kindergarten.

The Solution

We need to understand the problem. With two of every three babies born to single mothers living in poverty, Washington, DC schools simply cannot be reorganized to close this kind of achievement gap. They must be supplemented with an effective early intervention that ensures that every child enters kindergarten with the background knowledge, language and pre-reading skills to succeed. Fortunately, the District of Columbia Council acted this year to fund universal, voluntary access to preschool.

But, there is often a strong disconnect between policy-makers and those who teach in classrooms. Policy and implementation are rarely considered together. One example of what can happen is the reading war between whole language and phonics, which affected a generation of California students. The math wars, fought between those advocating that we replace the systematic teaching of algorithms, and those who favor discovery learning, is another example.

Preschool has what can be called the developmentally appropriate practices war between those favoring unstructured, child-centered play and those advocating early, evidence based interventions in all areas of social, emotional and cognitive development, especially in early language, cognitive, and pre-reading skills.

In their book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Americans,” researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that young children from high poverty households tend to hear fewer words and simpler sentences than young children from middle class and affluent households. As a result, poor children tend to be at greater risk for school failure because they enter school with much smaller vocabularies and far less background knowledge than their more-advantaged peers. These deficits limit many at-risk students’ ability to understand even basic kindergarten instruction. Most never catch up.

Language is used to name, describe and understand physical, social, and psychological realities. Children from affluent households tend to experience richer vocabularies and syntax, as well as a greater understanding of what language refers to. This is called foundational knowledge, and it is a point that needs to be underscored.

Children need foundational knowledge as well as literacy skills to understand the letters of the alphabet, the sounds that they make alone and in blends, as well as how the printed word is presented. Children need early math skills. They also need important social and emotional skills that are critical to success in school like attending to instruction, persisting in their effort to learn, following directions from adults and learning how to solve problems with words.

If we agree that the problem is closing the achievement gap in at-risk preschool children before they enter kindergarten, then the solution is a robust, research-based intervention that features a core standards-based curriculum, an instructional program that emphasizes the development of language, vocabulary and pre-reading skills, and teachers who foster self-regulation, exploration and inquiry—to ensure that children enter kindergarten at or above national norms in language, vocabulary, numeracy and pre-reading skills.

The AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation developed Eager to ReadTM as an evidence-based early intervention program for pre-school children. The program features aligned training, professional development and an assessment system that is producing outstanding results with the most at-risk children in Washington, DC.

The CostsHow the Program is Funded?

Considered as a new, stand alone program—Eager to ReadTM is expensive. But, properly considered as early intervention in a preschool through 12 public education system, James Heckman, the 2000 Nobel Economics Prize winner estimates that a program of this kind will save more than seven times its cost through savings in special education, remedial education, student retention, avoidance of dropping out, avoidance of teen-age pregnancy, avoidance or welfare and incarceration (Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2006).

AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation has raised and invested more than $3.5 million over the past seven years to design, develop, pilot, implement or support and improve Eager to ReadTM in eighteen classrooms at five schools in Washington, DC. The sources of funding came from two federal grants, including a $1.75 million Early Reading First grant, as well as foundation and private individual contributions.

AppleTree spends about $15,500 per child to implement Eager to ReadTM, which is delivered through a public charter school network (AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School or “AELPCS”). At a recent Philanthropy Roundtable meeting in Washington, DC, Chancellor Michelle Rhee explained to foundation leaders that the DC school system spends an average of $64,000 (including transportation) per student for special education placements as a result of the system’s abysmal failure to educate children. Twenty percent of DC students are identified for special education. Considered in this light, an ounce of “intervention” is worth a pound of cure.

Washington, DC provides $11,700 under their Uniform Per Student Funding Formula to educate preschoolers. Charter schools receive an additional per student facilities capitation of $3,109. Public preschools are also entitled to federal categorical and competitive grants, as well as funding for English Language Learners and special education. Though high, the costs are in-line with overall student costs in Washington, DC, and a fraction of the cost without an effective, early intervention.

What Makes up the Program Costs?

AELPCS teachers are hired with bachelor’s degrees and, once hired, receive specialized training in early childhood education. Research from the National Institute for Early Education Research finds these teachers are more likely to have the skills to engage children in meaningful conversation, expand children’s use of language and build children’s understanding of the world around them.

Classrooms feature low child to teacher ratios that promote greater opportunities for extended language interactions between teacher and students as well as opportunities to differentiate instruction individually and in small groups.

AELPCS has created engaging classroom environments that are safe, inviting, child-sized, furnished and supplied to support children’s learning and exploration. Classrooms have centers for dramatic play, art, writing, library and manipulatives; books and writing materials are available throughout. Evidence of children’s work reflects rich thematic content and authentic opportunities to use print. Teachers are warm, caring and responsive to students and use assessments to measure and improve the quality of their classrooms and instruction.

The standards and curriculum are aligned with research that identify the knowledge, skills and dispositions that are predictive of later schools success including language, early literacy, foundational mathematics, and social-emotional development.

AELPCS uses valid assessments of children’s progress that are used to improve instruction. Children are screened upon enrollment. Throughout the program, teachers use both observational and direct assessment to understand what children are learning. Those who do not make expected progress are provided additional support to ensure they achieve key skills. Data is used for continuous improvement.

Data driven professional development is intensive, ongoing, research-based and classroom-focused. Data on children’s learning, classroom and instructional quality is used to inform the content of professional development. The effectiveness of professional development is measured in part by the change in classroom and instructional quality.

Eager to ReadTM incorporates a Response to Intervention (“RTI”) model-commonly used in the primary years-to prevent reading difficulties and over-identification for special education. RTI recognizes children’s strengths and needs through systematic screening and progress monitoring, provides three tiers of instruction, and includes problem solving with parents and educators to aid in decision-making.

Benefits-Progress Made Since the Program Was Initiated

AppleTree Institute has implemented Eager to Read at AELPCS, and supported implementation at three other schools through a federal Early Reading First grant. Implementation has resulted in strong gains in child outcomes in language, vocabulary and pre-reading skills, as evidenced from overall 2007-08.

AppleTree’s schools and their partners use norm-referenced standardized assessments to measure vocabulary (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test or “PPVT”) and phonological knowledge (Test of Preschool Early Literacy or “TOPEL”). Since the goal is to get children to national norms, by conducting a pre and post-test, they can measure the progress the children make against a sample of their peers from across America.

Children at partner schools also made very significant gains—10 percentiles—in one year. AELPCS provides support to partner schools including materials, supplies, coach mentors, training and professional development. But there are factors that we don’t control or even influence, which can have an effect on outcomes such as teacher quality and teacher-student ratios.

AELPCS outcomes are similar across 3 campuses—and children made greater gains than last year (AELPCS LY) while the charter school experienced 500% growth in enrollment this year (from 36 to 1440.

The TOPEL (“Test of Preschool Early Literacy) also measures growth in alphabet knowledge and early knowledge about written language conventions and form; The test administrator asks the child to identify letters and written words, point to specific letters, identify letters associated with specific sounds, and say the sounds associated with specific letters.

A three-year outside evaluation, by Dr. Laura Justice of the University of Virginia’s Curry School, shows Eager to ReadTM to be an effective early intervention that builds foundational knowledge and children’s language, pre-reading and cognitive skills to the normative range in those critical domains. Last year, AELPCS contacted a small (25 of 120), but random sample of children who had matriculated from the program. None of the children contacted had been placed in special education and none had been retained. AppleTree seeks funding to conduct a longer-term evaluation of child outcomes as a larger number of their students proceed through elementary school.


Urban schools systems in Massachusetts also spend high levels of tax dollars on failing schools, or worse, with the expensive social consequences of school failure. As Bay State policy makers consider extending education to include preschool, pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten, a cost-benefit analysis should be undertaken—particularly in the cities with large numbers of failing elementary and middle schools.

A critical part of this analysis is to look at the entire picture, rather than preschool interventions as expensive “additional” programs, particularly in challenging cities like Holyoke, Springfield and New Bedford.

The return on investment of a preschool intervention like Eager to ReadTM is relatively quick. One would expect significant differences in the 3rd and 4th grade MCAS ELA scores when the first cohort passes through that grade. The number of children being identified for special education would also be reduced dramatically.

In a similar fashion to how the extended learning initiative has been funded, Massachusetts could consider targeting investments in some of the Commonwealth’s lowest performing school districts with the program delivered through five-year, renewable performance contracts that are open to a diverse set of potential providers including school systems, community-based organizations, non-profit or for-profit providers with an accountability rubric that is aimed at closing the achievement gap before kindergarten. Governor Patrick’s proposed “Readiness Schools” might be such a vehicle for some targeted pilots.

Washington, DC is providing significant levels of public funding for innovative models of education, but Massachusetts, which has a rich history of choice, reform and innovation, could implement a program like this on a trial basis with a roll-out strategy if and when the cost-benefits justify the expansion.


Midas Muffler used to have a famous television commercial that warned, “Pay me now, or pay me later.” Eager to ReadTM is a cost-effective, early intervention to close the persistent achievement gap that is the greatest challenge to improving educational outcomes in America. The question is, will the public servants and policy makers who budget and administer public education make the changes to raise the trajectory of learning for all students or continue our disgraceful legacy of remediation, special education and failure. Which will it be?

Contact the Author:
Jack McCarthy
Managing Director
AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation
415 Michigan Avenue, NE McCormick Pavilion, 3rd Floor
Washington, DC 20017
202.488.3990 (office)
508.294.6099 (cell)
202.488.3991 (facsimile)











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