Building on the Best, Learning from What Works: Early Steps
This brief from the American Federation of Teachers examines the strengths and weaknesses of Early Steps, one of five promising reading intervention programs they evaluated (also see Direct Instruction, Exemplary Center for Reading Instruction, Lindamood-Bell, and Reading Recovery in this section).
Why are some schools effective at educating most students, even those from disadvantaged, high poverty areas, while others struggle fruitlessly to fulfill their academic mission? How can schools replicate the successes of their more effective counterparts?
Researchers, working for years to answer these questions, have described the characteristics of successful schools-e.g., high expectations for all students; challenging curricula; clear standards and a coherent, focused academic mission; high-quality professional development aligned to the standards; small class sizes, especially in the early grades; an orderly and disciplined learning environment; a supportive and collegial atmosphere; and an intervention system designed to ensure that struggling students can meet the standards. But, while we now know a great deal about which reforms are effective, comparatively little is known about how to achieve them.
As many schools have found out the hard way, systemic reform is extremely difficult-especially when it must occur simultaneously on many fronts, and is begun without benefit of high-quality curriculum materials, appropriate professional development, or readily available technical assistance. In fact, a number of schools-especially those that are already foundering-have found that lasting improvement is impossible without concrete, step-by-step implementation support.
According to a recent study of efforts to raise academic achievement for at-risk students (Stringfield, et al., 1996), the reform strategies that achieve the greatest academic gains are those chosen and supported by faculty, as well as administrators. Success is also dependent on the existence of a challenging curriculum, and on paying "a great deal of attention to issues of initial and long-term implementation, and to institutionalizing the reforms." This and other studies have also found that schoolwide reforms tend to be more effective than pull-out or patchwork programs, and that externally developed programs-particularly those with support networks from which schools can draw strength and tangible assistance-tend to do better than local designs.
- High Standards. The program helps all students acquire the skills and/or knowledge they need to successfully perform to high academic standards.
- Effectiveness. The program has proven to be effective in raising the academic achievement levels of "atrisk" students in low-performing schools, based on independent evaluations.
- Replicability. The program has been effectively implemented in multiple sites beyond the original pilot school(s).
- Support Structures. Professional development, materials, and ongoing implementation support are available for the program, either through the program's developer, independent contractors, or dissemination networks established by schools already in the program.
In addition to information about each program's track record on raising student achievement, we have also attempted to gather and report details about main features and estimated costs. We hope that this information will assist members as they begin weighing the available options against student needs, school goals, and available resources. In deciding which programs warrant further investigation, we urge that you consider each program's "fit," as well the data on its efficacy and cost-effectiveness.
|Grades Covered||Grade 1.|
|Curriculum Materials||Participating schools are provided with sets of small graded books for early first grade to late first grade.|
|Instructional Support/Professional Development||Early Steps provides professional development for first-grade teachers and Title I tutors. Other school personnel, such as coaches, music and art teachers, and the principal can also be trained. Teachers are able to enroll in the program as a graduate class, beginning with weekly meetings during the first month of school followed by monthly meetings for the rest of the school year.|
|School Reform/Restructuring Assistance||Not applicable|
|Role of Paraprofessionals||Classroom paraprofessionals and other non-certified staff can be included in some of the day-to-day operations of the program but cannot serve as actual tutors.|
|Cost of Implementation||Start-up costs for a program serving 30 students-including student materials and teacher training-are estimated at between $15,000 to $25,000. Professional development represents the bulk of these costs, with a trainer conducting partial-day site visits approximately 10 times during the school year to conduct short seminars. These costs (which can be shared with neighboring program schools) include a $1,000 a day honorarium for the trainer, plus travel and expenses. Additional costs may include release time, depending on the type of implementation.|
|Results*/Effect Size|| Studies While results for this program are still preliminary, early indications are promising. One pilot study compared program students with a matched
control group at the end of first grade. Early Steps students outperformed
their counterparts significantly (ES=+.47, word recognition; +.80,
spelling; +.77, passage reading). One year later, Early Steps students were
found to have maintained this gap (ES=+.65, word recognition; +1.2,
word attack; +1.0, passage reading).
*To give a sense of scale, an effect size of +1.00 would be equivalent to an increase of 100 points on the SAT scale or 15 points of IQ--enough to move a student from the 20th percentile (the normal level of performance for children in poverty) to above the 50th percentile (the norm for mainstream students).
Early Steps (ES) is an early intervention/tutorial program in reading and language arts for first-grade students who are at risk for reading failure. The program was recently developed by Darrell Morris, professor at Appalachian State University and developer of the Howard Street Tutoring program, a reading tutorial for second and third-grade students. Unlike Howard Street, which relies primarily on volunteers, Early Steps utilizes only certified staff to work one-on-one with struggling students.
Like Reading Recovery, one of the most popular first-grade reading tutorials, ES concentrates on trying to ensure that all first-grade students acquire the concepts and skills that will help them become fluent readers. The program aims to catch and correct reading problems before students enter the post-primary grades and begin to experience real failure. Early Steps employs a balanced approach to the teaching of reading, incorporating explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, as well as the reading experience activities favored by Reading Recovery. ES tutors work with students in reading new books at their instructional level, re-reading familiar texts, writing and learning problem-solving strategies that can be used to tackle difficult words.
There have only been two evaluations of Early Steps studies, thus far. Both focus on the use of the program as an after-school tutorial,
Each Early Steps tutoring session lasts 30 minutes, and is divided into four main sections:
Although more data exist on related programs, such as Howard Street Tutoring, the Early Steps results are still preliminary. There has been only one independent evaluation of the program. This study, conducted in Kalispell, Montana (see "Case Study," below), involved a total of 49 students, with 23 in the experimental group and 26 in a matched control group. All students were in the first grade and were reading in the bottom 20th percentile of their classes. At the onset of the study, there were no significant differences between students in the two groups. Students in both groups received tutoring, the experimental group using Early Steps and the control group using generic methods. At the end of the first grade, students were assessed on spelling, word recognition and passage reading skills using program- aligned measures. In second grade, students were assessed again to see the extent to which they had maintained any gains. Second graders were assessed with Woodcock Reading Mastery (WRMTRevised, G), testing for word identification, word attack and passage reading skills.
At the end of the first year, Early Steps students outscored control students in spelling, word recognition and passage reading (ES=+.47, +.80 and +.77). When the students progressed to the second grade, they were assessed again to see the extent to which they would retain the skills that they had learned. At the end of second grade, ES students outscored control students in word recognition, word attack and passage reading by ES=+.65, +1.2 and +1.0, respectively.
Kalispell, Montana The only independent study of Early Steps was conducted in Kalispell, Montana, a small school district with many lowerand middle-class Caucasian families attending Title I schools. In general, the students selected into the study were among the most economically disadvantaged in the district. All students in the study were also performing in the lowest 20th percentile of their class in reading and on related tasks, such as alphabetic knowledge, spelling, word attack and recognition of words in context. Students were assigned to two matched groups, receiving different types of tutorial interventions. After one year, students who had been taught using Early Steps significantly outperformed their peers in reading assessments. In addition, 52 percent of the Early Steps students were found to be reading at or above grade level, compared to 23 percent of students in the control group.
While the research on Early S teps is still preliminary, it appears to be a program that can help schools deliver effective one-on-one tutorial interventions to low-performing first-grade readers. The program focuses on improving the reading and language arts skills of the lowest 20th percentile of students, using specially trained certified teachers and Title I tutors to deliver instruction. For effective implementation, all ES tutors must receive extensive professional development from program staff. Teachers are required to attend an intensive initial training session before they begin to work with students, in addition to follow-up workshops held during the year.
Early Steps' apparent effectiveness can be attributed to its balanced and comprehensive approach to reading instruction-an approach that provides the lowest-achieving students with individualized attention from and practice with trained and certified tutors. The program was designed to complement and supplement a broad range of primary reading programs. Participating schools are provided with quality professional development for tutors, as well as a framework for delivering a carefully paced and structured series of tutorial lessons. The lessons were designed to reflect the research base on beginning reading, incorporating both direct instruction in the basic skills of phonemic awareness and phonics, and the literature-based instruction that can help build background knowledge and improve student comprehension and vocabulary. Initial data indicate that this is a mix that works. Research shows significant improvement in the reading skills of the lowest quintile of first-grade students in the program. It should also be noted that the success rate with the bottom tier of these at-risk students was even higher.
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Morris, D. (1998). "The role of clinical training in teaching of reading." In P. Mosenthal & D. Evensen (Eds.). Reconsidering the Role of the Reading Clinic in a New Age of Literacy. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.
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Santa, C. M. & Hoien, T. (1998). An Assessment of Early Steps: A Program for Early Intervention of Reading Problems. Kalispell, Mont.: Kalispell School District.
For more information
Dr. Darrell R. Morris, Edwin Duncan Hall, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608. Phone: 828/262-6054. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.
1. An effect size is a standard means of expressing achievement gains and losses across studies, showing differences between experimental and control groups in terms of standard deviation. An effect size of +1.00 indicates that the experimental group outperformed the control group by one full standard deviation. To give a sense of scale, this would be equivalent to an increase of 100 points on the SAT scale, two stanines, 21 NCEs (normal curve equivalent ranks) or 15 points of IQ (Fashola and Slavin, 1996)-enough to move a student from the 20th percentile (the normal level of performance for children in poverty) to above the 50th percentile (in range with mainstream America). Because of differences among study designs and assessments, this can only be considered a "rough" measure of comparison. In general, an effect size of +.25 or more is considered to be educationally significant.
2. Santa, C. M. & Hoien, T. (1998). An Assessment of Early Steps: A Program for Early Intervention of Reading Problem. Kalispell, Mont.: Kalispell School District.