In December 2020, the late Robert Slavin, a sociologist whose research fundamentally shaped the landscape of reading instruction, drafted a letter to then president-elect Joe Biden. In this letter, Slavin proposed a strategy to help our nation’s students recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In winter 2020, widespread data about the pandemic’s impacts on students was still in short supply, but educators knew students were struggling, more than many ever had before. The question was (and remains), What should educators do to best help children thrive? Slavin wrote: “What we and many other researchers have found is that the most effective strategy for struggling students, especially in elementary schools, is one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations.”

While we know that tutoring programs can be a solution to one of the greatest challenges of our generation, identifying the highest quality, evidence-based tutoring programs can be a challenge. Identifying these programs is key for districts and states as they consider how to appropriate the influx of resources from the $122.7 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which requires states to reserve at least 5% of funds to address learning loss. Researchers including Bob Slavin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University have identified key characteristics of the most effective programs, and they have studied what evidence exists for programs that align with research-based best practices. One example of such a program is Education Analytics’ Future Forward early elementary literacy tutoring program: a proven, effective intervention that makes a significant, lasting impact on the educational trajectory of the students it supports.

In this blog, I will share details of the Future Forward program and how it serves as an evidence-based intervention to support student learning (including for those affected by COVID disruption in the classroom). I then outline how we developed criteria to evaluate students’ readiness to “graduate” out of the program, so that the program can be scaled to serve as many students as needed at a given site.

Future Forward is a division of Education Analytics with a main service offering that combines one-on-one reading tutoring with family engagement to serve struggling readers in grades K-3. Future Forward’s mission is to help young children develop the skills they need to become confident, successful, joyful readers by providing individualized tutoring combined with expansive family engagement. To achieve that mission, we partner with school systems and community-based organizations to deliver tutoring services embedded in schools and highest quality family engagement that serves a wide range of families’ needs.

Why literacy tutoring is a key part of our nation’s COVID response

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 35% of fourth graders across the country were proficient in reading. That number had been getting progressively worse in recent years, even prior to school shutdowns, which underscores the urgency of the problem. Research also shows us that struggling students are disproportionately students of color and from families that are economically disadvantaged.

Importantly, even though this is a significant problem, strong evidence exists for how we can solve these challenges:

  1. Reading is a highly teachable skill, making it an actionable target for intervention and support.
  2. Family engagement can dramatically impact students’ learning outcomes, especially around reading. Research shows that involvement from a parent or caregiver in at-home learning has more than twice the effect on student test scores than parents’ education levels or economic status.
  3. Family engagement can drive additional positive outcomes beyond student learning. For instance, family involvement is also closely connected to student attendance, and research has shown that school, family, and community partnership strategies can reduce chronic absenteeism.
  4. There is widespread evidence that tutoring is a highly effective strategy for increasing students’ ability to read. As education researchers Matthew Kraft and Grace Falken from Brown University explained in a recent paper, "tutoring is not a silver bullet, but even scaling reasonably good tutoring with just half the average impact found in the research literature would meaningfully benefit students.”
  5. As with family engagement, we know that tutoring can have indirect benefits on student outcomes; individualized instruction and attention can boost students’ self-confidence and social-emotional skills. As Bob Slavin noted, “With tutoring, there’s an adult who gets to know [students] and cares about them deeply and gives them loads of opportunity to let them show they can succeed.”

How we can support readers who are struggling

Future Forward provides a useful example of exactly how we go about supporting struggling readers and improving literacy as part of schools’ response to COVID-related disruptions to instruction. Future Forward’s tutoring component is a one-on-one, pull-out tutoring program that provides students with three 30-minute reading sessions per week. Prior to students' starting the program, trained tutors use a systematic reading assessment to determine each student’s starting point. Then, tutors guide students through lessons in a systematic and sequential order, but tutors are given flexibility within lessons to adjust the activities to best meet the student’s needs and to build the foundational skills necessary for fluent reading. While the science of reading is a quickly evolving field, there is research that supports each of the discrete components of Future Forward. All Future Forward lessons emphasize phonics and phonological awareness through word play such as word sorts, making words lessons, and flip books. In addition to word play, students practice reading and comprehension strategies during instructional-level reading.

Tutors use a variety of assessments to ensure students are progressing through the sequence of reading skills. In addition to a formal assessment administered twice a year, tutors also use pre-and post-tests for each literacy skill unit and running records assessments approximately every three to four lessons. These data help tutors adjust their instruction and recognize when a student is ready to move on to a new reading level, or “graduate” from the program when they’ve achieved reading proficiency.

Future Forward’s second major component is an intensive focus on supporting literacy through family engagement, acknowledging that a school system can’t solve all of the underlying factors that prevent student achievement on its own, and that parents must be key partners in their students’ learning. At the heart of this effort are Future Forward’s Family Engagement Coordinators (FECs). FECs build positive relationships with families through a variety of communication and educational structures, including text updates, phone calls, community visits, and family events.

Evidence of Future Forward’s impact to date

Future Forward’s effectiveness has been summarized in five published studies to date, including four randomized control trials (RCTs) (one of which is a five-year longitudinal study) and one multisite regression discontinuity analysis. All published research meets the Institute for Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence standards without reservations. Future Forward meets the “strong evidence definitions” established in ESSA and earned the highest possible rating (“Statistically significant positive effects found”) from the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

Evaluating students’ readiness to “graduate” from an intervention

Given that districts and schools are targeting significant numbers of students in their intensive programming to address COVID’s disruption on learning, these educational agencies need to consider at what point students’ learning has “recovered,” meaning these students can resume standard programming so that intensive interventions can continue to focus on learners with the greatest need. In the 2021-22 school year, the Future Forward implementation team developed “graduation” criteria to quickly identify when students have achieved their intensive learning goals and are ready to resume traditional programming so their tutor’s time can be spent with a new, struggling peer:

As tutors work with children to progress through the Future Forward program, they note when they see evidence of skill mastery, when a child is experiencing success with the use of grade-equivalent text, and when they start to demonstrate developmentally on-track literacy skills. Once a student has demonstrated proficiency via several informal embedded assessments (generally, three “running records” and comprehension mini-quizzes), a tutor can schedule a student for assessment with the Program Manager at their school, during which time a student will be assessed using Renaissance Learning’s STAR Early Literacy screener. If the student demonstrates proficiency on this assessment, the Family Engagement Coordinator discusses student success with the child’s caregiver, while the Program Manager meets with the student’s classroom teacher to verify findings. At this point, the child will graduate from Future Forward, with great celebration, and their tutor may begin serving a new student.

This protocol is currently being piloted during the 2021-22 school year, and its success is still under review. Given the unique and unforeseen challenges that COVID-related learning disruptions have wrought, various districts have been developing different approaches to serve students with Future Forward. One of these approaches includes full-year engagement to focus on the mentorship aspect of long-term tutor/student relationships, which supports students’ social-emotional needs in addition to literacy and other academic skill remediation. Another approach featured briefer dosages of intervention per student to help push students in need of less intensive support, thereby serving a greater number of students through the year. As long as these approaches are tied to highest quality, effective, evidence-based programs, they have the potential to dramatically improve student outcomes.

Scaling up our impact

The U.S. Department of Education has recently underscored the importance of investing in sustainable and innovative solutions to support students with their $182 million investment in the Education Innovation Research program grantees. Future Forward was awarded $14.5 million to expand our impact across the nation and continue to document the effectiveness of high-dosage tutoring paired with intensive family engagement. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona noted in announcing the awards, "Especially as students, educators, and school communities continue to heal and recover from the pandemic, we must invest in programs that are innovative and backed by evidence of what works to ensure that our education system can fully and effectively address the academic and social-emotional needs of our children.” Future Forward is excited to be part of this solution, building best practices to serve students and families throughout the nation.

Interested in learning more about Future Forward?

Communities interested in learning about how the Future Forward program can serve the needs of elementary learners can visit the Future Forward website et www.FutureForwardLiteracy.org or contact Executive Director Kate Bauer Jones at kbauerjones@edanalytics.org.