"These scores confirm that we have a reading emergency."
So last December said Robert Bobb, appointed by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in March 2009 to deal with Detroit Public Schools' persistent financial problems and has more recently exerted authority over academic matters.
Longtime observers of the school district and its 138,000 students spread out over more than 100 campuses are intimately aware of a persistent decline in student achievement, a trend now several decades long. This was underscored in late 2009 with a report released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The report shares the results of tests given to DPS fourth- and eighth-graders during the previous spring. Results showed these two groups of students displaying "below basic" competence in math skills, at 69 and 77 percent respectively.
The low scores in both areas suggested to school officials that reading posed the most foundational problem, preventing progress in math and other areas.
The news produced an uproar in the community. While the Detroit area normally is polarized on racial and political matters, dissatisfaction was voiced from both city and suburb.
"We want people to have not just a sense of urgency after seeing these scores, but a sense of outrage over these scores," Bobb said. "But we do not want these scores to paralyze us. On the contrary, knowing where our children are academically provides us the opportunity to strategically develop and tailor our academics to the specific needs of Detroit children. ... There definitely has to be a cultural change."
His response included an aggressive remake of the schools, beginning with pre-kindergarten. This plan for early intervention led to the creation of the Call to Action for a new Reading Corps program, an initiative that depends on volunteers — most with no background in education — to tutor students in reading. Each volunteer is asked to serve at least an hour a week.
Bobb's stated goal was to recruit enough volunteers to provide 100,000 hours of service in the program's first year. More than 5,700 volunteers offered to help, representing over 650,000 hours of tutoring for 2010-11, the program's first full year of operation. Ethnically diverse, the volunteers were also geographically diverse, coming from 130 municipalities in southeast Michigan.
The program's organizers elected to implement the program progressively, beginning with pre-kindergarten students and expanding one grade level a year until 2015. During this period, observation by teachers and evaluation by way of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program will track each student's progress. Each child will continue with the same tutor if at all possible.
Since most tutors are not professional educators, organizers have set up a 30-minute structured module. After a brief introduction, the tutor reads to the child for 15 minutes and is asked to retell the story in their words.
This component of the session is the most crucial, according to Karen Feathers, associate professor of elementary education at Wayne State University. "When a child is read to, the impact is considerable. It stimulates the child's curiosity to the point that after a time, he or she will want to pick it up and read it themselves. Reading a book one level higher than the child's current level of proficiency actively engages their imagination."
This is followed by carefully paced instruction in letters, pronunciation and writing skills, where the student compiles a book of the entire alphabet over the course of several sessions. The session concludes with time to offer praise and encouragement.
To qualify as tutors, interested volunteers must undergo a criminal background check and complete up to three hours of training.
A typical volunteer is a retired professional with an eagerness to contribute the community. James Owen, a retired engineer from General Motors, epitomizes this spirit. "I view my service as an extension of my Christian faith," he says of his work with pre-kindergarteners at Van Zile Elementary School on Detroit's east side. "The help we give to kids today will be useful to them their whole lives," he adds, convinced of the long-term effectiveness of his efforts. Owen's determination is buoyed by the enthusiasm of the youngsters, who often compete to be chosen first for a tutoring session.
Despite this sentiment, Owen is realistic regarding the enormity of the challenge. "The lack of parental involvement is an obstacle we constantly battle. Many of today's parents were themselves raised in dysfunctional families that placed a low priority on education, so today we're dealing with the cumulative effect of that."
Education experts are uncertain of the effectiveness of uncertified tutors teaching reading to young students. According to Feathers, "While the effort being put forth by the DPS is certainly commendable, research suggests that progress from instruction offered by volunteers often falls short of that offered by a trained professional."
At this point, student evaluation is mainly observational in nature. Teachers observe tutoring sessions and note student progress. Due to the fact that the program is in its infancy, no quantifiable data to its level of success is yet available.
"We are currently developing a statistical model which will be used to measure students' progress," explains Leaura Materassi, coordinator of the program. "When the charter students in the program reach the third grade, newly developed methods will test students to measure the program's effectiveness."
Statistics aside, to the people directly involved the effort represents a rekindling of hope for Detroit's schools — an optimism that springs from the city's timeless resiliency.
For more information on the Detroit Reading Corps program, visit http://www.detroitk12.org/readingcorps.