Summer reading pilot program offers 'no magic bullet' for struggling third-graders

Report: Students maintained, but did not gain skills

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IOWA CITY — More than 1,000 third-graders across Iowa spent their summer break in a classroom as part of a pilot program meant to improve their reading skills.

The average student’s reading, though, did not improve during the program, according to a report released Thursday by the Iowa Reading Research Center.

Educators across the state used one of three teaching methods in an effort to identify the strongest method to help struggling readers.

Instead, all three were found to be equally ineffective in improving students’ scores.

“It’s been surprising to people that there is no magic bullet,” Iowa Reading Research Director Deborah Reed said. “I think that’s an important message to get across — summer school is not a magic bullet.”

The pilot program offered 75 hours of reading instruction — via a computer-based, book-based or a “business as usual” instruction model — over six weeks to students who fell short of reading benchmarks at the end of third grade.

It comes ahead of a state-mandated summer reading program that is to be students only path to fourth grade should they fail to meet reading standards once Iowa’s new literacy law — delayed until 2018 — is implemented.

The program’s roughly $14 million price tag could lead to further delays or a new approach, Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise said last week. He did not include funding for the reading program in a fiscal 2018 budget request.

Gov. Terry Branstad is to evaluate funding for the program and present his budget in January, Branstad’s Communications Director Ben Hammes said.

The reading program did affirm that summer school is an effective way to prevent students’ loss of skills over the summer, a common problem as students spend months outside of the classroom, according to the report. Every teaching method helped students maintain the reading skills they already had, which Reed said emphasizes the importance of building reading skills during the school year.

“Even if there was a clearly identified program that outpaced the others, you wouldn’t pin all your hopes on the summer,” she said.

Hammes said the Governor’s Office is “pleased to see the results of the study in preventing learning loss and understand there is more work to be done.”

Although it didn’t identify a superior teaching method, Reed said the pilot program did point to common problems faced by many of the 43 school districts involved, including maintaining student attendance and hiring qualified teachers.

Only 49 percent of students who were invited to the intensive program enrolled, and about 80 percent of those students, 876, finished the six-week course.

“Bear in mind that attendance was optional,” Reed said. “That alone could have impacted their coming to summer school, but it is a challenge to ensure parents are well-informed and get them there.”

Qualified teachers, many of whom had time commitments during the summer, also were sparse. For many teachers, the summer courses were their first time in a classroom since graduating or after years in retirement.

Reed said it is important for educators to begin addressing concerns about reading as early as possible.

“We’re hoping people don’t wait until third grade. ... Some of these issues might be better addressed earlier on, before all of the gaps have set in.”

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