Low-performing high schools, particularly those serving low-income communities and students of color, are often characterized by high absentee and course failure rates, substantial dropout rates, and — even for graduates — inadequate preparation for postsecondary education and the labor market. While the stage is often set for these problems in elementary and middle schools, the devastating effects become more visible in ninth grade. As many as one-half to three-quarters of ninth-graders in low-performing high schools embark on their freshmen year with significant reading difficulties, lacking the skills needed to comprehend complex texts assigned in their content courses. Students who face marked literacy deficits are unlikely to do well in high school, and poor reading ability is a key predictor of academic disengagement and, ultimately, dropping out.
While much has been learned about literacy in the elementary grades, less is known about programmatic approaches that help struggling adolescent readers acquire the skills they need to succeed in high school. To help fill in this gap in knowledge, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences awarded MDRC and its partner, American Institutes for Research (AIR), a contract to establish and evaluate the effects of two supplemental literacy programs for students who enter ninth grade with reading skills well below grade level. One aspect of this research and demonstration project is that the schools mounting the literacy programs are ones that already operate “small learning communities,” which are characterized by interdisciplinary teams of teachers who share the same small group of students and have common planning time.