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Questions with Richard Weissbourd

Questions with...
Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D.'87
Catch Upstream, Not Downstream

Richard WeissbourdWhen it comes to helping struggling kids, Richard Weissbourd has a theory: it's important to intervene early in their lives, to build on childrens and families' strengths, and to do just a few things very well. One of the ways he's trying to do this is by making sure that all kids can read by the time they're in the third grade. With this goal in mind, he started a citywide literacy program called ReadBoston in 1995 with Boston Mayor Tom Menino. In an effort to go deeper, a few years ago he helped start a pilot school called the Lee Academy in a low-income Boston neighborhood. Now, with several other Harvard faculty, he and Professor Hiro Yoshikawa are leading an early intervention project called Three to Third that is focused on literacy and numeracy, social-emotional development, family involvement, and afterschool programs. Three to Third kicked off this past fall in two Boston pubic schools, including the Lee Academy. Just before the start of classes, Weissbourd sat down with Ed. to talk about the project's goals and why earlier is better.
What's the idea behind Three to Third?

It's based on four or five key principles. One is you've got to begin with kids at three years old.

The achievement gap is big in kindergarten. It gets even bigger as kids progress through school; then at third grade, the roads dramatically diverge. Before third grade, kids are learning to read. After third grade, they're reading to learn. Their capacity to do so many other subjects depends on their ability to read. And the project's other principles?

We're trying to create classrooms that powerfully nurture emotional and social skills — skills that are key to success in school and clearly in life. There are also large numbers of classrooms in the [Boston school] district — maybe a third — where there's very little learning going on because teachers are spending so much time on behavior management, even when it's just a few kids. We're trying to give teachers constructive strategies.
You're also including families.

We'll never close the achievement gap unless schools find ways to work with more families more deeply and respectfully around key academic goals, and unless we support parents as advocates for their children's education. We are asking our schools to do teacher-based home visiting programs with parents as a way of establishing a strong relationship between teachers and parents. We are also asking parents to sign reading contracts — to read to their kids four times a week for 30 minutes and also to engage in storytelling, more frequent conversation, and other language-building activities in the home.
Is this integration of school and family what sets Three to Third apart?

I think a particular kind of integration makes us unusual. Rather than integrating around a vague, impossible-to-reach goal like meeting all the needs of families, we're trying to integrate around specific goals. For example, vocabulary is such a strong predictor of reading success and reading success is such a strong predictor of school success. We're asking, how can our family engagement work, our afterschool work, and our in-school interventions work together to promote vocabulary?

We're also unusual in that we're not trying to create a handful of high-functioning, boutique schools. We're working with Boston school administrators in developing practices that are affordable, replicable, and sustainable as well as on the infrastructure and accountability systems necessary for those practices to take hold.
Was there one moment for you personally when you became interested in all of this?

At some point it hit me like a truck that we've created all these programs and services for kids, and yet kids are still failing and skidding out of school at tragic rates. We have to stop just adding more and more programs. It's what a colleague of mine calls “spray and pray.†Instead, let's start by making sure we do a couple of things that are absolutely critical to kids' school success really well. Reading should be one of those things.
Reading is the answer?

Getting kids to read certainly isn't going to be sufficient in solving every problem, but it is necessary for school success and for many kinds of life success.
And the earlier the better.

The more you're in this field, the more you begin to realize that once kids are struggling in middle school and high school, there are still things that can be done, but it's a steep climb. You keep going back and saying how can we do this earlier? How can we catch this upstream, rather than downstream?

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