The challenges facing K-12 leaders as they start the new school year are enormous. For instance, the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that fourth graders’ average reading skills have dropped by five points on a 500-point scale since the start of the pandemic—the biggest decline in more than 30 years.
This isn’t surprising news, as educators know their students are behind where they should be in terms of basic literacy skills. These skills underpin all other skills that students learn in school; if children can’t read well, then their entire education is at risk.
Making up this lost ground while continuing to ensure that students learn grade-level skills is hard enough. But many school systems will be doing this while also facing unprecedented staffing shortages.
While not all states or school systems are grappling with a shortage of qualified instructional staff, many are. Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, told the Washington Post: “I have never seen it this bad.” The newspaper reports that 3,000 teaching positions in Nevada remained unfilled as of August 2022, while Illinois had a shortage of more than 2,000 qualified teachers. These staffing shortages are hurting students who need extra reading support in particular, Education Week observes.
The term “perfect storm” tends to be overused, but this really is a perfect storm of challenges for leaders to overcome. Closing the gaps in reading skills requires personalized, one-on-one instruction that schools simply can’t provide if they don’t have enough reading teachers, coaches, and specialists on staff. It’s like trying to win a heavyweight boxing match with one hand tied behind your back.
Fortunately, there is help available. At the same time K-12 leaders are facing these challenges, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology provide significant potential to support the kind of highly personalized instruction that can close reading gaps and accelerate students’ learning—helping them learn to read faster so they can master grade-level content.
For example, as students read text aloud, AI-driven tools can provide real-time assessment and feedback on their reading skills—prompting students, correcting them when they get words wrong, and even encouraging them like an actual teacher would.
Robin Getsee, a language-arts special education teacher for grades 6-8, has seen the impact of an AI-based reading tutor on one of her students who was on the autism spectrum.
“He read painfully slowly right before COVID,” she recalls. “He was reading probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 words per minute.”
Getsee didn’t see this child for a few months once learning shifted online. When face-to-face learning resumed, she called on him to read.
“He was a totally different student. I could not believe how well he was reading,” Getsee says. “I called his mom that afternoon, and I said: ‘What have you done?’ This was not a (result) of my teaching, this was something that was going on at home.”
The child’s mother told Getsee that he had been using an AI-based reading tutor. “It was absolutely amazing to see what he’s done,” Getsee says. “His comprehension has gone up from an early first grade level to an early third grade level—(and) his confidence has improved.”
AI-driven technologies aren’t designed to replace teachers, but they can support personalized reading instruction when teachers can’t. In essence, they extend a teacher’s presence and ensure that every student has a personal reading tutor.
At a time of enormous challenges, schools need help. Technology offers a solution. Even as schools face daunting staffing shortages, these hurdles don’t have to prove detrimental to reading instruction. With AI, we can extend the reach of every teacher, making it possible to scale personalized learning across an entire school or district—closing the gaps in reading skills and giving students the foundation they need for success in all subjects.
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