by Jeff Murray, August 24, 2023


Future Forward began in Milwaukee in 2005 as SPARK—a small-scale, local effort to combine family engagement with intensive tutoring to help low-income elementary-age students improve their literacy skills. It has since expanded significantly, rebranded, and moved under the aegis of national nonprofit Education Analytics, Inc. The SPARK pilot has been studied extensively, and a new report, from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, gives us the most comprehensive analysis yet.

This analysis extends previously-published research, following 576 students who were entering kindergarten, first grade, and second grade in seven Milwaukee Public Schools in fall 2013. The children, nearly all of them Black or Latino, were randomly assigned to receive either two years of Future Forward literacy intervention along with traditional business-as-usual reading instruction, or simply business-as-usual instruction. Students with IEPs were excluded from the analysis (except for one child with a speech-language plan), as were English learner students. Those in the treatment group were offered thirty minutes of phonics-focused, one-on-one tutoring from a paraprofessional or trained volunteer three times each week via pullouts from noncore classes. Informal learning opportunities were also included in afterschool programming provided by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. But the program’s most innovative aspect was family engagement, which included regular communication from an engagement coordinator (typically another school parent) about the child’s progress, home visits where parents were provided with “development opportunities” that could help their child’s literacy growth during the school year and in the summer, plus monthly community events that included learning opportunities, as well as fun activities to attract families.

The prior research study found that, after two years of active participation—comprising an average of thirty hours of in-school tutoring actually attended per student per year, sustained communication to parents, dozens of community events, hundreds of home visits, and two years of afterschool opportunities—treatment group students saw positive impacts on foundational literacy, reading achievement,, and school attendance. The impacts were greatest for students starting at the lowest levels of reading skills. So far so good.

The new analysis follows the original participants for five years beyond the end of the active treatment, through winter 2020 when children were in middle school. Attrition occurred in both treatment and control groups due to students moving out of state or switching to private schools, but the researchers note that the percentages are within the norms set by the What Works Clearinghouse to avoid attrition bias. Data are provided using the same sources as previously, although the district did change its reading assessment vendor beginning in 2015–16. The nationally-normed scores were converted to grade level equivalents to allow direct comparison to previous scores.

Treatment students continued to notch higher test scores than their control group peers through middle school. However, positive impacts were now concentrated around students who had started SPARK at the highest levels of reading skills, reversing the trends observed during active treatment and providing solid evidence of a fading out of effects, at least for certain students. Furthermore, one year after active treatment, Future Forward students were almost exactly at grade level in reading (0.03 years below), while control group students were 0.29 years below. However, five years after active treatment, the typical Future Forward student was reading 2.03 years below grade level, and even those who had started at a higher skill level were reading 1.17 years below. The situation was even more dire for control group students, with the worst performers reading more than three years below grade level. Neither is desirable, but at least participants did not fare as poorly as their non-participant peers.

Another tiny bright spot: The average Fast Forward student whose attendance data could be reliably tracked across all years under study recorded 5.9 fewer absences than the average control student. However, the researchers suggest that the incomplete data for a large number of students could be skewing those results. These positive effects were also concentrated among students who started at the higher end of the literacy skills distribution. No discussion is provided about possible mechanisms at work here.

These findings accord with similar analyses over the years of HeadStartSuccess for All, and kindred interventions for disadvantaged young children: early positive impacts that begin fading out in one or two years. And if the educational systems in which students spend the rest of their primary and secondary education are underperforming, no amount of early boost will get them—and keep them—on par with their more-advantaged peers. The authors conclude here that it is unreasonable “to expect time- and resource-limited programs to fundamentally transform the educational terrain,” and that their findings “highlight the need for systemic change.” Programs like Future Forward are part of the solution, but are not sufficient on their own, even with the addition of home- and community-based efforts.

SOURCE: Curtis J. Jones et. al, “What Is the Sustained Impact of Future Forward on Reading Achievement, Attendance, and Special Education Placement 5 Years After Participation?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (July 2023).