Lemov and the Hurdle Rate

A hurdle rate in finance is the easiest, most widely available and stablest investment with a reliable rate of return. For most of the 20th century, you could get 5.25% from banks for a savings account; or if you had enough money to get into U.S. Treasury bonds, you could earn 6% or higher.

Obviously in the current economic climate these numbers are silly. But I digress.

Doug Lemov in TEACH LIKE A CHAMPION points out that a teacher’s hurdle rate isn’t based in money but in time. What action can you do that beats spending time on teaching effective reading strategies in class? And then reading?

Precious few, it turns out.

Quizzing kids on parts of speech in a focused directed way, during reading in class, is powerful. So is asking them higher order questions, like the theme or character traits of the protagonist and antagonist or the symbolism or the effect of gold on the 16th century Spanish economy. Randomly choosing new readers to keep them focused on the text, rereading for decoding and for meaning and for fluency, teaching kids to highlight words and to transpose them to different parts of speech and to mark their reading place with a finger when stopping…. All these things help make poor readers into great ones, quickly.

Does it work?

Well. Yes.

In the two days I’ve done this in class, there’s been a marked increase in the engagement of my students with the text. And I feel like I have had more success with this reading aloud than in my prior project, which was making slideshows about ancient Egyptian monuments like Philae and Abu Simbel and Giza. The slideshows were … Well. It’s embarrassing to admit, but the shows were painful to watch and dreadfully plagiarized — not just in images but in text; poorly presented and a gross waste of time.

I correct myself. The class that got to do their presentations on a chosen topic did better than those with an assigned topic. And it wasn’t that the slideshow development process was bad: it was that the presentations demonstrated that the riskiness of slideshow presentations were high; while the demonstrated return on time learning was low.

You always have to beat the hurdle rate.

The hurdle rate is reading. Before beginning any project, I should ask myself — will the kids learn as much from this project as if I had them read for the same amount of time? What about if I had them write?

If it can’t beat the hurdle rate, I should do reading instead. And I should redesign the project again and again until it does beat the hurdle rate.

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