Politicians just do not know how to teach reading. The sooner they learn that, the better everyone will be.
It's almost that time of year again—I expect the conversation we have every spring with a wonderful, bright, conscientious granddaughter who is eleven years old, will be had again in the next few days. Her dread, indeed her mortal fear, of End-of-Grade tests is just down the road. Happened every year since third grade. She always does well, but the run-up is hell. Literally hell. This year, for some students it will be even worse. Kristen Blair explains it this way:
The first week of February brought Wayne County mother Jennifer Strickland an eye-popping surprise. A letter from the principal indicated that one of her twin boys — a stellar, straight-A student reading at an almost sixth-grade level — was in danger of being retained in third grade.
A series of new reading minitests were tripping up him (and others). His school, anticipating high rates of failure on end-of-grade reading tests, sent retention letters home as a pre-emptive strike. Parents, says Strickland, are "terrified of what's coming" on end-of-grade tests later this year; some are working extra jobs to fund private tutors.
What in the world is going on?
Many are pointing the finger at North Carolina's new Read to Achieve program. Implemented this year as part of a 2012 state law, Read to Achieve requires that third-graders demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency before promotion to fourth grade.
Reading ability is assessed through end-of-grade tests, a state Read to Achieve exam, or portfolios encompassing the 36 minitests Strickland's son had begun taking. Students who fail to read proficiently must attend summer reading camps; if interventions are unsuccessful, students are retained.
The law's good intentions are grounded in empirical evidence. Longitudinal research from Donald Hernandez at the City University of New York found that children who are not competent readers by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than children who read well. Other research affirms that third-grade reading skills (or lack thereof) place students on an achievement trajectory that is difficult to alter.
So, what's the problem?
Read to Achieve's implementation has been an unmitigated debacle. On minitest reading passages, "the readability is way beyond third grade," says Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District. Edwards says requirements essentially had "students testing every single week throughout the remainder of the year in what I call a high-stakes, extremely stressful environment for teachers and students." Superintendents in conversations with teachers, principals, and parents "were getting wave after wave of concern," notes Edwards.
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Imponderable: Why do politicians in the General Assembly think they know how to teach reading in K-3 anymore than they know how to teach cardiac surgery? Yet they impose mandates on schools but you never hear of them passing laws to mandate how heart surgery is to be done.
May I respectfully suggest that "the problem" here is with educational bureaucrats and ineffective schools/colleges of education, and not with the teachers, principals or students. The simple fact is that not all students learn the same way and at the same pace and therefore mandates from on high will never work. I understand that politicians mean well, it's just that they have not come to grips with reality. Teaching is a tough job.
Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.