One of the key points made earlier today in Dropout Nation‘s commentary on the departure of Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso is that the district has struggled mightily in addressing literacy, especially among young black men. The percentage of young black male fourth-graders qualifying for subsidized school lunch reading Below Basic proficiency (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) increased by two percentage points between 2009 and 2011, even as the number of illiterate young black men in fourth grade throughout the nation declined by that same percentage; the percentage of young black men in eighth grade who were functionally illiterate declined by two percent in the same period, merely keeping pace with the rest of the nation. The high levels of illiteracy among young men is one reason why they make up 67 percent of all kids in the district’s special ed ghettos and only make up two out of every five kids in its gifted-and-talented programs.
The failures of Baltimore in improving literacy isn’t just limited to poverty: There was no little or decline in the percentages of illiterate eighth-graders coming from households where parents are either high school dropouts or had some higher ed completion. In fact, the percentage of young black eighth-grade men from college educated homes who read Below Basic proficiency increased by three percentage points (from 46 percent to 49 percent) between 2009 and 2011, while the percentage of young black women peers mired in illiteracy increased by one percentage point (from 39 percent to 40 percent) in that same period. The levels of illiteracy for young black men and women nationwide declined by three percent and one percent in that same period.
Certainly Baltimore’s problems in the literacy arena can be traced in part to the low quality of instruction among its teachers. As with other districts throughout the nation, far too many teachers in B’more lack the subject-matter competency and knowledge in teaching the science of reading needed to help kids become proficient in reading. The lack of strong focus on improving literacy for young boys is particularly problematic; while Baltimore has garnered acclaim for a project funded by the Open Society Foundations that focused on using art to develop solutions for keeping young black men off the path to dropping out, the district has not focused nearly as much time on the nuts and bolts of addressing the troubles young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds have when it comes to reading comprehension.
It isn’t as if Baltimore hasn’t devoted some time to addressing its literacy challenges. Starting in 2010-2011, the district rolled out a series of interventions geared toward improving literacy. This included using Earobics, a software program that helps children master phonics by addressing the issues they may have with sounding out words. Third graders struggling in reading can participate in a summer program called Read to Succeed. Meanwhile Baltimore’s literacy efforts on the curriculum front includes Corrective Reading, an instructional approach that is supposed to diagnose the reading issues students have and then help them build up their decoding and comprehension skills. And it also includes implementing the use of the Fountas and Pinnell literacy program sold by textbook publisher Heinemann which is the nation’s bestselling reading solution.
The problem is that the tools chosen by Baltimore don’t adequately address those challenges of illiteracy facing our kids. And it is the ineffectiveness of these approaches that make Common Core reading standards a necessity.
Fountas and Pinnell is what is called a guided reading program. This, by the way, is the approach that has been used in reading instruction throughout America’s traditional districts since the 1920s. Essentially what Fountas and Pinnell does is match kids with books that are supposedly appropriate, or just right, for their reading skills, keeping them from reading more-complex books with which those kids may struggle. This is especially appealing to elementary school teachers, many of whom have never been well-trained in the science of literacy, because they don’t have to provide struggling readers with the kind of supports they need to master reading. It is also appealing to districts such as Baltimore because it saves money and resources. After all, districts already struggle mightily to recruit high-quality reading teachers; that districts continue an approach of elementary school teachers as jacks-of-all-trades types (even as data shows the need for specialization because not all teachers are good at teaching both reading and math) also factors into the appeal of Fountas and Pinnell (and guided reading altogether).
The problem with Fountas and Pinnell is that there is little evidence that guided reading is effective in addressing illiteracy or improving student achievement. This is because guided reading doesn’t actually help students build up their comprehension. As Timothy Shanahan, one of the nation’s foremost researchers on literacy, points out, guided reading’s goal of matching kids to books they can easily read is little more than “relegating them to training wheels forever”; children don’t build up their comprehension and therefore, never become proficient and advanced in their literacy. In the case of Fountas and Pinnell, the activities suggested by the program for preparing kids for reading such as pre-reading (or previewing what will be read through discussions about ancillary topics) tend to do little more than focus on concepts that aren’t central to the book at hand; for example, a child taking on Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is told to learn more about such matters as deep-sea fishing even though none of those things have anything to do with the plight of the protagonist that is at the heart of the yarn. Meanwhile Corrective Reading has proven to have almost no effect in helping kids improve their reading comprehension and fluency, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. Baltimore would be better off just throwing a few books under the noses of its students and moving on.
But Baltimore isn’t alone in providing kids with shoddy, abysmal reading curricula and instruction. The fact that 1.2 million fourth-graders — or 33 percent of all fourth-graders in the United States in 2011 — struggled with illiteracy, while another 1.3 million are barely reading at basic proficiency, are clear signs of how poorly American public education is faring in improving literacy. Considering that guided reading approaches such as that of Fountas and Pinnell are used throughout many districts in the United States, this shouldn’t be surprising. Why such approaches still are tolerated in spite of their ineffectiveness? One reason is because states have long tolerated a slapdash approach to curricula development which has essentially allowed districts and teachers to do the work on curriculum development even when the former can barely handle their basic tasks and most teachers lack subject-matter competency to do so. The fact that all but a few states have crafted reading standards that are shoddy, subpar, and often, reinforce the faulty thinking that drives guided reading efforts, is also part of the problem.
It is clear that the guided reading approaches to reading instruction used in Baltimore and in most cities for most of the past century won’t stem illiteracy. What will help more kids improve their reading is to help them take on challenging literature and nonfiction texts, then supporting (or scaffolding) them as they tackle complex reading with techniques such as explaining to them the concepts that are being discussed in books and helping them with building up their fluency with the written words within them. Because reading comprehension is developed in part by kids gaining background knowledge about the world around them (including aspects of society they may not have necessarily seen with their own eyes), it also means that we must also expand their experiences inside and outside classrooms. One way to do that starts with providing kids with nonfiction texts — from simple news stories, to entries in encyclopedias, to works such as The Wealth of Nations — that introduce kids to abstract ideas that drive economy and society.
In short, what children in Baltimore — and throughout the nation — need is the kind of literacy instruction demanded by the Common Core reading standards. Because Common Core emphasizes both fiction and nonfiction reading and writing, as well as reading War and Peace and John Milton’s On Liberty, the standards — along with other reforms such as overhauling how we recruit and train aspiring teachers in reading as well as move away from jack-of-all-trades teaching at the elementary level — can help more kids become proficient in reading, and be able to write their own stories. This isn’t to say Common Core’s reading standards are perfect; nothing crafted by human hands will ever achieve that rarefied strata. But Common Core can help provide our kids, especially our young black men in Baltimore — with the challenging, college preparatory curricula they need in an increasingly knowledge-driven world. And this is something opponents of Common Core should keep in mind when they argue against implementing the standards. They should ask themselves: Can we really continue to deny children in Baltimore and other districts the knowledge they need to survive?