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August 26, 2011 standard

As the school year begins, families must make sure that our children are on the path to success in school and in life. This starts with literacy and making sure our kids have strong reading comprehension. In this Rewind from April, Dropout Nation offers parents some steps on what to look for in reading instruction in your child’s school. More tips will be offered throughout the school year. Read, consider, and take action.

Reading is fundamental. When children don’t read at basic or proficient levels by third grade, they are unlikely to graduate or succeed in life. This is especially true for young men, who develop their capacity for reading just as they enter school. So for parents, it is important to read to your kids. At the same time, it is also critical to make sure that the school your child attends is also on the job, especially since 40 percent of all kids will need special reading instruction no matter what you do at home.

Dropout Nation offers six key things to look for in your school’s reading instruction. Also, listen to Dropout Nation Podcasts on how to improve reading for your kids and the youngsters around them, and learn what teachers should be doing in classrooms when it comes to reading instruction. Read, pay attention to what teachers are doing, and take action if you don’t think they are doing the job.

  1. A focus on phonetic awareness: Your child should be learning the ability to manipulate sounds in words, an integral part of decoding what it read.
  2. Emphasis on phonics: Teachers should be teaching your child the relationship between written letters and sounds. If this doesn’t happen, your child will not be able to read.
  3. Building background knowledge: This is as critical as phonics because your child needs to know about the world around him — including history, social studies, even science — in order to build strong reading comprehension — or the ability to gain meaning while reading. The school should have a strong, rich curricula for each grade — and every teacher should be able to tell you what your child should learn (and what the school or district expects you to learn) in the grade your child is in. If not, begin advocating for the adoption of more-rigorous curricula or find them another school.
  4. Gain a vast vocabulary: Each day, your school should be doing what you do at home: Teaching your child words, their definitions and the context in which they should be used. Preferably, the teacher should teach your child at least five new words a week (if not more). Again, if it isn’t happening, start making it happen — even if you have to do it yourself.
  5. Get your child to read faster and pick up information more quickly: Sure, every child reads at different speeds. At the same time, there is a point where your child should be able to read aloud a text designated for their grade without a lot of stumbling (a first-grader should be able to read 60 words per minute). The teacher should have your child read constantly, repeatedly, sometimes working on the same passage, until they get up to speed. If this isn’t happening, take action.
  6. And it all should lead to strong reading comprehension: This doesn’t just mean being able to just pronounce words correctly and being able to speed through a book. They should be able to tell you or their teacher what is being discussed in a book or paragraph. Again, if this isn’t happening, you need to take action, both in school and at home.
June 30, 2011 standard

When it comes to the matter of the role of high-quality education in stemming poverty, the thoughtlessness on the subject is rather bipartisan. Bring in the question of whether every child should be given a rigorous, college preparatory education, along with the idea that every child should attain postsecondary education, and the mindlessness becomes astounding. This truism was proven once more this week amid the publication of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s latest report on the need to increase the number of college-educated American children. From Deborah Meier’s latest anti-intellectual defense of the status quo (on a blog she shares with Diane Ravitch that should be called “Thoughtless Minds Think Alike”), to the meanderings of the usually more-thoughtful Neal McCluskey of the reform-minded Cato Institute, their general complaint is that there is no economic or social value for kids supposedly uninterested in college. And ultimately, that providing kids with college preparatory education (and encouraging them to attend college or some other form of higher education) is rather wrongheaded.

One can at least say that McCluskey is partly right about this: There isn’t necessarily any magic in attaining a degree, especially if one’s goal is to go into fields such as the Humanities, where the possibilities of attaining a decent-paying job is unlikely. But liberal arts, social science and history degrees only account for 15 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in 2008-2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education; high-paying fields such as business, health-related fields, education, biological sciences, engineering and computer science account for half the baccalaureates earned by collegians. Let’s also be clear that there is plenty wrong with America’s higher education system. (I have noted some of those problems this month in my report for Organization Trends on for-profit colleges.) But those problems don’t negate the value of higher education, especially for poor and minority children.

But at least McCluskey is coming from a good place. He actually wants high-quality school options for all children. Meier, on the other hand, is like her EdWeek colleague: Ready to damn poor kids with low expectations and using condescending nostalgia about a student that chose to go into law enforcement to justify her point. The fact that one young man did manage to get into one of the few middle-class careers that didn’t require college or technical school (even though police academies are, in fact, higher ed institutions of a sort) doesn’t prove her point. (The fact that her own grandchildren are attending college disproves her argument entirely.) And given the educational requirements to succeed in law enforcement (which involve abstract thinking), along with the fact that college education is required for attaining more-prestigious positions in that field (including serving with the FBI), even aspiring cops can use college preparatory education.

For anyone to say that encouraging kids to pursue higher education — and thus, provide all children a college preparatory education — is ridiculous. Especially when it comes to our kids who grow up in the poorest urban and rural communities. Higher ed has value for the kids and the communities in which they live.

As Dropout Nation has noted, the math and science skills needed to get into college and white-collar fields are also needed in high-paying blue-collar fields such as welding and elevator installation (which one can only get into if they attend other forms of higher education such as community colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships). The jobs that those with some form of higher education can attain is often higher-paying than that for those who only finished high school or worse, just dropped out.

The value of higher education in bolstering incomes is especially clear when one looks at its impact on income for blacks and Latinos. A black man or woman with some form of college education will earn at least $9,142 more in annual income than their dropout counterpart; the gap grows both with additional higher ed credentials and as the better-educated person attains experience in the workforce in higher-paying fields. Those additional dollars flow into the economies of the communities in which they live, spurring home ownership, entrepreneurial pursuits and the emergence of middle-class families on whose energies and dollars civil society is dependent.

For a lower middle-class black community such as the one in which I grew up, South Ozone Park in New York City (part of the zip code 11436), those additional higher ed credentials equals a decline in poverty. If just a third of the 3,110 residents living below poverty had attended college for at least two years, they would triple their income and contribute at least an additional $20 million a year in income to their neighborhoods (and more if they reach the nation’s median annual income). If every one of the 1,276 kids under age 5 went to college and returned to the community, that would be an additional $36 million in annual income.

Such numbers seem small on their face, and yes, these quick-and-dirty estimates don’t account for such things as migration and neighborhood transition. But even for this blue-collar community, where many of the residents are employed in high-paying jobs and own homes, higher education equals more men and women who can help sustain the area. In the case of the kids, it means avoiding poverty and prison in their adulthood.

If this is true for South Ozone Park, it is also the case for Eight Mile in Detroit, for rural Liberty, New York, and for our poorest communities.

This is just the economic impact. For most of us, the campuses of colleges and technical schools are the places where we build the connections that lead to career opportunities and fulfilling friendships. Then there are is the knowledge — from the courses on economic theory to the simple lessons about navigating life outside of the communities in which one had grown up — that is even more value. Well-educated men and women beget learned children who continue economic renewal. And for those who live in poor communities where optimism is in short supply, watching neighbors achieve higher education and economic success brings the bright light of hope they need to move their kids on up.

Attaining higher levels of education alone won’t ensure happier lives. But for minorities, acquiring at least some college education often means the difference between being able to feed their children or subsist. And for the communities in which they live, education, along with low crime, and the flourishing of entrepeneurism and free markets, is the most-effective form of long-term economic development — and it is cheaper over time than costly tax increment subsidies. One would dare say if cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Newark devoted more civic energy to school reform than to tax abatements and stadium deals, they wouldn’t be facing the economic abyss.

This reality is why rigorous, college-preparatory education at the K-12 level, and the implicit expectation for all children that they must attain higher education, is critical. It is also why we must improve reading instruction and make sure that every child isliterate.

For our poorest kids, especially those in black and Latino households , the education they receive at all levels is critical to brighter, less-economically impoverished futures and wider social options. And for the communities in which they live, it can mean the difference between vibrance and continued decay.

June 16, 2011 standard

Sixty-four percent of young black male fourth-graders eligible for the National School Lunch Program read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yes, you read that correctly. Two out of every three. And they are not alone. Forty-two percent of their young white male counterparts in fourth grade on school lunch programs, 59 percent of young Latino men, and 41-percent of Asian male fourth-graders were functionally illiterate.

Thanks to the efforts of the school reform movement — and the accountability efforts contained in such measures as the No Child Left Behind Act — those percentages for them (and for their female counterparts) are lower than they were in 2000 (back then, 77 percent of black male fourth graders who were functionally illiterate). But still, 21 million young men and women (or 33 percent of all students served by American public education) are functionally illiterate. They are not likely to get the intensive reading remediation they need to become successful in school. They will ultimately drop out of school and dive into poverty and prison.

For those of us who are as concerned about preserving and building up the moral and social fabric of our society, a populace incapable of reading the Bible, the Koran and The Republic – and understanding the concepts of civil society that they helped to foster — is one that will be ill-equipped to play their parts in society as moral people engaged in improving the world. They are less likely to be able to play sophisticated, thoughtful roles in discussing issues that face our communities and thinking through ideas that make or break civilizations.

Now, more than ever, we will need everyone — especially our churches and impromptu community leaders — to take on the challenge of overhauling American public education and improving literacy for all children. Our economy and our society cannot afford not to do so.

By now, you already understand that the challenges that come with the advent of the knowledge-based economy in which what one knows is more-important than what they can do with their hands, makes the ability to read proficiently (and the skills one gains from reading and learning to read) more important than ever. Blue-collar work, in particular, has become blue-collar work more-complex and knowledge-based than ever; factory workers have to be able to understand trigonometric equations in order to ensure that products are shaped properly and fit together upon assembly, and think through abstract concepts in order to work on their own. And the highest-paying blue-collar positions, including elevator installers and repairmen (who, on average, make $67,950 a year), require strong math and science skills which can only be gleaned by those who are proficient in reading. The low levels of literacy, along with the lack of math and science skills, is one reason why the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for high school dropouts remain at 14 percent, higher than the rates for those who have attained high school diplomas and some form of higher education.

When one is illiterate, Plato’s Republic looks like a jumble. And so does the rest of life. (Photo courtesy of Bookstruction.net)

But illiteracy is not just an economic problem. When a child can’t read, they will also struggle to navigate through school and life. The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in more-complex mathematics including word problems and algebra, as well as abstract concepts in science. This doesn’t mean that a strong reader will be equally skilled in math or science, but poor readers tend also to fail in math and science too.

The capacity to deal with abstract concepts is not just critical for understanding studies in school. Abstractions are at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule — or do unto others as you would want others to do to you — are formed from the complex interplay between ideas and morals.  Abstractions are also at the heart of the various discourses we have each and every day about matters mundane and critical. An adult with strong literacy and math skills (including algebra), for example, can understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about fiscal policy. A plumber who has read The Canterbury Tales can also move up socially, converse with executives, play his part as a leader in his community, and even pave a path for his children to continue along into middle class society.

Abstract concepts, in short, are one of the building blocks of life and society, from running businesses, to participating in politics, to even keeping families on the straight and narrow. And literacy is the key to working with those materials of the mind and life. A child who struggles to read is one at risk of becoming an adult unable to participate meaningfully in society.

But literacy isn’t just the key to understanding the world and navigating through life. As discussed earlier this month on the Dropout Nation Podcast, literacy is a tool in helping kids developing the executive functions they use in life. Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills. Children with strong reading skills in the early grades tend to also have good social habits (including the executive function of self-control), while those are struggling with reading tend to have disciplinary problems. A third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more-likely to end up engaging in the kind of aggressive behavior that leads to suspension and expulsion; in fact, low literacy in third grade is predictive of school discipline issues two years later in fifth grade.

This makes sense. Children struggling in reading may be illiterate, but they aren’t stupid. They realize that they are falling behind their peers, but they are not yet capable of telling anyone that they cannot read in any meaningful way. So kids acts out, looking for ways to either get attention from the adults around them. Especially since they cannot just skip out of school and eventually dropping out.

The social consequences of illiteracy bear themselves out over time, especially in America’s criminal justice systems. We already know that high school dropouts made up 40 percent of all first-time inmates in state prisons in 1999 (and when one adds GED recipients, former dropouts whose economic attainment after receiving the certificate is often worse than that of dropouts, even higher than that). As Princeton University researcher Bruce Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington pointed out in their 2004 study, young black men high school dropouts had a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34.

And the men who sit in America’s prisons often tend to not only lack the capacity for self-control and good behavior needed to survive outside prison walls, they usually lack the literacy skills that can help them take steps towards turning their lives around and being able to take steps towards avoiding future prison sentences.  The American prison inmate had scores in print and prose literacy that were between 18 and 22 points lower than the average American adult outside prison walls, according to the U.S. Department of Education in its 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (the gap in math literacy between the average inmate and the average American adult was 34 points).

All in all, literacy is critical to society. And yet, in American public education, the instruction and curricula needed to ensure that all children can read, write and add is neglected. We know that four out of every ten children entering kindergarten will need some form of specialized reading instruction and remediation no matter what their parents do at home, yet such remediation is almost non-existent. Few university schools of education (which educate most of our teachers) do a proper job of teaching aspiring students how to address reading. Just 11 of 71 ed schools  surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2006 taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction; later studies by NCTQ of ed schools in states such as Texas have shown that the problem is even worse than first thought.

Meanwhile, as Dropout Nation discussed last month, state laws, teacher contracts and the low quality of school leadership means that few districts or principals are using value-added data based on student performance to identify high-quality elementary teachers with strong competency in reading instruction. As a result, kids in the early grades are often assign teachers who cannot address their reading deficiencies and may not be able to help advance the reading skills of kids whose literacy skills are at basic and even proficient levels.

For our poorest children, who are often subjected to the worst public education has to offer, the consequences of low-quality reading instruction and curricula can be seen in their communities plagued by economic poverty, social decay and struggles to participate meaningfully in civic society. What the nation’s urban failure factories and suburban centers of mediocrity do to these children is essentially violate the old African lesson about teaching people to fish. A child who cannot read also cannot succeed, much less survive.

But the consequences aren’t just limited to the poor alone. One out of every five fourth-grade white and Asian boys who are not eligible for federally-subsidized school lunch reads Below Basic proficiency, while 43 percent and 41 percent of their black and Latino male counterparts are functionally illiterate. Many of these children are attending schools in suburban districts that are perceived to be doing well in improving student achievement; 28 percent of fourth-graders attending suburban schools read Below Basic proficiency. A society cannot remain prosperous, vital or moral when at least a fifth of children from middle class households are reading at levels of functional illiteracy. One would dare say that when a society allows for so many of our kids to be functionally illiterate, it isn’t moral at all.

The systemic reform of American public education is critical to improving literacy. But we cannot wait for slow reform. It will also take a community effort, especially by churches, to take on the fierce urgency of improving literacy and spur more progress in helping kids become successful in reading.

As Dropout Nation pointed out this past December, some churches and religious leaders, including Roman Catholic archdioceses and Allen A.M.E. Church in New York City led by former congressman Floyd Flake, have become powerful players in the nation’s school reform movement. But far too many churches, including wealthy black churches and white churches in suburbia, have been far too willing to simply provide mentoring programs and rent space to charter schools instead of actively participating in overhauling the instruction and curricula children — especially the kids who sit in their pews — receive every day past Sunday. They have forgotten the admonition from the Apostle James that faith without works is dead and useless; they have also forgotten what the Catholic Church has learned long ago: That an educated populace is one that will help them remain strong, healthy and vibrant.

This isn’t to say that education equals faith: Economist Friedrich August von Hayek was right when he declared that higher levels of education usually equal more differentiation in views and beliefs. But churches cannot be pillars of their communities, in fact, cannot even remain in existence, if the people in their pews cannot comprehend a verse in the Book of Malachi.

Every church, especially those in the poorest and majority-minority communities served by dropout factories, should provide reading tutoring as part of their ministries. They should go further and even start their own schools as the Catholic Church did nearly 150 years ago. While undertaking these efforts won’t be easy, they aren’t difficult to do. Particularly in the case of black churches, the very people who can help with these capacity issues — including accountants, lawyers and other professionals — already sit in the pews. Churches can also partner with school operators and even take advantage of the emergence of digital learning and other technologies. And churches can even come together as coalitions to start schools and launch community-wide literacy programs.

And churches aren’t the only ones that need to play their part. The good news is that we have seen organization such as 100 Black Men launch charter schools, and grassroots organizations such as D.C.’s Grassroots Education Project launch reading remediation programs. But this isn’t enough. As we have seen in the late 20th-century with the civil rights movement, there are plenty of men and women who can come together and serve as impromptu leaders for school reform. Starting a reading group, even in one’s own apartment complex or neighborhood, can go a long way toward stemming childhood illiteracy.

Making sure every child can read is not only an economic imperative, but also a moral one. And no one can stand on the sideline as illiterate children slide into the abyss.

April 12, 2011 standard

Reading is fundamental. When children don’t read at basic or proficient levels by third grade, they are unlikely to graduate or succeed in life. This is especially true for young men, who develop their capacity for reading just as they enter school. So for parents, it is important to read to your kids. At the same time, it is also critical to make sure that the school your child attends is also on the job, especially since 40 percent of all kids will need special reading instruction no matter what you do at home.

Dropout Nation offers six key things to look for in your school’s reading instruction. Also, listen to Dropout Nation Podcasts on how to improve reading for your kids and the youngsters around them, and learn what teachers should be doing in classrooms when it comes to reading instruction. Read, pay attention to what teachers are doing, and take action if you don’t think they are doing the job.

  1. A focus on phonetic awareness: Your child should be learning the ability to manipulate sounds in words, an integral part of decoding what it read.
  2. Emphasis on phonics: Teachers should be teaching your child the relationship between written letters and sounds. If this doesn’t happen, your child will not be able to read.
  3. Building background knowledge: This is as critical as phonics because your child needs to know about the world around him — including history, social studies, even science — in order to build strong reading comprehension — or the ability to gain meaning while reading. The school should have a strong, rich curricula for each grade — and every teacher should be able to tell you what your child should learn (and what the school or district expects you to learn) in the grade your child is in. If not, begin advocating for the adoption of more-rigorous curricula or find them another school.
  4. Gain a vast vocabulary: Each day, your school should be doing what you do at home: Teaching your child words, their definitions and the context in which they should be used. Preferably, the teacher should teach your child at least five new words a week (if not more). Again, if it isn’t happening, start making it happen — even if you have to do it yourself.
  5. Get your child to read faster and pick up information more quickly: Sure, every child reads at different speeds. At the same time, there is a point where your child should be able to read aloud a text designated for their grade without a lot of stumbling (a first-grader should be able to read 60 words per minute). The teacher should have your child read constantly, repeatedly, sometimes working on the same passage, until they get up to speed. If this isn’t happening, take action.
  6. And it all should lead to strong reading comprehension: This doesn’t just mean being able to just pronounce words correctly and being able to speed through a book. They should be able to tell you or their teacher what is being discussed in a book or paragraph. Again, if this isn’t happening, you need to take action, both in school and at home.

March 8, 2011 standard

Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Star

When it comes down to it, the most critical element of school reform is improving literacy for all of our kids. Right now, we spend too much time on everything else. But if our kids can’t read, they will fail in life. And we will have failed too.

Reading is complex and to some extent it appears at least somewhat mysterious to all of us. After all, we can’t really see it happening even with a brain scan, so we can only guess about whether and how it is occurring in the minds of individual children. And yet, when the subject of teaching kids to read comes up, everyone seems to have something very weighty and important to say—though few people, I find, have ever actually taught even a single child to read, let alone several hundred at all ages, abilities, or grade levels.

To improve literacy in our country, I suggest we start paying attention to the people who have taught the most kids to read. Not necessarily the theorists, the pundits, the psychometricians, etc., but the actual human beings who’ve done the real work of teaching real kids to become real readers.

I have been very lucky in the kind of work I have been allowed to do in education. And getting literally thousands of chances to teach thousands of different kids to read is one of them. Here are ten important things I’ve learned over the last 15 years of teaching literacy all over the United States in all kinds of teaching situations:

1. It is not hard to teach kids to read. We should start at age three or four and all kids should be reading and writing independently by kindergarten. There is no reason this cannot happen. The most common reason given for why this cannot happen is that kids are not ready. I ask people who say this if they’ve ever tried teaching small children to read. They say “no”. And I say, “They how would you know if they were ready or not?” This seems utterly logical to me, yet it fails to impress anyone in the dialog. Just another indication, it seems to me, of how irrational we are as a nation when it comes to literacy. Read McGuiness’s latest books if you want the scoop on how quickly kids could learn the “basic code” of reading and how early we could begin teaching it to them.

2. Even though there are literally hundreds of reading programs out there, there is only one way to teach kids the phonics or decoding information they need at the start. This approach matches the way our language works and the way our brains work (as such, no program is required; the language is itself the program; though a program that follows the language would work just fine). If we do not base early decoding instruction on The Alphabetic Principle (essentially teaching sounds before letters and showing kids how letters and letter patterns map to the 40-plus sounds of our language), we waste time and confuse our children. Yet fewer than five percent of our kids by my estimate are taught this way.

Most get a “Sesame Street” letter-of-the-week approach or the good old “A is for apple” approach. Both are disastrous, yet they remain maddeningly popular. Most kids in America are taught to read by letter. Any cursory exploration of English spelling and pronunciation will show that this is a patently absurd and highly inefficient approach. When a kid needs to read the word “dog”, the names of the letters are irrelevant. The sounds, however, used here in their “basic code” configuration, are the key to successful decoding.

3. Reading must be combined with writing because they are complementary processes. This should be patently obvious to everyone but it is not. Kids do almost no writing as they begin to learn to read in American schools. Again, McGuiness and others are very clear on the value of combining reading and writing instruction.

4. In order to ensure success for all, we must read approximately 500 percent more than we ask kids to read now, and much more of this reading must be individual reading with kids reading their own books. When there’s too much whole class reading, kids fail to develop independence. And when kids never get to pick books to read that they like, they tend not to like reading after a while. This is my own opinion based on the amount and type of reading I have had to assign in order to pull kids up to grade level over time. You won’t find a study on it because no one has ever studied how much reading kids need to do — especially disadvantaged kids. And even though Diane Ravitch contends that “No kids will pick Moby Dick on their own”, I have had this happen several times (along with many other classics) so I know that at least that old chestnut of an argument is wrong. Given responsible instruction, and exposure to good literature, kids read a ton of classics. Why? Because they’re good. But not every kid need read the same set of classics. Why? Because this limits the number of classics any single kid can read.

5. While E. D. Hirsch and the folks at Core Knowledge are correct that reading is “domain specific” and that “background knowledge” is the number one  predictor of comprehension, he and his very well-meaning and extremely intelligent group have offered us little help in the area of instructional techniques for increasing kids’ background knowledge. They seem to argue that merely buying into the Core Knowledge curriculum solves the problem all by itself. There are actually many interesting ways to help kids gobble up knowledge at very quick rates—and retain it much longer than usual. So, if Mr. Hirsch is right, and he is, we need to be focusing on this aspect of teaching (helping  acquire and retain new knowledge) as much as any other in order to help our kids become more literate. Core Knowledge is not the only way to go. It is merely one extremely conservative example of how to present information. It is a curriculum and, as such, provides little help in terms of the instructional techniques that might be used to teach it well.

6. Reading fluency is extremely important for reading growth, especially in the primary years. Unfortunately, because of the popularity of the DIBELS system, and the general lack of knowledge about reading in America, most educators equate fluency solely with reading rate or reading speed. In actuality, fluency depends on rate, phrasing, and expression, and the latter two are extremely important for comprehension. To put it succinctly, we lose many young readers because we don’t teach fluency explicitly.

7. While Hirsch is correct that, because of reading’s domain-specific nature, there really is no such thing as a reading comprehension test, our country seems to delight in creating and giving them. In fact, reading scores on traditional comprehension tests are used to make hugely important decisions about kids, teachers, and schools. As a country, even our most thoughtful psychometricians don’t take this into account. Therefore, our ability to assess kid’s reading levels by mechanical purposes are suspect. Well-trained human beings tend to make better decisions about what kids know and need to know next when it comes to reading.

8. Even though many people have worked hard to discredit reading strategy instruction, I’ve read the literature carefully and it does admit that a small amount of a certain type of reading strategy instruction works well. Personally, I teach maybe six strategies at the most, and I teach them very thoroughly. A small number of well-chosen strategies, well-taught, can make an extraordinary difference, especially for kids who are many years below grade level. It is obvious, however, that the reading strategy movement has gotten ridiculous and that we certainly don’t need any more classes called “Reading Strategies” or any more books called 101 Reading Strategies That Really Work.

9. For all the sound and fury around reading, we don’t actually do much in our country to teach kids how to get good at it—we just tell them to read and hope that they eventually figure it out. Taken in the aggregate, reading instruction in the US is essentially random. This is largely because we don’t teach adults how to teach reading and because we don’t pay attention to what reading is, how our language works, how the brain functions, and how closely reading is connected to writing. Teaching reading is not rocket science, especially at the beginning. Virtually all parents could teach their kids to read before they arrived at school. We would simply have to provide a very small amount of information to make this happen—along with access to good books. In fact, one might think that our schools could provide this information to families in their neighborhoods.

10. Check out the percentage of kids in the lowest bracket of the 4th grade NAEP Reading: You’ll notice, as I did recently, that it’s just about exactly the same percentage as the percentage of kids who don’t graduate from high school on time. To me, that says that our new-found mania for cleaning up failed high schools is sorely misplaced. The game is won and lost in the primary years, so that’s where we should be spending our “school turnaround” dollars if we want to eventually do away with “dropout  factories.”

We can get all excited about charter schools and merit pay and taking away teachers’ collective bargaining rights. We can spend billions of dollars trying to fix broken high schools. We can adopt new standards and make new tests. But if we can’t teach our kids to become literate human beings by third grade, little of that other stuff matters very much.

On one level, education reform is very simple: it’s really just literacy reform. Teach kids to read and write reasonably well by third grade (toss in some math using the same basic instructional principles) and you’ve just reformed education.

We say that reading is “the first r”, but we treat it like it’s the last thing on our reform agenda. Oh sure, we like to test it a lot, and we love to talk about how the numbers don’t go up. I think we’d be better off, however, if we just taught well instead. It’s not hard. It’s not expensive. And it really is the moral thing to do. Not teaching kids to become literate condemns them to that infamous Hobbesian existence that is so often “nasty, brutish, and short”. If you can’t read and writing, school is awful—and life after school isn’t much better.

Labor relations and STEM programs and high school turnarounds may have captured our nation’s attention for the moment. But let’s not take our eye off the ball here. Literacy is the foundation of education success. It should be the foundation of education reform.

January 5, 2011 standard

One of the underlying factors behind the nation’s education crisis is the low levels of reading comprehension among students. This is especially tru for young men of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Thanks to poor reading instruction, the lack of intensive reading remediation and abysmal curricula, young men fall behind and end up being overdiagnosed as special ed cases. The ultomate result: Academic failure. And yet the nation is just beginning to address this issue.

George Mason University professor William Brozo, one of the few studying this crisis, takes time in this video to explain some other factors behind low reading comprehension among young men. Watch, listen, consider and take action.