The Ghosts of Reading First

This week, the Center for American Progress released a new report, “A Look at the Education Crisis: Tests, Standards, and the Future of of American Education.” In it, the researchers at CAP take a look at recent NAEP data to see if the state of public education is as bad as some say or on a rocketing upward trajectory as others say (guess it really depends on who your friends or online trolls are).

USA Today’s Greg Toppo has a great summary of the report here. We’ve all seen that high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. But it is hard to celebrate such a statistic when we still see that only one in five low-income fourth graders achieved reading proficiency on NAEP. Or that only 52 percent of “nonpoor” fourth graders were able to hit that proficient mark.

It doesn’t get better for eighth graders in reading. Only a third of them are proficient in cities like Charlotte, Austin, Miami, and San Diego. Boston comes it at only 28 percent proficient. NYC 27 percent. Chicago 24 percent. Philly 16 percent. Cleveland 11 percent. And Detroit at only 7 percent.

So why do these eighth grade numbers matter so much? Most of the students in the eighth grade NAEP sample never attended school when Reading First was law of the land. Sure, they may have benefited from textbooks that were developed to meet RF requirements years prior. And some of their teachers may have utilized the PD and supports they received during the height of RF. But each of these kids has now gone through eight or so years of public school where scientifically based reading instruction was not demanded nor expected.

These latest NAEP numbers, and the analysis from CAP make one thing very clear. We need scientifically based reading instruction in the classroom. Our teachers need to be prepared for it. Our elementary schools need to be based around it. Our students need to be instructed in it. And our families need to know it when they see it (and know when they aren’t seeing it in their community schools).

Yes, Reading First had implementation issues. Yes, at times it was more steel hammer than velvet glove. But can we really say we shouldn’t be using what is known to be effective in teaching kids to read? Can we really say, with all the data that we have, that early reading instruction based on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension isn’t the correct path? Can we really say a a philosophical approach to reading trumps and research-based instructional approach? And can we really say we should’t be using what is proven effective in the classroom?

For those who condemn the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts, it is ridiculous to assume that a low-income eighth grader can read the rich literature sought when only a third of them are reading proficient in the first place.

When scientifically based reading instruction became the law of the land in 2002, it was an approach that was embraced by all comers. The teachers unions. The principals groups. The superintendents. The teacher education community. The business community. All saw the value in using proven-effective approaches to instruction. All saw the need to do something to improve literacy, particularly with low-income learners. All embraced SBRR.

We need to find that solidarity again. The most recent eighth grade NAEP scores show us that taking a different path has failed too many kids … again. We need to remember that literacy is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a political issue. Whether we want all kids to pass a high-stakes, state-based, standards-aligned exam or we want all children to find a love for learning and literature, the ability to read is a non-negotiable.

While Reading First has now been relegated to the history books for the past decade, we cannot and should not ignore the hundreds of thousands of research studies that showed the effectiveness of scientifically based instruction. We cannot and should not ignore the reality that, when SBRR was in full effect in the early to mid 2000s, reading proficiency rates were on the rise, both with the low-income students the program targeted and other learners who benefited from the focus on SBRR-based instructional materials and PD. And we cannot and should not ignore that far too many kids — particularly those that are black, brown, or low-income — are struggling when it comes to reading … and we know just what should be done to help them.

 

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