Reading Should Be a Civil, Constitutional Right

Twenty years ago, I formally enlisted in the “Reading Wars.” As one of the original staffers of the National Reading Panel, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Entering the process, literacy instruction seemed pretty simple to me. I thought English teachers knew how to teach kids to read. It went without saying that those proven-effective methods were what we were using in the classroom.

Boy, was I wrong. I quickly learned that what were scientifically proven instructional methods were often ignored, replaced by an embrace of an unproven philosophy of “whole language.” Ed schools were often preparing prospective teachers in the philosophy as their professors were the advocates of such a belief. Misguided philosophy was trumping fact when it came to literacy instruction.

The National Reading Panel culled through decades of research to determine the most effective methods for teaching young children to read. The Panel’s report became the research cornerstone for the Reading First program, a multi-billion-dollar federal investment in K-12 literacy instruction. This research-based emphasis resulted in an uptick in student literacy rates … until the Reading First program ended as No Child Left Behind faced increased attacks. As a result, reading instruction started returning to where it once was, well-intentioned philosophy over research-based practice.

While some thought of Reading First as a “drill and kill” approach to literacy, the program was addressing its goals. The National Reading Panel had noted that more than a third of fourth graders were unable to read at grade level. Those struggling readers were largely students of color attending high-need schools. And at the time, many of them were on the path to attend high schools affectionately referred to as “drop-out factories.” By refusing to use what we knew worked in teaching young kids to read, we were failing those students for a lifetime. By embracing scientifically based reading instruction, we were strengthening the academic paths for every child to have a chance at success.

I fought those Reading Wars for a decade, and have the intellectual battle scars to show for it. Advocating for better instructional materials. Building new graduate schools of education that were research based. Empowering parents to demand what works in their kids’ classrooms. Highlighting the differences between proven instruction and philosophy. And yes, promoting the notion that literacy skills are indeed a civil right.

After all of those years and all of those fights, I had hoped that things had finally changed. While the dollars from Reading First have long dried up, the impact the policies left on instructional materials and instructional materials lasted. Or so I thought, until reading of a recent court case in Michigan.

In Motown, Detroit Public Schools students have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the state was denying them their constitutional right to learn. In hearing the case, a federal judge earlier this summer asked and answered an important question: “But the Court is faced with a discrete question: does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy? The answer to the question is no.”

The judge based the argument on the fact that the Constitution does not actually include the words “education” or “school.” As a result, while the students’ argument may be morally persuasive, the legal argument just isn’t there. In response, the students’ lawyers are now charging that the failure to teach students to read in essence prevents students from pursuing their constitutional rights, including the right to vote or the right to participate in the civic process.

It is offensive that so many students today complete public school lacking the necessary literacy skills to succeed. It is offensive that government – be it legislatures or the courts – don’t see the lack of student reading resources as the crisis it truly is. And at a time when most states require students be educated (with some states demanding they remain in school until their 18th birthday) that we are unable to provide students the literacy skills they need, deserve, and demand.

Two decades ago, we were fighting the Reading Wars to determine whether whole language or a phonics-based approach was the most effective instructional strategy. Sadly, today we are now fighting over whether young people even have a right to literacy skills and the very basics in public education.

Decades of research is clear on what is most effective when it comes to teaching most young people to read. We know what works, and we have the data to prove it. A former mentor of mine once declared that it was “educational malpractice” for our schools not to use scientifically-based reading instruction in the classroom. He was ridiculed for using such language, but he was correct, then and now.

When our fourth graders can’t read, it is near impossible for them to learn content when they hit middle and high school. When they graduate functionally illiterate in this digital, information age, it is near impossible for them to get a good job or truly participate in the great American citizenry. When we fail to teach our young people to read, we are literally denying them their rightful place in our democratic republic.

Literacy skills are indeed a civil right. And as we pay federal, state, and local taxes each year to fund our local schools, effectively teaching reading should be a constitutional right as well.

(This essay also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

 

 

NAEP Response: More than Words?

Now that the dust has finally settled on the most-recent dump of NAEP scores, we must admit that the results just aren’t good. For a decade now, student performance on our national reading and math tests have remained stagnant. And that stagnation is only because a few select demographics managed gains that kept everyone afloat.

At a time when we all seem to agree that today’s students need stronger and greater skills to succeed in tomorrow’s world, how can we be satisfied with stagnation? And how we can respond simply with words, with the rhetoric of how our students can and should do better?

Over on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the topic, reflecting on both how we cannot be satisfied with our students treading water and how we need to take real action to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. Give it a listen. Then show your work.

 

If You Can Read This …

Loyal readers of Eduflack know that I have spent far too much time, in far too many battles, over effective reading instruction. It still baffles me that we even need to have this debate, that parents and educators will fight having research-based literacy instruction in the classroom, instead advocating for a philosophy that doesn’t do a lick actually getting struggling readers reading.

But we do. And we regularly debate the merits of research over philosophy, of hard facts versus soft opinion. Then we wonder why our kids aren’t reading and why we aren’t seeing student achievement improve on virtually every literacy benchmark available to modern man.

The latest such benchmark is the PIRLS, which has now shown the United States to slip significantly, falling all the way down to 13th in the latest international measure of reading skills. It doesn’t need to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. We know better. We just choose not to apply what is proven effective in the classrooms that need it the most, with the kids who would benefit from it the most.

On the latest episode of my program on the BAM! Radio Network, I take a look at our sad position when it comes to PIRLS and literacy instruction, and call on President Donald Trump to focus on teaching our kids reading … at least if he is serious about making America great again. Give it a listen!

 

Gender Lines on the … Alphabet?

Most parents have been warned of the dangers of “gender-specific” toys and what that means nowadays. It’s perfectly acceptable for little girls to play with soldiers or guns (as long as parents aren’t anti-violence, etc.) and it is equally acceptable for little boys to play with dolls and tea sets.

Just the other day, a friend of Eduflack shared a photo on Facebook of her five-year old son receiving an American Boy doll for his birthday. The child just couldn’t have been grinning any bigger than he was from scoring his dream present.

We say that there are no gender-specific colors either. It is perfectly fine for girls to prefer drab colors, just as it is for boys to own pinks and purples. (And I can proudly say that Eduflack has a significant number of pink, purple, and pastel articles of clothing, but owns almost nothing black, except for my kickboxing gear.)

One would hope we’ve gotten past the whole gender appropriate discussion when it comes to equipping our children with the attire, toys, and such one needs these days. But then Amazon has to go and ruin everything. For you see, in 2017, there is one set of ABCs for boys, and another set for girls.

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Seriously? We are more than halfway through 2017 and we still think boys learn the ABCs from airplanes and dump trucks while girls only garner it through lessons of butterflies and castles?

Setting aside, for a second, that folks are paying $10 a piece for an ABC book. Setting aside, for a moment, that twice as many people saw the need to review the boys’ ABCs than the girls’. Setting aside, for a bit, that it took two additional years to finally wrap up the ABCs that were appropriate for the “fairer” gender. Was all of this really necessary? Is there now a demand for a gender-fluid ABCs?

I miss the good ol’ days when it was all about making sure a child could read at grade level by the end of the third grade. It didn’t matter if they were reading words from a Babysitters Club book or the Hardy Boys.

Sigh. Double sigh. Sigh in both pink and camo.

 

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.

 

Yes, We Need a Literacy Discussion at #SXSWEdu. Vote Now!

Last year, Eduflack had the honor of speaking at SXSWEdu, preaching on the importance of active, involved parents in the educational process. The talk came out of my award-winning Dadprovement book, a work I am particularly proud of.

This year, I am hoping to get back to SXSWEdu to talk about a topic that has been the central driver of my professional edu-career for nearly two decades. That subject? How best to teach children to read.

Earlier this year, Rowman & Littlefield published Teaching Children to Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education, a work I put together with two of my professional mentors, Reid Lyon and Phyllis Blaunstein. In the book, we look at some both the research and some very personal experiences regarding reading instruction, and what parents can do to ensure their kids are getting the very best, proven literacy approaches in their own classrooms.

To give you a little sense of what the book seeks to do, check out what Education Trust’s Karin Chenoweth wrote about it early this year on Huffington Post.

But I digress. From the SXSWedu Panel Picker, here is the description of what I want to talk about:

Despite the adoption of Common Core and the strengthening of learning standards, nearly a third of fourth graders unable to read proficiently. Too many kids can’t read, and we know why. Moreover, we know what we should be doing about it.

This session will provide an overview of what we know is most effective in teaching young children to read, while providing a specific path for teachers and parents on how best to get it into our classrooms.

By challenging the status quo in education, we can ensure that Johnny can read. And in doing so, we can shift from being a nation at risk to one where every child is truly college and career ready. (Spoiler, it requires literacy skills.)

– See more at: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/47957#sthash.mjDp3v0Z.dpuf

Please vote for my session, Johnny Can’t Read, So We Remain a Nation at Risk. It takes just a moment to go to the SXSWedu picker and give my session a thumbs up (literally, you click on the up thumb and it goes green). And if you are so moved, write a brief comment on how brilliant and pithy I am, and how such a session is needed.

Thanks for your support. And as they say in Chicago, vote early and often.

Jeb Bush and the Politics of Education Policy

Over at the New Yorker this week, there is a terrific deep dive from Alec MacGillis on former Florida Gov. and potential GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush and his deep work in education reform, both in Florida and nationally.

MacGillis does a great job of really telling the tale of the breadth of Bush’s efforts in education, how his thinking has evolved, and how one action or issue led to his involvement in another. It’s definitely worth the read.

And dear ol’ Eduflack is included in the piece:

Some friends and associates saw personal motivations behind Bush’s initiatives. Patrick Riccards, who, as counsel for the federal government’s National Reading Panel, discussed education reform with Bush, said, “As the father of Hispanic kids, you become far more sensitive to disparities—kids who look like your kids not getting the skills they need or getting into the right colleges.” (Bush’s children attended private schools in Miami and Jacksonville.) Others detected a competitive desire to surpass his brother’s agenda in Texas.

I’m speaking personally in the above. As the father of two Latino kids, talk of achievement gaps grew far more personal to me. It was no longer just a rhetorical point, but it affected my kids and kids just like them. Having engaged some with Jeb over the years, I have to believe it has had the same impact on him. If not, he wouldn’t be as passionate about the topic as he is.

Definitely take the time to read MacGillis’ piece in the New Yorker. There is a lot flying around about Jeb and Common Core, but this is the first piece I’ve seen in a good long while that really takes a thorough look at a complex issue.