By Courtney Boswell, Executive Director, Texas Institute for Education Reform
Nobody can top the late, great Dr. Seuss when it comes to expressing the importance of being able to read: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
The opposite is also true. As a 1999 report from the American Federation of Teachers put it, “Any child who doesn’t learn to read early and well will not easily master other skills and knowledge and is unlikely to ever flourish in school or life.”
Research shows that the vast majority of first graders who struggle with reading remain weak readers throughout the rest of their years in school. Moreover, children who are not reading well by third grade are four times more likely to eventually drop out of school, which in turn has devastating consequences for their future employment, earnings, and other aspects of life. In short, there are few happy endings for kids who don’t learn how to read early and well.
The tragedy is that this fate is far too common. Only 28 percent of Texas fourth graders performed at or above the proficient level on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), about the same as a decade ago. And the average reading score for Texas fourth graders is lower than the scores for 30 other states and jurisdictions.
Some might be tempted to attribute these results to poverty or language barriers, but the reality is much more complicated. In fact, only half of the economically advantaged kids in Texas are proficient readers, and high percentages of Texas community college students from all income and racial-ethnic groups require remediation in reading. The question is, why?
The problem is not due to a lack of know-how. We know from research that almost everyone can learn to read well, though only about 20 percent of children learn to read quickly and easily; the rest experience significant or severe challenges along the way.
Research also provides clear direction on the most effective ways to teach reading and writing. We know, for example, that most children need to be taught to read in a systematic way so that they can master increasingly complex texts and gain fluency.
“Policy makers already have the theory and evidence to guide the implementation of effective reading programs from K-12. The central problem stems not from the absence of a research base but from willful indifference to what the research has consistently shown,” said University of Arkansas’ Professor of Education Reform Sandra Stotsky.
What do we need to do differently? Dramatically expanding access to high-quality early childhood education is a good place to start. Every child deserves the opportunity to develop the foundational skills and social behaviors that are crucial to their success in kindergarten and beyond.
Without such opportunities, children fall behind from the beginning and never catch up. Research by economist James Heckman and others shows persuasively that investments in early education for low-income children yield an array of long-term dividends, both personal and economic.
But simply broadening access to early childhood education is not enough. Although many school districts have, commendably, expanded their Pre-K programs in recent years, these programs are often understaffed and lack the kinds of scientifically based early literacy instruction that young children need to be ready for kindergarten. We must therefore ensure that all children, especially those with disadvantaged backgrounds, have access to early childhood programs that include an explicit focus on developing early literacy skills.
What else do we need to do? We need to raise standards for reading proficiency in the early grades (PreK-2) and incorporate early reading measures into the school accountability system.
We need to require all schools to provide effective reading programs for all students in every grade, PreK-12. We also need to do a much better job of identifying struggling readers early and connecting them with the intensive help they need, rather than waiting until they are so far off track that it is nearly impossible for them to catch up.
We need to ensure that every teacher preparation program knows how to teach prospective teachers how to teach reading and is held accountable for results. We need to base accreditation of PreK-8 teacher preparation programs on the value they add to students’ reading performance.
We need to ensure that state certification tests evaluate teachers’ knowledge of reading science, including a stand-alone test for those who teach reading. Once teachers are in the classroom, we need to provide ongoing training focused on science-based reading instruction and rigorously evaluate that training to determine its efficacy.
Other states have been taking bold for reform. The new Read to Succeed Act adopted in South Carolina will provide for early literacy assessments for pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners, early interventions for struggling readers, a new statewide office to help school districts develop rigorous reading standards and improve reading outcomes, and a new certification process for reading coaches, among other measures.
It is time for Texas leaders to take bold steps too. Our state’s future will depend a great deal on how well we do in teaching our children to read. Through research, we know how to equip all of our young people to become proficient readers. The challenge is to put that knowledge to use so that every child in Texas has the opportunity to be successful in school and in life.
(See the policy paper recently released by TIER, “Addressing the Reading Crisis in Texas Public Schools: An Agenda for Success”, at www.texaseducationreform.org.)