State of Readership

Two education metrics warrant some major rethinking of the way we run public schools.

The first is the atrocious measures of reading readiness assigned to various school districts in Arkansas. At the best districts, only two out of three students in grades three-10 met the reading benchmark.

You can imagine the percentage at the worst, but you also need to visualize it here: 9 percent. Only nine in 100 kids at Dollarway School District are where they need to be as readers.

The second is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2017 Nation’s Report Card, which revealed that only about one in three 12th-graders nationally tested proficient or above in reading.

Columnist Walter Williams juxtaposed that figure (along with math scoring, which was worse) with high school graduation rates to conclude that the bulk of diplomas represent a gross dishonesty—they certify only attendance, he said, not educational attainment.

Academic fraud is bad enough, but here in Arkansas, handing out diplomas to kids that can’t read might even be unconstitutional. Arkansas is required to “ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

It’s hard to argue the efficiency of a public school that graduates seniors unable to read their diplomas at grade level.

And if unequal funding formulas were proof enough to warrant unconstitutional declarations and remedies (of dubious effectiveness), surely the consistent graduation of illiterates should prompt similar energy for sweeping change.

Localizing the data analysis between Report Card scores and graduation rates at Dollarway, for example, portrays nothing short of a district dereliction to educational and constitutional duty. Dollarway’s five-year graduation rate is just under 80 percent, yet only 12 percent of high school students met the reading readiness benchmark. So while barely one in 10 seniors can actually read at 12th-grade level, seven more out of 10 who showed up in gown and mortarboard took home certificates of achievement stating they had “satisfactorily completed the course of study” at Dollarway.

The stated constitutional purpose for “free public schools” in the first place is to instill “intelligence and virtue” in the younger generation, since those characteristics are considered the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of good government.

Neither NAEP nor state benchmarks make much effort to measure the second of those stated objectives. And to the extent that various testing programs accurately ascertain the first, the majority of Arkansas schools struggle mightily to master mediocrity.

The Arkansas Department of Education recognizes the need for a better culture of reading, and its RISE (Reading Initiative for Student Excellence) program deserves an A for intent. But with a school population that completely turns over every 13 years, change by tiny increment over time is equivalent to stagnation, or even regression.

In the spirit of adopting “all suitable means”—which could be interpreted to a “whatever it takes” mindset—to secure an education for our children, the time might be ripe to grill up some sacred-cow hamburger.

• Grade Curricula Change

In schools with abysmal reading readiness scores, commit grades K-2 to an almost exclusive focus on reading instruction.

Reading opens up countless learning doors; functional illiteracy not only leaves them locked, but also chunks the key. But children ages 5-7 vary in their own readiness to learn reading; stretching out the period casts a wide enough net to catch them all. Investing the first three years of schooling to make absolutely sure Johnny and Janie can read would pay off in spades. If a child isn’t up to at least basic reading skills after three years of intensive phonics and reading aloud by teachers (parents don’t read to children like they used to; this would give teachers time to do so), there’s likely a disability of some sort.

But if a reading-centric K-2 program could double the reading readiness of third-graders, it would have a tremendous domino effect on both fourth-grade test scores and lifelong education for kids.

• School Structure Change

The traditional school regimen–nine months of classes, 12 grades, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., summer vacation–is older than the Model T. There’s a reason nobody sees Tin Lizzies tooling around anymore, and it’s a good one: progress.

As public schools became more widespread, they were structured to accommodate economic realities of the time: Family farms needed their kids in the fields during growing season.

If we were to modernize schools to fit economic lifestyles today—two-income families, more commuting, an expanding knowledge-based economy—the school year, daily class times and vacation schedules all need to change.

An efficiency goal would be to structure elementary and middle school times to minimize day-care costs for parents. If working parents are typically chained to 9-to-5 jobs, make those the school hours, too.

Everyone works year-round, so schools should follow suit, and instead of one three-month summer vacation, work in more week-long breaks and three-day weekends.

Correction

A couple of weeks ago, I misaligned Superman with Marvel Comics. An alert reader promptly advised me of the heresy (Superman is a DC Comics creation), for which I profusely apologize.

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