Children in California are not reading well. The New York Times reports that lawyers are suing the state on behalf of three schools, one a charter, for not following state literacy experts who are concerned about students learning English, those with disabilities, and African American and Hispanic students.
Here are some thoughts when it comes to reading instruction in general and the reading problems in California. The problems plaguing California’s children can also be found in the rest of the country.
The Worst Civil Rights Problem Facing Schools
The lawyers say learning to read in school is the worst civil rights issue for children in school. Learning to read is serious. It impacts how one learns everything else in school.
But in order to learn how to read it’s important to look at other areas in a child’s life.
If a child doesn’t have access to good health care and they are sick and hungry, they probably aren’t going to learn to read well.
They should also live in a decent home. Here is a report from the PTA:
According to California Department of Education data, the number of homeless students in California jumped from 167,910 in 2014 to 202,329 in 2016, an increase of over 20 percent in just two years. Many believe the numbers to be underreported due to embarrassment and shame which may discourage students and their families from accurately reporting their homelessness. School districts have an incentive to count the number of homeless students because they receive additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) for these students.
It’s difficult to separate how a child learns to read and their other problems.
The State Spends $10 Billion Annually
From the NYT’s report A spokesman for the Education Department, Bill Ainsworth, had no comment on the lawsuit. But he said that California had one of the nation’s “most ambitious” programs to serve low-income students, and that it was investing more than $10 billion annually to help underserved students.
Where is all that money going?
When I was teaching, teachers always had to take inventory. We had to document everything we spent money on in our classrooms—including textbooks and desks.
Can’t schools determine what they are spending money on and what’s not working?
They Use Data
In addition, the state also collects data to help educators figure out where to target resources, he said, adding that 228 districts will receive additional support next year, including the three schools named in the suit.
Never before in the history of education and public schools is there so much data flying around about students and test scores and even behavior.
Parents are scared of all this and rightly so.
Data is supposed to be used for best practices in school, or so we are told. California doesn’t seem to know how to use their data. They say they are finally getting around to helping these schools, but they’ve known for a long time how the schools struggled.
Common Core State Standards
The accusation is that students aren’t reaching standards. What about the standards themselves? Since 2010, California signed on to Common Core English language arts standards.
It doesn’t sound like they’ve worked.
Are children being judged wrong due to California’s standards which are tied to Common Core?
California, like many states, made the switch many years ago to focus on phonics. Are students getting the opportunity to do free reading and writing activities? Do young children get time to look at picture books?
Reading experts like Stephen Krashen highlight the importance of reading for pleasure.
Krashen wrote a compelling report in 2002 warning those in California and the country of the importance of actual reading and how it leads to literacy development. He advocated better libraries too!
California has a real library problem in that poor students don’t have good school libraries and access to a real librarian. They’ve had this problem for a long time.
It is clear that students do better when they have access to a library and a credentialed librarian.
One school mentioned in the lawsuit has class sizes of 24 to 1 in early grades; 31 to 1 for grades 4-5. When teachers work with children who are dealing with a wide variety of difficulties, even trauma, class sizes should be decreased.
Bilingual and Special Education Teachers
Bilingual students don’t seem to be getting prepared teachers. And there is a similar problem with special education.
Is California relying too much on fast track teachers, or those who focus too much on data collection and testing?
Are they failing to place in the classroom university prepared teachers, or those who have studied child development, who have experience and understand how to do real teaching, and who understand languages?
Why aren’t real universities providing better and more preparation programs for these teachers?
These are some of the questions I’d ask about California’s schools and schools across the nation.
Stephen Krashen. “Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92. an Urban Legend from CA.” Phi Delta Kappan. 83(10) 748-753.
I am tutoring first graders in an under-served district. The program is very heavy on phonics. The stories are not bad and I play them up rather than focusing just on decoding, but we read the same book over and over again until they “master” it. It is going to be hard to instill a love of reading if we bore them to death! I would love to just read to them for the enjoyment of story, too.
Nancy Bailey says
That’s terrible! Those bored children. What a case for letting teachers teach! Thank you for sharing.
Rick B. says
The majority of reading comprehension problems can be attributed to vocabulary deficits and a lack of general knowledge in long term memory. The disparaging of knowledge and facts along with direct instruction in schools in favor of empty skill sets and scripted, test prep can be blamed. More precisely, the Common Core, test-and-punish reform movement has backfired on the very students it was supposed to serve. And the reform crowd will have the audacity to blame teachers for low reading scores when the very root of the reading problem lies in the ignorance they promoted.
Nancy Bailey says
I’ve noticed a strange kind of blame like you say, Rick, by the reform crowd. Using their past policy changes to curriculum to blame schools for today. It isn’t fair and they should be called out on it. Thank you!
Roy Turrentine says
I would like to see some work on the effect of one size fits all curriculum. Rick B notes the important aspects of knowledge and vocabulary to the development of reading. I cannot bring myself to consider it important that all students learn the same knowledge. If we must do this, who will be the deciding individual who brings this knowledge to all students? My students in Middle Tennessee ( Tennessee is actually three distinct geographical areas) would benefit greatly, for example, by learning the characteristic flora of the cedar glade, a unique environment found here. I could never justify teaching about that in another part of the country, but here, when developers are ripping these iunique places apart one at a time, it would seem to me to be a pretty important thing to teach.
One aspect of learning to read is finding connections with the knowledge a kid already has. This, I assume to be the salient point made by Rick B above, and there is no argument about it at all. For this reason especially, I would like to suggest that outside of a teach r’s experience with a child, we do not have data on whether children can read or not. If a test has a reading selection about a Tennessee Cedar Glade, students familiar with what these places are will look competent beyond their years.
When my daughter was in the tenth month of her kindergarten, I heard her reading to herself in her room. We had, of course, read constantly to her since she perched on the high chair. I thought she was just repeating memorized passages from one of her worn books. I was incorrect. Two weeks later she was reading almost anything she touched. I am of the opinion that she had two kinds of experience. She had seen the words, and she had heard of the concepts. Suddenly, words began to fire emotion and images. Obviously, homeless children will not have as much time for someone to read to them. We all know poverty introduces children to a basic vocabulary juxtaposed with basic sentence structure. We all know schools cannot possibly teach children that move around a great deal, which is naturally what the impoverished do, changing schools and often states. Society needs to solve these problems. Schools will come along for the ride.
Rick B. says
Suggested reading for all teachers; Danial Willingham on the nature of reading comprehension:
Roy Turrentine says
Nice article, and thanks. The article seemed to support the obvious. Of course we need prior knowledge to understand what we read. Does that mean we all need to study the same thing? Does it mean the tests are worthless because they depend on prior knowledge more than the technique you are trying to discern? Does it mean that a person who has background knowledge on mechanical functioning of gasoline engines can be fairly compared to a person who has background knowledge on politics in the eighteenth century? Is it worth a great deal to us for all our citizens to understand references to one or another literary sources?
This all sounds to complex to be left up to a few people. Maybe that is why Common Corpse is entering its requiem stage.