Reading is essential for learning, yet students across the U.S. are completing elementary school with inadequate reading abilities.
So begins the announcement in The Harvard Gazette telling us about the new $30 million grant Chan/Zuckerberg will hand over to Harvard’s School of Education and MIT’s Integrative Learning Initiative (MITili).
Learning to read, all of us would agree, is one of the most important skills a child can learn in school. Dr. Priscilla Chan, who is a pediatrician, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are announcing their support of a personalized learning (computer) program that will teach all children to read. That’s a tall order.
The use of the word “personalized” implies technology. Children will face screens not teachers for assessment and instruction. They also say this will take place across schools, homes, and communities. Many of us recognize that kind of talk as referring to children learning completely online. This sounds like charters with facilitators, or learning at home, or some place other than real public schools.
I am especially concerned with all the crisis talk pertaining to public schools and teachers used to highlight this new endeavor.
The Reading “Crisis” and the Unfair Criticism of Public Education and Teachers
I taught reading to students with learning disabilities starting in the early 70s. It has been discouraging to watch the changes made to the reading curriculum throughout the years due to school privatization attempts. It started with A Nation at Risk in 1983.
Most teachers and parents are not against technology in schools, and would welcome a good online reading program to be used as supplemental reading support in the classroom.
But the reality is that there is no research, thus far, to show that schools that rely on technology are best for children. In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that technology actually hindered a student’s reading performance.
Wealthy people like Chan/Zuckerberg can spend their money the way they see fit. But this country should also look at how reading instruction has been corrupted over the years, and try fixing those problems too. For example:
- We know that school libraries and credentialed librarians are critical to helping children learn how to read. Children with good school libraries have higher test scores. How many poor schools got rid of their school libraries and librarians a long time ago?
- Reading has been made into a punitive subject with a lot of drill. But reading is enjoyable! The more children get to actually read real books and not screens the more they like to read!
- This country became engrossed in a phonics vs. whole language debate. Many believe this “war” had everything to do with privatizing public education.
- Special education is supposed to assist children with reading disabilities. How have changes in special ed. changed this? How many children with reading problems get the special attention in reading that they require?
- How well are second language classes supported in public schools?
- Problems with reading often face children from lower socioeconomic households. What’s being done to lift people out of poverty?
- Huge class sizes make teaching reading tedious. What effort has been made to lower large classes, especially in K-3rd grade when learning reading is so critical?
- Where are the arts, music and drama in poor schools? We know these programs benefit children in academic areas, but many poor schools eliminated these programs long ago.
- We also know that retention in 3rd grade is detrimental. There’s no research to support it. Yet many schools across the country have signed on to this. We know children who are retained have a far greater risk of dropping out of school.
- Last of all, denying children recess is abusive. Children, who get regular free breaks, preferably outside, do better in school. Surely, Dr. Chan must understand the research that exists from the American Academy of Pediatrics. I’d like to see her advocate for recess.
Crisis Talk is Detrimental to Children
The introduction of “Reach Every Reader” is full of crisis talk. There is nothing new about this. But it still isn’t right.
The worst thing about such fear mongering is what it does to children. It creates more pressure to get children reading in kindergarten, before first grade. Kindergarten is now called the new first grade. This is developmentally inappropriate.
Most likely this pressure is also responsible for more reading problems in children. Children pressured to read, who hear it’s a crisis, become frightened. They see it as a chore.
Americans have known for years that Finland turns our great readers even though there’s no pressure for children there to learn to read. They don’t start formal school until they are seven. Children in preschool can read if they already like it, but no one is pressuring them to do it.
Crisis talk also scares parents. They might embrace some tech program that doesn’t work. We’ve seen this already with K-12 Inc.—a program that continues to bilk the country of tax dollars that should go to real public schools. Everyone seems to understand K-12 Inc. doesn’t work but states still sign on to it. Why?
Parents should worry about programs like K-12 Inc. and about the dismantling of university programs that adequately prepare teachers to teach reading.
Reading can and should be enjoyable. We know when children learn to love books early that they do well in school.
I don’t doubt that Dr. Chan and Mark Zuckerberg and others involved with Reach Every Reader believe what they are doing is a good thing. Technology is ever-changing, and brain and neuroscience studies give much hope to presenting better instruction—especially to children who have difficulties learning.
It is also worrisome. Many parents are troubled by the speed and insidious ways technology is being experimented with using their children as guinea pigs.
They worry about how their child’s personal information will be used for tracking purposes and what any of this has to do with helping them learn to read and be better students.
I also doubt future innovations will succeed by rebuking democratic public schools, and public school teachers, who have for decades worked to teach all children how to read.
Teachers have struggled for years under shoddy conditions, and not always with the preparation they deserve from universities, some of which are no longer fully committed to public education.
Still, there are many dedicated teachers committed to teaching reading, who persevere in the attempt every day. Technology has yet to prove its worth.