Monday, January 16, 2012

Opportunity to Develop Literacy

On Monday, January 9th, Virginia Governor McDonnell announced his education agenda, entitled, "Opportunity to Learn." This has been covered by The Virginia Education ReportThe Washington Post, as well as commented on by many throughout the state (For Chad Sansing's excellent commentary, read here. Or, for a partial listing of other reactions, see here.) I am going to offer my reactions in a series of posts starting with this one.

Before I comment on the agenda, I want to reiterate a point that Chad Sansing made in his piece:
McDonnell’s blueprint promises “a bold education proposal that will dramatically increase money for Virginia’s teachers and students by $480 million a year.” Meanwhile, his budget plans also include “hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, including to child-care subsidies for low-income families and to health and parent-education programs for poor pregnant women.” Families who need social and support services to help their kids attend school and access curriculum won’t benefit from McDonnell’s cuts.
I will return to issues if budgeting and funding in later posts but for now I'll assert: We're not going to succeed in improving education for low-income children with one hand if we're squeezing their parents and communities with the other. As I explained here, single-issue advocacy is problematic and students don't lead single-issue lives. Furthermore, the more we deny help to those in need, the more needs our students will come to school with and the more resources our schools will need to adequately serve those students. And right now there is a growing number of people in need.

Now, on to the education agenda:

In the "Raise Standards - College Workforce and Readiness" section, the McDonnell administration proposes, among other things ("other things" being streamlining diploma requirements, positive youth development, and expanding dual enrollment programs--none of which I have any objections to, so far :), advancing literacy. McDonnell wants to make sure all third graders can read before they move on to fourth grade. That is a worthy goal, but I'm not sure that his way of achieving it is sound. McDonnell wants to pay kids who learn to read. Harvard Researcher Roland Fryer tried something similar to this, and it didn't really work. If kids aren't reading by third grade, it's not (good grief!) because we're not paying them. Nor do I think the strategy of waiting until third grade and then simply holding kids back will help much--it's too reactive.

If we want struggling readers to struggle less, we need to do two things:

1) Invest in reading intervention programs that work and reach out to struggling readers long before third grade. Many of the children who are likely to struggle with reading would probably benefit from the very preschool programs McDonnell is looking to cut, so if he wants to advance literacy he should reconsider cutting those programs. One program that my school district successfully uses and that helped my own son when he was struggling to learn to read was Reading Recovery. Such programs are expensive and require investment and commitment. (UPDATE: After I drafted this post, I read that McDonnell proposed adding $8.2 million to the budget for early reading programs. This is good news, though I'd want to know more about the efficacy of the specific programs being funded and the real estimated impact of the dollars allotted.)

2) We need to spend much less time teaching reading as a subject and teaching reading strategies beyond their utility and much more time teaching content or subject matters, such as literature, science, social studies, p.e., art music, foreign languages, technical education, etc. Yes, most kids need to be explicitly taught to decode and yes, to a point reading strategies are useful. Of course, content should be taught as reading and writing intensive. However, literacy is largely representative of someone's background and content knowledge, and knowledge of vocabulary and does not develop or improve without it. As the University of Virginia's own Dan Willingham says, teaching content is teaching reading. (It's also much, much more meaningful and interesting for kids.) My regular readers know that I talk about this ad nauseum. In case you're new to my writing on education, here are some posts that elaborate further: herehere, and here.

You know what I've found, as a parent and in my observations of my kids' teachers, is the best reward for kids who are working hard to learn to read or who are already reading? More books. Let's reward students for reading by giving them more books.

UPDATE: In a misguided effort to get Virginia third graders to do better on reading and math tests, State Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) wants teachers to spend even more time on reading and math and even less on science and social studies. And he wants to do so to get test scores up in fifth grade (not necessarily because it will mean better education). Ugh. Even supporters of NCLB say the bill is too limited in scope by just focusing on math and reading. Sorry, Senator Miller, but this bill will take us in the complete wrong direction!

cross-posted at The Virginia Education Report

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