An Alarming Racial Disparity in Seattle Public School Reading Scores

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Last weekend The Seattle Times reported with apparent enthusiasm (it was good news) that Washington State students’ proficiency levels, those meeting grade-level standards, in English Language Arts (ELA, meaning reading) and math have risen after dropping during the Covid pandemic. Math scores went up 7 points to 37.7 percent of statewide kids meeting standards and English up 3 points to 50.7 percent meeting standards, meaning they can read at the level they should be able to read for their age and grade level.

For Seattle Public Schools those achievements were even higher: 62.7 percent of  students can read at the standard for their grade and 51.6 percent can meet the standard set for science understanding. These scores, Danny Westneat said in his Wednesday column, “Any big urban school district in the nation would swoon for results like that.”

And so they would, but not if they had the guts to report the inequity of those results as the topline news.

Here’s what the “proficient reader” data looks like when you break it down. While whites and Asians pull that average up, here are the reading-success percentages in the grades tested for most every other youngster for 2021-22: Blacks, 28.8; Hispanic/Latinx, 41.7; American Indian/Alaska Native, 32.7; Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 30.6.

Looked at this way, between 60 and 70 percent of BIPOC students in Seattle can’t read effectively. You don’t need dozens of academic studies to know that any weak reader will continue to do poorly in school. Some will “graduate” – if they stay in school — functionally illiterate and suffer lower incomes throughout their lives.

It looked like structural racism to me when two years ago here on PostAlley, I reported  Seattle data for 2017-2018 (before the pandemic set everything back) showing 80 percent of white kids successful readers and only 35.5 percent of Black children successful. That might have been a high point.

For an example of this disproportionate impact, compare two Seattle elementary schools. (There are others though not all so extreme.) At North Beach Elementary in the city’s northwest 75.3 percent read at grade level. At Emerson Elementary in Rainier Beach only 21.4 percent of the students can read successfully.

The really discouraging and damning aspect is that the relationship in this data has not changed for three decades or more – going back before I was education reporter for The Seattle Times beginning in 1995 and on the school board 2001-05. (To its credit Seattle was one of the first school districts in the country to disaggregate achievement data by ethnicity and publish the data annually.) We all knew what was happening. The data are inescapable: We’ve always failed to deliver for two-thirds of BIPOC families and their children.

Why?

A lot has been tried with well-meaning commitment and energy: techniques, strategies, computer programs, and allocating some (but not a lot) more time. You name it – but nothing’s moved the needle much. A lot of those decades were wasted under the cloud of so-called “whole language” instruction. Now, under the rubric of “scientific reading” there’s an increase in the use of phonics – instruction which links the sounds of spoken language with the letters and groups of letters in written language that represent those sounds. (There’s a great and thoughtful discussion of this history in a recent New Yorker.) Many, including myself, have long believed this phonics-accented approach is a better method. 

But even more effective methods won’t make really big changes. The deeper problem is structural and philosophical, and it is built into our systems of K-12 education.

Here’s the problem: Our K-12 teachers live in a world where what’s to be taught is mandated by the state and carried forward in detail by each school district. It’s a world where every subject is important, equally important, and no child should miss out on anything. That’s what curriculum is: a dense list by year – week-by-week, sometimes parsed hour-by-hour – of everything children and youngsters are expected to learn and therefore teachers are expected to give time to each. 

However, all subjects are not equal. 

Let’s divide school into two types of “subjects.” One type includes all the things the kids are supposed to learn about, like dinosaurs and U.S. history. The other are skills, things we hope – want – kids to learn how to do. In this second group are reading and some level – but not necessarily all levels – of math. And, granted, nowadays some level of computer skills fall into this category. Reading, though, is most important. Once acquired, it’s the skill that opens doors. Reading is what you need to learn everything else, in school and through life.

In class, though, lessons, units of study are allotted 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes, whatever the syllabus calls for, and this includes instruction, particularly in the early grades, in how to read. Well, if it’s 30 minutes on dinosaurs, it doesn’t matter if some of the kids can’t tell the difference between a meat eater and an herbivore when the time’s up. But it really matters if this is 30 or 50 minutes of reading instruction and the lesson ends each day with a quarter or third or half the kids not making progress. They simply can’t read. They fall behind.  And then farther behind.

Yes, teachers touch on reading throughout the curriculum, but because reading is a skill that needs to be learned (and practiced), instruction needs to be intense and thorough and mastery is the only standard. It hardly needs to be said that kids who need more help learning to read for whatever reason need more instructional time working on it. Time is what it takes to learn a skill.

And that is the problem. Our schools don’t provide it. With a broad curriculum embracing them, our teachers are faced with a conundrum. A group of children can’t go off and spend hours and weeks with a reading specialist. “Oh, no! They’ll miss the dinosaur unit,” or something else. Of course, if they can’t read they’ll miss it all.

It’s time to put reading first.

SEATTLE STUDENTS READING AT GRADE LEVEL
Aggregate of Students Tested at Grades 3–8 and 10
Source: OSPI reports on Seattle Public Schools
2014-152021-22
All students55.662.7
Female59.966.6
Male51.458.9
Gender XN/A68.3
White67.877.1
Asian60.467.4
Black27.928.8
Hispanic/Latiinx39.641.7
American Indian/Alaska Native26.332.7
Hawaian/Pacific Islander27.330.6
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Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for Crosscut.com and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Just how much classroom time have you put in Mr. Lilly? What are you a 10 year veteran of volunteering to help kids learn to read? We teach kids about dinosaurs and such partly to get them to have fun and engage. What you’re talking about is separating all the “slow” kids into some gawd-awful “reading lab” boring the living shit out of them, while the “smart” kids learn about dinosaurs.

    Do you really believe you have some sort of special insight to education? That anything you come up with is fresh or new? That your “new” ideas weren’t already tried? maybe 70 years ago?

    The problem is everybody is such an expert in education, but there’s so little real, honest support for schools.

    • Clearly what was being done ‘maybe 70 years’ ago worked quite a bit better than what we are doing now. We should be ashamed of the current results.

  2. Don’t worry about it. The dismantling of AL and HC will soon lower the results and narrow the inequity via the time-honored Harrison Bergeron method.

  3. In the late 1950’s, reading skills took up the entire morning of 1st through 3rd grade. We learned phonics and spelling as part of reading.
    Children were assigned to groups based on how fast they were learning, with different books for each group, so the quick learners didn’t get bored, and the slower learners were kept engaged.
    At the end of the year, every student was able to read confidently as we took turns reading aloud to the whole class. The only difference was the quick learners had a slightly larger vocabulary.

    Of course, this was before standardized tests and teaching focused on students passing the tests rather than learning.
    Also before having primary readers with non-white children characters enraged about 30% of our fellow citizens.

    note to phil: beating and abusing children does not facilitate learning – try taking a step away from the Family Research Counsel

  4. Thank you cjr.
    That’s what I thought but my memory isn’t as good as yours so I didn’t put a description similar to yours in the piece.
    Dick

  5. In support of Tacomee’s perspective … l wonder how much of learning comes from having been taught, and how much from having discovered.

    Do kids who aren’t learning just need to increase the hours spent on explaining how? Maybe having a book on dinosaurs in their hands is what they need, to engage a real desire to read. (Or maybe that’s the problem – the dinosaur thing isn’t really reaching them where they’re at, along with other elements of the curriculum.)

    I don’t know, no education expertise whatever here, it just seems to me that reading is fundamentally easy enough for most kids, minus dyslexia etc., that after a good first push, it’s going to be all about engagement. When kids who could be learning, aren’t, they’re not engaged.

  6. Missing from this and from the Seattle Times piece is a look at private schools and home schooling. How are Black children faring there? And how are instruction methods, discipline or expectations different? In addition, what happens outside of school? How many hours do white parents and Asian parents spend reading to their children and going over homework compared to Hispanic and Black parents? What is the cultural attitude of Black students in public schools towards succeeding in academics?

    I went to Madrona Elementary in the 1960’s when it was 90% Black. Black students as a whole tried to “underperform,” at least in public, to avoid being called “White” by their peers. They rarely asked questions or raised their hands in class, and the white children dominated. Was that “structural racism?” Or was that driven by cultural pressures in the Black community itself? How do theories taught currently in Critical Race Theory classes affect teaching and expectation? The Smithsonian removed its chart of “white” characteristics after protests, but versions of the chart are still used in CRT and anti-racism training, and it is still part of the African-American History Museum. See the chart in this article: (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/antiracism-training-white-fragility-robin-diangelo-ibram-kendi.html ).

    Attributes considered “white” on this chart include “objective rational thinking,” “belief in hard work,” and “planning for the future.” Someone who rejects those basic ideas as anathema to their racial identity is likely to have a difficult time succeeding in school. Seattle schools are at the forefront of the “anti-racism” movement, and it seems logical to ask if teachers are incorporating this kind of thinking into their curriculum and attitudes

    Is it “structural racism” when these charts are provided by Black institutions to guide enlightened “anti-racist” education?

    Recent articles about the flight from public schools have highlighted that Black parents are in the lead here, both in putting their children into private (often religious) schools and in home schooling. As a supporter of public schools and a long time opponent of Charter Schools it galls me to read a report from the Heritage Foundation with a well-designed study showing that ”The typical, or average, African-American eighth-grader in a D.C. Catholic school performs better in math than 72 percent of his or her public school peers.” (See the in-depth article here: https://www.heritage.org/education/report/comparing-math-scores-black-students-dcs-public-and-catholic-schools)

    To jump to “structural racism” as an answer to the racial disparities in scholastic achievement leaves a lot of other factors unexplored.

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