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.
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
|American Indian/Alaska Native