First Person

Voices: Getting serious about early literacy

Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien says we know how to help children read by the end of third grade and asks, how serious are we about doing it? Cross-posted from Education Week.

We have eight years in the life of every child to help him or her get ready for school, thrive in school and love reading by the end of third grade. The question is: How serious are we about doing this?

Child readingKnowing that reading is fundamental to learning, this year 14 states passed legislation on early literacy, bringing to 32, plus the District of Columbia, the total number of states with policies to improve third-grade reading proficiency. We know that two-thirds of fourth-graders are not considered “proficient” readers, as determined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Worse still, those children who are behind by the end of third grade rarely catch up in fourth grade, yet are expected to read textbooks and face increasingly complex material. And a 1998 study found that 74 percent of students who didn’t read at grade level by the end of third grade were still struggling academically in ninth grade.

These children were four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Retention debate comes too late in the life of a child

State leaders are searching for ways to respond to the urgent need to increase the number of third-graders who read at grade level. A quick fix — retention of failing students — has been hotly debated.

But we’re having this debate about how to intervene far too late in the life of a child. By the end of third grade, a student is halfway between birth and young adulthood. Long before we make the difficult decision of whether to retain a student, we need to ensure that our schools and our communities do everything in their power to give that child a good start in life.

Everyone who has the ability to direct resources, whether they are philanthropic grants, public funds or volunteer-based, should ensure that every young child who is likely to struggle in school has these opportunities to become ready for school: evidence-based home-visiting and parenting programs, access to primary health care and developmental services, timely and appropriate referrals to early intervention and special education, access to high-quality prekindergarten programs, access to excellent child care and Head Start, and access to high-quality, full-day kindergarten programs.

Yes, these interventions cost money, but the amount pales in comparison to the societal burdens – financial and otherwise – associated with high school dropouts and prison inmates, two groups with traditionally high illiteracy rates.

Getting the high-quality K-3 classrooms we need

The next step is to ensure that K-3 classrooms are high-quality teaching and learning environments. A report from the organization Rhode Island Kids Count points to several factors that make this transformation possible:

• Effective teacher-preparation programs with an emphasis on the teaching of reading;

• Effective professional development;

• High expectations for special populations;

• Early-warning systems to identify children who are falling behind;

• Dedicated time for program, classroom, school- and district-level planning; and,

• Policies to address chronic absences and summer learning loss.

But what do we do for students who don’t reach that critical reading milestone at the end of third grade?

Mandating retention without necessary investment in interventions

policy brief by Martin West titled “Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?,” which was released in August by the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, suggests that Florida’s use of retention as one major tool for helping students read at grade level by fourth grade has improved student achievement.

Florida’s other policy tools include state laws requiring early identification of K-3 students who are behind in reading, information to parents about the strategies that will be used to help their children, additional time during the school day for intervention, use of reading coaches to provide on-site professional development for teachers, parent training, the opportunity for every K-3 student who is behind to attend a summer reading program, and extra intervention for retained third-graders.

Florida’s focus on both high-quality instruction and intensive intervention to improve student reading, combined with extra intervention for retained third-graders, is a serious attack on the reading crisis.

But given the difficult economic times in most states, it has been tempting for state leaders to reach for a quick and less expensive fix: mandating retention for third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level, without the necessary investments in instruction and intensive intervention.

And this focus on school-based strategies doesn’t reduce the number of children who arrive at school already behind.

“Shortcuts only shortchange the vulnerable”

Shortcuts only shortchange the vulnerable children in our communities. Leaders who are serious about increasing the number of children who read proficiently will start with bold efforts to reduce the harsh impact of poverty on a child’s growth and development.

High-quality child care, for example, would make a huge difference in getting vulnerable young children ready to start kindergarten. Yet most child care for poor children is mediocre, or worse. Few cities and states provide child-care subsidies at a level that allows low-income families to pay for high-quality programs.

Similarly, 40 percent of America’s 3- to 5-year-olds were not in preschool in 2010, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And many states have waiting lists for publicly funded preschool for low-income children, despite overwhelming data on the return on investment.

The latest endorsement came from none other than Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, during the Children’s Defense Fund national conference in July. He said: “Very few alternative investments can promise that kind of return (10 percent or higher). Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families, but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits, reflecting the many contributions that skills and productive workers make to the economy.”

Will legislators and school boards have the intestinal fortitude to make tough budget, program and policy decisions to solve the reading crisis?

We know what to do – are we serious about doing it?

My home state of Colorado took a step in the right direction this year when the legislature approved the Early Literacy Act. The legislation allows parents, teachers and other personnel to meet and consider retention as an intervention strategy for struggling readers.

More importantly, the Early Literacy Act requires diagnostic assessments to shape individualized instruction; small reading groups; extra time and enrichment in high-quality summer reading programs; and increased focus on the teaching of reading in teacher-training programs. The state’s budget redirects money to support this work.

In another encouraging trend, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading — which I advise on policy — is working with 124 communities across the country to find ways to increase the number of low-income children reading on grade level by the end of third grade. The campaign promotes community-based strategies for increasing children’s school readiness and parent engagement, reducing chronic absenteeism in K-3, and increasing the availability of enriched summer learning opportunities.

So all of this underscores that we’re not in the dark when it comes to advancing early-literacy skills. In other words, we know what to do. How serious are we about doing it?

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.