reprinted from The New York Times
September 24, 2006
HERE’S some good news for Connecticut as students across the state settle in to school. The Legislature has re-established a position at the state Department of Education for a person to oversee the teaching of reading in school districts that have particularly low test scores.
While this position for a state reading consultant was originally created seven years ago, it hasn’t been filled for the past year and a half because of fiscal and policy restraints. This time, however, the Legislature seems to realize that creating this position is more important than ever and the hope is that a consultant will be hired and on the job by the end of November. The state needs to think seriously about what sort of qualifications this consultant will need.
This is a big step toward closing the huge gap in reading achievement within Connecticut — indeed the largest gap between high and low achieving students in the nation. According to a 2005 report by the federal Department of Education, reading scores for Connecticut’s fourth graders have declined since the last group of fourth graders was tested in 2003. Results showed that 53 percent of white students, 85 percent of Hispanic students and 88 percent of African-American students were reading below grade level.
It’s clear that we have a crisis that requires putting reading back on the state’s education agenda. Legislators, local education agencies, institutes of higher education and the state Department of Education must all agree to institute practices that take advantage of the advances that have been made in reading research, particularly in the area of phonics and spelling.
There is no time to waste. The majority of children in Connecticut’s low-performing districts are reading below grade level and facing limited chances for academic and economic success. Statistics repeatedly confirm that if a child doesn’t learn to read by the end of first grade, he or she has only a one in eight chance of catching up.
The discouraging outlook for low-performing students is reflected in the high incidence of reading difficulties among the prison population. Some states even estimate future prison populations based on third-grade reading scores. Thus not only do reading problems affect students, but they also have a host of negative effects on the economy: the average cost to educate a child in Connecticut is close to $11,000 annually while the average cost to house an inmate here is about $28,000.
The solution to the personal and economic costs of reading failure lies in effective instruction, yet such instruction requires teacher expertise.
Louisa Moats, a long-time advocate of training teachers in the science of reading, says that “teaching reading is rocket science.” This may come as a surprise to those, including educators, who believe that if you know how to read, you can teach someone to read. Perhaps that misunderstanding explains why most schools of education require only one or two reading courses for future elementary school teachers.
Moreover, aspiring teachers are hardly ever taught about research on how children learn to read, what approaches work for early reading success and what to do to help students who struggle with reading. Likewise, accredited teachers rarely learn this information in continuing education courses and professional development workshops.
In 1999, Connecticut was on track to becoming a leader among the states in tackling reading problems. State government officials enacted legislation that created what was called the Connecticut Blueprint for Reading Achievement. This legislation and the resulting document clearly laid out what teachers should expect children to know at the end of each grade (kindergarten through third) and what skills teachers must have to teach these children.
A recent study, however, revealed that most elementary school teachers in Connecticut are not familiar with these standards and who is responsible for teaching them. The person who fills this new position that the state Legislature has created would be wise to resurrect the blueprint and distribute it to teachers. Furthermore, this person should broaden the scope of the original blueprint to include early literacy and preschool guidelines and proven approaches for struggling readers in middle and high school.
This new reading consultant should also be knowledgeable about the latest research on reading and work with the next commissioner of education. Together, the two of them should align state policy with this research and devise legislation and policies that will build a teacher preparation system that truly teaches children to read.
Since efforts to address Connecticut’s literacy needs were stymied in the past, it will take courage and commitment to pursue these latest actions. But at least, this time around it seems that the politicians are on our side.
Marjorie Gillis is a project director and senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, a research institute that studies speech and language.