Why Some Students Still Can’t Read

Public schools are passing students who can’t read at any level — all to avoid blaming teachers, lawmakers, and bureaucrats.

Public schools from coast to coast are failing to teach young students the most basic skill they need to succeed in school and life: reading. This failure is widespread, tragic, and mostly unnecessary. We know how to teach reading, but many school administrators refuse to use the proven methods.

The extent of this self-inflicted catastrophe, which has ruined countless lives, was driven home to me again when the new school year began several weeks ago.

Some 20 years ago I founded the Roger Bacon Academy (RBA), which manages a family of four charter schools in southeastern North Carolina. This year, for the first time in RBA’s history, the schools enrolled large numbers of students who transferred from the traditional county public schools.

Of the 168 first- and second-grade transfer students, 75 (approx. 45 percent) could not pass the basic readiness assessment to begin kindergarten-level reading instruction. Not only could they not read at any level, but their spoken vocabularies were insufficient to understand reading instruction if it were taught to them. Therefore, the 51 first-graders and 24 second-graders are now taking a kindergarten preparatory course called Language for Learning (L4L) that must be mastered before effective reading instruction can begin.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of nonreaders moving through our public-school systems is widespread. Here in North Carolina, in a typical year such as 2017–18, 55.7 percent of public-school students in grades three through eight fail North Carolina’s end-of-grade reading test. On the most recent reading tests administered by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), our so-called Nation’s Report Card, just 36 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders “performed at or above the NAEP proficient level.” Sixty-seven percent performed at the basic level — meaning that a third of all students did not. Lest you think this is a North Carolina problem alone, both measures were on par with, and in fact a little above, the national average.

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The significance of this can’t be overstated. If students haven’t learned how to read proficiently (or in some cases read at all) by the time they enter fourth grade, it may be all over for them. As the National Conference of State Legislatures pointed out in a report at the end of last year, citing research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn.’”

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, in the course of his oversight of a 20-year education lawsuit (Leandro v. State of North Carolina), made a determination that such failures amount to “committing academic genocide.”

“Everybody seems to agree if you are not reading by the third grade, you’re screwed,” Judge Manning told TV news anchor David Crabtree on WRAL in Raleigh on August 26. “From the evidence, there is no reason in the world — if teachers and principals follow the assessments as they are supposed to — that a child should not be reading by third grade. . . . I get mad about this.”

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We Know How to Teach Reading

It is not as if teaching reading has been ignored in the United States. Teaching reading successfully is a straightforward, well-documented process, and most children, given proper instruction, should be successful readers by the end of kindergarten.

The federal government began a ten-year, billion-dollar effort called Project Follow Through in 1968 that tested various methods for teaching reading to at-risk children in grades K–3. It compared 22 curriculum models in 178 communities with 200,000 children. The Direct Instruction (DI) model, the study found, “produced the best results in all areas: basic skills, problem solving, and self-esteem.”

In 1997, after 20 years of ignoring Project Follow Though results, Congress asked the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in consultation with the secretary of education, to convene a national panel to evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways of teaching children to read.

The panel was chaired by the late Dr. Donald N. Langenberg, then chancellor of the University of Maryland. The resulting National Reading Panel report of 2000 identified the five key skills that must be taught for reading, all of which are integral to the Reading Mastery (RM)/L4L curriculum our schools use — which, it should be noted, has been widely available since the 1970s.

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