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Education Reform As Simple, And As Complicated, As A-B-C

By Rick Green

April 06, 2012

A handful of legislators and experts joined by a large crowd of teachers met Thursday morning to try to refocus the school reform debate here around our biggest educational outrage of all: our failure to teach poor children to read.

This ought to be the focus of all school reform in Connecticut, instead of tedious arguments over union work rules, tenure, labor contracts and charter schools.

What's mystifying is that successful research-based strategies to teach poor children reading have been around since the 1990s. Some of the most significant work has been done here in Connecticut at the Haskins Laboratories in New Haven. In some places, such as at Hartford's Noah Webster School, there are dramatic results.

And yet, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's school reform proposal pays too little attention to the science of reading instruction. Another reform bill, backed by the General Assembly's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and focusing on third-grade reading instruction, was gutted by a legislative committee this week.

"I don't understand it when we know that something works, but we don't use it. What in the world stops people from doing something about it?" asked Reid Lyon, one of the country's leading experts on reading instruction, who spoke at the state Capitol forum, which was also sponsored by the state's Commission on Children.

I first interviewed Lyon about Connecticut's reading failure when Bill Clinton was president. He hasn't changed his view.

Lyon reminded the group that in 1998, fourth-graders eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored 35 points below their counterparts in reading. Fourteen years later, the figure hasn't changed. There are similar figures for black and Hispanic children.

"We know a great deal about what it will take to ensure that most kids learn to read," Lyon said. This includes explicit instruction, from a trained teacher, in decoding words, language structures and specific intervention strategies.

Lyon pointed to gains in school districts in Houston and Montgomery County, Md., where poor and minority students with poor reading skills have improved dramatically.

"Where the rubber meets the road is in the schools and within the school day. We have studies that indicate clearly that if we do it right we can move the majority of kids up to grade level,'' Lyon told me when we spoke later in the day. "Reading is a very complex skill. The only way that all readers will reach their maximum potential is by using assessment data to inform and adjust instruction where needed."

And yet a professor from Saint Joseph College told the gathering that, in general, schools of education are failing to instruct students how to teach reading.

"Overwhelmingly, Connecticut educators are not being prepared to assess and teach children to learn how to read,'' said Jule McCombes-Tolis, an associate professor at Saint Joseph who has studied what teachers are taught in Connecticut's colleges and universities.

Supporters of Malloy's school reform proposals say if reading was made the priority, it would add urgency to the plan. This is particularly true for provisions resisted by teacher unions, such as handing the commissioner of education new authority to remake failing schools. It's pretty clear that we need to give the state the power to revamp a school that has failed to teach children to read.

I asked Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who attended Thursday's meeting, why there wasn't more emphasis on reading instruction in the governor's reform plan. He said that there was — and that he is now talking with legislators are about adding more.

"We need the authority and flexibility to implement proven practices and to innovate,'' Pryor said. "We are in discussions as to how to build in more elements of what the caucus has proposed."

Give the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus credit for placing reading — the most glaring failure in the state's lowest performing schools —at the front of the agenda.

"It's just so fundamental to learning everything else we want our children to learn,'' said state Rep. Jason Rojas, whose district includes East Hartford, Manchester and Glastonbury and a sponsor of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus's reading bill. "There's not much you can do without a strong foundation in reading."

The good news is that researchers have shown that we can make striking progress, despite poverty, if we make the right changes. It starts with making learning to read the most important job for failing schools.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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