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Test For Teachers May Be A Key To Improving Kids' Reading

Rick Green

October 17, 2008

This spring, the State Board of Education took a bold step that state legislators have been avoiding for years.

It quietly approved a policy that will require all teachers to pass a test that assesses their ability to teach reading.

It is a stunning development that must be closely watched. After years of conclusive research and handing out tens of millions of state tax dollars to pay for better reading instruction, we will now ask whether anything has changed.

For the first time, new teachers won't be able to work in a public school unless they can prove they actually know how to teach children to read.

There is nothing more important in education than children learning to read. Yet, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than half of black and Hispanic fourth-graders in Connecticut read at "below basic" levels. More than half of all fourth-graders aren't even on grade level, according to NAEP.

Connecticut, as we often hear, has one of the widest achievement gaps in the nation. Poor reading skills are at the heart of this: You don't read, you don't succeed.

It is widely accepted, and verified by research funded by the National Institutes of Health, that children who are poor readers by fourth grade very likely will never catch up. We also know, based on the conclusions of the National Reading Panel in 2000, how to teach reading. It is a systematic, explicit process that emphasizes phonics and the sound segments that make up words, guided oral reading, vocabulary building and exposure to a variety of strategies.

Despite this, our colleges and universities notably publicly funded and independent-minded schools of education have resisted. The National Council on Teacher Quality has found that about 15 percent of education schools provided "minimal" exposure to the science of reading.

"There is wide agreement," said Louise Spear-Swerling, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University and expert on reading instruction, "the skill of a teacher is very important."

"This is knowledge teachers need to have to be effective with kids," Spear-Swerling said. "Some teachers are very well-prepared and other teachers are not."

The scary thing, Spear-Swerling and other researchers say, is that teachers often don't even know that they lack the training. One Connecticut study found that more than half of teachers failed to recognize what children should be learning about reading.

"They are not getting the information they need, which is why kids aren't learning to read," said Marjorie B. Gillis, a senior scientist with Haskins Laboratories at Yale University who studies reading instruction and literacy.

Teachers "need to know how children learn to read proficiently. For example, if a third-grader isn't reading at all, they need to start from square one. You have to go back to a first-grade level and teach what they didn't learn in first grade."

Remember, teachers already must pass exams before they are certified. The problem is the tests don't properly measure whether they can teach reading. The new test will be given to would-be teachers graduating next year.

"It is going to tell us the teachers who are going to be able to teach kids to read. And it will tell the universities that they need to change their courses," Gillis said. Schools of education at our public universities which turn out hundreds of teachers each spring "should be revamping their courses. They have to be hiring people who can teach those courses."

After years of watching thousands of children fail, we may now demand that schools actually know how to teach all children to read. Now that would be progress.

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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