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Thousands Of Kids Still Can't Read

Rick Green

April 12, 2011

Back in the mid-1990s, we often heard that poor kids weren't learning to read.

A decade and a half later, there's no change. It's such a long-running story that we treat it like the weather: You can't change it, so get used to it. I can't.

The big difference now is that other states are improving. We aren't.

In 12 of Connecticut's neediest districts, 3,547 third graders are "below basic" in their reading skills.

What do you think these 9-year-olds are going to cost us when they are 20 and can't read or do basic math? The price of a year in prison is about $45,000 per person, by the way.

At a legislative forum at the Capitol recently, I heard an expert say that third-graders who are far behind in reading we have 6,943 of them in the state need at least two extra hours of instruction a day to catch up.

It's like there's a good-sized town where nobody can read. This, in what is still one of the wealthiest states in the country.

The interesting thing is that reading ability in third grade is just about the best indicator we have to predict later success or failure.

The results of the first longitudinal study of its kind, tracking 4,000 children born between 1979 and 1989 and through high-school graduation, tell the story succinctly: Without reading skills by third grade, one in six will drop out or fail to graduate on time.

The study, paid for by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and authored by City University of New York sociologist Donald J. Hernandez, concluded that children unable to read beyond the "below basic" level in third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out or fail to graduate on time. Poor children are six times more likely. Black or Hispanic students are eight times more likely to fail if they are poor readers in third grade.

Yes, there's a parenting failure in homes without books and without mothers and fathers who read to kids. But our public schools were created to educate children who weren't finding opportunity at home. Increasingly, experts say the problem that we can fix making sure teachers know how to teach reading, so kids get appropriate instruction still isn't being addressed.

Between 1998 and 2009, Connecticut's neediest children showed no improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which compares achievement among the states.

"There's no gain among the children with the lowest educational profiles,'' Marilyn Adams, a Brown University professor and reading researcher, told me. "We are allowing our schools to fail those very children for whom they were invented."

Scores on a state exam for new teachers, which measures knowledge of reading instruction, raise more questions about whether education students graduating from Connecticut's colleges and universities are ready for the classroom.

Among the 1,278 would-be teachers who took the required "Foundations of Reading Test" last year, only 75 percent passed. While 94 percent of University of Connecticut students passed, our state universities where the bulk of our teachers come from scored far worse. At Southern Connecticut State University, just 65 percent passed.

"The quality of the educational system is not going to exceed the quality of the teachers," Adams said at the Capitol forum on reading that I attended. At that meeting, both college educators and teachers emphasized the importance of more training in reading instruction.

"We need to change the way we prepare teachers,'' added Maureen Ruby, an assistant professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University. She said classroom teachers need a deeper understanding of oral language and phonemes, which are the sounds that make up words.

"We have people teaching reading who don't know anything about teaching reading,'' Ruby said.

Business and community leaders tell me there's new hope because folks are talking about the problem again. Teachers see the benefit of training. Corporate leaders know we can't have this kind of failure and expect to have a qualified workforce. Researchers say programs that emphasize retraining teachers along with intensive instruction and a longer school day are working.

So I hope we are on the verge of tackling the abysmal reading performance in our cities. But I worry it's more like what Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Casey Foundation, told people at the forum.The problem has not gone away, he said, because we haven't been truly committed to making sure all children learn to read, no matter where they are from.

"Some kids matter more than others,'' Smith said. "Some kids matter not at all."

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.
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