Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The Best Way to Improve the Literacy Rate in America

Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.  ~Nelson Mandela

A while back, I was reading about a Stanford University study about brain waves and how different teaching methods affect reading development. They looked at brain waves as teachers worked to teach their students to read and their findings were actually the opposite of what I would have expected.

Of course, I've never tried to teach children how to read, and I never will, but there are a lot of preschool and kindergarten teachers out there who are expected to, despite the overwhelming evidence that early reading instruction actually damages a child's reading future. What I do, what is appropriate for children under seven, is read to them, write down the stories they tell me, play stories with them, tell stories as they happen, encourage dramatic play, write the rules we make together and post them on the wall where we can all reverently "read" them, and make sure there are always books among our loose parts.

This Stanford study talks about things like phonics and whole words and the rest of the stuff direct instruction focused teachers do with the children in their charge. So let me be clear, this wasn't a study about how children best learn to read, but rather on how teachers can best "teach" children to read in schools. This is the kind of research that Carol Black equates to studying the orca whales at Sea World and claiming to understand orca whales, but that's not the point of this post.

As I reflected on what I'd read, I thought about how high stakes standardized testing is increasingly narrowing our public school curricula to the point that they we focus almost exclusively on math and literacy. Then I asked myself: what problem are we trying to solve, especially when it comes to literacy? So I looked it up. I checked several sources. There are lots of different ways to measure literacy, but most agree that our average literacy rate, as compared to other nations, has declined over the past couple decades, a timeframe that matches exactly with the advent of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core and other federal interventions into our public schools. Perhaps these efforts aren't hurting our literacy rates, but they are failing to reverse the trend.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do anything; I'm just saying that we appear to be doing it wrong.

Meanwhile, tracking quite closely to the illiteracy rate, one in five American children now live in poverty. I'd like to suggest that instead turning our educational system upside down and spending billions on unproven efforts that may actually be eroding our children's ability and desire to read, maybe we should spend our billions on doing something about the 22 percent of our children (and fully 50 percent of public school students) who go to bed hungry each night. We know that poverty is directly linked to lack of success in school. There is nothing we could do that would have a greater impact on education in America.

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