In a recent article I wrote that when educators set student progress goals in terms of averages, particularly with regard to “closing the achievement gap” and increasing reading test scores in the early elementary grades, they blind themselves and the public to what really needs to be done. It gets worse, for another reason I will discuss a few paragraphs below.
First, to review my earlier point. I argued that administrators, district superintendents, school boards, and other policy makers quite regularly and nearly universally look at class and school test score averages to show — when they go up — that the system is improving, kids are doing better. Well, yes, sorta.
But measuring school district and school success or failure by looking at average test scores automatically means that some kids and sometimes whole schools in low-income neighborhoods get left behind. An average hides the fact that some kids can read at grade level or above and some just cannot. In this way, our K-12 education system, self-evaluating in terms of average student test scores, utterly fails every child who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade (our universal target right now) or any other grade.
Our educators have failed those kids, lots of them, who are below average and don’t read anywhere near grade level because, well, the average is moving up, isn’t it?
To avoid this statistical trap and to stop hiding this failure from parents and the public, I proposed that educators should adopt a different way of measuring. They should deem grade-level reading by third grade an absolute standard and provide each child sufficient instruction to reach that plateau. This should be done at all costs, since teaching kids to read, if you think about it, has to be the fundamental goal of our K-12 schools, particularly in the early elementary years, K-3. And in that previous essay I suggested looking at the Kennewick School District between 1995 and 2005, to see that even in heavily low-income school districts, 90-95 percent of third graders can reach the grade-level reading target within existing resources.
Wouldn’t it be preposterous if our educators threw up their hands and said, “we can’t do that, it would cost too much”? (Don’t hold your breath. It’s almost certain someone right here in Seattle will say that, though the chief impediment is not too little money. It’s long-standing practice and state regulations determining how time is used in elementary school.)
By the way, teachers see EACH child; they don’t think in averages. But in their classrooms time just runs out — move on to the next subject, the school day ends, whoops, summer vacation! — before the job is done.
In any case, there is a second reason our schools can’t manage to get our kids properly reading at grade level in the early elementary years, a mindset possibly more responsible for the problem and more damaging even than thinking in averages. It’s this: Educators at all levels, and this time I include many teachers, don’t understand the difference between a skill and knowledge.
A skill is something you learn to do with varying levels of proficiency depending on how long you work at it or practice. Reading is a skill. Shooting free throws is a skill. Proficiency usually requires long hours and in some cases, such as reading in elementary schools, proficiency may take several years of practice with increasingly difficult sentences and vocabulary.
Most importantly, having certain skills will determine success or failure in various endeavors. A child who is unable to read, won’t get much out of school, won’t gain much knowledge. In fact, if a child can’t read it doesn’t matter how good a teacher she’s got in front of her. Skills can be essential. Reading is essential. Sometimes being able to swim is essential. Shooting free throws is useful, but not essential the way reading is.
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