Reading goals in public schools: So general they don't work

Seattle Public Schools say all students should read at grade level by the end of third grade. But teachers need to pay attention to each student, not only the group as a whole.
Seattle Public Schools say all students should read at grade level by the end of third grade. But teachers need to pay attention to each student, not only the group as a whole.

The last sentence of Monday'ꀙs Seattle Times editorial on reading and math test scores tells us a lot about why there'ꀙs so little progress in K-12 education. The Times wrote: 'ꀜAlso needed is consensus around reading curriculum and textbooks, as is being done with math.'ꀝ

Setting aside for a moment the ongoing controversy over math texts, which hardly inspires confidence, the profound error in that sentence is the confusion of inputs with goals. This is common among editorial writers, the public and a good many professional educators, particularly administrators who are rewarded for striving — something they demonstrate by changing things, like textbooks.

Instead of magical thinking, imagining that there'ꀙs some special curriculum out there and a wonderful set of textbooks that — if we could just find them — would make it all work perfectly, we'ꀙre more likely to improve kids' reading by, guess what, deciding to improve kids reading — by setting a goal and doing things, sometimes very specific things, that will get us from here to there.

That'ꀙs where education tends to go astray. In strategic plans there are plenty of good goals. One of the most important — to which the Seattle School District subscribes — is the fundamental commitment that 'ꀜall students will read at grade level by the end of third grade.'ꀝ But as the Times editorial correctly points out, recent test scores show that students are 'ꀜstalling in reading.'ꀝ

The reason is that a broadly general goal, no matter how important, will not get you there any quicker than the perfect textbook that editorial writers imagine, or a test based on 'ꀜstandards'ꀝ for reading that will supposedly pull results upward by motivating teachers and students.

The goal says 'ꀜall students,'ꀝ but in the classroom that'ꀙs got to work out as each student, and then, specifically, this student who'ꀙs not reading well. This student has to receive the instruction needed to become a better reader.

Instead of measuring success by how well the group did, how many more — or fewer — are 'ꀜproficient'ꀝ in reading at the end of the year, the goal has to mean, to require, that teachers will work with each student thoroughly enough so that each is a good reader by the end of third grade. Granted other things — parts of the curriculum — will need to be set aside in order to make the time to do this. But then reading is the fundamental skill needed for all the schooling that comes after, isn'ꀙt it?

We don'ꀙt do this. We set the goal and tally progress according to the group'ꀙs performance. As a result, we pass kids who can'ꀙt read well from third to fourth grade and on, until they drop out in high school (fairly easy to predict based on third-grade reading skill). Not passing them would, of course, admit immediately to failure: We haven'ꀙt taught them to read. But then, in fact, we haven'ꀙt. When they drop out in high school six or seven years later, it'ꀙs hard to locate the responsible party. I suppose this could make you angry. You might be tempted to see it as a sort of malfeasance.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.