Education 'group think' gets in the way of teaching kids to read

School administrators should end their obsession with average test scores and focus instead on an absolute standard: Can each child actually read?

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A homeless kid heads to school.

School administrators should end their obsession with average test scores and focus instead on an absolute standard: Can each child actually read?

For more than two decades now, the Seattle school district has been telling us that its most important goal is “closing the achievement gap.” Nevertheless, it is not unfair to say that only incremental progress has been made.

Seattle, as everyone knows, is not alone. “Closing the achievement gap” has come to stand for the perennial problems of American K-12 education — though the inability of high schools to graduate more than two-thirds of their students has been running a close second.

Among the results of this frustratingly persistent problem is a vast, energetic industry of school reform, headlined in recent years by the involvement of powerful private foundations and the policy directives of the federal government: “No Child Left Behind” in the “Race to the Top.”

Over the years, a variety of structural changes have been proposed and, to one degree or another, tried: small schools, mayoral governance, charter schools, (more) intensive professional development for teachers, (more) leadership training for principals. Testing and more testing, along with the loss of federal funds and wholesale staff changes when schools have failed to improve scores (many states dumbed down their tests to avoid the consequences). And lately, paying teachers based on student test results, along with (more) federal money for states and school districts that promise to do a few favored things from these lists.

As for results, not much has changed.

The Seattle School District is no exception, tacking with the shifting winds of federal mandates, banking on teacher professional development and coaching, and vacillating between school-based management and greater central-office control, among other things. The results have been meager.

The effort has been huge. Why in the world can’t we make this thing work?

In every area of human activity, there are widespread accepted values and ways of doing things that are intrinsically resistant to change. That’s a truism, of course, and it certainly applies to schools, school districts, school boards, state school officials, and state and federal politicians — K-12 education’s regulators. (Looking at that list you get a glimpse of why small schools and decentralization of public school districts seems an attractive idea.)

With schools and their supporting school districts, there is a century of tradition as yet unbroken by the reform industry. Schools continue to deliver their services to classrooms full of kids and continue to measure success by the aggregate results in the classroom (average test scores) and by the aggregate results of all similar kids and classrooms (average test scores for the school). This is the system on which the federal No Child Left Behind law doubled down: Raise those averages or else!

Elementary-school reading and math scores were the big focus, and “closing the achievement gap” in each classroom and school was the goal — along with raising the average scores, of course. And, yes, some of those average scores rose, and in places those achievement gaps — the differences between average scores for groups within the school — narrowed.

But that doesn’t tell you anything about your kid, or any individual kid. Some kids in your daughter’s third-grade class probably read at the fifth-grade level and some barely adequately, as though they were just starting second grade. Despite that gap, though, from last year to this, the average might have risen a little. Thankfully. And on TV you saw the district superintendent and school board declaring — if not victory — a level of success for which they claimed credit while humbly announcing they would try harder next year. That’s been going on for a long time.

Statistics, then, tell us that on average things are a little better. “On average,” however, is not an answer that helps. A classroom or school’s rising average could belie the fact that roughly the same number of students might not (and likely will not) be proficient readers. Education managers can take credit for modest, sometimes almost meaningless, improvements in group averages while some members of the group (such as the students in some Seattle South End schools) continue to founder.

What we have is a system in which the progress of an individual child is actually unimportant. (Teachers, bless them, do not view it this way, but beyond the classroom door the system’s focus on averages takes over.)

What’s missing is a real standard — for example, the standard that EACH child will read at grade level by the end of third grade. For EACH child, a school or district should have to answer the question, “Can s/he read?” If for some the answer remains “no,” then the school and district and state have failed. You can’t hide that failure in averages.

It’s ironic, but to “close the achievement gap” we have to stop measuring and praising group gains. Schools have to focus on and deliver services — specifically reading instruction — to each individual child. K-12 educators need to measure not averages, but how many children at each grade level are actually proficient readers. And each child who is not proficient must get additional instruction sufficient to bring them up to grade level.

Surprisingly, the resources to do this are not out of reach. Kennewick School District accomplished this in most of its 13 elementary schools with a program that began in the mid 1990s. (WASL scores have declined, though, after peaking at the 80- to 90-percent level around 2005.) The story is told and methodology laid out in several books by the Children’s Reading Foundation, a citizens group that was formed to support the effort.

Consider a second-grade classroom where the median reading score is equivalent to “basic” ability. Half the children will be pretty much below basic. At the end of the year, the average will move up a bit. (Oh, yay! Tell the world!) But still nearly half the kids will be below basic. They won't be able to read very well. They will be headed for failure in school, and there’s a high probability they will drop out of high school. This is not success.

Then consider a different approach where success is measured by the number of children in the classroom who are reading at grade level. And suppose that you set a goal that nine out of 10 (90 percent or maybe 95 percent; see Kennewick) of the children will be proficient by the end of the year. This, in truth, is what it means to say “all children will succeed” or “every child a reader.”

With this approach, parents and the public (and politicians) will know exactly how well the school has done — and how many kids are destined for failure without more instruction. In other words, how many individual kids are on the wrong side of the achievement gap?

When the children in our classrooms are seen as individuals, counted one by one, and their individual success is what the school and the district value, they can’t be left behind. And if they are, it will be quite clear who’s responsible.

Instead of looking at average test scores, education bureaucrats should count kids.  How many can read at grade level?  How many can’t?  What’s the percentage?  What are you going to do about it?

The answer to that last question is much different from the answers education reformers have given us so far. Looking at averages, they’ve proposed over and over again various changes to the system, and there’s not much to show for it. Looking at individual children, however, the answer is pretty simple. Each child must receive instruction sufficient to bring them to grade level; each child less than proficient in reading must be brought to grade level through targeted individual instruction.

Teachers know this. Getting each child to grade level is what they strive for every day. But with the way elementary school is structured, reading instruction must give way to other subjects; there’s not enough time on task for the kids who are below grade level. This needs to change so that teaching kids to read is job one.

Convincing K-12 players, including those in the reform industry, to stop measuring averages and instead count each child is almost certain to produce different results: more kids who can actually read well and thereby do better in school and life.


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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.