My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Analysis Ties 4th Grade Reading Failure to Poverty

Note: This is a very interesting article on the importance of early reading proficiency -- with some real implications for the Amherst schools (e.g., it suggests that concentrations of low income kids in one school hurt achievement and describes the hazards of summer fall back and the benefits of preschool education).

Education Week
By Debra Viadero
May 17, 2010

Eighty-five percent of poor 4th graders in predominantly low-income schools are failing to reach “proficient” levels in reading on federal tests, according to a new study by a national foundation that is gearing up to lead a 10-year effort to raise 3rd graders’ reading proficiency.

“The evidence is clear that those students who do not read well have a very tough time succeeding in school and graduating from high schools and going on to successful careers and lives,” Ralph R. Smith, the executive vice president of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in an interview. “The Casey Foundation is putting a stake in the ground on grade-level reading by the end of the 3rd grade.”

The report, which is due to be released this morning, lays out the statistical case for the foundation’s soon-to-be-announced, 10-year initiative to ensure that more children become proficient readers by the time they leave 3rd grade.

As part of the new campaign, the report says, the foundation plans to join with other philanthropies to finance reading-improvement efforts in a dozen states representing different geographic regions in the country. But Mr. Smith said details of that new venture will not be available for another two months.

The report, “EARLY WARNING!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” is the 21st in a series of statistics-laden Kids Count special reports by the foundation. While some of the foundation’s previous studies have emphasized its “two-generation” approach to improving the well-being of disadvantaged young children and their parents, the new report shifts the focus to getting children on the path to reading proficiency from birth through 3rd grade.

Context Matters

Nationwide, the report notes that 68 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored below proficient levels on 2009 reading tests administered through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated testing program. But on a state-by-state basis, the percentages ranged from a high of 82 percent in Louisiana to 53 percent in Massachusetts.

National results for the 2009 NAEP reading tests were released in March, and the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday is scheduled to release results in reading from the Trial Urban District Assessment, which compares the performance of 4th and 8th grade students in 18 of the largest U.S. school districts.

The foundation adds a new wrinkle to those analyses, though, by breaking out passage rates for disadvantaged students in the nation’s neediest schools.

The figures show how poverty and different school contexts can exacerbate the proportion of students having trouble mastering reading. While 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty failed to hit the grade-level reading target, for example, the corresponding percentage for low-income African-American students in schools with high concentrations of poor students was 90 percent. For economically disadvantaged Hispanic students, the percentage of students falling short of proficiency drops from 88 percent in the schools with the most poor children to 82 percent in better-off schools.

The nation’s reading problem is also worse than it seems, the foundation says, because many states, facing pressure to boost students’ scores on state exams, have lowered the “cut scores,” which are the number of items that students must answer correctly. To underscore that point, the report cites an earlier study by the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that only 16 states set their proficiency standards at levels that met or exceeded NAEP’s lower “basic” standard.

It’s crucial that children master grade-level reading by 3rd grade, the report says, because that’s when instruction moves from a focus on learning to read to reading to learn.

Room for Improvement

The report also offers several recommendations for improving children’s reading, including targeting absenteeism—an aspect of schooling that is often overlooked. Nationwide, the report says, an average of one in 10 kindergartners and 1st graders miss 10 percent or more of the school year because of excused or unexcused absences. In some districts, the ratio is as high as one in four for children in grades K-3.

“Because we generally thought about it in terms of truancy, we haven’t really done the math,” Mr. Smith said. “When you do that, you find that for many reasons we have not completely built a culture of attendance.”

The report also targets the disproportionate learning losses experienced by poor children over the summer as another area ripe for improvement.

To underscore that point, the report cites research showing that low-income children fall behind during the summer by as much as two months in reading achievement, while middle-income students tend to make slight gains in that subject over the same period. That’s because more-affluent parents can better afford books, computers, summer camps, and other learning opportunities that keep students learning when school is out, the report says.

The report also makes a pitch for developing a coherent system of early care and education that “aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through 3rd grade,” so that children enter 4th grade healthy and better able to understand the more-complex reading tests they encounter at that level.


FR Parent said...

Yes! Please institute a policy of summer reading and summer math work for all kids. Most other local districts have at least this. Many adopt a "common read" for the older grades and discuss it as a group once school begins, creating a sense of community. The Jones could have multiple copies of each book on hand and we could ask our local bookstores to offer each book at a discount. I hope you consider this idea.

Anonymous said...

Actually literacy support needs to start a lot earlier than PK. There are many critical prereading skills that need to be in place long before age 3.5 or 4.

Also, it should be understood that there are many factors which influence reading readiness including a child's emotional state. Children who experience trauma, instability, food scarcity, health issues, neglect or abuse of any kind, and so forth are often significantly distracted by other (legitimate, in their world) concerns. This isn't true for all kids (many find reading to b a huge solace and source of pleasure, which is of course what we'd like to see). Reading is a very complex process to do and to learn. You have to be available for it.

Anonymous said...

I truly believe that teaching all children to read proficiently is the MOST important thing to be accomplished by the end of 1st grade.

Social promotion is harming our children, affecting their futures and for those who want to be really pragmatic, adds additional cost to each and every year with multiple IEP's for children who are capable but lost out on the important stage of learning to read well for a myriad of reasons.

Children that need extra help in PreK, K and 1st grade should receive as much assistance as they need to attain reading proficiency before going on to 2nd grade. I really believe this is where to put some serious time and money to alleviate what is seen in MS and HS.


Ed said...

I am going to kick over a hornets nest here, but I did spend nearly 5 years going into low income households in the district and I say this as a realist: I blame the parents.

When my sister's kid was 4-5 years old, he was read to and viewed reading as a caring activity spent with adults. When he corrected me on how I had just read a paragraph a Dick & Jane book, and I realized that I had, in fact, transposed a few of the words although my version was still correct in both usage and meaning, I told him that I would still read to him although I knew he knew how to do it himself.

(The child - and all children - value the attention of adults. And he associated reading with this and hence went into the learning of reading as a positive rather than negative thing.)

And then a year or so later, he was "reading" everything he could get his hands on. Even my Briggs & Stratton Small Engine Repair Manual that even I don't quite understand (how to literally take apart a lawn mower engine and put it back together again) -- my point is that the child was brought up into a culture of reading being something that adults do, something that is enjoyable and something that will enable you to not only gain the respect/praise of adults but also learn things.

And the most striking thing about that child was that he would leave a trail of books and other related reading material everywhere he went. And the most striking contrast with the homes of the low income children was that there was nothing for the children to read! Nothing!

Money was spent on the children, many had television sets bigger than my car. They had toys and audio systems and the rest. But not a thing for the child to read, not even a coloring book -- and while the stuff may not be the most educationally sound, any of the "dollar stores" has quite an assortment of books for children.

(part 1 of 2)

Ed said...

part 2 of 2

And some of the children wrote on the walls - but then the adults were doing it too. But coloring books teach lots of valuable skills, not only visual but motor control ones. And choosing not to "color within the lines" is only an option when you have the ability to do it and choose not to.

This is going to sound like I am bashing single mothers and folks on public assistance - and I am not saying that the (often) single mother and her (often) boyfriend de jour neither loved nor wanted the best for the children -- they were coming up with $5000 television sets for them. Only they didn't provide anything - and I do mean anything for the children to read.

Somebody, somewhere, somehow has got to impress upon the parent(s) of these low income children that (a) expressing a value on reading to small children is essential (b) you have to have stuff for your children to read (even if they aren't old enough, and (c) they have to see YOU reading - to them preferably, but even reading the newspaper to yourself.

We can do all the remedial work we want to in the 4th grade - and we can have some success - but the same would be true with physical rehabilitation of children kept in full body casts until that age.

Most parents (not all, and there is an unfortunate reason for Chapter 51A of the General Laws) love their children. Most want what is best for them - and try to give them better than they had as a child. For some reason, they just seem not to understand the importance of stressing the value of reading.

And maybe we need to work on adult literacy and undiagnosed learning differences in adults - when I took my Federal CDL exam waiver, a written test for people with at least two years of experience driving heavy trucks - a full third of the guys had to have the test read to them. Maybe the parent(s) is low income because of the limits of the parent's/s' education and reading ability.

(There is evidence indicating that learning differences are inherited, we may even be reducing the future SPED budget with work on parental literacy - not to mention making the parent(s) more employable and hence possibly no longer "low income." I digress.)

But we are not going to address the problem of the poor reading ability of low income children - and ability to read (and comprehend) is a very clear barrier to their future economic, social, & political success - we are not going to address it until the parents themselves value reading.

The parents need to value it the same way the parents value their children being well fed. It is that basic, and we won't get anywhere - no matter how much money is spent - until the parents value reading.

And as to Black children, common sense alone says that a child that is spending 60-80 hours a week watching television is going to have academic difficulties. (I would if I was spending 60-80 hours a week watching TV, and I suspect that everyone else would agree that doubleunplussgood thing would happen in their lives were they doing likewise.

Now I am going to be called all kinds of names for this, but the simple fact is that until the children living in places like Southpoint have something to read, until their mothers value and encourage them to read (or attempt to read) it, we will get nowhere with this problem.

And no matter how many names Ed is called, nothing is going to change that...

ed said...

Children who experience trauma, instability, food scarcity, health issues, neglect or abuse of any kind, and so forth are often significantly distracted by other (legitimate, in their world) concerns.

I have seen too many of these situations over the years - and the concerns were legitimate in my world as well! I have seen too many situations where the adult of the household was the young child, and the mother was the parent in name only.

I remember one spring when I was driving a school bus and every morning we would see a 5th grade girl's mother passed out on assorted front lawns, with the kids already on the bus discussing the sordid details -- I just told the principal that Bus 15 was likely going to be 2-5 minutes late for the rest of the year because her father was trying to hold the family together and trying get the girl to school and I intended to make a second swing back for her at the end of the run and I really didn't care who got upset about it.

I remember a 10 year old trying to explain to me why her mother had unbolted the toilet and left it on the living room floor. I remember another situation where I, the housing inspector, was the only consistent male figure a 12 year old had seen from year to year -- his mother's boyfriends kept changing every few months, yet I kept coming back every year.

And every New Year's Eve there are the single mothers who leave their infants home alone and go to parties like they did the year before. Sometimes getting arrested for OUI and hence not coming home until the next afternoon. And the infants are left alone, crying, with very little that those aware of the situation can do about it.

And then there are the cases where the son - who usually isn't even 12 years old - is trying to defend his mother from her abusive boyfriend(s). Where the child is protecting the parent, and not the way it is supposed to be.

I don't know if it is immaturity, substance abuse, mental illness or what -- it is not poverty and it is not racism causing this, if it was we would have solved it by addressing those two very real things.

The civil libertarian in me is terrified of government intervention in family life and a governmental evaluation of parenting skills.

I just have seen too many situations where the elementary school aged child is the adult of the household. And when you are dealing with issues that would stress out an adult - without either the maturity or experience to do so - of course academic performance is going to plummet.

Heaven help me, there are times when I think the children would be better in well-run orphanages...

Anonymous said...

wow Ed, the hornet's nest is this:

Children are not responsible for parents choices!!!! Public schools exist for that very reason. children cannot determine income levels (availability of private ed), nor how they are reared. So your "blame the parents" does NOTHING to address the problem.

IF we educate children, we serve our society much more efficiently.
AND my point was that we work at PreK, K and 1st grade with whatever assistance is needed to ensure all kids are given the tool they need to succeed. Which in my honest opinion is the ability to read by end of first grade.

Rather than blaming the parents or passing along the problem with well-meaning but ineffective and ever more complicated IEP's as the years progress, we should be examining special education techniques etc and putting them into place MUCH earlier on.

Promoting kids to a new level of learning without skills needed is actually destroying self esteem, not building it (self esteem is one of the common reasons given for social promotion).

I can't resist adding: Anecdotes are...anecdotes.


Anonymous said...

I NEVER agree with ED. NEVER.

But this time I do agree with him. There are many many low income households where there are NO READING materials...for the parents or the kids. And this is a huge problem and is a big reason why so many low income kids are behind the curve even before the get to pre-k or K.

The problem begins at birth. And yes, getting as many low income kids into pre-k as we can will help because they can start cultivating a reading habit at least one year earlier than if they started at Kiindergarten. But we, as a society, need to figure out a way to help these families from birth.

I have seen this first hand. It's stunning...and its very sad.

Anonymous said...

I agree that expressing expectations for parents to read with their children and provide reading and learning materials could help. The school cannot do it alone - and to continue to say that some parents just aren't capable so why try, is a cop out. The fact is that the chances are slim that a child will be academically successful without any support from their parent(s).

I hear that there will be summer reading assigned for rising 8th graders - thank you ARMS!

Anonymous said...

I applaud the idea to help children from birth and wish that our society would do so with a birth - school Head Start type program for all at risk children. How one would determine, etc is mind boggling...

BUT we're talking about the schools that we have, right now, here, and I think it's viable to have a school goal of proficient reading BEFORE a child leaves 1st grade.

Can anyone speak to why this is a bad idea?

Anonymous said...


There is a program called Early Head Start, which is targets kids from birth to 2.9. Once you hit 2.9 you move to a regular head start classroom.

The problem is that there are way too few slots for both Early Head Start and Head Start. As a nation, we need to change our priorities. I know this is more than this blog or the SC can tackle but thought folks would be interested in the info.

I don't know what to say about having a goal of proficient reading by the end of 1st grade. I'd like to hear from some educators what their experience is and what their goals are for proficient reading. I read something recently that until the third grade children spend time learning to read and then from third grade on they read to learn. So, should the goal be to be a proficient reader by third grade? I don't know myself..just throwing it out there for discussion.

Anonymous said...

Ed's right.

My professional experience over
19+ years prosecuting domestic violence tells me this: we have done a much better job of protecting our elderly than our children. In some cases, we have thrown our children to the wolves. It's worse than I ever dreamed possible when I started at 34 years of age.

Absolutely, some kids would be better off in orphanages. But deciding which ones is extremely difficult. And it all goes against the grain of life in a free society. But he's right: more and more of our children are defenseless, and then our poor teachers are left to pick up the pieces.

And I'm sure that some of these traumatized kids are with us in Amherst.

Rich Morse

Tom P said...

The situation is desperate for these children whose future is so wasted by parents inattentive to the basic need for literacy. And for adult inspiration.

Ed, thank you for expressing so vividly this tragic but taboo reality.

I hope that readers of this blog are aware that there is an excellent, incredible local organization - Reader to Reader - that has delivered over $40M worth of children's books to libraries and low-income school systems around the world, across the country, and intensively in western Massachusetts to address this thirst and try to fill the children's literacy gap:

I urge all of you who read this SC blog, people who disagree on so many things but all obviously care deeply about educational opportunity for all children, to become familiar with what R2R is doing and to support its efforts in getting books to kids whose homes may not be providing the materials.

lizzielou said...

One study compared the number of books that children have had read to them when entering kindergarten: the average middle-class kid, 3,000 books; the average low-income kid: 6 books. So exposure is one issue. Another issue, though, is developmental. Some kids simply are not ready to read in first grade. They may not be able to read fluently until fourth or fifth grade--even with tons of intervention. Kids need a well-rounded curriculum and opportunities for engaged learning. They need less pressure and more meaningful ways to learn and inquire. Our schools have lost an ability to find ways to engage children in the world by narrowing the curriculum to the point of assessment strangulation, particularly in the early grades. This cult of assessment is bad for kids. Holding them in for recess because they don't read well yet or do their math well yet doesn't get us anywhere! There are better ways--I've seen them, I've lived them.

Anonymous said...

I just can't believe this--what a classit statement...Is this part of the belief of the Amherst Classist Elite, I mean Amherst Committee for Excellence (ACE)??
Disgusting...blame the poor again....I mean why the h*** not!
CS I don't know where you dig this stuff up, but what are you trying to accomplish here?? And Ed, what is your point? I was with you on blaming the parents--but then you throw that classit talk into your point and the red begins to flash in front of me.... Not only are the poor/low income kids at CF to blame for the failure of that school, year after year, and the reason for the upheaval so that ALL KIDS can be equally distributed through-out town, but now the income line is being drawn even darker by messed up articles like this... sigh...

Anonymous said...

what did my last post yesterday say that was objectionable?

I spent a bit of my lunch time writing it and I didn't slander anyone etc.


Ed said...

And Ed, what is your point? I was with you on blaming the parents--but then you throw that classit talk into your point and the red begins to flash in front of me....

My point was very simple: no matter how much the political right fears or the political left thinks that teachers/schools are the primary influence in a child's life, it is the parental adult(s) who not only spend the most time with the child but who also is/are the most significant influence in the child's life.

And is it relevant to mention that my sister is a low-income single mother living on SSI disability? And that she thus throws off the "six book" statistic that someone else mentioned (cite please if you have it) because average is mean and not median or mode -- one low income parent such as her reading a lot of books to her child conceals the fact that a lot of other children of low income parents have not even six books read to them, but often none!

It is now 4PM and the temperature in the shade has now dropped to 79.2 degrees -- it was over 80 today. Biologically, it would make perfect sense for small children to be completely naked -- yet as a society we wouldn't tolerate that. We might go through the authorities, more likely we would make it clear to the mother that we didn't approve of the way that she was raising her children and that she needed to make sure that they were wearing clothing when outdoors.

Likewise with shaggy uncut hair, torn/dirty clothing and the like. While we provide social resources to the parents to help with this - far more than one might think of when you add up all the levels of both public assistance and charity - we still expect the parents to ensure that their children are in something resembling clean clothes, something resembling properly groomed, and something resembling fed.

I am not saying that this is always done - I don't think that there is a teacher out there who hasn't fed at least one child at least once out of his/her/its own pocket -- I have, and this is something that teachers rarely get recognized for doing -- but there is a general social presumption that there are certain things that parents are expected to do, like feeding their children.

And my point is that -- for some reason that I fail to comprehend -- supporting the education of their children isn't one of them.

And yes there are learning differences and other things which will impair the child's ability to read, and which - being inherited - may also explain why the parent(s) is low income in the first place. And in this case, parental support of reading (etc) is even more important because of the problem(s) which the child will encounter attempting to accomplish this.

And yes, for a whole bunch of reasons, there likely are co-relationships between parental income and parental reading ability. Whatever. If we want to end poverty and give the kids a decent chance at success, we need to basically coerce the parents into at least pretending that they consider reading valuable.

Now, more than ever before, the ability to read, write, and articulate coherent viewpoints is the true social equalizer....

Ed said...

Holding them in for recess because they don't read well yet or do their math well yet doesn't get us anywhere!

I agree - and for one additional reasons -- punishment doesn't foster learning. It didn't at Harvard in the 1600s when they used to beat the students for not learning, and it doesn't now.

In addition to everything else, if there is some developmental or learning process issue at play, all punishment is going to do is exacerbate the daylights out of it. It is part of the same reason why everyone concedes that torture doesn't work - if the child simply doesn't know how to do something, punishing him for not knowing isn't going to accomplish anything but improve the self esteem of the teacher.

Anonymous said...

H.T. my comment was to this whole article. "Analysis Ties 4th grade reading failure to poverty" How many times have you read anything, and I say anything negative about being rich? How many times have you read anywhere, anything, about any failure connected to wealth? Who conducted this analysis anyway?? People in poverty? It just is not okay and yet here it is...and I so strongly believe this is the hidden agenda of A.C.E.--blaming the failure of students inability to read on the income levels of their households. So sad...
If you continue with your non-classist remarks about parenting you are on a track to make a difference....a big that so needs to be addressed.
As an educator I know exactly what you are talking about--parents are of course the first teacher of all children and heaven help those little ones--and this number is growing fast I fear...who have parents that do far worse than not read to their children...
I sit here and shake my head writing this. I do not see the point of a school committee member who feels the need to copy an article like this. Catherine, what is your point--please explain... Did you research all the newspapers to come up with an article that reflects your own thinking? Or are you trying to ease your conscience by ripping apart communities with closing MM and destroying the language clusters, and busing kids out of their neighborhoods to schools so they sit and eat beside a free/reduced lunch child?

Anonymous said...

Didn't anyone read the article in teh Gazette the other day about the huge increase in clients at the Amherst Survival Center?

People are really struggling...more than Amherst. Going hungry, going without. Let's help, not point fingers.

Let's support our schools and the people who run them because school is where the kids whose parents are at the ASC can have a predictable, safe, encouraging, consistent day, no matter what is going on at home (plus breakfast and lunch -- not great food, but it's OK and it's free or reduced).

Ed said...

How many times have you read anything, and I say anything negative about being rich?

If my journal article on exactly this and its impact on college undergraduate's gets published, you will.