September 27, 2013
To the Editor:
With great interest and a rising blood pressure, I recently read a Star Tribune Article, “St. Paul Police Help Kids Read with Alphabet Program,” (Tuesday, September 24).
First, it is terrific that the St. Paul Police Department is taking up this cause by identifying and intervening with students who have reading difficulties. This is exactly the direction reading research points us to. In fact, according to research sponsored by the National Institutes of Child Health (NICH), there is only a 25% chance that a student with a reading disability will reach grade level in his/her school career if the child is not identified as having a reading disability and if proper forms of intervention are not initiated by the start of third grade. Given the discrepancy model used in most schools today to identify students with a reading disability, the odds are almost insurmountably stacked against students with reading disabilities.
Unfortunately, it’s not just students with reading disabilities, estimated at approximately 10% of a school’s population, who are not reading. According to the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, 38% of Minnesota’s fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level. Translation: They have great difficulty decoding (sounding out) printed words. Unlike the students with verified reading disabilities, ninety percent of these poor readers do not have faulty neurological wiring that hinders reading ability. Instead, and tragically, these poor readers are instructional casualties. They have never been properly taught how to read.
While reading is an incredibly complex task, one that does not come automatically through exposure to print, reading scientists, through countless studies, have determined how reading needs to be taught so that all students learn to read. To learn more about how we need to teach students to read, please refer to the National Reading Panel’s seminal work, “Teaching Children to Read,” (2000).
We know how to teach reading, so what prevents students from learning to read? A primary reason is that the vast majority of teachers leaving colleges of education are ill prepared to teach reading. Not only have they been inculcated with an erroneous belief system of what constitutes good reading instruction, most have had very poor practicum experiences as student teachers. As long as teachers are poorly prepared to teach reading, there will be large numbers of students in our Minnesota schools who are instructional casualties.
Why can’t we retrain teachers in the science of teaching reading? We can, but there is a big obstacle, the teachers’ union. From January, 2007 to June, 2009 a grassroots reading reform effort in Minnesota exacted changes in teacher preparation programs much to the dismay of higher education and the state’s largest teacher’s union, Education Minnesota. The reading reform group was successful in creating both new standards of knowledge for teachers who teach reading and in implementing a new assessment reflecting these new standards of knowledge. Leaders of Education Minnesota reluctantly agreed to these standards as long as they were directed at new teachers leaving colleges of education. We must ask if these standards are important to new teachers, shouldn’t they be important to all teachers who teach reading? Leaders of Education Minnesota don’t think so.
My hat is off to the St. Paul police department for undertaking this literacy initiative. It’s shameful that successful literacy efforts are not happening within our city schools as they could, and should, be.