As I have mentioned on this literacy blog, we have a reading crisis in this country. Approximately 30% of our nation’s fourth graders do not read at a basic level (they can’t decode the printed word); over 60% of our nation’s fourth graders can’t read proficiently (with good comprehension). These dismal scores provide fodder for politicians, the media, and the general public to vociferously criticize teachers. “For heaven’s sake, why can’t Billy read?”
Do teachers really deserve this blame? I don’t think so. The primary blame lies at the feet of two constituencies, higher education–colleges and universities, which prepare teachers and are supposed to be the beacon of scientific inquiry–and state departments of education, which are responsible for teacher licensing and knowledge standards. As evident by the course requirements for most undergraduate programs, the teaching of reading is not highly valued in the world of education. I think most of us would contend that learning to read is the most important skill that a child can acquire in school. Without the ability to read proficiently at a minimum of sixth grade, a child is wandering down a path that will most likely lead to a dark future.
School district administrators–principals, directors of curriculum and instruction, and special education directors–as well as reading specialists and literacy coaches shoulder some of the responsibility for poor reading scores. Not only should they be providing appropriate professional development for their teachers (especially the kindergarten through third grade teachers), they should also be pressuring higher education and state departments of education for stronger knowledge standards in reading that teachers must demonstrate mastery with in order to receive a teaching license.
Finally, teacher unions share the blame. Speaking from experience, teacher unions are resistant to change that affects their primary stakeholders, teachers. Isn’t it ironic that teachers are the primary stakeholders of teacher unions, not students?
There are plenty of constituencies who share the blame for our nation’s literacy crisis. The question now becomes: Will anyone step forward and do what is needed to affect meaningful change? We know how children need to be taught for them to learn to read. We can do it. Will we?
John Alexander, Head of School