How Schools Pay a (Very High) Price for Failing to Teach Reading Properly
Staples provides further evidence that one doesn't need to know much about the subject matter to write editorials on education for The New York Times, ergo: the sound reading provision written into the No Child Left Behind law. And who says it's sound, Mr. Staples?
I have discovered that writing letters of protest to the education page editor Gail Collins is futile. She is unwilling to entertain any criticism of Staples' dismal performance.
By Brent Staples
Imagine yourself the parent of an otherwise bright and engaging child who has reached the fourth grade without learning to read. After battling the public school bureaucracy for what seems like a lifetime, you enroll your child in a specialized private school for struggling readers. Over the next few years, you watch in grateful amazement as a child once viewed as uneducable begins to read and experiences his first successes at school.
Most parents are so relieved to find help for their children that they never look back at the public schools that failed them. But a growing number of families are no longer willing to let bygones be bygones. They have hired special education lawyers and asserted their rights under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which allows disabled children whom the public schools have failed to receive private educations at public expense.
Federal disability law offers public school systems a stark choice: The schools can properly educate learning-disabled children — or they can fork over the money to let private schools do the job.
The instructional techniques for helping those children are well documented in federally backed research and have been available in various forms from specialized tutors and private schools for more than 50 years. Even so, few public schools actually use the best practices.
The fear of being bankrupted by private school tuition costs has pushed some school systems to get a move on. But this sense of urgency seems to have bypassed the school system in our nation's capital, which offers the worst reading instruction in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Washington's school system is being eaten alive by soaring special education costs. This problem was underscored in an eye-opening investigation by The Washington Post, which recently reported that the District of Columbia is spending 15 percent of its public school budget to send about 4 percent of the student body to private schools.
Poor management and budgetary practices are partly to blame. But special education costs are inevitably connected to a school system's failure to teach struggling readers effectively. These children, who arrive at school unprepared to learn, make up a significant part of any urban system's enrollment. Nearly all of them can learn to read when given teachers who have been trained to reach readers who do not catch on automatically.
Yet many of these struggling children end up labeled "learning disabled" even when there is nothing clinically wrong with them.
National reading scores suggest that Washington is a prime place for this kind of problem. When judged in terms of fourth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, the city ranks last among the big urban districts — with three-quarters of its low-income students reading below the basic level.
This can't be explained by poverty alone, since low-income children in Washington lag well behind similarly situated students in places like New York and Boston. The obvious conclusion is that other cities know something about teaching disadvantaged children that Washington does not.
The District of Columbia's reading deficit is surprising given that the city played a central role in the large federally backed research program carried out during the 1990's that is widely credited with laying out the blueprint for reaching struggling readers. Financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the early intervention study followed students at nine high-poverty schools in the District for five years, while experimenting with reading instruction.
The study debunked the widely held view that children learn to read "automatically." On the contrary, researchers found that struggling and poorly prepared children needed direct and intensive instruction to learn the sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet and the syllables in words.
The most successful program included extensive teacher training — and gave the children a great deal of work on vocabulary, writing and reading comprehension.
The early intervention study was so successful that it later became a partial basis of the sound reading provision written into the No Child Left Behind law. But researchers who worked in Washington at the time now say that they could barely get an audience with the school system's leadership, which appears to have been invested in unproved strategies and business as usual.
Some severely disabled children will always need be educated outside the public system. But many of the so-called learning-disabled children who flee public schools for private education are victims of disastrous reading instruction.
Nearly all of these children could be reached through methods like those that have been used for decades at specialized schools or that have recently been touted in the research literature. It won't be easy to put these programs in place. But with the dollar costs of special education spiraling upward — and the dangers of mass illiteracy painfully clear — there's no time like the present to get started.
New York Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES