Who could quibble with this statement? “Reading is absolutely essential for success in school and in life, setting the foundation for access to and mastery of most other subject areas.”
This quotation is the opening sentence in an op-ed piece that ran in our local paper on May 16. The piece was written by a member of the State Board of Education. I am bound to upset someone with my take on the op-ed, but, this has been bugging me for the past week and a half. I am also aware that I am going out onto thin ice—taking offense, but hoping to not give undue offense. Maybe I am just overly-sensitive,…
The primary observations: Apparently local colleges of education have not been keeping up with the times; not been following the most up-to-date research; not modernized and adapted their “how to teach reading” programs; have not been discriminating enough about who is admitted to their teacher prep programs; have no idea how their former undergraduates have been doing once they enter the field of teaching.
The op-ed writer states: “Not all of the institutions preparing our teachers have kept pace with the changes in expectations that have been occurring in our K-12 public schools. Every new teacher graduating from college and getting a license to teach in Delaware needs to be adequately prepared for that first day in the classroom.”
I have worked with a number of student teachers and clinical program advisers. I can think of only one student teacher out of dozens (for whom I was the host teacher or who spent time in my classroom while hosted by a colleague) who should have been counseled out of pursuing a teaching degree. Additionally, I have taken plenty of education courses—mostly at UD, but some at DSU. I never felt that I was getting less than the best and most up-to-date information. (Well, maybe once. But he was weird.)
I have voiced my concerns to some of the powers that be about this concept of “First Day Ready,” a catchy little phrase that has gotten attention in the past few months. Teachers and principals tend to agree—most teachers do not reach their stride until between five and seven years of service. So, first-day readiness is apt to be much different for a brand new teacher, a third-year teacher, and a ten-year teacher, etc., and one’s expectations need to be adjusted. One’s expectations should be high but also reasonable and differentiated accordingly.
The secondary implication appears to be that, once again, working teachers—in this case, those immediately responsible for basic reading instruction—do not have the aptitude, skills, and know-how to teach reading effectively enough to advance all students.
I started teaching in 1972. Nominally, I taught third grade; however, in reality, I taught basic 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and/or 6th grade reading for the next 17 years. My point? I have some experience in this domain.
Obviously success in mastering reading is vital for all students. However, the op-ed piece is not really about the importance of learning to read. One could put together an entire separate piece all about the necessity of strong reading ability and literacy.
The intended purpose of the op-ed is to support legislation intended to strengthen teacher preparation. At the time the piece was published, SB51 had passed in the Senate, but had not yet passed in the House. It has since passed. The bill:
- Sets standards for entry into teacher prep programs: 3.0 minimum GPA*; or, top 50% of class*; or, proficiency on tests like SAT, ACT, or Praxis I. The bill continues the current allowance of a waiver of these requirements for up to 10% of applicants per year. (*Required for the applicant’s most recent two years of high school or college.)
- Establishes completion requirements in which candidates must meet standards for content knowledge and demonstrate instructional competence—the actual assessments will be determined in the next year. [In order to be licensed to teach in Delaware, new educators will need to pass both an approved content-readiness exam and some performance assessment of their teaching abilities. Additionally, special education teachers will need to demonstrate content knowledge if they plan to teach middle school or high school subjects.]
- Requires high-quality clinical experiences (a.k.a. student teaching) supervised by high-quality educators, with on-going evaluation of participants. Full-time student teaching of not less than ten weeks (= 50 days—one week more than a single marking period in “school time”), plus additional clinical experiences integrated throughout the program. Translation: teacher prep students need to be out in schools ASAP and have plenty of opportunities to observe and participate in classrooms.
- Mandates that future elementary school teachers be prepared in “research-based strategies for childhood literacy and age-appropriate mathematics content.” [I would add that effective instructional pedagogy for mathematics requires as much attention as does the methodology for reading.]
- Calls for the creation of a system to track and report data for a five-year period after graduation from a teacher prep program in order to provide information on the effectiveness of each institute’s program.
So, why does the op-ed seem to take potshots at novice teachers and/or Delaware teacher prep programs? Why make it feel sort of “personal?” Surely there are plenty of ready arguments for strengthening teacher prep. I cited a number that I thought were important and justified in testimony that I gave earlier before the House Education Committee.
Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, the AFT report authored by Louisa Moats, and mentioned in the op-ed, is an interesting and informative read. Moats’ analysis and commentary go well beyond recommendations to simply strengthen teacher prep. The report can be found at www.aft.org/pdfs/teachers/rocketscience0304.pdf
[And, if teaching someone how to read is rocket science, then I am willing to suggest that thinking about and discussing reading instruction in an informed and meaningful way may be equally complex and challenging.]
This report was issued in June 1999. Has it really taken us 14 years to wake up and pay attention?
The AFT report—which I read in its entirety—carefully lays out a comprehensive assessment of what is needed in order for teachers to provide the very best in reading instruction—which is what teachers would want to do, and willingly and enthusiastically do every day.
I agree whole-heartedly with the assertions Moats makes in a section of the report subtitled, “The difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated.” She elaborates: “Teaching reading is a job for an expert. Contrary to the popular theory that learning to read is natural and easy, learning to read is a complex linguistic achievement. For many children, it requires effort and incremental skill development. Moreover, teaching reading requires considerable knowledge and skill, acquired over several years through focused study and supervised practice.”
[I know that there is an obvious and burning question out there somewhere, just waiting to be asked.]
Over my 39 year teaching career, I have helped teach hundreds of children to learn to read, to better comprehend what they read, to enhance their reading proficiency, to better tailor their reading to nonfiction science texts, and to acquire ever more sophisticated skills and strategies. I taught third grade for seventeen years; I taught 6th grade science for the remaining 22 years.
While reading the op-ed piece, I felt immediate embarrassment–and defensiveness. The writer indicates that somehow our newest teachers (this would be primarily elementary teachers—the professionals who manage basic reading instruction) have neither been properly prepared to teach reading by Delaware institutes of higher learning, nor have they, as a whole, been doing a creditable job instructing reading.
I don’t know which party should feel more maligned–teacher prep programs or new teachers. I don’t know on what bases the allegation was founded. The citation that only about 1/3 of Delaware students have reached reading proficiency is hardly an indictment limited to novice teachers or in-state teacher education programs. It would be my assertion that this kind of failure is systemic and that all of us share a piece of it.
In Delaware, we have five IHE with teacher prep programs: University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Wilmington University, Wesley College, and Delaware Technical & Community College (2-year associate degree). Recent data indicates that for public school teachers with five or fewer years experience, almost 60% of new teachers hired by Delaware public schools come from in-state teacher prep programs, while about 40% come from institutions outside of the state.
I am not opposed to setting standards for teacher prep programs. I am not opposed to creating uniformity among the requirements for four-year teacher education programs. I do not find that the requirements set in SB51 are overly rigorous or exclusive. Other than issues of confidentiality, I am not opposed to the transmission of data back to the IHE about the success of their former students—I look at this in pretty much the same way that I looked at most of the assessments, quizzes, and tests that I gave in class. Yes, these tools told me about students–what they learned or did not learn, at the same time, revealing student misunderstandings, gaps in learning, or failures to connect the critical Big Ideas of multiple lessons. However, the results told me as much about my teaching of content, of scientific concepts, and skills related to the 6th grade science curriculum. These items were as much formative assessments for me as they were documentation of my students “threads of understanding.”
Moats’ own summation strikes me as noteworthy: “The fact that teachers need better training to carry out deliberate instruction in reading, spelling, and writing should prompt action rather than criticism. It should highlight the chronic gap between what teachers need and what they have been given. It should underscore the obligation of licensing programs to combine coursework with practice on a range of predefined skills and knowledge. The deficiencies in teacher preparation represent both a misunderstanding of what reading instruction demands and a mistaken notion that any literate person should be able to teach children to read. We do not expect that anyone who appreciates music can teach music appreciation, or that anyone who can balance a check book can teach math. Just about all children can be taught to read and deserve no less from their teachers. Teachers, in turn, deserve no less than the knowledge, skills, and supported practice that will enable their teaching to succeed. There is no more important challenge for education to undertake.”
Thank you, Dr. Moats.