Reading is essential to success in classroom

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,…

Nah.

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.

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9 Responses to Reading is essential to success in classroom

  1. John Young says:

    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.

    you should, it embeds and deepens the state’s position that Component V is a legitimate enterprise and that test score growth should be the measure of a teacher’s value. To think otherwise would be naive.

  2. John Young says:

    Reblogged this on Transparent Christina.

  3. kavips says:

    If you testified before the House Committee you must be one whom legislators told us were in favor of SB51, not giving them any reason to vote against it… You may be interested that I just put up a peer-review of Dr Moats which stated her argument could be reduced to this: students are not reading correctly and her employer now offers something that corrects that. The reviewer, closed by saying her data pool was 7 years old and did not include any opposing research coming afterward that nullified her claims, and that there was no research to back up her grandiose claims, compared to lots of research supporting the educational policies she was disparaging…Contrary to Moats’ characterization, features such as each student’s choice, collaboration, access to interesting texts, post-reading conversation, and teacher modeling are all research-based features of effective reading lessons. .. (None of which are part of common core, and all of which make mockery of Mr. Hefferman’s justification for scrapping our current educational training system for one based on one commercial enterprise, Sopris Learning... )

    It’s a shame this did not get introduced to either the Senate or House committee during deliberations of SB51.

    • Frederika says:

      Please do not assume that I am clueless about issues surrounding Dr. Moats’ research, connections, or intentions. I was surprised to read that Moats was cited in the op-ed piece as a “noted reading expert.” [I’m glad that NEA did not sponsor that report.] It was not my intention to champion her work.

      I found the op-ed writer’s argument that too many kids in Delaware public schools are not learning to read well to be a poor justification for legislating changes in teacher preparation. Certainly having proper training, access to exemplary modeling of best practice, lots of opportunities to rehearse, coursework based on the most up-to-date theory and research, as well as lots of chances to observe master teachers at work in real classrooms is important to teachers-to-be.

      If one were to ask teachers what changes they would recommend to help promote reading instruction for students of both novice and experienced teachers, I would bet that they’d list class size limitations; better support for new and veteran teachers; relevant, differentiated professional development; and easy, consistent access to plentiful, useful instructional resources and materials. Long before citing improved teacher preparation.

      They would mention increased access to early childhood education for high needs students, improved parental engagement, and additional specialists to provide assistance for those children whose progress is particularly slow or troubled.

      I happen to think that it is OK to suggest that teacher prep programs should be examined every once in a while, held to high and uniform standards, and could benefit from some feedback about and from former students. I guess I assumed that this process was already in place. I was surprised that IHE representatives did not make more of an official fuss about SB51.

      It also struck me that if someone knows of particular short-comings of any teacher prep program(s), then it would be more appropriate to bring them up to standards instead of casting a broad net over all. But, in the public ed biz, we are used to aspersions being widely cast.

      The implication that our newer teachers and the local colleges that train them are deficient, unfamiliar with the significance of brain research, behind the times, and/or ill-prepared is troubling. This has not been my experience, and I have seen and worked with many new teachers over the past 40 years. In 1970, when I changed my major from foreign language studies to elementary education, I was stunned and mortified when someone recounted the age-old saw: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Every time (and I have heard this phrase many times) in the past 30 years when I hear someone glibly refer to attracting “the best and brightest” to teaching, I cringe. What am I? Chopped liver?

  4. DE Teacher says:

    Smaller classes please.

    Stop trying to place the blame on the teachers. I giggle (because I am amazed) that we are now going to blame those who train the teachers. Maybe it was the teachers who taught the high school students who then went to college to become teachers who then were also failed by the college. Aha! We found the source! Now we know who failed our current students causing them to have low test score.

    Reading is important, but you can’t tell me that the courses we took twenty years ago, along with our experience as teachers, cannot help our children today.

    (Why do I torture myself by reading the politics behind my profession? Some days it is crushing to my spirit.)

    • AGREED. This is a blatant blame game while all-the-while, the sensible actions that can be taken if funded properly – like guaranteed smaller class sizes e.g. NO WAIVERS) .

      I was at the House Education Committee Hearing on this bill, coming in probably half-way through the Q&A. There weren’t satisfactory answers from DDOE to many of the questions asked of them.

      Secretary Murphy blurted out that this boilerplate legislation was being implemented nation-wide and would allow Delaware to compete for funding down the road. Sound familiar?

    • Frederika says:

      It is spirit-crushing, isn’t it? Which came first the teacher or the college? Why did the teacher cross the road? To get away from it all.

  5. Joanne Christian says:

    The IHEs are under scrutiny continually. Not only from their regional credentialing agencies, but at the state level when the Professional Standards Board meets monthly to review regs., feedback in pre-K-12, and vo-tech programs, of where there may be some disconnect or lag noted within teacher prep. I’ve sat there on that board probably for 5 years and NEVER heard any push-back from IHEs when suggestions made on everything from classroom management, to introduction of certain pedagogy etc.. It has truly been a collaborative process, where all the tweaking, and re-arranging is on the IHEs to meet the needs of the ever changing student population, by request, recommendation or regulation by the stakeholders who will employ their grads to teach Delaware’s students. Why didn’t they make more of an “official fuss”? The process was already in place, as described above. Who would have thought someone would have leapfrogged procedure, protocol, and process in something as important as a child’s education, with a Hallmark sounding feel to it—and call it legislation? Contrary to what was passed, a black eye has been given to the incredible work model in place between IHEs, and PSB, on behalf of the children of Delaware. It only takes one ass to kick down a pretty good, sturdy barn. SB 51 pissed–not passed. And to reconstruct a whole new pretty good, sturdy barn will take YEARS to crosswalk overlay of regs to fed, state, and credentialing agencies–that were already aligned superiorly to normed references, reestablish confidence in our IHEs for student recruitment to become a teacher, restore the dignity of educators to the pedestal they SHOULD be on, and realize Delaware shot themselves in the foot by passing prose–without vetting “thems that knows” of all the overlay and domino demise the future–if any–of educator prep will be in this State.

    God Save the Queen!

  6. kavips says:

    I am curious as to why your position on HB 165 is different from most of those you associate… I would like to know more about why you thought support for 165 was good, because as a clear headed outsider, I’m not seeing the facts behind it.. I don’t mean that to sound in a bad way, 🙂 It applies to myself, since I’m the one who can’t see it…

    Apparently a lot of others (majority in the House) feel as you do… They can’t express why they are for the bill. Even Jacques himself has trouble… I was hoping now that it is summer, you could collect and post your thoughts on why this bill should go forward, or at least, why you and your organization should not stand in the way…

    Your being a “yes” on this is a real puzzle for me…

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