“Kid can’t read at seventeen/the words he knows are all obscene/but it’s alright”

For this year’s state exams, my school has a target rate of something like 57% proficient. This means that almost half of the kids across the entire school are not expected to demonstrate grade-level reading and writing abilities by the end of the school year. I do not believe this is an intentional lowball target. Instead, the goal takes into account the fact that we are a Title 1 school with a population that has so many issues that impact them outside of school which affect their ability to learn. In “How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong”, Douglas Downey suggests that the root causes of the so-called achievement gap are already in place by the time a child enters kindergarten. This exacerbates the challenges that teachers have to improve the lives of their students.

Going back to the opening, despite the fact that we concede that a large percentage of kids are unable to read and write at their grade level, our educational system insists on presenting them with curriculum that is supposedly at grade level. Kids are forced to wrestle with material that we already know they will not grasp. I see it all the time. A class will be reading (or listening to the teacher read) a chapter from the current class text. Afterwards, when the teachers ask basic questions about what they just read, the kids are either silent or give answers that are so far off the mark of the basic plot. We then wonder why behavior management seems like an insurmountable task. Our kids are overwhelmed and are spacing out as the words on the page mush together and sound as if they are being read by Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Instead of meeting kids where they are, we set the goal posts far off into the distance. Why? Because we are forced to adhere to standards (or benchmarks, or whatever word is in vogue) that educators had no part in creating. By God, we will force feed material that we’ve already concluded is outside the grasp of our students and then follow up with drill-instructor training on comprehension skills. When data like NAEP are released, we collectively shudder and hope that we can throw more money at the problem.

The first step in solving this? Get kids to read. Let’s not get too picky on what is age-appropriate. Neil Gaiman nailed it with this speech. I’ve seen this work. I was able to take a kid who abhorred reading and convert him into a kid who begged his father to take him to the bookstore to go shopping for books. It should seem obvious but the only way to get into reading and improve reading is by reading.

I feel like public education is at a serious crossroads. Using the 57% proficiency metric as a barometer, so many of our kids will enter adulthood without the basic skills needed to navigate their lives.