By April 14, 2015 Uncategorized 10 Comments

“WHAT is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit in the building!” – Derek Zoolander, former male model, 2001.

The dim-witted Derek Zoolander knew very little about public education but even he realized that the right conditions are critical for students to be able to learn to read successfully.

As a middle school educator for the past 22 years, it troubles me greatly that so many of our students have been turned away from books by the time they hit seventh grade.

While our school has many voracious readers who grab new books as soon as they hit our library shelves, a significant number of our students read precisely ZERO books each year outside of what they are specifically assigned to read.

The same thing is happening with students in YOUR school and in EVERY school across America.

And this is a HUGE problem.

Part of the challenge of course is the fast-paced, technology-driven, instant gratification nature of our culture. When most young people are given the choice between playing a video game, surfing the web, or reading a book, the choice of reading often comes in a distant third. The same is true with far too many adults in our society.

The sad reality is we have way too many children in schools today who believe reading is ONLY for learning – NOT for fun.

I would never claim to be a reading teacher. However, I also know that the only way to get really good at anything is to practice. Therefore, my advice to children would be fairly simple: To become a better reader, you have to practice. You have to read a lot. Therefore, go find things you like to read and read them.

I know .  .  . I said it was simple.

To add to the last point, I believe that one of the more crucial aspects in supporting a culture of reading in school or at home is to give them CHOICE. We need to encourage students to pick books that they like, and if they find the book less than thrilling, stop reading it. There are simply too many other books out there that might engage and inspire them more.

The where and with whom they read is equally critical. Think of anything young children love to do – running across the playground, playing sports, singing, dancing, or drawing pictures. All of these involve tremendous joy, access to materials, lots of choice, time for practice, and modeling (whether from adults in their lives or friends or television).  The same conditions are needed to support young children’s development into a thoughtful, engaged reader.

When I think back to my school experience, I resented when I was forced to read books that held no interest for me while being told to put other books away. I still remember at age fourteen being directed by my junior high English teacher to stop reading Stephen King’s book, Salem’s Lot, in her class because “it was evil.” Okay, maybe just a little, but, so GOOD too! I finished the book in three days at home.

I have read nearly every one of King’s books since that time.

At the same time, our class spent several weeks (or was it months?) reading Charles Dicken’s “Great Expectations” out loud, one student at a time, which honestly bored me the death. Uncle Pumblechook – Really?!

I have never read another book written by Charles Dickens since that time.

Let me get back to the point. As educators, we must provide the right conditions to ensure children experience joy in reading. We need more than just a center for ants. We need a jumbo-size reading experience that FITS the students, not the other way around.

We have to provide access by having well stocked and well-organized classroom and school libraries where students can take books between home and school often. Again, this provides students with CHOICE, so students read independently on topics that are engaging and interesting for them, increasing that child’s sense of ownership.

We also develop joy for reading in being joyful ourselves – reading our own adult texts and those of our students and talking about our reading lives publicly, exuding our own passion for reading.

Modeling then is both my earlier point that we need to live a love of reading in our classrooms and that our young readers need us to rigorously study what it means to learn to read so we can demonstrate those behaviors in our teaching.

And this rule is not for just language arts teachers. ALL school personnel must model a love for books, for reading, and for learning. And  we must share this with kids. Nothing is more important than our own energetic and contagious love of reading in promoting a school culture of literacy.

This, then, is one of my central concerns about the current national trend of using grade retention as an “incentive” for students who read below grade level.

The current Oklahoma Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) strikes fear in the hearts and minds of thousand of children across Oklahoma each year. With third grade reading tests being administered this week, many of our young students are experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety, stress, insomnia, and fear. How on Earth does this promote a love for reading?

These children are reading because they HAVE to, because they are afraid that failure to do so will lead to humiliation, disappointment, and loss of friends due to being retained.

Many of these kids are not reading for FUN, rather they are reading out of fear. These will be the same students I receive in my middle school three or four years from now who read zero books a year.

I satirized the current overemphasis on testing and it’s effect on student’s reading habits in my 2014 Year in Review post last December. Sadly, it is not far from the truth.

January: As a sign of the times, third grade teachers across Oklahoma administer the first of approximately 450 diagnostic reading pretests to their students. These preliminary assessments are given five times a day to track students’ hourly growth towards individual reading goals. Further, these tests are conducted to ensure kids are adequately prepared for the weekly grade-level and bi-weekly site-level formative tests which are designed to equip students for success on the monthly district benchmark assessments prior to the annual state OCCTs in April. When asked to comment about this exceptional preparation for state testing, eight-year-old Joey Nelson from Tulsa said, “I HATE BOOKS!”

It now appears that Senator Clark Jolley and others in the Oklahoma legislature want to push this even farther.

If Jolley’s Senate Bill 785 passes the House, schools would be required to provide even more intensive remediation (test prep) for students below grade level. Very little if any of these materials would be reading materials chosen by the student. And do you think the state is going to provide any additional funding to support these remediation efforts? Don’t hold your breath!

The measure also modifies the proficiency level for automatic promotion to the fourth grade from a score of limited knowledge to at or above the proficient level. Thus, a score of limited knowledge would result in a student being ineligible for automatic promotion to the fourth grade, unless the student qualifies for a good cause exemption, probationary promotion, or fails to accumulate evidence of proficiency through a student portfolio.

This would likely mean that the number of students at risk of being retained would nearly double, to almost 30% of all students in Oklahoma. For perspective, here are the results of last year’s third-grade reading Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests (OCCT):

1,107 — or 2.2 percent — scored Advanced

32,149 — or 63.9 percent — scored Proficient

7,011 — or 13.9 percent — scored Limited Knowledge

7,917 — or 15.7 percent — scored Unsatisfactory

Per the bill’s summary, the measure also extends the sunset for probationary promotion until the 2019-2020 school year. The probationary promotion team is renamed the student reading proficiency and retention review team, and the measure requires the team to meet in person to review the reading performance of a promoted student.

Many districts struggled last year to conduct these time-intensive meetings for just their students scoring unsatisfactory. Now, they will need to have a promotion meeting for students who scored one point below proficient.

And, let’s not forget that the test our state erroneously calls a reading test is actually a language arts test that only partially assesses a child’s reading comprehension. Can we at least agree not to expand the retention net unless and until our state adopts a true measure of READING proficiency!

I honestly wish that Senator Jolley would take some additional time to research this issue before pushing through more destructive legislation. He could start by looking at the research behind what has happened in Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush started this nonsense 15 years ago.

The passage of the third grade retention law in Florida in 2002 may have contributed to some short-term increases in reading scores. However, it is difficult to attribute these gains solely to passage of this legislation. The Florida legislature also simultaneously committed hundreds of millions of NEW funding for early education and resources for reading remediation.

This is a big piece of the Florida literacy initiative that Oklahoma’s lawmakers have conveniently overlooked.

It is also rarely reported that these increases tend to disappear as students move through the rest of their academic careers.

Boston College Professor Walter Haney took a closer look at the Florida NAEP scores since 2003 and made some interesting conclusions. The following is a summary of Haney’s research as discussed on

Florida has been forcing unprecedented numbers of minority pupils to repeat third grade, on the order of 10 to 12 percent, meaning that fewer low-scoring students enter grade 4 at the normal age.

In a report titled, “Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap),” Haney wrote, “It turns out that the apparent dramatic gains in grade 4 NAEP math results are simply an indirect reflection of the fact that in 2003-04, Florida started flunking many more students, disproportionately minority students, to repeat grade 3.” Percentages of minority students flunked were two to three times larger than percentages of white children forced to repeat grade 3. Haney says this likely explains the striking decrease in the race-based score gap.

Haney notes that making students repeat a grade based on test scores has been shown by many researchers to be ineffective at improving achievement over the long-term. It does produce increased scores in the repeated grade, and in some studies it has shown to produce increased scores in the subsequent year or two. This means that students who enter grade four after spending a second year in third grade are likely to score somewhat higher than if they had not repeated grade 3.

But within a few years any academic gains disappear, as Chicago researchers documented in that city (see Examiner, Spring-Summer 2004).

In short, we will likely see increases in Oklahoma’s reading scores for third grade and fourth grade this year. Fourth grade scores will increase because the lowest level readers were held back. Third grade scores might increase because those students retained are a year older and will hopefully score higher this year.

Yet, the proof in the pudding is what happens as these students move through their education careers.

As most research shows, these short-term gains are typically erased within five years. And, as I have shared before, the long-term impact of this legislation, as well as Governor Bush’s other education policies, is a full point decline in Florida ACT scores over ten years, the largest decline in the nation during that time.

Yeah, that’s a model we want to follow.

As is typically the case, I’ve gone about a thousand words beyond my original goal. For that reason, I will let this sweet young lady bring this post home for me.

Like Zoolander, she has a vastly different vision for education.

She’s not a big fan of the “Florida miracle” either!

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