Joanna Weiss

The answer: Zero in on reading

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / August 30, 2011

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‘IF YOU are having fun, you are not learning.’’

So says a motto above a grade-school chalkboard in “Matilda,’’ one of my 7-year-old daughter’s favorite movies. And it summarizes one persistent back-to-school worry, at least in certain orderly suburban towns. When school begins tomorrow in much of the state, many parents will be fretting that their kids are stuck at desks, saddled with too much homework and too little art, taught with an eye toward standardized tests - learning too much, in a sense. Or at least too joylessly.

Meanwhile, in urban districts, there will be equal concern that kids aren’t learning enough - that we haven’t erased the achievement gap that led to standardized testing in the first place. There will be hyped-up charter schools, movements to purge bad teachers, searches for some magic bullet to make schools work better.

The dichotomy is striking, and it highlights the trouble with our current efforts to equalize schools. We do need standards to guarantee success. But standardized tests are a cudgel that creates a whole new set of problems. Which means perhaps we should be working on a different goal entirely: a single, simple benchmark that would be a foundation for future success.

In fact, the experts have already found one: reading proficiency by third grade.

When MCAS scores come out, most people focus on 10th grade numbers, since those will determine who graduates and who doesn’t. But there’s a lot of reason to focus on the lower grades instead, and ample research that shows that poor reading in mid-elementary school predicts a host of future problems. According to a June 2010 report by the Boston-based advocacy group Strategies for Children, inadequate third-grade reading skills are linked to behavior troubles, depression, high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, and crime.

This is, in large part, a socioeconomic problem: In Massachusetts, 43 percent of third-graders from poor families are proficient in reading, compared with 74 percent of other students. The greatest troubles come in urban districts, where kids are less likely to grow up with good nutrition, hear broad vocabularies being used at home, or have parents with the time or wherewithal to read them lots of books.

But the achievement gap isn’t the only problem. As the report notes, nearly a third of students who aren’t from needy backgrounds aren’t proficient readers by third grade. And even for kids who hit every MCAS benchmark, there are signs that schools aren’t focused on reading quite enough. Colleges and universities have complained for years about a decline in students’ ability to think critically about things they read. At state colleges, more than a third of freshmen need remedial courses.

“What we really need to strengthen,’’ said Margaret Blood, executive director of Strategies for Children, “is teaching comprehension, and defining literacy more broadly around listening and talking. It’s language.’’

All of this feels obvious, and to many teachers, it is. Kelly Kulsrud was a middle school math teacher in Santa Monica, Calif., when she had her epiphany: She was going over algebra problems with a struggling eighth-grader and discovered that, because he couldn’t read well, he didn’t know what his textbook was asking him to do.

Kulsrud went on to study literacy at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and now works as director of proficiency at Strategies for Children. The group has spearheaded a bill, currently being considered by the state Legislature’s Committee on Education, which would set up a new council of early-reading experts to focus state resources on literacy, for kids from birth to age 9. That means making sure elementary teachers are trained correctly, that volunteers are deployed in ways that are useful. And it means developing new ways to measure progress - which doesn’t necessarily mean written tests.

The bill would have no effect on MCAS - that’s a separate fight. But a focus on reading, done right, might make standards for older students seem less crucial - and far less onerous.

“If we could get it right in the early years of life,’’ Blood said, “everything else on the education agenda becomes easier.’’ And also, potentially, more fun.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.