Sunday, April 10, 2011

schools, reading and poverty

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has a new report which can be downloaded from their website, showing the connection between reading proficiency at third grade, the effects of poverty and dropping out from school prior to completion of high school.

Many lay the blame on failing American schools on the schools themselves or on their teaching staff. But the profound effects of poverty on student success as described by this report tell another story.
"Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school, compared to 6 percent of those who have never been poor. This rises to 32 percent for students spending more than half of their childhood in poverty.

For children who were poor for at least a year and were not reading proficiently in third grade, the proportion that don’t finish school rose to 26 percent. That’s more than six times the rate for all proficient readers.
One might assume from this study that one of the handles we might have on accelerating learning in American schools would be to more effectively push children's reading success at an earlier age. According to the report,
"Educators and researchers have long recognized the importance of mastering reading by the end of third grade. Students who fail to reach this critical milestone often falter in the later grades and drop out before earning a high school diploma."
People reading such reports, should first read a book called How to Lie with Statistics, because there are very simple ways to manipulate data to create additional emphasis raising the weight of particular ideas that you want to put forth. In one line of the report it states "One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers." In another statement it mentions the "22 percent who have lived in poverty." One in 6 seems like a pretty hefty number, until you realize that it is only 16.67%. In other words, and slightly under emphasized in the report, poverty is a significantly greater problem than the simple matter of reading ability at the 3rd grade level. Those driving the discussions of school reform in the US often seem more interested in tweaking small aspects of education than in addressing the root cause of poor performance, poverty. Here in Arkansas, 57 percent of Arkansas public school students were from low-income families, a 12 percent increase from 45 percent in 1999.

I'm not sure how educators can reconcile all this with the experience in Finland's schools where they do not begin teaching reading in schools until age 7 (our second grade), but then far surpass American students in reading by age 15 as measured in PISA testing. Better readers in 25% less time should be the headline capturing the attention of American educators, but it is not. One of the differences in Finland schools is that teachers are better able to time "reading" to "reading readiness", and can spend the early years focusing on other important components of child development, like cooperative and creative problem solving, and even wood shop.

Can it be that spending more time in recess and creative activities might offer children in poverty greater success and opportunity in school? Please don't hold your breath waiting for American educators to come to their senses. But,

Make, fix and create.

The image above is of my reliquary of wood which contains samples of 25 Arkansas species. The piece is inspired by the old children's game "Here's the church, here's the steeple, open the doors and see all the people." My small maple chapel is peopled with the woods of Arkansas.

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