Breaking News: “Majority of freshmen tested at Baltimore City High School read at elementary level”*
Unfortunately, having entering 9th graders who are reading on an elementary school level is not “new (although it’s heartbreaking) news” to Title-1 high school principals. As happy as I am that some (kudus to them) news outlet has decided to bring this chronic and debilitating problem to the surface; it is essentially a public education “open-secret,” and further, it’s just a tiny fraction of the entire tragic story for too many of our public school children and their parents.
And, with some luck, who knows, this story could possibly inspire similar brave and revealing journalistic efforts on behalf of the “served the least” and “left out the most” children of our public school systems. Then, perhaps, a future news story exposé will proclaim something like: “Majority of freshmen tested at Benedict Arnold High School found to not have mastered the elementary school math (arithmetic) skills that will allow them to successfully engage 9th-grade algebra!”
But beyond educational journalists finally being able to zero in and focus on the real academic challenges that cause so many of our public schools to fail to effectively educate their students. Sadly, what presently reigns is the: “We keep doing what doesn’t work cynical-cyclical-calcified approach” that is used so often by public school systems in our nation. This academic achievement “wall” can only be overcome by the actions of some brave educational saboteurs; that is the only way that the children that are harmed the most by public education’s lack of adaptive ingenuity have any chance of winning at learning.
I was happy to hear that the next NYC chancellor David Banks was looking to make phonics-based reading methodology a system-wide initiative. Having been a high school principal, he is fully aware of how serious reading deficiencies serve as a terrible obstacle to success in all academic subject areas. In the same way that algebra 1 mastery is that “great-gate-keeper” for having the ability to pursue a post-high school STEM college major or career. Those freshmen students who have not realized (being somewhere in the “zip code” of) on-grade-level mastery of elementary English Language Arts (ELA), e.g., reading (or mathematics skills), are facing a situation of not only possibly being unable to be fully successful in high school but also finding that their after graduation options are severely limited.
With all of the other challenges confronting our public schools (e.g., covid-19), changing lanes out of ineffectual instructional practices won’t be easy, even when it is something that must be done. For example, transitioning teachers (and principals) out of the “whole-language” approach to the teaching of reading is going to require a major professional development “lift.” Trust me, as a superintendent, I found it was extremely hard for a Community School District to make major pedagogical shifts, so for a school system of 1.1 million students, it will be a significantly tricky project to pull off. Still, it can (and must) be done.
(For the record: There are some specific situational/instructional conditions (e.g., standardized test-taking techniques) where “whole-language”(WL) methodologies are highly beneficial. In fact, when I teach these techniques to school administrators, I don’t use the phrase “whole-language” so that folks can focus on the pedagogy and not get “hung-up” on the phraseology… Further, I’m going to leave the “beneficial WL” conversation here because I don’t want to confuse my non-professional pedagogical readers, and I don’t want to write 2-3 more pages! My superintendent/principal/AP/teacher colleagues and mentees; we can talk about this off-line.)
The switching of organizational pedagogical thinking process will also face the powerful “headwinds” of the many different and multiple “consultant lobbyists” who have undoubtedly already put their marketing powers to work. It is not unusual for many of these ineffective “school improvement” consultant forces to offer conflicting and contradictory advice (for a high price**) as they give teachers and school administrators psychological whiplash when priorities and initiatives are changed from year to year. But sometimes and for some things, there must be a change because we know that in the past, regardless of the name of the “new approach,” the status quo’s over-arching philosophy remains the same, even if it is not working for the vast majority of our children. In any event, any significant educational change will take a reasonable amount of time. But for that academically struggling student (in math or reading), time is either a friend or an enemy, depending on the school’s teaching and learning effectiveness-adaptiveness culture. This means that high school principals can’t wait for the (phonics approach) change to “take full effect”; you should (I hope) already have a plan to teach students high school level work who can’t read at a high school level; while you also bring them up to middle and then high school reading levels, you must do both, teach high school level work & raise reading capabilities, simultaneously! I know (I’ve heard it as a superintendent) that some high school principals will say that this approach is a “making bricks without straw” situation; it’s not easy, but it can be done. We must help students to successfully navigate high school course-work and also pass external (e.g., Regents exams) standardized tests; even if they can’t fully utilize the course textbook and/or they only read on an elementary school level; it’s has been done before: Assessing Accelerated Science for African-American and Hispanic Students in Elementary and Junior High School; Johnson, Michael A.; Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Science Assessment in the Service of Reform; 1991. In our case study, many of the students who were the “real faces” and focus of my article, and who indeed passed the NYS science and mathematics high school Regents exams, were actually elementary school students!
High School principals with students who bring major academic deficiencies into their freshmen year need not get “quick sanded” into a remediation-only approach. Students will naturally (and correctly in my view) resist this attack on their self-esteem; they know fourth grade work and they know they are not in the fourth grade! The only way to keep students emotionally engaged and inspired, and to insure that they achieve a quantitative (time/credits) and qualitative (knowledge/skills) high school graduation status, is to close their reading-comprehension, information-concepts, algorithmic-knowledge, vocabulary-phraseology, and test-taking-skills gaps; while at the same time, and this might sound counterintuitive, engage them in on 9th grade level and acceleration teaching-learning methodologies that can either neutralize or bypass the deleterious effects of their reading deficiencies. This might require the unconventional approach of the teaching of a science course without or employing the selective use of a textbook; while at the same time the school’s ELA department races to raise the students reading comprehension levels. Any other approach for 9th graders with major academic deficiencies, will ultimately lead to principalship and (even worse) the students’ failure.
**“$773 Million Later, de Blasio Ends Signature Initiative to Improve Failing Schools”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/nyregion/renewal-initiative-de-blasio.html