Over the past few years, the question of whether 3rd graders can read, and what we should do about it, has dominated education discussions, not just in Detroit and Lansing, but across the country. 3rd grade reading laws have taken the country by storm, with state legislatures passing laws that would hold back any 3rd graders who fail to earn a “proficient” score on a high-stakes reading exam. Here in Michigan, we have our own 3rd grade reading law that, starting in the 2019-20 school year, would require schools to retain any 3rd grader who doesn’t earn a proficient score on the English Language Arts portion of the state M-STEP exam (though there are many exemptions).
Foundations and the business community are laser focused on 3rd grade reading scores as well, and it’s one of main priority areas in the recently released report from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.
On the surface, this all sounds great. Of course we want all third graders to be able to read. The problem, however, is that we’ve tried all this before – and it didn’t work.
No Child Left Behind
In 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act. The law stated that by 2014, every student in the country would be proficient in math and reading. Much like today’s 3rd grade reading laws, NCLB stated a bold goal that was centered around students earning a “proficient” score on a high-stakes standardized test.
So what happened?
To state the obvious, NCLB failed miserably in attaining the goal of universal proficiency in math and reading. But in addition to not reaching this audacious goal, there’s significant evidence that NCLB had a negative impact on student learning, with test scores on the NAEP (dubbed the nation’s report card), the SAT and ACT, and the international PISA exam either stagnating or declining while NCLB was in place.
One hypothesis is that by making test scores the sole metric upon which schools, teachers, and students were judged, we turned school – and particularly schools serving low-income students – into one giant exercise in test-prep. This is a problem because if one’s education consists of being drilled on content skills that are likely to appear on the test, you’re not likely to be exposed to a broad and engaging curriculum, be afforded the time to gain a conceptual understanding of math topics, or have open-ended discussions on important pieces of literature. Yet it’s precisely these activities – that take up more class time and are a bit messier than students in rows doing worksheets – that are most likely to help students learn to read, do math, and be critical and creative thinkers in the long-run.
My fear is that the hyper-focus on gaining proficiency on 3rd grade reading exams may have the same unintended consequences that the well-meaning No Child Left Behind law did.
A recent piece of research – covered in the Washington Post earlier this year – shines a light on these unintended consequences. Researchers at the University of Texas took videos of students participating in what they called “agentic” learning experiences. In these classrooms, students were active learners – participating in discussions, following their interests, and directing their own learning – and their experiences were rich in content and language, both oral and written. Exactly the type of classrooms many of us would want for our children.
The researchers then showed the videos to dozens of other teachers, principals, and superintendents who worked with low-income students and English language learners. Almost universally, these educators said that while they liked these educational practices, they couldn’t implement them because their students were too far behind. Citing the famous “word-gap” study by University of Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risely – which found that low-income children heard 30 million fewer words than affluent children in their first four years of life – these educators concluded that their students simply lacked the vocabulary to engage in more active learning experiences. Yes, these agentic practices were good educational practices, these educators seemed to imply, but first we need to catch our students up. In the words of the study’s authors:
“Teachers and administrators in our study seemed to have ideas about which children deserved, could handle, or would be successful with sophisticated kinds of learning experiences that included discovery, experimentation, discussion, problem solving, and long-term projects – all aspects of manifestations of agentic learning.”
In other words, some children get sophisticated learning experiences, other students get drill work. After all, they need to “catch up.” But what this means is that millions of students across the country will never get to agentic, sophisticated learning experiences, but instead will always be taught through the lens of their deficits, and offered worksheets.
Quality learning experiences for all children
All along, however, it’s these agentic learning experiences that are far more likely, over the long-term, to create better readers. And indeed, this is what the study found, with students in the agentic classrooms far outscoring similar students a few years down the road. We may think that the remedy for students who struggle with reading is more time with words – decoding, finding the main idea of a passage – when in fact it might be a whole different set of practices entirely – like giving students more time to explain ideas, follow their interests, and engage in a broad curriculum with less literacy instruction.
The problem with a hyper-focus on third grade reading is obviously not the ultimate goal, but the continued push to increase pressure and accountability around a single test in a single year. This is almost guaranteed to make it more likely that teachers will resort to drills and test prep to try and catch students up – and resort to these practices even earlier in a child’s education. But these practices come at the expense of the educational practices that are, over the long-term, more likely to help students gain strong literacy skills and a love of reading, as well as a whole host of other important skills we should want for our kids – like a sense of autonomy, curiosity, and creativity.
Instead of test scores, if we want to ensure that all of our students have a strong foundation for a lifelong love of reading we should place our focus on what’s actually happening in our K-12 classrooms and the day to day experiences of our students. Are classrooms engaging, and rich in content and language? Do students get to explore their interests? Are they eager to learn? Are teachers paid enough to be able to attract passionate educators to the field? Is our school system sufficiently funded to afford top of the line curriculum and resources?
These questions are much harder to answer and much harder to solve than simply stating that all children will be proficient in reading and moving on. The latter approach hasn’t worked over the past fifteen years, and there’s little evidence it will work now. Instead, let’s focus on giving every student the highest quality educational experiences possible. If we do that, everything else should fall into place.