HERBERT (9/29/05): An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:How's that for a disturbing passage? Herbert asks. Not only is the picture horribly bleak for low-income and minority kids, but we find that only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently. I respectfully suggest that we may be looking at a crisis here.
''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of non-poor students.
For starters, a note about the concept of proficiency. To a large extent, proficiency is in the eye of the beholder. That is, researchers can set the standard for proficiency wherever they please, producing various results in the process. In the study by this task force, what did fourth-graders have to do to show they were proficient in reading? Herbert doesnt attempt to say. Therefore, when we read that only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently, we dont really know what is being said. Nor is it clear that the non-poor fourth-graders are really involved in a crisis.
Beyond that, the quoted passage might seem a bit puzzling. If most non-poor fourth graders cant read proficiently, then Herberts readers might assume that these kids read at third grade level or below. If so, what exactly does it mean when were told that low-income students read about three grade levels behind that? We havent looked at this study yet. But as often happens when mainstream scribes write about public ed, Herberts column draws sweeping conclusions on the basis of poorly-parsed data.
On the other hand, Herberts column reminded us of what we saw, with our own eyes, during twelve years in the Baltimore schools—a dozen years in which we taught the worlds most deserving children. As weve noted before, many low-income kids are already several years below traditional grade level in reading by the time they reach fourth or fifth grade. A fair number arent really reading at all. And yes, this is an educational disaster—crisis barely does it justice. That is why we searched Herberts column for advice about what the nation should do. And when we did, our analysts groaned as they saw the same tired solutions:
HERBERT: The report makes several recommendations. It says the amount of time that children spend in school should be substantially increased by lengthening the school day and, in some cases, the school year. It calls for the development of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core subject areas and a consensus on what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.For our money, none of those familiar old saws address the leading correctable problems in the nations urban schools. But we especially groaned at the recommendation weve highlighted. Low-income fourth graders cant read at all—so we need to make our standards more rigorous! This absurd solution to a human disaster has now been pushed by three successive presidents—by Bush, by Clinton and then Bush again. Weve challenged its groaning illogic each time—and well do so again, all this week.
The report also urges, as many have before, that the nation take seriously the daunting (and expensive) task of getting highly qualified teachers into all classrooms. And it suggests that an effort be made to connect schools in low-income areas more closely with the surrounding communities.
Poor fourth-grade kids cant read at all. So we need to set our standards higher! Poor kids are light-years behind the non-poor. So we need to define one set of graduation standards! In our view, such recommendations tend to come from people who have never set foot in urban schools—and think tanks funded by both major parties sometimes seem to be full of such people.
TOMORROW—PART 2: Why cant Calixto read? (For a superlative profile from yesterdays Post, you know what to do—just click here.)
ALSO TOMORROW: Well finish our critique of John Harris book in the next several days.