A few years ago, I was listening to NPR as I often do in the mornings while driving to campus. A report about reading was the focus of this particular news item. For developing reading skills, 3rd grade seems to be the essential grade level. If a child is not reading on grade level at 3rd grade, in most cases, that child will never read well enough to be successful in school. Then came the most startling statement that I had heard in many years. The states of California and Arizona were estimating the number of prison beds they would need in the future by the percentage of 3rd graders in their states not reading on grade level.
I was so shocked that I almost wrecked on HWY 321. What is wrong with this picture? We can get the millions of dollars needed to put more and more teens and young adults in prison, which has no redeeming value, but we cannot put the same amount of money in teaching all of our children to read. Let’s not blame the politicians. They want to be re-elected, so they do what the voters want. Why has there not been a public outcry? This is nothing short of immoral.
However, the TN Department of Education is attacking this reading crisis in Tennessee in full force. On Wednesday, February 17, I attended the public announcement of our new educational emphasis Read to be Ready. If you want detailed information about this program, go to ReadToBeReadyTN.com. Why reading? Reading is the key that unlocks the door to academic success, and we have a problem in Tennessee. In 2015, only 45% of 4th grade students performed on grade level on the English Language Arts (ELA) TCAP exam. However, on the NAEP exams (exams administered by the United States Department of Education) only 33% of Tennessee students demonstrated proficiency (I addressed this discrepancy in a previous blog). The ambitious (but many believe attainable) goal set by the Tennessee Department of Education is that 75% of 3rd graders will be proficient in reading by 2025. I commend Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen for her leadership in this endeavor. We need a significant but focused goal to achieve in a critical area that will make a difference in the lives of our students.
The Department of Education realizes that schools and teachers alone cannot achieve this goal with our children; therefore, our leaders in the Tennessee Department of Education are trying to bring parents, businesses, community members, and non-profit & faith-based organizations together as equal partners in this initiative. It should be noted that at the public announcement of the program, Dollar General Store Corporation presented Commissioner McQueen a check for $1,000,000 dedicated to this reading initiative.
As we implement this reading program, my concern remains the academic achievement of boys in our elementary schools. Developmentally, boys are often far behind girls in the elementary and middle school grades. When specific reading skills are introduced in the elementary grades, many boys may not be developmentally ready to master those skills. They fall behind academically and often never catch up. The report on this initiative correctly identifies what teachers must do; that is, teachers must be able to differentiate instruction so that our boys will not be left behind. Differentiating instruction is seldom employed by teachers, and when attempted, is often done poorly. I believe differentiating instruction must become a priority of our teacher licensure programs in our colleges and universities and in-service programs in our school districts.
We must consciously choose more stories/books in the older elementary and middle school grades that boys like to read. I have shared this concern with numerous teachers and administrators over the years, and most agree. If we differentiate instruction, the essential reading skills could be taught with the stories/books that appeal to different students. I attended Davis Elementary School in grades 1-8 (4 teachers with each teacher teaching all subjects in two grades in the same room), and to this day, I remember the first stories that captured my total attention. First, the short stories by Jesse Stuart about daily life in homes and schools in rural eastern Kentucky fascinated me. These were stories that were like my family and friends in East Tennessee, and it gave my daily life a sense of worth that could be told to others. Second, any story about the Civil War always caught my complete attention as a young man in the south. I realize these topics may not be of interest to boys today, but it is critical that we identify stories/books of interest to young boys. It may be super heroes, famous athletes, Harry Potter, or a myriad of other topics. The failure to address this issue may result in the collapse of this critically important reading initiative.
Additionally, we must stop assigning classes filled with low performing students to weak and/or inexperienced teachers. These students need our best teachers in order to be successful. When our best teachers are assigned these students, the teachers must be recognized and rewarded rather than believing they are being punished by the administrators.
Finally, to Commissioner McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education—Maryville College is totally supportive of this initiative, and the faculty in our teacher licensure program will do everything within our power to help our schools and students achieve this important goal.
Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson