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On improving literacy

I have three things to say about this story.

In Houston, a city known for its brilliant doctors and energy executives, adults are waiting in line for classes that teach basic literacy skills – reading, writing and speaking clearly. They can’t land jobs or promotions, can’t help their kids with homework.

At the same time, tens of thousands of students in local public school districts are failing to meet the state’s minimum academic standards, fighting to comprehend texts and straining to write essays.

Houston, educators and civic leaders say, has far too many citizens who can’t read well, the subject of a report scheduled for release Thursday by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action.”

The plan calls for educating parents of infants, making pre-kindergarten classes available to all youngsters, deploying reading specialists to low-performing schools and expanding adult education programs.

The foundation has not put a price on its ideas, but executive director Julie Baker Finck said she hopes the report serves as a rallying cry to turn more attention, volunteer support and funding toward literacy work.

“If we don’t in part solve low literacy levels for adults, then they will never be able to support their own child’s development and prepare them to enter kindergarten ready to learn how to read,” she said.

[...]

The Bush Foundation’s work dovetails with HISD’s latest campaign to improve literacy instruction. In a draft plan presented to the school board this month, Superintendent Terry Grier and his academic chief, Dan Gohl, set a goal that 100 percent of third-graders would meet the state’s reading standards by 2019.

Last year, 37 percent of HISD third-graders hit the recommended level, slightly lower than the Texas average.

“This is our profound crisis,” Gohl told the school board, “and we must do something dramatically different.”

The district’s plan calls for placing a trained “literacy leader” on campuses, increasing scrutiny of individual school programs, and trying to outfit classrooms with books for different reading levels.

Gohl said he plans to ask the board to approve $4 million next school year, largely to fund training. That doesn’t include the classroom libraries for kindergarten through second grade, which could cost another $9 million.

Let me preface this by saying that there’s no question that HISD needs to do a better job on reading and literacy. By every measure, HISD students perform poorly overall in reading, and this does have profound consequences for graduation rates, college achievement, and ultimately earning potential. Improving reading performance, at HISD and in many other school districts in Texas, would go a long way towards making a brighter future for many, many people.

Having said that, here are my concerns with this story.

1. More than half of this story is spent on the personal struggles of two people who dealt with dyslexia as children. One might conclude from this that dyslexia is a big part of the problem, but the story doesn’t actually make that connection. Dyslexia is something we’ve known about for a long time, and according to Wikipedia, it affects about five percent of children. The article uses dyslexia for narrative purposes, so I am unclear whether it is trying to say that dyslexia is a significant part of the problem and/or if local school districts do an inadequate job in dealing with dyslexic children. My guess is that this was for informational purposes only, as they say, and not really something that needs to be better addressed via policy.

2. More broadly, there’s nothing in the story about how these recommendations fit (or don’t fit) with what area school districts are already doing or planning to do, and there’s no reaction from any local school officials or other stakeholders like Gayle Fallon. Perhaps that’s because this story was in advance of the Foundation actually releasing their report – as of this publication, I still don’t see anything on their website about it – so I guess there isn’t anything for them to react to. Maybe this was just supposed to be a puff piece, but someone funded this study and someone took the time to write it, and from what little we see in this story they have some decent ideas – I particularly like the bit about educating parents of infants – so let’s take it seriously and see if it’s worthwhile. Otherwise, what’s the point?

3. That said, and bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the report myself, I’m disappointed that they didn’t put a price tag on anything. We’re in the middle of a policy debate in the Governor’s race about education and pre-k, mostly about funding but also about how to do it right. I understand it’s not their role to get in the middle of a partisan dispute, but nothing happens in this state without at least some understanding of the cost involved, and how to pay for it. In the absence of adequate state funding for pre-k, thanks to the 2011 budget cuts, some localities have tried to provide pre-k programs on their own; the one in San Antonio was successful, the one in Harris County was not. What approach would the Bush Foundation recommend? I for one would like to know.

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