Reading is a culture: Is the third time the charm?
If so, three renowned experts have discussed the rise in public school test scores, in just the past few weeks.
First, Arne Duncan did so at the Washington Post. Duncan was education secretary under Barack Obama.
This Monday, we offered a similar post, in reaction to Natalie Wexler's bogus claim about reading scores in The Atlantic.
We've been writing such posts for the past dozen years. Later that day, Kevin Drum followed suit.
If the third time was the charm, this information would start appearing widely, wherever journalism is sold.
In fact, this information won't travel at all. No one will call attention to this information or distribute it any further. We'll discuss this puzzling phenomenon in a Friday post, naming one new major name.
For today, let's discuss something Drum said in his Monday post. He said he doesn't know anything about the best way to teach reading:
DRUM (4/16/18): ...Last week I promised to write again about the latest NAEP scores, and today Bob Somerby reminds me to do that. Bob and I may have a fraught relationship, but one thing we agree on is a tiredness over the knee-jerk narrative that interprets all test scores at all times as evidence that American schools are failing. So let’s take a look.Drum went on to note the fact that reading scores actually have improved. Math scores have improved substantially more, but that's another story.
Over at the Atlantic, Natalie Wexler has a piece titled “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” Her theory is that it’s related to the way we teach reading, and I had it open in a tab over the weekend but eventually closed it because I don’t have any special knowledge of how best to teach reading. However, Bob points out that the first order of business is to see if it’s even true that American students have flatlined over the past 20 years, as Wexler claims.
According to Wexler, how should we be teaching reading? We don't know what she said! After her bogus opening premise, we stopped reading her piece. What would you have done?
Drum said he doesn't "have any special knowledge of how best to teach reading." It's possible that we do. In the interest of keeping hope alive, we'll offer a brief rumination.
Around the world, it has generally proven easier to improve math scores, harder to improve scores in reading. As a general matter, we'd say that's true for the following reason:
Reading is largely a culture. On the general level, math is more a set of definable, teachable learnings.
Kids who read "below grade level" will often come from "low-literacy" homes. There aren't a lot of books in the home, if there are any at all. These kids, though loved, haven't been read to from birth by their parents, as is often the case in higher-literacy homes.
When these kids arrive in public school, reading isn't part of their personal culture. By way of contrast, we still remember seeing a relative of ours, at Thanksgiving the year she was 4, pretending to read the New York Times as she sat on her parents' living room couch.
The adults around her had always done that. She wanted to do it too.
Reading is a culture. When kids are way "behind" in reading, their schools and their teachers should look for ways to make reading part of their personal culture. In their classrooms, they should be surrounded by piles of books—books about topics that interest them; books written at "reading levels" they can actually handle.
Children need to be smothered in books. They need to have plenty of time to read those books, both on their own in some hidden nook and also out loud with their friends. This is a normal part of middle-class culture. Kids from lower-literacy backgrounds don't get these experiences at home.
Children need to be introduced to the culture of reading. If they're invited to read lots of (readable) books about lots of (interesting) topics, the ability to "comprehend" what they read will tend to follow. They'll struggle to understand what they're reading.
Kevin hasn't been a public school teacher. We have been, right here in Baltimore. We taught loads of fabulous kids. They deserved to be smothered in (readable, interesting) books.
Having said these things, we'll now say something else—no one cares about any of this. More precisely, liberal journalists don't care about this, or about low-income kids in general. They've made this quite plain through the many long years.
Tomorrow, we'll return to Arne Duncan's op-ed column to discuss his thoughts about "raising learning standards." On Friday, we'll return to the topic of liberal disinterest in low-income kids. We'll also discuss the impossibility of forcing accurate information into our national discourse.
Nobody cares about low-income kids. That includes Rachel, Lawrence and Chris, even Jonathan.
Absolutely nobody cares. Could anything be more clear?