The Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of Virginia, James Lane invited superintendents all across the state of Virginia to a literacy summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. Citing “Virginia’s steady decline in reading test scores over the last five years” Lane convened the conference on Monday, February 24th, 2020, according to an article by Katherine Knott from The Daily Progress.
According to Knott’s article, Lane spoke of Virginia’s standard of learning decline in reading pass rates and how that steady decline doesn’t generate the “same urgency as a precipitous drop.” Any parent of a child with dyslexia can tell you all about the difficulty in trying to generate a sense of urgency when one’s child is facing reading problems, is identified as dyslexic or is facing roadblocks to adequate instruction in the public schools.
School district staff can be the first to tell parents that “we don’t diagnose dyslexia.” While that is true just as they don’t diagnose a physical impairment requiring ramps or other accommodations to the classroom, district staff can certainly respond to the information evident in evaluations and offer those ramps. However with a reading disorder it’s a very different journey. Ramps are often not offered and parents must learn that they must not only ask, but often strongly advocate for their child’s educational needs. School division reading pass rates by subgroups provide information as to which groups in any community have access to effective advocacy for the needs of those children. This is an issue all across the country, not only in struggling schools but in even small wealthy school districts such as Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS) in northern Virginia where per pupil spending exceeds $20,000.
More often than not, in this country parents are told “student’s read at all different times, let’s wait and see what the spring tests show” or some others push back and delay the child’s access to what decades of known research will tell you that children require. Federal law requires that all school districts identify students in their districts who have disabilities but it is often parents who have to bring their concerns to the school district’s attention and push for appropriate interventions. FCCPS is no exception. This early identification of a child at risk is so critical to the course of the impact of this challenge on the developing child and their education journey. Early interventions with researched based instruction that includes the explicit instruction in the components known to be a factor in the development of the skills needed to learn to read such as phonics, decoding among others is so important because while children are learning to read in kindergarten through second grade, in grade three they begin reading to learn.
Where does that leave the child who does not read until 4th grade? What program and which teacher will then go back with them and help them review other missed skills that were impacted by their inability to read or that began to develop in those missed early reading years such as spelling, syntax and grammar to name a few? A 5th grade student is facing 5th grade level spelling words not the words they might be ready for having been reading for only 6 months. What a challenge not only for the child but the teacher who faces a classroom where statistics tell us that as many as 1 in five students have some form of dyslexia much of it yet to be unidentified. If this issue is not identified thoroughly early, we are creating a problem our teachers more than likely do not have the skills or resources to solve. Undiagnosed dyslexia and other learning disabilities are known to cause anxiety an issue that also impacts classroom performance, educational opportunity and puts students at risk for drug use and depression. Students in Falls Church City Public Schools are no exception.
Every school division needs reliable screening measures and staff capable of interpreting them. These results and their true meaning should be clearly communicated to parents. Unfortunately this does not always happen. Parents should not be expected to be trained to know what those test results really show and often do not understand their meaning or worse, are misled. In fact there is a state law HB410, making its way through the Virginia legislature right now in Richmond that would require school divisions to notify parents when their children do not meet assessment benchmarks including reporting of the assessment scores and subtest scores. This needed legislation should not even have to be required.
While sound research tells us what we need teachers to know in order to teach children to read, public universities and colleges across this country still do not provide this reading instruction in their education programs. Keynote speaker Emily Solari, professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, stated Monday at the literacy summit, as reported by Katherine Knott from the Daily Progress, what parent advocates know all too well, “We’ve known about the science of reading for years, and it’s not making it into the classroom.”
What was alarming was the good news. Solari announced that the University of Virginia Curry School will be rolling out a “new curriculum for its reading courses that will include the information about the science of reading and how teachers can apply it in the classroom.” While this is great news, why have they not been doing this all along? Why do our public universities continue to graduate generations of young teachers without the tools they need to teach children to read when we have known so much about the science behind that process for decades? She went on to say, “it’s not the fault of the teacher; it’s the fault of the system.”
Here’s an idea: Education programs at public universities and colleges may only receive public funding if their reading programs provide their students with reading instruction so they may graduate with the training required to provide research based instruction to students in their classroom from day one. Burdening local school divisions with the task of funding this required training is ludicrous, destined to be too little too late for scores of children, and easily creates haves and have nots across individual states and the country. It’s like expecting hospitals to teach men and women the science of medicine and how to treat patients after they are hired to do the job.
Locally, Falls Church City Public Schools sent two representatives to this summit Chief Academic Officer, William Bates and Reading Specialist Katy Riordan from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. The community, especially the parents of the one in five students in our school district that have some form of dyslexia, would love to hear about what they learned and how it will inform instruction moving forward and more about this topic such as how students are identified, interventions, availability of training provided to teachers and more.
FCCPS despite its dedicated staff, emphasis on a world class education and excellence, has not been immune to this decline in reading pass rate scores. Pass rates, available on the state website, while very positive overall, show this decline when you select the division test by test results. However the real story for discussion in FCCPS is the pass rates revealed by the division by subject area results. It’s clear school board level focus is needed on what tools our teachers require so they can fully serve the students who need the most help. These subgroups need access to the specific instruction they so obviously require and they too deserve the opportunity to benefit from the education resources of this wealthy community. A school division has no greater duty than to teach children to read and perhaps we need to think about what President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.“