Several years ago, when I was the principal of a Philadelphia public school inside the city’s prison system, I witnessed a sad truth that I’ve seen play out repeatedly throughout my tenure as an educator. I found that, on average, incarcerated school-age youth (median age: 16) were reading below the sixth grade level. Not having learned to read was the single greatest weakness among these youths, who struggled with pronouncing and understanding vocabulary and demonstrated difficulty with reading fluency and comprehension.
These are the same deficiencies that I see in my current school every day, and the deficiencies that so many hardworking teachers and principals are grappling with in their respective schools, all across the country. The truth is, the literacy development of children in urban communities is dismal in general and incremental at best. After a myriad of local and national efforts decade after decade to get all children reading on grade-level, reading achievement has remained essentially flat.
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In Philadelphia, we’ve been here before. In 2003, “less than a quarter of fifth grade students in Philadelphia public schools scored proficient on the state’s mandatory literacy test.” At that time teachers and district officials agreed that “literacy instruction is a difficult and complicated endeavor, particularly in Philadelphia, where so many students are reading below grade level.” While that has improved somewhat, we are still not anywhere near where we need to be.
What makes teaching reading so hard? As a former high school principal, I’ve heard the claims that elementary schools were not doing enough to prepare students for middle and high school. Now, as an elementary school principal, I push myself to do everything possible to get all my students to read on grade level. At Laura H. Carnell School, we’ve invested in and implemented new curriculum, teacher coaching and development, evidence-based literacy initiatives, data-driven instruction, interventions, and early-learning community partnerships. All of these efforts have been designed to promote early literacy and get 100 percent of 8-year-olds reading on-target by third grade.
With good reason: Studies have shown that children who cannot read by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, a contributing factor to getting on the pipeline to prison, where 70 percent of inmates read at or below a fourth grade level.
But the goal seems unreachable at times. While my teachers and I have been able to achieve consistent growth in the number of K-3 students reading on-target—including a 23.8 percent increase in 2016-2017, as measured by independent and instructional reading levels—that success has not transferred to our PSSA results.
We are not alone in this. According to 2017 PSSA test scores, released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the School District of Philadelphia saw a 5 percentage point increase in PSSA reading scores, rising from 30 percent to 35 percent. That means roughly 550 more students made it to the Read by 4th goal this year, the new reading level benchmark in the city. It also means approximately two-thirds of Philadelphia students cannot read at grade level by fourth grade. If children can’t read by then, they are more likely to drop out of school—and end up getting their schooling in prison.
Studies have shown that children who cannot read by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, a contributing factor to getting on the pipeline to prison, where 70 percent of inmates read at or below a fourth grade level.
Read by 4th is a citywide effort of over 90 organizations, convened and managed by the Free Library of Philadelphia, that aims to significantly increase the number of students in Philadelphia entering the fourth grade at reading level by 2020. It’s a huge effort. But proclaimed the largest effort of its kind in the city of Philadelphia to tackle the literacy crisis in the city of Philadelphia, is this just another doomed attempt to solve the challenges of reading instruction?
Something is fundamentally wrong. Are there unclear relationships among the different assessments and metrics we are using to record and report reading level progress? Is there too much emphasis on judging the success of teachers and schools on PSSA test scores rather than individual growth? Or are we simply doing it wrong?
Through my own pondering of this question, I was led to a comment by Alfred Tatum, dean of University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Reading for Their Life, on twitter: “Failure to teach kids how to read well places them in a helpless academic position.” In other words, it is the teaching of reading that has to be fixed.
The principal of an elementary school in the Bronx told a reporter in 2016 that she had been searching for 10 years for “a way to teach her teachers, many of whom have four years or less of teaching experience, how to teach reading.” She said, “Our universities do not teach teachers how to (teach reading) at the undergraduate level.” Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan brought the same shortfall to light last year in an open letter to America’s college presidents when he wrote, “The system we have for training teachers lacks rigor and is out of step with the times.”
In South Carolina, the education department is tackling its literacy problem by mandating that all teachers receive training and are certified to teach reading. In Florida, where a similar program has been in effect for a few years, the number of third graders with low reading scores has fallen by 40 percent.
Teacher colleges have been under scrutiny since at least 1986, when a group of education deans did a study that linked the poor performance of many schools with the way teachers are prepared for their jobs. The study found that only 39 percent of the elementary programs in its study taught undergraduates all five components of reading—phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. As more recent studies have found, not much has changed since then.
Perhaps we should follow examples of states that are seeking to change the licensure requirements for aspiring teachers. In Louisiana, new teachers have to go through a yearlong residency before entering the profession, learning how to run a classroom, read data, set-up standardized tests, keep students’ behavior under control, and meet with parents. In South Carolina, the education department is tackling its literacy problem by mandating that all teachers receive training and are certified to teach reading. In Florida, where a similar program has been in effect for a few years, the number of third graders with low reading scores has fallen by 40 percent—which means more children are reading at grade level than ever before. (South Carolina has just launched its Read to Succeed program, so it’s too early to see results.)
In Philadelphia, on the other hand, from my long perspective as a high school and elementary school principal, and from what teachers have told me, I’ve identified the number one reason it is hard to teach reading, which has not changed since at least 2003: Policymakers and academics describe in detail how teachers should teach reading in the early grades, but we don’t go into real depth to actually teach them to do it.
We also must face the reality that veteran teachers don’t really know how to teach reading either. Professional development runs the gamut from periodic half-day sessions (two to three hours at a time) to coaching support as often as three days a week for some teachers. Mostly, teachers learn on the job. That’s not working. Instead, to influence practice in large numbers of schools and classrooms, teachers should be pulled out at least monthly and throughout the summer en masse to attend early literacy training that suits their learning styles and the specific circumstances in their schools and classrooms.
This fits with studies that have shown that meaningful professional learning that translates to changes in practice cannot be accomplished in short, one-off workshops. The National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education report, “Teaching the Teachers,” notes how hard it is for teachers to implement new practices without ongoing support that addresses the challenges associated with changing a classroom practice.
Kudos to the School District of Philadelphia for recently launching an online tool for teachers that uses exemplary videos featuring district teachers designed to provide examples of best teaching practices. But if the School District is really committed to Read by 4th, it should ensure, like in South Carolina, that all K-3 teachers are given the professional development opportunities that teach them how to overcome the challenges of teaching reading.
From my long perspective, I’ve identified the number one reason it is hard to teach reading, which has not changed since at least 2003: Policymakers and academics describe in detail how teachers should teach reading in the early grades, but we don’t go into real depth to actually teach them to do it.
Based on my experience, this training should include key skills like administering early literacy assessments and understanding the purpose of each type of assessment; how to work with small groups of four to six students, all the while keeping in mind the other 24 to 26 students in the room; incorporating the growing number of students with learning disabilities and are English language learners; understanding how to support students who have behavioral difficulties that are documented by behavioral health and crisis data; and increasing peer support and communication with successful teachers.
Perhaps the city, under Mayor Kenney, already involved in efforts to fully-fund quality pre-k education in Philadelphia, create community schools to address the challenges that keep our students from learning, and, most recently, seize control of Philadelphia schools back from the state after 16 years, could step up and provide the resources necessary develop a scalable professional development model en masse to overcome the challenges of teaching reading by accelerating coaching and development for K-3 teachers throughout all Philadelphia schools.
Campaigns and initiatives alone will not fix this reading problem in Philadelphia. Investing in teaching teachers how to teach reading will.
Hilderbrand Pelzer III is the principal of Laura H. Carnell School in Oxford Circle. He won the 2014 Lindback Award for Distinguished Principal Leadership, and is the author of Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. Pelzer contributes regular columns from the school front lines during the school year.