The simple formula for educational excellence

Any discussion of public education – its needs, its strengths and weaknesses – generates a vast array of ideas, blame, expenses and controversy. It is almost surprising to find one premise that is universally agreed upon by administrators, politicians of all persuasions and teachers.

It is this: A child needs to be reading at or above grade level by the end of the third grade, or face a distinct chance of spending his remaining educational years (and perhaps the rest of his life) at a disadvantage. In Minnesota, 63 percent of all fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. Of black children, 88 percent are not proficient.

Third grade is crucial to the learning process because at this point students should no longer be learning to read, but reading to learn. Students who cannot read cannot grasp the concepts outlined in a math textbook, or understand their social studies assignment.

This reading gap is a key component of our state’s achievement gap. According to the Double Jeopardy report by Dr. Donald Hernandez, one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time, four times the rate for children with proficient third-grade reading skills.

If we ensure that all children make the transition from third to fourth grade with proper reading skills, we ensure a solid foundation for the years ahead.

It’s that simple.

But it’s not easy.

Many young children today enter kindergarten without the foundation for learning. They have limited vocabulary and life experiences. Some do not know how to hold a pencil or crayon. They are already behind. Compound the situation with students who do not understand English, or who come to school each day hungry, and the simple task of teaching can become overwhelming.

In previous ECM Editorial Board editorials, we urged our state’s lawmakers to approve additional funding for preschool programs and to fully fund all-day kindergarten. We are pleased the Legislature came through on both counts.

How can we be assured the extra funds for early childhood learning are not wasted? How can we foster classrooms filled with fourth-graders ready to tackle science, math and social studies because they have the necessary reading skills?

Experts, from Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, to school district administrators, to teachers in the classroom, agree with these concepts:

Schools need flexibility to use state funds to meet their needs. One suburban school might need a reading teacher fluent in Spanish, Hmong or Somalian. Another school might need a “floating” specialist to offset large class sizes. A school district with a large population of poverty might take a very different approach than a rural district.

Equally essential is teacher empowerment. Our teachers need to be given the proper tools and training to achieve the goal of student reading proficiency by third grade. Well-prepared teachers will offer specialized literacy training, adapting to each student’s needs.

Schools, principals and teachers need to be held accountable to meet reading goals. Failing schools need redirection or need to be shut down (if shutting them down is not an option, they likely need new leadership). Schools need to systematically reach out to parents and invite them into the building, respecting their diversity while helping them understand family expectations.

Extra help needs to be obtainable for children with obvious needs. The oft-cited Finnish educational program quickly helps any child with extra needs in the early grades. Our system is much the opposite; we let a child slip methodically behind, then we take extensive special education dollars to try to bring him back to standards in middle school or high school.

Parents must be accountable. After all, parents are still a child’s most powerful teacher. Parents need to be fully engaged partners in their child’s educational experience, working with their child’s teachers and demanding the best from his school district.

Many non-profit organizations are involved. The McKnight Foundation has given a large grant to the Brooklyn Center School District to focus on reading skills. It reports, “A majority of Brooklyn Center students demonstrated a full year’s worth of accelerated literacy progress by just February, through use of the initiatives’ tools and shared resources.”

Every literate adult can help. The Minnesota Reading Corps is one volunteer program whose main purpose is to provide reading tutors to children in need. Become a tutor and urge your school to utilize local volunteers.

We evoke the somewhat overused and controversial phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a team to teach our children to read: good schools, trained teachers, involved parents.

The solution is simple but not easy. It requires a village of Minnesotans to produce happy, capable fourth-graders eager to learn.

This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is part of ECM Publishers Inc.