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The ABCs of Struggling Schools

Why literacy is at the heart of the problems that plague our lowest-performing public schools. Imagine if you went to your doctor's office with a...

Why literacy is at the heart of the problems that plague our lowest-performing public schools.Imagine if you went to your doctor's office with a heavy cough, and upon examining you the doctor said, "Well, the problem seems to be that you have a cough." It's likely that you would be unsatisfied with her diagnosis. After all, you knew as much when you were at home in bed.Unfortunately, this example of bad doctoring is exactly what happens every day in discussions about our country's struggling schools. Journalists, commentators, parents, and even educators mistake symptoms for causes, as exemplified by these common refrains: "Well, of course the kids won't learn if they don't come to school." And "If students didn't act up so much in class and paid attention more maybe they'd have better grades." And "Can you believe how many kids drop out every year in [insert school or district]?"Attendance, behavior, and dropout rate seem to be three of the main culprits when people talk about schools or school districts where many students are not doing well on annual state tests. But these are in fact symptoms. In order to prevent students from skipping school, misbehaving, or leaving school altogether, we need to know why these problems are happening in the first place. I submit that the root cause of all three of these problems, and many others, is weak literacy. Therefore, when Arne Duncan talks about "turnaround schools," what I hear is "schools that are populated by students who struggle when it comes to reading."As I noted in my recent article on school turnaround in the Phi Delta Kappan, our research team at the University of Virginia learned that of the problematic conditions present in 19 struggling Virginia elementary and middle schools, low reading achievement was the only one found in every school. While serving as director of the reading development team at a turnaround high school in Chicago last year, I found that 60% of students were reading on or below a sixth-grade level. Just over 20% of our students were reading on or below a fourth-grade level, and half of them were freshmen-presumably because most struggling readers in the upper grades had dropped out of school already.
When Arne Duncan talks about "turnaround schools," what I hear is "schools that are populated by students who struggle when it comes to reading."
It makes sense. If you struggled to read the books and handouts in your classes, or couldn't make heads or tails of what your teachers were talking about, why would you come to school every day and endure hours of frustration and failure? And if you were worried that your teachers or classmates might find out you struggled with reading, wouldn't acting out in class be a good way to ensure their focus was on something other than your academic skills? It is in this way that weak literacy skills are at the root of the problems that end up being so visible in our public schools.So why isn't literacy a focal point in conversations about underperforming schools? One reason is that the effects of the problem do not reveal themselves until long after they begin. Just as it may take years of unhealthy eating and smoking before a heart attack occurs, a student who begins struggling with reading as a fourth grader may be able to get by for a few years before any serious problems emerge. (I use the example of a fourth-grade student because that is when students move from learning to read to reading to learn.) If a student sees a decline in report card grades from all Bs in grades 1-3, to Bs and Cs in grade 4, to mostly Cs in grades 5 and 6, and to all Cs and a few Ds in grades 7 and 8, it may be too gradual for anyone to become alarmed or even take notice. By the time red flags go up in November of his freshman year-when his first quarter report card comes back with Ds and Fs, accompanied by reports of his skipping school, talking back to his teachers, and getting in fights-it's too late for prevention. The heart attack has struck.One factor that contributes to literacy problems flying under the radar is that oral language does not necessarily reflect how well one reads. Jacques Demers, a well-known coach and general manager in the National Hockey League for over 20 years, did not reveal he was illiterate until he was 60 years old. In an interview he gave after going public with the news, Demers explained, "I took to protecting myself. You put a wall around yourself. And when I was given the possibility of talking, I could speak well and I think that really saved me." Similarly, students can acquire and use the language needed to survive in school without being able to read that language in a textbook. An adult may have an interaction with a nearly illiterate child and not even know it.Another reason literacy is not a focal point is that issues like attendance, behavior, and dropout rate fit into the average person's mental model of how the world works. Everyone understands what it means to not show up when you're supposed to, to misbehave, or to quit. Struggling with literacy, on the other hand, is much harder to understand and does not lend itself to simple explanations.In order to talk about the problems stemming from weak literacy skills, what the general public would need to consider is what goes on in that hypothetical student's head during fourth grade, when he can't quite keep up with classmates when reading and comprehending a passage from the textbook. Does he want to ask for help? Is he embarrassed? Does he realize that he is falling behind? With what aspects of literacy is he struggling? And in sixth grade, as the problem compounds, does he not enjoy school as much? Can he comprehend the work he is expected to do in class? Does he know what kind of support it would take to get him back on track? As high school begins, does David act out in order to take attention away from academic deficits? Does he feel so far behind that he stops coming every day, biding his time until age 16 when he can drop out? Although parents, teachers, and the public may attribute his failing high school grades to poor attendance and bad behavior, in actuality his weak literacy skills were exposed. He was able to pull decent grades in elementary and middle school, but the work became progressively harder and by high school he could not keep up.Even if dropout rates and school fights are visible and show up in the local paper or on the evening news, it is important for all of us to understand the vast difference between causes and symptoms of low-performing schools. Acknowledging, educating ourselves about, and addressing the primary cause of these problems-weak literacy skills-is essential if we hope to see our students and schools improve.

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