School Talk

This Story from Nashville Could Have Been Written About Providence Too—Except Our Reading Scores are Even Worse

By Vesia Hawkins

Vesia Hawkins is especially focused on ensuring that children learn to read the right way.

Vesia Hawkins is a mom and a grandma and a fierce education advocate in Nashville, TN. She is especially focused on the issue of literacy as well as helping parents to understand how their children are *really* doing in school. This piece could absolutely have been written about Providence—some of the acronyms are different and the exact scores she cites are different—though I have added a section Providence reading results—which are WORSE!—to prove the point that her frustration in Nashville mirrors the frustration felt in Providence (and let’s be honest, other cities/towns in Rhode Island) as well as across the country. So, thank you Vesia for continuing to shine a light on literacy, THE social justice issue that seems to be an afterthought by many in the edu-establishment chases the newest shiny thing sure to drive clicks but unlikely to help children learn to read. Follow her at @vesiawils and read her blog here.

I’m no educator, I just play one on Twitter.

Seriously, I respect the profession too much to pretend or mislead. Yet, I find myself in this very specific space occupied by mostly educators discussing, debating best scientifically-based instructional practices and curriculum for reading.

I have no business hanging out here but after nearly two years of searching for answers to the literacy crisis, here I am. This all began late October 2017 as I was mining Nashville’s ELA (English Language Arts) TNReady scores, here’s what I wrote:

For two weeks, since learning about Nashville’s reading scores, I’ve submerged myself into studies, manuals, blogs, newspaper articles, and personal testimonies in an effort to understand where we are going wrong with literacy in our schools.

I just want to understand.

Because I need to believe that our system and the powers-that-be are uncomfortable with sending three-fourths of our students into the world poorly equipped. I have to believe that our kids are not being groomed to lift the wealthy and carry their middle class on their backs.

I want to believe the best, but when only 17.5% of Black/Hispanic/Native American students read at grade level and no one has stepped out to say – “never again” – well, I can only surmise we’re a people ok with certain public school children not reaching the American Dream.

This is not to advance wild conspiracy theories, but rather to raise awareness about our crippling literacy crisis and seek real solutions

Providence’s Reading Scores:

This Providence section has been inserted and authored by Erika Sanzi.

The light green indicates those who are on grade level and the dark green indicates those who are above grade level. Dark blue is partially meeting expectations and light blue is not meeting expectations at all.

Let’s say these numbers out loud.

14.26 percent of Providence students are currently reading and writing on grade level. 1.15 percent exceed grade level expectations.

12.85 percent of Black students read on grade level. 0.64 percent exceed expectations.

12.61 percent of Hispanic students read on grade level. 0.63 exceed expectations.

And before anyone celebrates the achievement of White and Asian students, let’s pump the brakes:

25.91 percent of Asian students are reading and writing on grade level and 2.19% are exceeding grade level expectations.

And 26.42 percent of White students read and write on grade level with 6.11% percent exceeding expectations.

All of these numbers are cause for alarm. (And I am not writing about math today but let’s keep in mind that those achievement results are worse than the reading and writing ones.)

*This is the end of the inserted Providence section*

Vesia continues…

The Struggle

Unbeknownst to me, the next 8 months of seeking “real solutions” would be soul-crushing. Every educator I met with, save one, told me parents were the problem. Dejected from the results of my bootleg field research, I decided to step away from the literacy crisis and re-dedicate my energy to the plight of families. It was a brief separation.

A couple of things occurred during the “hiatus” that reignited my urgency and determination. First, a dad of a middle school student asked me to help him decipher his son’s MAP testing results. See how well that worked out for dad. Middle School Parents Need Statistics Degree To Understand Student Info.

“What the hell is RIT?”

“TF with this graph having a scale of 150 – 250?”

“Lexile range? Really?”

The profanity-laced questions were, of course, spewed by yours truly and before I could get out another question, an elementary school mom remarked, “you need a college degree to understand that thing!” I couldn’t admit at that moment that I own a couple of those things yet still struggled to translate the data into anything meaningful or true.

Soon after I fell flat on my face, I was introduced to Emily Hanford’s groundbreaking audio documentary Hard Words. The award-winning work focused on explicit phonics instruction (Hooked on Phonics, quite literally) was validating for some and eye-opening for others. Additionally, she makes it plain for non-educators to understand without watering down the information. Most significantly, Hanford makes it clear that parents and background knowledge have a role, but she does not blame parents for the literacy crisis as others have suggested.

The ABC’s Aren’t As Easy As 1-2-3

From my experiences with the dad and Hard Words sprang two questions:

  1. Eighty percent of 3rd – 8th graders in our country are not reading on level, are 100 percent of these families aware of their child’s reading skills? If so, do they understand what this means for their child?
  2. Do our teachers know about scientific-based phonics instruction?

I’m still searching for answers to those questions but in the meantime, I think it is important to share what I believe is important for families of children from 0-18.

A. Learning to read is a magical process. Some might call it a miracle. Our brains perform heroics in order for us to process letters and sounds, marry them and make them mean something not only to ourselves but to those around us.

B. Phonics is the process of connecting letters and sounds and parents can play a role in assisting their children with this connection. The International Literacy Association recently published support of early phonics instruction stating:

“We have 26 letters. These letters, in various combinations, represent the 44 sounds in our language… Teaching students the basic letter-sound combinations gives them access to sounding out approximately 84% of the words in English print.”

C. The experiences and exposure children bring with them to the classroom are vital to learning to read and building reading skills. The practitioners and experts call this background or content knowledge.

D. Many teacher prep programs across the country do not teach their students about the basic tenets of letters and sounds. This says to me that students are expected to have a level of understanding of phonics upon entering school. To wit, parents, it’s on you.

E. Reading is like exercise, the more a child reads the stronger their skills and capacity to read for long periods of times.

As a country, we’ve seen twenty years of flat Reading scores on the nation’s report card (National Assessment of Educational Progress) so we are all in this thing together. I’m grateful for educators working to flip the reading curriculum to address the performance flatline. If you are interested in learning more from people doing the work, check out the blogs below. Happy reading!

Jon Gustafson – Mr. G Mpls

Stephen Parker – Parker Phonics

Right to Read Project 

Blake Harvard – The Effortful Educator

This blog post ran first ran in its original form here.

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