First Person

Commentary: A better path to literacy

Author Angela Engel says expanding the state preschool program, rather than approving a controversial bill, would do more to advance early literacy.

In late February, Colorado legislators killed a bill that would have provided preschool for 3,000 children without any additional expenditure from the state budget.

Child readingThe measure, House Bill 12-1091, sponsored by Rep. Judy Solano, would have brought Colorado into compliance with the minimum testing requirements mandated by the federal government. CSAP and now TCAP exceed the testing required by the failed No Child Left Behind Act and cost nearly $7 million a year more than needed. HB 12-1091 would have instead directed those dollars to the most effective proven intervention in education – preschool. Each year, more than 8,000 qualified low-income four-year-olds in Colorado are denied preschool because of a lack of funding.

The Colorado House this year passed a “literacy” bill recommending retention for children who don’t pass the third-grade literacy tests. (The measure has a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday.) Florida has a similar law, and in 2011 the state allocated $104.6 million for their Just Read Program. In 2010, a review by Politifact showed that nearly $271 million is spent annually in Florida on student retention in the lower elementary grades.

Colorado schools have experienced over $800 million dollars in cuts to education. Not only do we lack the funding for this type of initiative, but we lack the evidence to support it. All evidence-based research over the past century indicates retention is an unsuccessful intervention. Research also proves socioeconomic status is the number one correlating factor to reading test scores.

Instead of providing at-risk children with preschool, a proven and affordable intervention, the majority of our representatives in the House have voted to support this literacy bill.

The difference between these two bills offers a primer into the politics of education. The preschool bill was a grassroots initiative supported by parents, teachers and children’s advocates. The literacy bill is being championed by business groups and powerful education lobbies including Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern, Stand for Children and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. The Hatcher Group is the national PR firm promoting the “campaign for grade level reading.”

Citizens may want to challenge well-organized policy initiatives. The last national literacy campaign, Reading First, was a $6 billion dollar boondoggle. A thorough study by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) determined that children in schools receiving Reading First funding had virtually no better reading skills than those in schools that did not get the funding.

So one may ask why businesses and funders would again be promoting a costly policy that centralizes control and narrows curriculum? Follow the money, of course. McGraw Hill, publishers of the CSAP, and Prentice Hall have released new product lines in “early literacy.” It has become cheaper to buy public policy than advertising.

The better question is, where are the children in all of this? Common sense tells us that like learning to ride a bike, children learn to read at different times, at different levels and through different means. Love of reading is the greatest determinant of whether a child will someday grow into an adult reader. Government dictates forget the fundamental principle of being human – a person will not learn until he or she is ready to learn, regardless of what big brother commands.

The preschool bill was a very simple chance for legislators to make good on the claim that they value education and are truly committed to all of Colorado’s children. On a party-line vote, Republicans in the House State Affairs Committee said “no.” House members said “yes” to bigger government, increased state spending and higher corporate profits when they passed the early literacy bill.

The literacy bill, like previous “reform” bills, costs more and directs control to the Colorado Department of Education and away from elected local school boards. It’s also redundant, because we already have the Colorado Basic Literacy Act.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede