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Improve teacher training to boost reading skills

CHICAGO – Listen in on any parent-teacher conference and you’ll hear teachers asking, “What is your most pressing concern for your child?” Nine times out of 10, parents of elementary school students will answer, “I want him/her to read better.”

Difficulties with reading are a major roadblock to students’ overall academic success, and the statistics are startling.

Nearly a third of all fourth-graders failed to reach a “basic” level of reading ability, according to a 2017 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Nation’s Report Card on Reading. And by eighth grade, nearly a quarter of students still didn’t have such basic skills as identifying statements of main idea, theme or author’s purpose; making simple inferences from texts; or interpreting the meaning of a word based on how it is used.

Needless to say, these are averages – reading scores for black, Hispanic and Native-American/Pacific-Islander students are even lower. As a general rule, affluent white children are taught literacy skills at home and arrive at school largely able to read, whereas low-income children’s parents expect that reading instruction will be the sole purview of the school.

This inconsistency in home support is magnified when you factor in the preparation that teachers bring to the singularly crucial task of reading instruction.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), 40 states (including Washington, D.C.) still either do not have sufficient licensing tests on the science of reading in place for elementary and special education teachers, or they have no test at all. And only 11 states have adequate tests for people applying to be elementary school or special education teachers, even though 80 percent of students assigned to special education are there because of their struggles with reading.

States like Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska and Nevada license both elementary and special ed teachers without requiring them to pass assessments specific to reading-instruction knowledge – as opposed to tests that assess it only as part of a language arts exam that also includes topics like grammar, spelling and writing.

To be fair, it might backfire if more states became increasingly rigorous in ensuring that teachers were better prepared to teach reading based on methods proven to yield the highest percentage of successful readers.

That’s because only 37 percent of elementary and special education teacher-preparation programs can provide evidence that they teach scientifically based reading methods to their teacher candidates, according to NCTQ’s new report, “Strengthening Reading Instruction through Better Preparation of Elementary and Special Education Teachers.”

Yet teachers may bristle at more tests, more hoops to jump through and more barriers to overcome in order to get into the classroom. It’s a fair complaint, given that most states (40) use the edTPA, a highly rigorous, subject-specific assessment in order to gain certification.

Still, having taken the edTPA within the last few years, I can tell you that it allowed me to demonstrate a high skill level in writing, direct instruction, group facilitation and communication. But it wasn’t designed to test my ability to explicitly and systematically teach phonics skills and phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

The disconnect between how teachers are trained and how states license them to enter classrooms are at complete odds with how we evaluate student academic growth over time; we’re basically holding young students to a higher standard of proving proficiency via formal, standardized assessments than we do their teachers.

“If we are asking students to demonstrate their content knowledge, then we must ensure teachers have the content knowledge to teach,” said Heather Peske, the senior associate commissioner at the Center for Instructional Support in Massachusetts, a state that sets the bar high on reading credentials for both elementary and special education teachers. She told NCTQ: “The (Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure) ensures that teacher candidates have critical reading and writing skills. Massachusetts’ fourth- and eighth-graders have placed first in the nation on national tests of reading for over a decade. We believe this is linked to our educators’ solid and demonstrated content knowledge.”

It seems like plain common sense that all states should require elementary and special education teacher candidates to prove they can produce the highest number of successful readers.

But is anyone even paying attention to improving education these days? Perhaps when our country starts investing in students again, we can prioritize reading instruction to give children – especially our most vulnerable readers – a fair shot at mastering this crucial skill.

E-mail: estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Twitter: @estherjcepeda. Copyright, Washington Post Writers Group.

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