Why Johnny Still Can’t Read
Public schools are passing students who can’t read at any level — all to avoid blaming teachers, lawmakers, and bureaucrats.
Public schools from coast to coast are failing to teach young students the most basic skill they need to succeed in school and life: reading. This failure is widespread, tragic, and mostly unnecessary. We know how to teach reading, but many school administrators refuse to use the proven methods.
The extent of this self-inflicted catastrophe, which has ruined countless lives, was driven home to me again when the new school year began several weeks ago.
Some 20 years ago I founded the Roger Bacon Academy (RBA), which manages a family of four charter schools in southeastern North Carolina. This year, for the first time in RBA’s history, the schools enrolled large numbers of students who transferred from the traditional county public schools.
Of the 168 first- and second-grade transfer students, 75 (approx. 45 percent) could not pass the basic readiness assessment to begin kindergarten-level reading instruction. Not only could they not read at any level, but their spoken vocabularies were insufficient to understand reading instruction if it were taught to them. Therefore, the 51 first-graders and 24 second-graders are now taking a kindergarten preparatory course called Language for Learning (L4L) that must be mastered before effective reading instruction can begin.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of nonreaders moving through our public-school systems is widespread. Here in North Carolina, in a typical year such as 2017–18, 55.7 percent of public-school students in grades three through eight fail North Carolina’s end-of-grade reading test. On the most recent reading tests administered by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), our so-called Nation’s Report Card, just 36 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders “performed at or above the NAEP proficient level.” Sixty-seven percent performed at the basic level — meaning that a third of all students did not. Lest you think this is a North Carolina problem alone, both measures were on par with, and in fact a little above, the national average.
The significance of this can’t be overstated. If students haven’t learned how to read proficiently (or in some cases read at all) by the time they enter fourth grade, it may be all over for them. As the National Conference of State Legislatures pointed out in a report at the end of last year, citing research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn.’”
North Carolina Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, in the course of his oversight of a 20-year education lawsuit (Leandro v. State of North Carolina), made a determination that such failures amount to “committing academic genocide.”
“Everybody seems to agree if you are not reading by the third grade, you’re screwed,” Judge Manning told TV news anchor David Crabtree on WRAL in Raleigh on August 26. “From the evidence, there is no reason in the world — if teachers and principals follow the assessments as they are supposed to — that a child should not be reading by third grade. . . . I get mad about this.”
We Know How to Teach Reading
It is not as if teaching reading has been ignored in the United States. Teaching reading successfully is a straightforward, well-documented process, and most children, given proper instruction, should be successful readers by the end of kindergarten.
The federal government began a ten-year, billion-dollar effort called Project Follow Through in 1968 that tested various methods for teaching reading to at-risk children in grades K–3. It compared 22 curriculum models in 178 communities with 200,000 children. The Direct Instruction (DI) model, the study found, “produced the best results in all areas: basic skills, problem solving, and self-esteem.”
In 1997, after 20 years of ignoring Project Follow Though results, Congress asked the director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in consultation with the secretary of education, to convene a national panel to evaluate existing research and evidence to find the best ways of teaching children to read.
The panel was chaired by the late Dr. Donald N. Langenberg, then chancellor of the University of Maryland and a renowned nuclear physicist. The resulting National Reading Panel report of 2000 identified the five key skills that must be taught for reading, all of which are integral to the Reading Mastery (RM)/L4L curriculum our schools use — which, it should be noted, has been widely available since the 1970s: phonemic awareness; phonics; fluency; vocabulary; and comprehension.
Instead of embracing these methods, most of the education establishment — superintendents, principals, schools of education, and, as they are taught, the teachers — snub them. The result: Year after year, significant numbers of nonreaders advance through the public schools. I’m not talking about students who aren’t reading at grade level; I’m talking about students who can’t read at any level.
Reading Mastery provides a carefully sequenced series of 160 lessons that teach beginning nonreading kindergarten students to read connected text fluently. Each fifth lesson has a built-in assessment to ensure that the student has mastered the material before moving on. Before beginning the series at RM-1, Lesson 1, Language for Learning is sometimes required to teach young children the basic vocabulary, concepts, and sentence forms used in typical classroom instruction. L4L also is carefully sequenced to introduce simple concepts at the beginning, building up to more advanced concepts later. Because children come in with widely differing levels of oral vocabulary, L4L has a placement test that allows teachers to start the program at a lesson matching each student’s readiness level.
The placement test uses 45 simple verbal instructions, such as “Show me your nose” or “Point to the wall” or “Put your hand on your head.” Some refer to pictures the student is shown and ask such questions as, “What is the person doing?” If a student can correctly answer at least 73 percent of the simple questions (33 of the 45 questions) the student is allowed to proceed to Reading Mastery 1, Lesson 1. Scoring below 73 percent requires the child to start L4L before reading instruction begins.
The fact that 24 second-grade transfer students — students who already had spent two years in local public schools — were unable to pass (that is, score 73 percent or better) the kindergarten L4L Placement Test should raise profound concerns among parents, public officials, taxpayers, and the media. What are North Carolina citizens getting for their investments in education? How can school-district officials tolerate such outcomes? And remember, North Carolina fourth-graders scored slightly above the national average in the most recent NAEP national reading exam.
This is not to say that the Language for Learning/Reading Mastery curriculum and other available direct instruction programs provide a magic bullet. Some students, although fluent readers, still struggle with comprehension. At our four schools, for example, the overall percentage of students in third grade and above whose reading comprehension is at or above their grade level are 74.4 percent, 67.3 percent, 75.2 percent, and 56 percent. The statewide average is 57.2 percent. But I’ll add a defensive footnote: Even in our poorest-performing school, Wilmington’s inner-city Douglass Academy, the percentage was 73.3 percent among students who have been with us since kindergarten, while neighboring inner-city schools had passing percentages in the 20s and 30s.
I became involved in education by accident. I’m an electrical engineer by profession. After establishing and leading the bioengineering section at the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and later starting (and selling) a business, I retired and volunteered as a science teacher at Wesley Elementary School, a low-income, predominantly African-American school in Houston.
Wesley’s then principal, the late Thaddeus Lott, taught me what works in education: the proper curriculum executed with discipline, order, high expectations, and committed teachers and administrators.
I later moved to Wilmington, N.C., where — inspired by Dr. Lott — I helped establish the four Roger Bacon Academy schools, which currently have 2,500 students. All four are Title 1 schools, meaning 40 percent or more of their students are economically disadvantaged. Three of the four schools are among the top-ranked in their respective counties — despite the fact that the state tests our students are required to take are based on the Common Core standards used in most traditional public schools, not the classical, direct-instruction curriculum our schools use. Douglass Academy — named for 19th-century civil-rights icon Frederick Douglass — has been outperforming neighboring public schools, and I’m confident it’s on the way to becoming a top-ranked school as well.
Before writing the application for Charter Day School, the first school we opened, a colleague and I visited two other charter schools using direct-instruction methods and the Reading Mastery program: Franklin Academy, in Wake Forest, and Rocky Mount Charter.
Rocky Mount was, and is, an inner-city minority school, and the board was very gracious in hosting a tour for us. During the tour, our escort was called away, and we were left by ourselves in a hallway. We stopped a passing teacher and introduced ourselves and asked about her experiences at Rocky Mount with direct instruction.
She seemed flustered at the question. She took a breath and, pointing toward a window, said she had taught first and second grade for 14 years at a nearby public elementary school. Every year, she said, many students would be promoted to the next grade though they couldn’t read. She always had assumed it was a developmental issue about which she couldn’t do anything. At Rocky Mount, where direct instruction is used, she said every child was reading.
She began to tear up and, barely managing to talk while weeping, explained that these were just like the children she had passed along as nonreaders at her previous school. She told us how guilty she felt when she realized that she’d needlessly failed to teach so many students to read those many years. She hurried away down the hall as our escort returned.
Why Are the Successful Methods Ignored?
The establishment ignores Language for Learning (L4L), Reading Mastery (RM), and other proven reading curricula because to do otherwise would shift blame for nonreaders to teachers, administrators, the schools of education, and the lawmakers who ignore or make excuses for the public schools’ failings.
To understand the depth of the problem, look no further than the fate of a law passed here in North Carolina in 1996, General Statute 115C-81.2., “Comprehensive Plan for Reading Achievement.”
The law states:
The plan shall be based on reading instructional practices for which there is strong evidence of effectiveness in existing empirical scientific research studies on reading development.
It states further:
The General Assembly believes that the first, essential step in the complex process of learning to read is the accurate pronunciation of written words and that phonics, which is the knowledge of relationships of the symbols of the written language and the sounds of the spoken language, is the most reliable approach to arriving at the accurate pronunciation of a printed word. Therefore, these programs shall include early and systematic phonics instruction.
The law directed the State Board of Education to modify “the standard course of study and to emphasize balanced, integrated, and effective programs of reading instruction that include early and systematic phonics instruction” and to “review, evaluate, and revise current teacher certification standards and teacher education programs within the institutions of higher education that provide coursework in reading instruction.” The law contained no penalties or sanctions for noncompliance and after being ignored by the State Board of Education for ten years was repealed in 2017.
We’ll rescue the 75 nonreaders who escaped from the local district schools this fall. Millions of others around the country aren’t so lucky.
BAKER A. MITCHELL JR., founder of THE ROGER BACON ACADEMY in Leland, N.C., is a former member of the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council, the state Charter School Advisory Board, and past chairman of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools.