Using the "failing schools" trope has long been a tactic of school "reformers" to claim that privatizing education is necessary. It was called out again in an article in Hechinger Report where we were told that...
Only a third of American students are reading proficiently at grade level, according to national benchmark tests.(The article continues by suggesting that the failure to teach phonics is the reason for the poor test scores, but that's a discussion for another time.)
This description of the apparent desperate condition of the nation's readers comes from the NAEP test, the Nation's Report Card. Diane Ravitch, a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, has frequently reminded her readers that "proficient" on the NAEP is equivalent to "a very high level of academic achievement," like a grade of A, and that a score of "basic" is not terrible.
When I served on NAGB for seven years, the board understood very well that proficient was a high bar, not a pass-fail mark. No member of the board or the staff expected that some day all students would attain “NAEP Proficient.” Yet critics and newspaper consistently use NAEP proficient as an indicator that “all students” should one day reach. This misperception has been magnified by the No Child Left Behind Act, which declared in law that all students should be “proficient” by the year 2014....and here, from her 2013 book, Reign of Error...
'Basic," as defined by the NAGB, is "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade." In my view, the student who scores "basic" is probably a B or C student.She also stated that the NAEP test does not represent a grade level test.
NAEP does not report grade levels (grade level describes a midpoint on the grading scale where half are aboce and half are below).Of course we'd like all students in the US to read at an A level, but that's not a reasonable expectation, any more than it's reasonable to expect all major league baseball hitters to bat .300 each year, all NBA basketball players to have a 95% free throw average, or all professional quarterbacks to have a 70% average pass completion percentage.
The truth is that two-thirds to three-fourths of American students were reading at or above basic in 2019. That's not perfect, but it's much better than the implication that two-thirds of American children are failing to learn to read!
A WAY TO IMPROVE READING SCORES
The Hechinger Report described research that reported that more prior knowledge, specifically, more knowledge of history, geography, and civics, can increase reading achievement.
As proof, the authors referred us to a September 2020 quantitative analysis done by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute which suggests that...
...a focus on academic content—not generalized reading skills and strategies—will equip students with the background knowledge they need to comprehend all sorts of texts and make them truly literate.The analysis found that...
- Elementary school students in the U.S. spend much more time on ELA than on any other subject.
- Increased instructional time in social studies—but not in ELA—is associated with improved reading ability.
- The students who benefit the most from additional social studies time are girls and those from lower-income and/or non-English-speaking homes.
I'm overjoyed that the Fordham Institute, known for its "edu-reformist" and phonics-first tendencies, is promoting the development of students' knowledge base as a way to improve reading (specifically reading comprehension), but I learned about activating prior knowledge as a way to increase reading achievement when I was a student in 1974-1975.
I also learned about activating prior knowledge (aka schema) during my Reading Recovery training and experience beginning in the mid 1990s, and I learned the power of background knowledge during my Reading Recovery Teacher years as a teacher of Amish students. I found that I had to teach additional vocabulary to some of my Amish first graders who were unfamiliar with language associated with cities and the wider world. One student in particular, didn't know what the words "street" or "avenue" meant. He was familiar with words like "road," "lane," and "highway," but he had never heard words associated with cities. Part of this was his age, of course; Reading Recovery targets struggling students who are only six years old and in first grade. As he grew he might have gained wider experience, but in first grade, and coming from a bi-lingual, and exclusively rural culture, he didn't have a clue what those words were.
It's nice that the Fordham Institute is catching up with what experienced educators have known for years.
And now we resume your regularly scheduled blog post
The Hechinger Report article indicated that only social studies instruction had a significant instructional impact on students' reading achievement.
According to the researchers’ calculations, only social studies — among all the subjects — made a positive impact on reading over the long term. Indeed, for every half hour of additional social studies instruction a child received per day, his or her fifth grade reading scores were 0.15 of a standard deviation higher, on average. Standard deviations are statistical units that are hard to translate but this represents a relatively small increase in test scores. Certainly, social studies isn’t a silver bullet to fix reading but the result here suggests that it might help.One thing to keep in mind is that all this discussion of student reading achievement is based on standardized test scores.
The researchers controlled for students’ socio-economic status, race, home language and many other other student and school characteristics. The boost to reading scores from taking more hours of social studies was true even among students of the same race and family income and who started with the same reading scores in kindergarten. The researchers also checked to see if teachers were giving stronger readers more social studies instruction because they didn’t need as much help with reading but they didn’t find any evidence of that.
Counterintuitively, more minutes of reading instruction were not associated with higher reading scores.
It's also (or perhaps more) important to help students experience the joy and wonder of reading as well as teaching them the mechanics of decoding. The best way to do this? Read aloud every day to your children and students, and give them the opportunity and time to read for fun.
Prior Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension
How Does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?