Learn to read; read to learn


By Frank Wessling

In an ideal world, children would gain the knowledge they need for life by following and learning gradually from a loving adult. They would be apprentices.
In fact, we do get most of our adult formation from models: by imitating them for the most part, both consciously and unconsciously, and also by some reaction against them as our individuality emerges.
But this organic way of human development isn’t enough for a real world as complex as ours. Children today need readiness for a life far beyond what even the most loving and intelligent model can provide in knowledge. They need to know what goes on over every horizon, not just their home valley: quantum physics as well as simple math, the languages of people far away, along with their history and faith.
So we put children in big boxes called schools, where they are put in little boxes called grades and moved along in linear boxes called years. If everything goes well, competent teachers provide the materials, guidance and inspiration that develop each child’s own competence gradually along a planned course to full self-direction somewhere around the age of 21.
This system works well enough most of the time, but a common problem is the child not being prepared to read the language of his place in early schooling. Without reading, the child is severely handicapped both in ability to learn from a broad array of sources and in self-direction for all of life. The non-reader is at least half blind.
Which is why attempts to improve our schools pay so much attention to reading. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s school reform initiative even proposes holding back poor readers in third grade. This is a radical idea after decades of concern about “self-esteem” that too often meant only avoidance of rough reality. Holding a child back in school is painful, but a sharp pain at that point may well be needed to prevent a long, dull pain of life on the margins of everything.
Iowa’s Legislature seems ready to punt this issue down the road so others can take the heat for a difficult vote. That might not be bad if school administrators and teachers feel a sense of urgency and begin working harder and smarter immediately on that problem. But the hammer of grade retention seems to be needed for serious reform. Experience in Florida is instructive.
Policy there changed in the 2002-03 school year, after a period in which nearly 30 percent of third-grade students were failing at reading. In the first year, 13.2 percent of third-graders were kept back, while the number of those failing reading dropped dramatically, to 23 percent of the class statewide. Special attention to reading made an immediate difference. This trend has continued, with only 16 percent at the lowest reading level last year and the retention rate at 6.4 percent.
During those years, the performance picture on into high school, and graduation rates, rose in the same dramatic way.
What this means is that thousands of children who might have gone on to a downward spiral from fourth grade and up, where they are expected to read much more on their own, are now better able to keep up in all subjects. Success rather than failure, real self-esteem rather than the fake variety, remains open to them.
The policy means a different way of working for the schools as they help children with reading camps, more special time for reading, more communication across subject areas to bring reading skills into play. Tutoring and other reading services are also made available to parents.
Consideration is given in Florida to those for whom English is a second language and for other children with special needs. It isn’t a rigid one-size-fits-all policy. But the evidence indicates that it works educationally and is compassionate in the long term interests of needy children.
There is no good reason to delay in offering the same value to our children here in Iowa.

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