A Marshall Plan for reading

It will take a Marshall Plan for reading to close New York City’s achievement gap, writes Sol Stern in City Journal. He wants to fund “scientifically based reading programs” for K-3 students in the city’s 300 lowest scoring elementary schools.

It would provide the schools’ principals with the research supporting such programs, allowing them to choose the ones that would best suit their schools. To maximize the impact of the reading intervention, the children would be in classes no larger than 15 students . . . The teachers in the targeted schools would receive extra training in implementing scientifically based reading programs.

Research-backed (phonics) instruction has worked in schools serving low-income, minority students, Stern writes. Why not make it the norm?

As he mentions, many poor kids start school knowing fewer words (and knowing less about the world) than middle-class students. I think a Marshall Plan (Stern and I are dating ourselves) also would fund preschool classes focused on developing the language skills of disadvantaged students; the elementary curriculum would be knowledge-rich to support reading comprehension.

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  1. Before I read Sol Stern’s article I thought the idea of a “Marshall Plan” for reading in New York was wide open for criticism. It sure sounds like a matter of throwing more money at a problem, but with no real plan that would offer any reason to expect any success. I was going to say that if we know how to teach reading, let’s just do it. And if we don’t know how to teach reading, more money won’t help. In a similar context a month or so ago I asked why we should expect Reading First to improve scores. Hopefully RF was a success, though I guess that is not accepted by everyone. But if it is a success, then surely we can see just what it takes to successfully teach reading, and just do it, and it shouldn’t cost any more money than just regular schooling costs. I’ll stick with that perspective, and that perspective does not lead to any type of “Marshall Plan”.

    However Stern’s article doesn’t talk much about a Marshall Plan until close to the end of the article. His primary point is that indeed we do know what it takes to successfully teach reading, and New York schools have been forced to do the opposite in recent years. “The city imposed the new program on virtually every elementary school in the city . . . . “. The program referred to is “Balanced Literacy”, which, according to Stern is just another variant of the old idealistic “whole language” approach that has been an attractive nuisance for decades, if not generations.

    Unfortunately Stern’s proposed solution gives some evidence that turning things around might not be too easy. He says they should take 300 low performing schools and ” . . . offer to pay for scientifically based reading programs in each of those schools in grades K–3. It would provide the schools’ principals with the research supporting such programs, allowing them to choose the ones that would best suit their schools.” What have these 300 principals been doing? Aren’t they familiar with the research? Isn’t that part of their job?

    I’m a long way from New York, but my suspicion is that the Balanced Literacy program is indeed what Stern says it is, but its probably not a totally hostile imposition on the schools. A lot of principals, and a lot of teachers, probably believe in it. In my field, math, I am painfully aware that a lot of principals and a lot teachers believe in the ideas of math teaching promoted by the National Council Of Teachers of Mathematics, ideas that I consider very poorly thought out and very unproductive.

    Anyway Stern puts this price tag at “only” $150,000,000, which indeed is not much in a $21 billion budget.

    So the good news is that his article has genuine consideration of important educational ideas. The bad news is that the good ideas are no shoo-in.

  2. The thing about scientifically based reading programs is that there is a whole bunch of reading research out there but only the stuff that is easy to package gets into the program.