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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Rosalinda wants to be an astronaut, but she doesn't read very well

Massachusetts, which claims to have the best public schools in the nation, is "failing its neediest learners," write Mandy McLaren and Naomi Martin in the Boston Globe. "Before the pandemic, only about half of public school third-graders had adequate reading skills." Now it's even worse.

"Scores for all third-graders have slipped below the 50 percent mark, and the most vulnerable kids are in serious trouble; 75 percent of low-income third-graders could not pass the reading comprehension test on last spring’s MCAS exam," they write. That includes "70 percent of Black third-graders, 80 percent of Latino students, and 85 percent of children with disabilities."

Rosalinda, a fifth-grader in Lowell, wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, but she reads well below grade level. Teachers told her mother, Maritza Alvarado, who works as a chef, not to worry because Rosalinda doesn’t have a learning disability. But she's not catching up. Most children who don't master reading by third grade will continue to struggle.

“. . . how the hell did this child get to the 10th grade and they can’t read?”-- Cambridge high school teacher Lily Rayman-Read

In 2010, Harvard published a report that warned of a “cycle of academic failure” if Massachusetts did not get better at teaching kids to read, write McLaren and Martin. A panel named to study the issue issued five reports in 2019. The recommendations were not followed. "Teachers unions oppose state mandates on curriculum choices."

Massachusetts, the "birthplace of public education," lets schools do their own thing. Some schools "use instructional methods grounded in the science of how children learn to read, an approach which teaches kids to sound out words phonetically rather than guess, and helps them build a store of knowledge about the world early on, instead of skipping from topic to topic." But nearly half use less-effective "balanced literacy" methods and low-quality curriculum.

"Poor children learning to read are now slightly better off going to school in Florida or Mississippi — states that got serious about early literacy years ago — than they are in Massachusetts," they write.

Nine-year-old Isaac Osorio wants to read bigger books, books with longer sentences and harder words. But he’s stuck, unable to move on from beginner texts, whose pictures and predictable word patterns help signal what the jumbles of letters he sees on the page say.
“Winter is here,” he read one recent evening, opening a picture book to a page he’d memorized. “Sleep, bear, sleep. Winter is here. Sleep, snake, sleep.”

As a "balanced literacy" teacher, Marci Amorim adorned her classroom walls "with colorful posters of Skippy the Frog, who encouraged young readers to skip words they didn’t know, and Eagle Eye, who nudged kids to make a guess based on the pictures they saw," McLaren and Martin write. When students didn't learn, the Randolph teacher assumed it was their fault. “We’d say, ‘Poor little Timmy is just low [in reading]. We’ve tried all these things, but he’s just not reading. He’s just always going to be low and struggling.’ And no. We just weren’t teaching little Timmy how he needed to be taught.”

The story is the first in a series on the literacy crisis.

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