The most fundamental obligation of our schools is to teach children to read at grade level or above. If a child cannot read — and read proficiently — by fourth grade, he or she will struggle in all subjects — English, science, social studies, even math — and, ultimately, graduate unprepared for career or college success.
Because the Maryland legislation does very little to ensure its students are reading well by fourth grade, this legislation is unlikely to change students’ short-term or long-term results.
According to the Nation’s Report Card, in Maryland, only 24 percent of fourth-grade low-income students read at a proficient level. If we look at African American students, it’s 27 percent. It’s 22 percent for Hispanics.
Though the Blueprint in Maryland may help some, it remains a top-down, taxpayer-funded money push, in large part, for across-the-board teacher pay raises, which go to effective and ineffective teachers alike. The legislation is short on details but couched in lofty language.
For example, the legislation calls for more spending on prekindergarten. Yet studies have indicated an increase in prekindergarten funds pays off
if the program is very high-quality, meaning staffed with highly effective teachers. Further, there must continue to be effective teachers for the student in kindergarten through fourth grade.
The legislation does very little to ensure its prekindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms are filled with effective teachers who know how to teach students to read.
Here are some of the changes Maryland could be making.
Maryland schools could adopt a public reading goal for improvement. For example, a Maryland school might adopt the following goal: In school year 2018, 24 percent of our low-income students were reading at grade level; by school year 2023, it will be 50 percent.
Then, to achieve the goal, the school would formulate and implement a powerful, specific and best-practice-based plan, filled with some politically difficult changes.
In most schools, these changes would include hiring a new principal who is a true teacher-leader and coach. In addition, the school’s ineffective teachers would have to be released and significant salary incentives put in place to identify, recruit and retain effective teachers.
An even better idea would be to let high-performing charter organizations operate more of Maryland’s schools. They already are achieving positive reading results for low-income students. For example, IDEA Public Schools worked relentlessly to figure out the most efficient and effective methods to ensure low-income children can read. Why not let IDEA operate some of Maryland’s schools?
An additional idea would be to stop focusing on “turning around” low-performing schools — an effort that rarely works — and open the doors of high-performing schools to more low-income students.
While not perfect, Texas’s recent school finance overhaul legislation is more effective than Maryland’s. It requires school boards to adopt an early-education reading plan with goals and to monitor results. There is also money to identify effective teachers and significantly increase their compensation, particularly if they teach at low-income schools. Further, elementary teachers are required to learn how to teach students to read, and Texas already has incentives to encourage charter partnerships.
The truth is, fancy language and more taxpayer money will not fix Maryland’s schools. Adopting public reading goals at the school level — and making difficult changes to achieve them — might.