First Person

Commentary: Early Literacy Act's economic appeal

This commentary was submitted by Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds, and Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In Colorado today, 26 percent of our students are not reading at grade level, as evidenced by the CSAP. The more rigorous national assessment, the NAEP test, indicates that 62 percent of incoming Colorado fourth graders read below grade level.

We know from research and experience that children who do not read well by the end of third grade are far less likely to finish high school, far less likely to attend college and far less likely to land a decent job. Not only does that have educational implications, but societal and economic impacts as well.

Colorado’s major industries are creating jobs requiring higher education. By 2018, six years from now, 67 percent of Colorado’s jobs will require some level of college. Yet, only 46 percent of our citizens are currently qualified to fill those openings. To meet that workforce demand, the state must dramatically reduce high school dropout rates and increase college completion. This process requires that we ensure our youngest students can read.

At the current rate, each class of dropouts costs Colorado $4.5 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes. This compounds each year and the lost opportunities are devastating to both the individual dropout and the state’s fiscal condition.

Imagine a manufacturer losing one-quarter of its product between the beginning and the end of its own manufacturing line. In business, that would qualify as a crisis, and that is the condition of Colorado’s education system.

Because of the far-reaching implications for our state’s economy, Colorado Succeeds and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce are working to educate the business community on the urgency and importance of improving early literacy. Together, these organizations are leveraging the voices of business leaders across the state—those that recognize that the best long term economic development tool is a more productive K-12 education system.

Given the importance of literacy to our future, we are fortunate that bipartisan legislation, the Early Literacy Act (HB12-1238), is currently being considered by the Colorado General Assembly. This legislation establishes the goal and process of ensuring all students can and will read proficiently by the end of third grade. It also provides accountability, parental involvement and the proper support for teachers and students to succeed.

The bill recently passed the state House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority, but as it makes its way to the state Senate two concerns have been raised. One concern is about retention being overly aggressive and the other suggests that this bill is an unfunded mandate. We respectfully disagree with these concerns.

Regarding retention, it is critical to note that the Early Literacy Act is focused on intervening early to get kids on track before it is too late. When we intervene properly and early enough, the need for retention will be rare. It will be reserved for children who, despite consistent support, remain functionally illiterate. The repeated year would allow educators to invest another year in more aggressive strategies to help a child learn how to read. While retention is included in the policy as a last resort, it is certainly an important inclusion.

Rigorous studies of test-based retention policies and practices in places where they have been properly implemented find that it is a necessary tool to ensure that early grade literacy education appropriately prepares students for what is required in school and in life. Research demonstrates that when retention is combined with rigorous interventions, the effect on students’ achievement and their self-confidence is significant, positive, and lasting.

The alternative is passing the students along to next grade level where they will lack the reading skills necessary to keep up with their peers in every other subject. This hardly seems fair to the kids. We have raised this issue for the past two years and explored other approaches, as doing nothing is no longer an option. We have not seen a better plan. After much analysis, we are confident that a policy solution for improving early literacy must provide struggling readers with the gift of time. So what about the funding?

From 2000-2011 the state invested $200 million in early literacy programs through Reading First and Read to Achieve and Colorado’s reading proficiency rates have remained flat. At the peak, Colorado invested $27 million in the ’04-’05 and ’05-’06 school years and actually saw reading proficiency rates drop by a percentage point. At the same time, per pupil operating revenue was increasing annually from ’01-’10.

The data clearly shows that funding without a corresponding focus on early literacy is not enough. It is time to fundamentally shift the culture in our schools to make early literacy a priority for all students without excuses or exceptions.

The most recent revenue forecast is better than predicted. While it does not restore funding to previous levels, it does provide money that nobody was expecting. With the agreement about importance of early literacy, why wouldn’t we combine these additional dollars with the strong policy framework created by the Early Literacy Act to ensure that every student has the reading skills that they need to succeed?

We know that the Early Literacy Act is no silver bullet, and it will not remedy all the challenges of Colorado’s K-12 education system, but it is a sizeable and necessary step toward that goal. Unless we do something today to address this reading gap, we will not improve high school graduation rates. We will not have enough skilled workers to fill our jobs and effectively compete in the global workforce. We will not have enough qualified candidates for our military. Most importantly, we will not deliver on the inherent commitment to give every child a real chance to achieve.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.