When it comes to reading, we are not in Lake Wobegon anymore. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, students in Minnesota are no longer above average. We are facing the tragic results of a failure to teach reading effectively to our kids. How and when we respond matters.
When Boeing faced a tragedy caused by the failure of its 737 Max airplane, the company was required to rewrite and recertify the operating instructions for the aircraft, recertify the airworthiness of every plane in service, and retrain and recertify every pilot who flies them. When it comes to reading, we need to do the same — adopt an approach to reading instruction that we know works, certify that every school is using that approach, recertify every teacher preparation program that prepares teachers to teach reading, and retrain and recertify every teacher in every school.
With the enormous projected surplus the state has saved up, we can afford to do this now, and we cannot afford not to do it.
Reading education in Minnesota is a tragedy. The state, its Department of Education, our teacher preparation programs and local school districts have been in denial about the scale of the failure of the methods they expected teachers to use to teach reading.
Today in Minnesota more than 500,000 students cannot read proficiently. They are in every school and every grade across the state. They are rich, middle-income and poor. They are of every racial and ethnic background — white and people of color alike. They are 60-70% of all the students in our schools.
Before they graduate, these students are over-identified as needing special education and over-represented in cases involving discipline, suspension and truancy. After they graduate — and most of them do — they can read well enough to get by, but not well enough to get ahead.
This failure has perpetuated and widened the gaps in achievement between white students and students of color and between poorer students and their higher-income peers. When it comes to reading, we are failing most of our students, and failing some much more than others.
What's true today was true last year, and five years ago, and 10 years ago, and even 25 years ago. How could this have gone on so long? And what can we do about it now?
There are only two possible explanations for the inability of our kids to read proficiently. Either they are not capable of learning — or we are not capable of teaching them. There is no evidence that our kids can't learn. Sure, some kids come with challenges, home lives or socioeconomic hurdles that make it harder. Yet there are plenty of examples of these very kids doing very well with teachers who know what to do and how.
At the heart of this ongoing tragedy is a war, an ideological battle over how to teach reading. This was a war among adults for which our children have paid the price.
Within days of first becoming superintendent in Minneapolis, I was warned to "stay out of the reading wars, they take no prisoners." I had no idea what they were talking about but quickly learned.
On one side of this struggle were advocates of something called "whole language." They believed that reading was best taught "in context." Readers would figure out a word by looking at the clues around it — the rest of the story, pictures, etc. Skeptics argued that whole language turned reading into a giant guessing game that didn't work.
On the other side were the advocates of phonics. They believed that learning to read meant learning to decode — sounding out words by learning the sounds of letters individually and in combination. The opponents of phonics argued that it was old-fashioned and boring and didn't work.
The whole language advocates won. Phonics books were thrown away or hidden. The winners were reinforced by teacher preparation programs that made whole language the standard for cohort after cohort of new teachers. They were further reinforced by the materials that teachers were expected to use and that assumed that whole language was "the right way."
The problem was, it did not work. Today hundreds of thousands of kids in our schools cannot read proficiently, and we have graduated hundreds of thousands more. Many of them end up in low-paying jobs or in jail. Up to 85% of those incarcerated cannot read.
Faced with evidence of failure, whole-language advocates have adopted a compromise called "balanced instruction" — whole language plus a little phonics. There is little evidence this version is much better than the original. There is substantial evidence for the Science of Reading that emerged from careful research on what works in teaching children to read. The Science of Reading begins with phonics to decode words as a basis for fluency, vocabulary development and reading comprehension. ("The story we've been sold about how kids learn to read," Nov. 6, and "How Minnesota's largest districts are teaching struggling readers," Nov. 20.)
How do we reverse Minnesota's reading tragedy? We can start by making the Science of Reading the unequivocal standard in our teacher preparation programs. Every program should be specifically recertified as to the content, quality and effectiveness of their preparation of new teachers to employ the Science of Reading. We have started down this path — but only just.
Next, the state should certify or recertify the content and quality of the reading programs and materials adopted in our schools. Teachers should not be expected to use any curriculum that is not specifically based on the Science of Reading and tested for its effectiveness.
Most important, we need to retrain our teachers in the Science of Reading so that they can do what they have always wanted to do — make the difference in the lives of their students. Now is the time. Dedicate this summer to retraining. Challenge every teacher to master the Science of Reading over 10 weeks and reward them for doing so. Pay them $1,000 a week. Then assess their mastery at the end of the summer. Pay every master of the Science of Reading an additional $10,000 and provide them with a credential they can use to assure parents that children are being taught the right things the right way.
Finally, we need to address the needs of all of those kids who are already way behind. They need intensive tutoring. To be sure they get it, assign 10 of those students to one of our teachers for the duration of the summer program. Doing so will give teachers the practical experience in using the Science of Reading that they need and give the students the chance to leap forward in their learning.
What would all this cost? Probably about $1 billion. The state just announced that it has $12 billion for one-time investments (vs. ongoing expenses). This investment would transform reading education in Minnesota and generate a far higher return to our students, our communities, our businesses and the state as a whole than any alternative.
Peter Hutchinson is former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools and former state commissioner of finance.