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Let’s Put Out Money Where Our Mouth is.

May 21, 2015

Note: I wrote this piece with my students as we all wrote “editorials” for their last writing assignment. I cannot overemphasize the power that comes from writing WITH my students. My students read this piece and gave me feedback, which helped me revise and improve it dramatically. So, it’s a bit long, but has been workshopped well by some fantastic people. Enjoy!

There are very few things in education that we do not argue about. School start times? Here comes the sports-after-school debate. Should students have electives? Bring on variations of STEM, STEAM, and a discussion about the term “enrichment.” Standardized testing? Get out the riot gear.

But here is one thing that I have found educators almost universally agree on:

We want students to read a lot. We want students to learn and be enriched through reading. We want students to (gasp!) enjoy reading.

So, why are we doing things that get in the way of student reading? Why are we basing so much of our students’ “achievement” on short, out of context, readings, some of which are absurd to the point of ridicule (see “The Pineapple and the Hare”). “But” you may say, “those are just for the tests. Of course teachers are having students read more books in class! Students must be going to the library and checking out books for enjoyment, or to learn about interesting topics”

I’m here to tell you that, unless teachers and parents are actively encouraging and supporting a reading habit, a student is unlikely to pick it up by osmosis. As Penny Kittle has said “If they are not reading (and writing) in front of us, they are probably not doing it on their own.”

I could write for pages about how to launch and independent reading program, or how to conference with students and help them find the perfect book for them. In fact, if you do want to learn about this, read The Book Whisperer orBook Love. But here is what all the experts, and even the laypeople, know about getting kids to read:

You have to put books in their hands

At the bare minimum, here is what it comes down to. If we want kids to be readers we have to give them access to books. The more books we have, and the wider variety of books we have in our classrooms, the more likely that our students will become these readers.

This connection between book access and academic achievement is not just common sense. In 2014 a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill study showed that “the number of books in the family home, exerts a strong influence on academic performance in ways consistent with the cognitive skill hypothesis, regardless of the nation’s ideology, political history, or level of development.” (Evens)

Books matter, especially in low-income school districts where students may not have access to a stack of books at home, or may not be able to go to their local library between school and work. More importantly, they need to have access to books in the same place as they have access to reading mentors, be they parents, teachers, librarians, tutors, etc. However, our school library hours just got cut, and funds for basic supplies like paper is at an all time low. And I know my school is not alone. So what are we to do?

quote

The reality is that books cost money, just like lab supplies for science classes, salaries for teachers and paper and pencils for students to write with. But, if we want students to become stronger readers, having actual books in the classrooms is a necessity that is absolutely worth paying for.

And lest you think that there is simply not enough money to supply our students with books, you need look no further than the standardized tests that have become so polarizing.

According to a WBUR article “In 2013, school officials figured it will cost $29.50 per student to test English and math using the PARCC. The MCAS costs $46 per student to test the same two subjects.” Now, we know that Pearson (who has written and runs the giving and scoring of the PARCC test) makes quite a bit profit off these tests.  In fact, according a 2015 Boston Globe article,  “With more time and more tests, that means more money for testing companies. According to Politico, Pearson, the company who won the bid to deliver PARCC tests, could earn more than $1 billion over the next eight years if enough states adopt the test.” Now, that 1 billion is just profit for the company. What if we encouraged Pearson to start acting like a non-profit since they are now entrenched in PUBLIC education. If they shaved that cost of each test from 29.50 to $20 by simply putting some of their profits back into PUBLIC education, that would leave $9.50 per student every year. I have about 100 sophomores in my school. That give around $950 to use for student books every year if we decided that students actually reading is as important as testing their reading comprehension.

If this example seems a bit facetious to you, or even just unrealistic, consider this: Schools are currently spending vast amounts of money on technology at the expense of librarians and teachers, mostly in the name of computerized tests. If that choice sounds less absurd than Pearson putting some of it’s testing profits back into schools in order to actually improve reading, then I think we need to reexamine our priorities.

Obama recently shared a plan he has to get 10,000 e-books into the hands of US students. This is a great start, but it is still not enough. In education, as with everywhere, we are constantly faced with the choice about how to spend scarce resources. Everyone, from parents, to teachers, to administrators, to politicians to the writers of the Common Core Standards value student reading development. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is. Standardized tests have a place, but do we really want to fund the coffers of a for-profit corporation like Pearson at the expense of getting good books into the hands of our students? Because, ultimately, no matter what complications we discuss, or nuances we debate, the bottom line is that no child ever learns to read without access to books. We have the means to provide that access if we have the courage to make the right choices.

Works Cited

Ben, Chapman, and Monahan Rachel. “Talking Pineapple Question on State Exam Stumps … Everyone!  .” NY Daily News. N.p., 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 07 May 2015.

Even, Horowitz. “Say Goodbye to MCAS. There’s a New Test in Town. – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. N.p., 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 07 May 2015.

Evens, M.D.R., Jonathan Kelley, and Joanna Sikora. “Scholarly Culture and Academic Performance in 42 Nations.” Social Forces (2014): n. pag. Web.

“PARCC, MCAS and the Future of Standardized Testing in Massachusetts.”Learninglab. N.p., 09 Oct. 2014. Web. 07 May 2015.

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