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A Marshall Plan for Reading

from the magazine

A Marshall Plan for Reading

How New York schools can close the racial achievement gap Summer 2008
Economy, finance, and budgets
The Social Order
New York

Illustrations Courtesy of the Success for All Foundation

During his six years as New York’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein has spent many a Sunday morning speaking from the pulpit of a black church about his efforts to reform the public school system and to help African-American kids get a better education. “We have to make education the civil rights issue of our time,” Klein asserted in a speech for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Memphis this year. “In America today, we have a racial achievement gap that is the shame of this great nation, and until we get right on education, we are not going to be right.” And now Klein and Sharpton have created a new national organization devoted to closing that achievement gap.

Admirable sentiments—but the approach that the city has taken to address this problem rests on flawed ideas and won’t work. It’s time for another line of attack: a Marshall Plan for reading.

Chancellor Klein deserves kudos for confronting the black-white achievement gap, the elephant in the room that most big-city school chiefs avoid talking about. Klein has even created a special office dedicated to closing the gap—a first, as far as I know, among the nation’s urban school districts. To run the office, he recruited Roland Fryer, a young African-American academic and a rising star on the Harvard economics faculty, giving him the newly minted title of Chief Equality Officer of the Department of Education. At a public meeting at the Schomburg Center in Harlem shortly after his appointment, Fryer told the mostly black audience: “This is a personal mission between me and the ten-year-olds in Harlem.”

Fryer understands the grim odds better than most. In a recent academic paper, coauthored with University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) and based on new national data from the National Center on Education Statistics, Fryer found that the average black student enters fourth grade at the 19th percentile of the white distribution in math and at the 22nd percentile in reading. Even when the study controlled for socioeconomic variables, blacks were still at the 35th percentile of the white distribution in math and the 39th percentile in reading.

In an earlier study, Fryer and Levitt had hoped that improved school quality and teaching might shrink this achievement gap. “We speculate that blacks are losing ground relative to whites because they attend lower-quality schools that are less well maintained and managed as indicated by signs of social discord,” the researchers wrote. In the new paper, however, they concluded that “systematic differences in school quality appear much less important in explaining the differences in test-score trajectories by race, once the data are extended through third grade; Blacks lose substantial ground relative to Whites within the same school and even in the same classrooms. That is, including school- or teacher-fixed effects [does] little to explain the divergent trajectories of Black and White students between kindergarten and third grade. . . . By the end of third grade, even after controlling for observables, the Black-White test-score gap is evident in every skill tested in reading and math except for the most basic tasks such as counting and letter recognition, which virtually all students have mastered.”

How to narrow this yawning gap? Start by thinking more concretely about the cognitive deficits of those Harlem ten-year-olds Fryer mentioned. Inner-city black children, research shows, begin school with only half the vocabulary of white middle-class children. Typically, they soon fall behind in trying to decode how the written English language blends the sounds made by letter combinations into words. “Difficulties in decoding unfamiliar words rapidly are at the core of most reading problems,” says Reid Lyon, former head of reading research at the National Institutes of Health.

Reading problems, in turn, are at the core of the black-white achievement gap. Reading is the motor of all education—the basic skill that leads to all other academic skills. Disadvantaged kids who can’t read adequately by fourth grade aren’t as likely to understand math problems, science and social studies texts, computer manuals, or much else. They’re almost doomed to falling further and further behind in their later school years. At that point, remediation is probably too late. The only way for them to avoid the fate described in Fryer’s research, in my view, is for the city to undertake a massive reading intervention, targeting very young inner-city black children.

Not just any kind of reading intervention, either. Starting in kindergarten, those children should be taught to read with instructional programs that meet the standards of scientifically based reading research and have been proven to work in actual classrooms. And that means early mastery of phonics and phonemic awareness. The findings from three decades of scientific, peer-reviewed reading studies (supported by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation and summarized in the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel) show that beginning readers—above all, those from disadvantaged homes—benefit from reading classes in which students learn systematically and explicitly to hear and identify the different speech sounds in spoken words, to recognize the symbols that represent the speech sounds, and to blend them into words, while also building fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

New York City’s 2002 shift to mayoral control of the schools created a unique opportunity to try just such an intervention, and for a time, it seemed as though it might happen. Introducing his education-reform plan a year later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that schools in the past had enjoyed too much autonomy, with “a baffling profusion of approaches to teaching the three Rs throughout the city.” Now, there would be “one, unified, focused, streamlined chain of command [and] the Chancellor’s office will dictate the curriculum and pedagogical methods.” The mayor promised that reading instruction in the early grades would “employ strategies proven to work,” including “a daily focus on phonics.”

But in a tragically mistaken policy decision, Klein went in the opposite direction on reading, franchising out most instructional decisions to a group of progressive educators who regarded it as a crime to teach children how to read through scripted phonics programs. Under the influence of his deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam, Klein chose an approach called Balanced Literacy for the system’s core reading program starting in September 2003. The city’s version of Balanced Literacy was crafted by Teachers College education professor and progressive-ed guru Lucy Calkins and included only a small phonics component, Month by Month Phonics. The rest of the program assumed, based on no real evidence, that children can intuit the meaning of printed words through context clues and through such activities as “shared reading” and “read alouds.” Champions of this approach believe that children can learn to read simply by reading—by immersing themselves in print. The city imposed the new program on virtually every elementary school in the city, even shutting down the special Chancellors’ District set up by one of Joel Klein’s predecessors, Rudy Crew, in which about 35 high-poverty schools were using a research-based reading program called Success for All and almost uniformly achieving higher reading scores.

I was one of a handful of local education writers who sounded an alarm about the city’s failure to choose a reading program that had at least a chance of mitigating the black-white achievement gap (see “Tragedy Looms for Gotham’s School Reform,” Autumn 2003). Admittedly, none of us was a professional reading specialist. But Klein was getting the same warnings privately from a group of six or seven internationally recognized reading researchers, including several members of the National Reading Panel. He remained unmoved. The reading controversy, he observed, was like the “ ‘less filling / tastes great’ debate” about light beer—that is, it wasn’t all that important.

The city’s wrong turn left thousands of poor black children struggling to learn the phonetic code of the written English language. This made it virtually impossible to reduce the black-white achievement gap in reading in the early grades—a judgment confirmed by the 2007 federal NAEP tests (recognized as the gold standard in education testing), which assessed New York City’s fourth- and eighth-graders and showed that from 2003 to 2007, neither grade achieved a statistically significant improvement in reading. African-American kids remained as far behind as ever. (Mayor Bloomberg has periodically celebrated the city’s gains on the state’s reading tests, but the ever-widening gap between those tests and the NAEP has undermined their credibility. This year, the average reading score in the third through eighth grades rose 6.8 percentage points, but scores were up by similar margins in every corner of the state—suggesting that the quality of the tests, not the city’s reforms, was the proximate cause.)

Then, during the 2006–07 school year, the education system went through another upheaval. Bloomberg and Klein placed all their bets for school improvement on market-style accountability reforms, such as granting principals greater autonomy over budgets, making schools compete against one another for letter grades, and offering bonus pay to administrators and teachers who boosted student scores. It’s not clear how these system-wide incentives will benefit black children in grades K–3: one can easily imagine a scenario in which the market incentives raise average test scores for the system’s 1,400 schools while the black-white test-score gap in the early grades grows even wider. The separate initiatives launched out of Fryer’s “equality” office seem even more quixotic. In one, the city gives cash rewards to disadvantaged children from fourth grade to high school for good attendance and test scores. Another program offers some minority high school students free cell phones, with text messages from rappers like Jay-Z urging them to make academic progress and incentives like extra minutes if they keep their grades up. There’s scant research to support the efficacy of these initiatives, nor do they do anything to affect the achievement gap where it all begins—in the first four years of school.

Still, it seemed reasonable to wonder whether the new school autonomy might improve reading instruction in some K–3 classrooms. Might the newly liberated principals decide on their own, or receive encouragement from the DOE, to use phonics-based programs with strong track records, such as Success for All, Direct Instruction, Open Court, or Read Well? Fryer declined an interview, but three mid-level DOE officials gave me an informative background briefing. First, I discovered that despite the introduction of greater school autonomy, Balanced Literacy remains the core reading program in virtually every elementary school in the city. The officials weren’t aware of a single school using one of the core reading programs proven to be effective. Worse, the DOE is still urging all the schools’ principals and reading coaches, who train teachers in how to teach reading, to use as a guide a revised version of its first Balanced Literacy handbook. The new version continues to make the same false claims for the program’s effectiveness that the outside reading experts criticized five years ago.

It’s understandable that an outsider like the chancellor could have been tempted, at first, to accept the professional judgment of veteran progressive educators on pedagogical matters; of necessity, he had to attend to the much-needed management reforms of a dysfunctional bureaucratic system, and that took up a lot of time and energy. But Joel Klein is nothing if not a quick learner. He surely must have figured out by now that the progressives have sold him a bill of goods, particularly on reading. In a talk at the American Enterprise Institute in early June, Klein conceded that it was probably a mistake to mandate Month by Month Phonics. Nevertheless, he and Bloomberg remain so committed to their theories about market incentives that instructional issues still take a backseat at the DOE’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters.

To have any chance of narrowing the black-white achievement gap, such inattention toward reading instruction must end. What Klein and Bloomberg should do—and there’s still time during their administration—is launch something like a Marshall Plan for reading improvement. The DOE would select the 300 highest-poverty and lowest-scoring elementary schools in the city and offer to pay for scientifically based reading programs in each of those schools in grades K–3. It would provide the schools’ principals with the research supporting such programs, allowing them to choose the ones that would best suit their schools. To maximize the impact of the reading intervention, the children would be in classes no larger than 15 students. (There are legitimate questions about whether class-size reduction across the board is an effective school-improvement policy, but the famous Tennessee Class Size Study found that reducing class sizes in grades K–3 from 22 to an average of 15 had significant positive effects, particularly on African-American children.) The teachers in the targeted schools would receive extra training in implementing scientifically based reading programs.

The DOE would also create an office of reading improvement, headed by a nationally recognized expert in scientifically based reading instruction. The office would coordinate the intervention, advise principals on the efficacy of the various reading programs, and commission a rigorous study on the effectiveness of the new reading initiative. (To date, the DOE has done no research on whether its current Balanced Literacy approach to reading instruction is working.) With all due respect to Roland Fryer, New York City needs an effective office of reading improvement, and a reading czar to run it, more than it needs a Chief Equality Officer.

I estimate that the Marshall Plan would cost the city no more than $150 million, based on an average of about 600 children in grades K–3 in each of the 300 targeted schools, and assuming as much as $800 per student for the costs of the reading programs, class-size reduction, and extra teacher training. That’s a significant financial investment, sure, but there’s a reasonable hope that it would eventually pay itself back in reduced expenditures for the special-education referrals caused by children’s reading failure. Moreover, there’s little doubt that the financial resources exist to pay for this. When Bloomberg took control of the school system, the education budget was at $12.7 billion. Over the next six years, it rocketed to $21 billion. Within those extra $8 billion, it should be possible to find the necessary funds—under 1 percent of the total education budget—for a Marshall Plan for reading.

As evidence that the Marshall Plan isn’t pie in the sky, we have seen a test run at P.S. 65, a Queens K–5 elementary school. Impressed with the evidence that Success for All could significantly improve reading among poor, at-risk students, a wealthy hedge-fund entrepreneur and education philanthropist named Joel Greenblatt paid for the program at P.S. 65, with its population of low-income immigrants from Latin America and South Asia. Greenblatt also paid for additional aides and tutors in each classroom, an approach similar to lowering class sizes. When the project started in 2002, only 36 percent of P.S. 65’s fourth-graders were reading at grade level. Within three years, the percentage of fourth-graders passing the state reading test (acknowledging its seeming limitations) shot up to 71 percent. In 2005, the school was one of 14 to win a state award for dramatically improved performance. The officials from the DOE who briefed me weren’t even aware of the P.S. 65 story, though the magazine New York chronicled it in 2006.

Greenblatt has moved his pilot project to the Harlem Success Academy Charter School, which opened its doors to one kindergarten and one first-grade class in September 2006. The CEO of Harlem Success is Eva Moskowitz, the former chair of the City Council Education Committee. She’s convinced that with Success for All and a dedicated and productive teaching staff, her school’s students, 95 percent of them black and poor, will smash through the achievement barrier. After visiting the school recently, I tend to agree with her. In the first-grade reading classes, I saw extraordinarily effective instruction, as teachers followed the carefully scripted Success for All lesson plans, with their systematic emphasis on sound blending and then the children’s use of that skill as they read texts.

Klein has visited P.S. 65 and is aware of the dramatic improvement in its students’ test scores. Klein is also a great champion of the Harlem Success Academy Charter School and touts it as demonstrating the value of greater parental choice in public education. He’s right about that, of course. But the instructional lessons of P.S. 65 and Harlem Success Academy, and their relevance for all black children at risk of reading failure, should be just as obvious. If it isn’t yet clear to Klein and Bloomberg, we can only hope that it will be to their successors. A Marshall Plan for reading as a means of closing the black-white achievement gap is a worthy platform for anyone hoping to be the next mayor.


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