Unfortunately, recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exams reveal disturbing patterns. In more than half of these united states, 8th grade student reading scores declined. In seventeen states, 4th grade reading scores dropped. Overall, only 35 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2019, down from 37 percent in 2017; 34 percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading, down from 36 percent. Our country faces an existential crisis; reading prowess is declining at a fairly significant rate every two years.
Recent articles point to many root causes for this trend – income inequality, discrimination in education and resource access, lack of experience/knowledge building opportunities, excessive screen time, improper nutrition, and adverse childhood experiences (ACE).
Reflecting upon these causes, I chose to examine my own early learning/reading development. Growing up in middle-Appalachia in the late 60s and 70s, I certainly should NOT have excelled due to many of these same reasons, correct?! However, I learned, learned, read, read, and read some more. What “gifts” and educational offerings helped me “rise above?”
First, my elementary school served as a sanctuary. I was safe, warm, and dry. Can we say the same about our nation’s schools today, with gun violence and trashed classrooms? Solution #1: Mental health funding.
Second, my nutrition was top-notch! Though we were poor in “things” and “housing,” Mom and Dad provided three stellar meals a day, complete with grass-fed beef and garden-grown veggies. When I practiced in schools in the 90s, however, my students were VERY hungry, with school meals providing their major nutrition (but not so nutritious). Also, health fairs were held frequently at my elementary school, in which we ALL received our immunization shots and routine screenings. Solution #2: Legislative and institutional support of the Slow-Food Movement, family farming/gardening, and community nutrition and health programming.
Third, my education stood on the pillars of teacher autonomy. I remember my teachers “running the show.” They chose what to teach, (based in very loose standards), how to teach, and when to teach. They made learning “fun” instead of “rigorous.” Administrators supported teachers, instead of “evaluating” them obsessively, breathing down their necks. Even as a child, I knew the administrators were “there” for the teachers, not the other way around. Solution #3: Teacher Autonomy
Fourth, a stellar and uncompromising school librarian who promoted reading and the love of story played a MAJOR role in my education. In fact, my childhood school librarian remains foremost in my thoughts as I deliver instruction today. She highlighted the only books which mirrored cultural belonging or “pride,” the Jack and Grandfather Tales and ghost tales from the region (all Appalachia had at the time, but there is not a variety in 2019, either, sadly). She read Newbery-award winning titles aloud each and every year (at that time, often containing “exotic” settings). She sponsored story-telling opportunities and workshops. She browsed WITH us, providing “gentle” suggestions. Solution #4: TWO certified school librarians in every school (our population HAS increased)!
Fifth, physical education was an everyday event! Whether it was dancing the Virginia reel every morning before settling into our seats, a formal physical education class or free-for-all in the gym, or two hours of softball on sunny days come spring, we moved! Solution #5: Physical education emphases
Sixth, I felt a sense of place. Every semester, we enjoyed a “Heritage Day,” in which local craftspeople, musicians, storytellers, and other local “celebrities” shared their cultural and intellectual gifts. Solution #6: Efforts to destabilize marginalization
Seventh, from day one, I read whatever I wished whenever I wished. No one tried to “level” my reading; no one chose what I could or should read (I choose myself); no one tried to limit or censor what the school or public library collected. In high school, I put more effort into reading James Michener, rather than “assignments.” Solution #7: Self-selected pleasure reading; intellectual freedom advocacy efforts – i.e. a child’s right to read.
Eighth, my extended family and community/culture holistically emphasized language, conversation, music, and story, ad infinitum. Solution #8: Face-to-face discussions and conversations, limited screen time, art-based educational practices, storytelling-based instructional strategies, parental education (eating meals together, for example).
Ninth, my elementary school sponsored field trips which served to expand our viewpoint and provide experiences outside our environs/culture. For example, I enjoyed trips to caverns (science), classic harp performances (music), and film screenings (the movie Sounder – differing cultures; social justice). Solution #9: Build community resource opportunities
Will you take the opportunity to reflect upon “what worked” during your formative years, too, spreading the word as we experience an educational crisis in our beloved Country? Let us brainstorm solutions together, insisting such solutions be implemented!