[Submitted]: South Carolina Needs a New Story and Different Political Responses to Reading

[Below is an OpEd submitted to newspapers in SC; no response yet.]

Writing in Teachers College Record, literacy scholars Reinking, Hruby, and Risko explain: “Since 2015, 47 state legislatures have enacted, or are currently considering, a remarkable total of 145 bills that address reading and reading instruction in public schools.”

A few days apart, an article in the New York Times again announced the US has a reading crisis, and in EdSource, a school’s exceptional success with multilingual learners was celebrated.

The problem with new reading legislation, another reading crisis, and highlighting education “miracles” is that they all are factually untrue.

For example, Reinking, Hruby, and Risko demonstrate that reading achievement as measured by NAEP grade 4 reading scores have remained flat for many years in the US:

The same is true of South Carolina:

South Carolina has also been an early and eager adopted of standards, high-stakes testing, and embracing the current trend to legislate reading. However, these models of crisis and reform have never produced the sort of reading achievement that the media, the public, or political leaders have promised.

After multiple versions of different standards and tests as well as several rounds of reading wars, South Carolina like the rest of the US continues to lament low reading proficiency in students.

As a lifelong literacy educator in SC over five decades, I recommend that we first stop focusing on crisis and “miracle” stories about our schools, our teachers, and our students. These extreme stories almost always prove to be misleading or false.

Next, and most importantly, we need to do something different—at the school and classroom levels, but also at the political level of legislation, funding, and mandates.

South Carolina has a historical challenge of extreme pockets of poverty, and recent data from the value-added era of education reform under Obama confirmed that about 86 – 99% of measurable student achievement is linked to out-of-school factors, not teacher practice or quality.

The historical negligence of political leadership in SC highlighted in the documentary Corridor of Shame has simply never been addressed.

Further, what do students, teachers, and public schools needed from legislators in SC?

Political leaders must resist the current trend to ban teaching practices and reading programs while also mandating narrow approaches to reading and a new batch of preferred reading programs.

Simply put, there is no silver bullet for teaching reading, and neither the problem nor the solution is a magic reading program.

Students and teachers instead need political leaders to address learning and teaching conditions in our schools concurrent with addressing poverty and inequity in the homes and communities of our children.

Equitable learning and teaching conditions would include repealing grade retention, reducing significantly class sizes in the earliest grades and for the populations of students struggling to read, funding better all aspects of public education (teacher pay, school facilities, learning and teaching materials), and refusing to succumb to the current trends of legislating curriculum through bans and censorship.

The two most powerful commitments that a state can make in terms of supporting education and reading instruction is ensuring that the individual educational needs of all students are supported and that teacher professionalism is directly and fully supported.

For my entire career in SC as a literacy educator, political leaders have failed to address poverty and inequity, ignored the needs of our most vulnerable students, and eroded the profession of teaching in the state.

The stories we have told and the political responses to those stories have failed all of us for decades. We must do better and that means we must do something different.