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DAVID DALLAS: All testy over third-grade reading results

DAVID DALLAS

DAVID DALLAS

The results are in: 15 percent of Mississippi’s third graders were unable to pass the reading test that allows them to advance to the fourth grade. Given our woeful funding and track record on education, perhaps we should take pride in the fact that eighty-five percent of the children were able to pass what amounts to a very simple reading test.

While some suggest we can reward ourselves with a B, the fact is too many of our elementary schools failed to pass 30 percent, in some cases even 50 percent of their third graders. No surprise that this turned out to be particularly true for schools in poor and rural districts. Even one child failing a basic reading test in any area of our state should not be considered acceptable.

Let’s play the blame game for a minute or two. First, we can lay the blame at the little feet of 5,600-plus third graders who did not dedicate themselves to learning to read in the first half a primary school. They knew this test was looming and if they choose not to study properly, well, shame on them.

Next, let’s blame their parents, those parents that refuse to take the time to read and study with their children. To paraphrase Keanu Reeves from the movie Parenthood, “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. You need a license to catch a fish, but they’ll let anybody be a parent.” Apparently, the parents of these 5,600-plus third graders have no desire to see their child achieve. Shame on them.

And then, of course, we can blame the teachers. It’s just so easy.

Dare we blame our state leaders, who have done nothing since William Winter left office to improve public education in this state? They’ve talked big, passed meaningless legislation, failed to adequately fund our schools and allowed class sizes to balloon to unproductive levels. However, they gladly fund tests and studies designed to put more money in the hands of private education firms.

No doubt, this new third-grade test crisis will be used as a rallying cry for more charter schools by our ALEC-boot-licking legislature. They may just go ahead and demand the privatization of all our public schools. Our Governor has already called our schools an “abysmal failure,” but somehow believes such failure is no reflection on his leadership. The lot of them should be brought up on charges of neglect, if not outright abuse, of our public education system. Shame on them.

But, then again we keep electing these guys, so shame on us. All of us.

The problem with education is not about Common Core or leaving children behind. Those are just new names and slogans for standards that have been in place for decades. It’s about good stewardship and common sense. It doesn’t take a third grader to see that the lack of effective action has created a cycle of poor education, limited opportunity and poverty for too many of our citizens. Children come to our schools at 5 and 6 years old that have never had an adult read them a book. Many have difficulty socializing. Establishing a quality pre-K program in Mississippi has now become critical if we hope to break this cycle.

Many of our children are in desperate need of being nurtured before they ever exit the womb. Programs like the Nurse Family Partnership, where nurses visit and work with young mom’s prior to the child’s birth through the time those children are two-years old, have been implemented in several states. Such programs encourage healthy pregnancies and drastically improve child development and health.

Now let’s reconsider those teachers. Sooner or later we have to realize that more testing is not the answer. Student achievement will only come with better instruction. We need better teacher training, development, and support. Our much-maligned teachers are on the factory floor, so to speak. They recognize education is not a one-size-fits-all cattle call. They know how much our children need more individualized learning in smaller classrooms. It’s why, at this age, early level stop-gap testing is even more harmful than it is worthless. There is no research that suggests holding students back through such testing will improve their reading comprehension.

This testing focus has been on the absolute wrong end of the process. Student success is the goal, but measuring student progress through a series of tests designed and administered by overpriced educational lobbying firms crushes the spirit of learning in our children, as well as those tasked with their instruction.

Instead of threatening teachers and schools with consequences for their students’ inadequate test results, teachers should be given time and a structure within which to observe each other, share and collaborate. All teachers would perform better if they knew they were going to be observed on regular basis by other working teachers, not by administrators or consultants with little or no classroom experience. This would give teachers a chance to evaluate their own progress compared with peers.

The Japanese have such a system of teacher training called “Lesson Study.” It gives new teachers a chance to study with Masters and we do have Master teachers in Mississippi. The long-term result would be stronger than the current method of high stakes testing. It would also be better than the current use of “professional development” where districts are forced to pay for consultants. Too many of these consultants are political cronies who couldn’t cut it as teachers and are often openly hostile to the profession. The techniques they use are seldom more than talking down to the teachers.

Okay, so we don’t give our teachers any more money, but let’s make sure our lowest paid teacher is paid as well as any education administrator, including our state’s superintendent of education. That’s not some looney egalitarian notion, that’s real common sense if our goal is better instruction for our students. Administrators, at every level, should only work in support of our instructors who are on the front line in educating the next generation. Salaries should indicate that instead of the other way around.

It seems almost criminal that those $100K plus school superintendents with their bloated support staffs have done little to improve education for all of Mississippi’s children. They’ve created more bureaucracy and paperwork to justify their salaries. At the Mississippi Department of Education, there is even more red tape, bloat and salary inflation. Whether you are in education, economic development, or corrections, no one earning a living from Mississippi’s taxpayers should be making more than $150K a year, least of all a political appointee. Talk about your government waste.

Yes, we will have to throw money at our education problem, but let’s target more of it where it is needed: student instruction. This is a crisis and as much as we may want to throw in the towel, we simply cannot afford to.

A friend and successful business owner from New England was once looking to expand his operation. I suggested he consider Mississippi. He told me he already had and that it wasn’t going to happen. The first thing he pointed to was our poor education system. He went on, “Why would I ask my employees to pay for two school systems? The private school they would hope to send their kids to and the public school system for everybody else. I’d have to pay every employee $50,000.”

He did name a few Mississippi cities where he might one day set up shop. All of them, naturally, had a solid tax base and very strong public schools. All of them showed up quite well in the state-wide third-grade-reading test results.

Just last week, the MBJ mentioned a report on how Mississippi had fallen even further among states where CEO’s are willing to do business. Let’s please stop kidding ourselves: the inability of our state to attract business has everything to do with how we educate our citizenry. A third grader could figure that out.

» David Dallas is a political writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.

3 comments

  1. Martha Willoughby

    I wish everyone who votes could read and understand this article. It covers everything. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for saying what needs to be said. Hope someone is listening. A few are, but the crony crooks are trying to figure out how to steal from the education budget, how to make teachers grovel for pay, how to make sure the 99% stay down, down, down. Respect for education does not exist in this state, at least not in the halls of $$$ (e.g., power).

  3. You suggest that a solution would be to start a pre-k program to rectify the problem that an adult has never read to them. I would suggest that that the kindergarten program we have had for years has been a failure as well based on a 30% failure rate. Another thing that concerns me is that there is not a passing score in place but the article says that they have yet to determine what a passing score is….lets throw a curve. The solution is always a need for more money and that is not the answer and everyone with a brain knows it. I would home school my young child and how about the state giving me the 9,000 per pupil per year cost so I can afford to do that? A breakdown of the family is the real culprit here and also low test scores in Mississippi are diluted by the high minority population that has no father in the home.

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