The Oklahoman recently published a fatuous editorial about the state’s strict third-grade reading test law, arguing with heavy handed italicized emphasis that it and the ensuing fallout has shown thousands of state students can’t read.
Leave aside the editorial’s overall sweeping generalization about “thousands” of students, which is hyperbolic. The editorial presents a red-herring argument that minimalizes and distorts the arguments of those people that oppose the law while effectively shaming elementary school students who struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, many of which are not related to instruction.
The law mandates that third-grade students be held back if they can’t pass a high-stakes test showing they read at a first-grade or higher level. State law allows some exemptions and alternative tests, but those other tests or the fallout from the law, according to the editorial, also show too many students can’t read.
Here are the two italicized sentences in the editorial that supposedly make the big point that so many of us have just been too stupid so far to understand: “Those students really can’t read! Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.”
Note the exclamation point after the first italicized sentence. It’s as if the editorial writer is reveling in the reading struggles of a group of third-grade students, some of whom undoubtedly have learning disabilities or problematic home lives. Some children live in poverty and go hungry on a regular basis!
The editorial also doesn’t fairly address those who oppose the law. I’m one of them. I definitely oppose the third-grade reading test and other high-stake tests in public schools. I know that some students struggle with reading. I know how important reading is as a foundational lifelong learning tool. I know that some students get to the third grade in Oklahoma and other states and can’t read well. But I also know the educational system-not newspaper editorial writers and politicians-should address the reading issue with individual students and parents, and educators do address the issue, which is a holistic one that involves more than just sitting down with a child and sounding out words and reading sentences aloud.
The third-grade reading law is really just a political weapon intentionally designed to show the failure of schools and to justify the push for the privatization of public education. The law is designed so editorial writers at conservative newspapers can gleefully write, “Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.” Pop open the champagne. Why not also write, “Millions of elementary school students in the country live in poverty and dysfunctional homes!” Then open another bottle.
There’s no argument that some at-risk students struggle at school. Why would The Oklahoman and conservative politicians even need to make this point unless it wasn’t politically motivated? The issue is whether we nurture and help develop the students’ capabilities or if we shame them with italicized language and consequently help label and stigmatize them. The second approach, which The Oklahoman apparently endorses, is abusive and only creates more learning blocks for students.
As I’ve argued over and over, the conservative school “reform” movement is deliberately designed to show failure. First and foremost, the school reformers here starve public education of needed funding. Oklahoma, for example, has cut education by 23.6 percent since the 2008 recession, which is more than any other state in the nation.
The reformers then implement high-stakes testing and individual school evaluations that focus on punishment for individual students and educators. Public shaming of students that get held back and educators at schools with meaningless F grades are a major part of the process. This is followed by criticism of teachers’ unions and a push for charter schools and further privatization of our educational system. It’s a long-term effort to dismantle public education in this country, which, if it happened, would essentially lead to the dismantling of our democracy.
Let’s help the kids that can’t read. No one can argue against that. Give them more teachers, the best textbooks and encouragement. But, as a society, we also need to work to eliminate child poverty and provide kids with adequate health care. The problem of poor school performance of individual students is more often than not a holistic one and multi-layered. Tests and punishments only serve to further a conservative political agenda. It has nothing to do with helping students to read.