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Ferguson riots and Reading Recovery

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We keep doing the same things that don’t work. We know they don’t work. Why are they our default position? These dots connect: hopelessness and despair in Ferguson, ineffective reading instruction and ineffective reading intervention.

In news reports, the people of Ferguson, Missouri look hopeless. The small, largely African-American suburb of St. Louis is struggling to come to grips with the death of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, shot by police. There have been peaceful protests but looting and rioting as well. As of this writing, the investigation continues surrounding the young man’s encounter with police.

When mobs of people react emotionally, there is a lot going on behind the obvious incident. Local government and police in Ferguson are White. Of about 15,000 citizens 18 and over, just 1,500 votes were cast in the city council race last year. (Peters and Kesling, Wall Street Journal 8/14/14) History suggests a look at local education.

Mr. Brown attended Normandy High School, part of the Normandy Schools Collaborative (NSC). NSC was unaccredited, but later accredited as a state oversight district under a State Board of Education waiver. Citing financial concerns, nearby districts voted to deny Normandy students the opportunity to transfer. Governor Nixon vetoed the student transfer bill which had required unaccredited districts pay transportation costs for students who wish to transfer. Several phone calls made to NSC for clarification were not returned. This is a failing school, support system, district and collaborative.

What we know about Missouri schools:

  • Ten+ Missouri school districts are training teachers to carry concealed weapons in the classroom.
  • Just 13% of Missouri Black fourth grade students score proficient (grade level) or above in reading; Nebraska is not much better at 16%. (National Assessment of Educational Progress 2013)

“Reading deficiency is a moral crisis because a child who cannot read often grows into a troubled teen or young adult who cannot earn an honest living in a decent job.” (Mike Fuljenz, Association of Mature American Citizens 8/8/14) We know this.

We also know the way to effectively teach children to read is through scientifically-based reading programs which employ these five essential components:

  • phonemic awareness
  • phonics
  • guided oral fluency
  • vocabulary
  • reading comprehension

“Teacher preparation programs continue to fail to teach reading effectively.” (President Kate Walsh, National Council on Teacher Quality 6/17/14)

Black children, particularly, are not being taught how to read well. In addition, when children have failed to learn how to read (having not been taught effectively), they are referred for special help though intervention strategies. Some interventions are more effective than others.

For over ten years, Reading Recovery intervention has been infamous for its expense and its ineffectiveness. Despite that, following in the footsteps of poor teacher preparation, Reading Recovery remains widely used. Phone calls requesting information on Missouri reading curriculum and intervention strategies have not yet been returned. Lincoln Public Schools shows a Reading Recovery expenditure on its 2014-2015 budget proposal.

If not reading fluency, what is the goal of education? For Michael Brown, it was this: “The Normandy Schools Collaborative provides the experiences and support necessary for students to become life-long learners who are productive, contributing members of society.” (NSC Website)

Michael Brown graduated from high school, but had he been taught to read well? Is our failure to teach Black children to read well the root of problems which continue to plague African-American communities nationwide? That is the real outrage, not the fallout from reading failure. We have chosen this path. As one principal put it bluntly, “In this system, failure pays.”

Inordinate sorrow is the root of unjust anger, hatred and revenge. Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274

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