Bike Riding & Reading: A Message to the Governor and Legislature

photo courtesy wikimedia

Nancy Fulton
President of the Nebraska State Education Association

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving. ~ Albert Einstein

As an avid bicycle rider, Gov. Peter Ricketts should know that not every child gets the hang of riding a two-wheeler at the same age.

Some children get their balance early and wheel away from home at age three or four. Others take a couple more years to gain the balance and confidence needed to master riding without training wheels.

It is the same with gaining reading skills. Some children read well in first grade. Others, many with lesser advantages at home, take longer to learn to read. Thus, I believe it is wrong for the governor to support a bill, LB651, that would flunk those young children who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade. That is what the governor proposed in his recent article, “Expanding Educational Opportunity (May 2, 2017).

Further, it is wrong for the state to mandate, and not fund, the summer reading camps that LB651 would require for those third graders.

The governor is correct when he says that children who cannot read proficiently by third grade are in danger of dropping out of high school later. He is in correct when he says those children are more likely as adults to be on food stamps, or in prison at some point in their life.

Teachers know reading skills are a key to learning. We also know there is not a shred of evidence that punitive measures are effective.

There are research-based interventions and strategies that have been proven to increase reading achievement – and mandating that a child be held in third grade because he or she has not yet passed a standardized test is not a strategy that works.

What works is reinforcing the importance of reading to children at all levels; providing resources (not the aforementioned unfunded mandates) needed to boost achievement; professional development on multiple strategies for teachers; and less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on teaching.

It means literacy and instructional coaches. It means universal pre-school, which has been shown to level the playing field between students who come to school with a limited vocabulary and those who have an extensive vocabulary when they enter school. Before and after school or “extended learning opportunities” also have been shown to increase reading achievement.

It means real commitment to teaching children to read – not lip service in the form of a bill devoid of resources – that would make that commitment a true value for these children.

Teachers should be encouraged and allowed to focus on the best teaching practices available.

It should be noted that Nebraska fourth graders perform well overall, ranking 10th in the country in the NAEP reading test. That ties Nebraska with Florida.

And by the 9th grade Nebraska readers have climbed to ninth place on the NAEP test, while Florida has fallen to 31st. Care to guess which state flunks third graders based on reading ability? (Yes, it is Florida.)

I urge policymakers to quit the “blame the teachers and their union” game for the failures of society. I urge state lawmakers to work with the educators in the classroom – and to leave the decision regarding whether a child is “held back” a grade up to those who are closest to the situation: the child’s parents, teacher and principal.

Teachers have committed their professional lives to their students and they have solutions to closing the achievement gaps.  They need to be invited to the decision-making table rather than just used as scapegoats for ill-conceived policies.

Trust the teachers. They know what they are doing. They know that learning to read is like learning to ride a bike.

Nancy Fulton is a 34-year teacher (third grade) and currently serves as president of the 28,000-member Nebraska State Education Association.