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Coronavirus

The Pandemic’s Generational Opportunity To Help Kids Read

Research says that kids are toast if they can’t read by third grade. Dallas ISD—like many other districts—has a unique chance to leverage that fact.

Every morning I look in the mirror and remind myself that America figured out Hitler and the Great Depression, and even now we’re making solid progress on Ghislaine Maxwell. So we can figure out schools. But my resolve doesn’t always last until dinner.

This question keeps coming back: was there something so incredibly great about Dallas public schools before the pandemic that we just have to get back to it? The answer keeps coming back: yes.

Before the coronavirus, Dallas public schools were on a solid trajectory of important achievement. And, yes, in all of this post-George Floyd talk about being woke, we do have to work our way back toward that trajectory, because social justice itself is at stake, not to mention the good of children and the future of the nation. That’s enough to keep me going at least until noon.

I hope you won’t mind too much, but I want to make a small, weird digression here, something I came across recently in the kind of very arcane reading I do late at night to knock myself out. Between 1924 and 1931, the great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were living in Paris, out on the town a lot, drinking heavily with Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, guys like that.

Back at their apartment, a daughter called Scottie was living a very unusual childhood between the ages of 3 and 10. Later, as an adult, Scottie had pretty much blocked out memories of the drunken parents (her father threw ashtrays at her), but she had a happy recollection of school: “My first school was the Cours Dieterlen in Paris, where I went for the equivalent of third and fourth grade. You went two days a week, and the rest of the time you did your lessons at home.”

Frances Scott “Scottie” Fitzgerald was a rich kid with a famous novelist father and a full-time tutor at the house, so her life was not exactly real life for most of us. But her anecdote is a reminder that kids have been educated in all kinds of ways forever and ever, from sitting under shade trees to parking themselves in rows of desks in vast teaching factories. And none of that is set in stone.

In 1997, the Florida Virtual School began offering courses online under a mantra “Any Time, Any Place, Any Pace.” Parts and versions of its curricula have been adopted and adapted all over the world. The significant progress achieved globally in online teaching in recent decades may be old news to home-school people, but it’s not so well known to those of us still in the school-school world.

Online also can be junk. The Texas version of online or virtual instruction at the end of the last school year, when COVID-19 first struck, was a sad story for kids who were middle class and up, and a tragedy for poor and minority kids. In mid-June, the Texas Education Agency published devastating findings for students who had been using an online math curriculum since March.

Affluent kids held out the longest. Their progress stayed about even until May 24. Middle-class kids started losing ground a week to two weeks earlier. Poor kids plummeted almost immediately, to below 60 percent of previous progress. And then soon after May 24, all of them—rich, middle, and poor—fell off a cliff and wound up in the minus 50 to 70 percent range on progress.

So that didn’t work.

Kids have been educated in all kinds of ways forever and ever, from sitting under shade trees to parking themselves in rows of desks in vast teaching factories.

A half-baked, panicky online program is bad for all kids, but it’s devastating to poor minority kids, who cannot afford that kind of loss. Education happens on a timetable. In American schools, kids learn to read from kindergarten to third grade. From fourth grade on, they must read to learn. Once poor kids fall off that schedule, they tend never to recover.

Repeated national studies have found that the end of the third grade is an all-important crossroads for all kids but especially for poor kids. In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report called “Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” a global survey of reading research. Most poor kids, the report found, are doomed to second-class citizenship for life if they fail to achieve grade-level reading competence by the end of third grade. Not that some exceptional kids won’t work their way back up to a competent reading ability later. But the Casey Foundation report was talking about most kids, the ones who are not exceptions to the rule. The rule is that those who don’t hit grade-level reading competence by the end of the third grade are toast, which only highlights what a sin it has been that we have ever accepted this state of affairs.

The test used most commonly to measure third-grade reading competence is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. “The fact is,” the Casey report said, “that the low-income fourth-graders who cannot meet NAEP’s proficient level in reading today are all too likely to become our nation’s lowest-income, least-skilled, least-productive, and most costly citizens tomorrow.”

And, you know, in the wake of George Floyd and our newly woke awareness, let’s forget for a moment about how economically unproductive these kids will be or how much it will cost us to incarcerate them. What about them, their lives? How many symphony conductors, teachers, artists, or CEOs wind up standing around barrel fires on vacant lots in February, unemployed and unemployable because nobody taught them to read in time?

That’s exactly why the progress achieved by DISD in recent years—terribly hard fought every inch of the way—has been so meaningful. Since 2015, the Dallas schools have been doing a steadily better and better job bringing kids to grade-level reading competence by the end of their third-grade years. From 2015 to 2019, the percent of DISD students reaching grade-level reading competence on STAAR tests by the end of the third grade increased from 19 to 26 percent for Black children, from 30 to 43 percent for Hispanic children, and from 56 to 64 percent for White children.

Those improvements may seem modest at first blush, but if we apply them to the year 2019, we see a stunning result. Last year there were 11,509 third-graders in DISD. I don’t have numbers for the racial makeup of the third grade, but I do have them for the whole student body, so I will make a leap of faith and assume the numbers are about the same for each grade.

In 2019, if DISD had not improved third-grade reading success, the number of children left behind would have been 2,051 Black kids, 5,607 Hispanic kids, and 284 White kids. Instead, the number of children who made it to the third-grade reading mark increased by 1,270. That’s 177 more Black kids, 1,041 more Hispanic kids, and 52 more White kids who made it to the mark in 2019 than would have made it four years earlier.

Yes, it’s also a fact that almost 7,000 Dallas third-graders did not make it last year. And, look, nothing in the Casey study or any other study says some of those kids won’t find a way to make it in life anyway. What the studies say is that the deck is stacked heavily against those who do not. That’s ghastly. But we need to look at it the other way, too. In four short years, the Dallas schools have already found a way to save almost 1,300 children a year, and those numbers were climbing steadily before COVID-19.

That’s what is on the table now. In figuring out school, how to do in-class, the right way to do online, the stakes are these young lives. And that’s not to say that middle-class and affluent families do not face very daunting challenges in this year about to unfold. Those kids are at risk, too, and we haven’t figured out their challenges, either.

Byron Sanders is CEO of Big Thought, a 33-year-old Dallas-based nonprofit with a $9 million annual budget. Big Thought does everything from arranging field trips for elementary students in poor neighborhoods to providing trauma therapy for older kids convicted of crimes. Sanders says we have to try everything, get out of our silos, turn our backs on nothing and on no one, and treat the pandemic as both an emergency and an opportunity. But he speaks about all of that with excitement rather than dread.

“What a time to do it, man,” he says. “COVID-19 is grabbing us by the shoulders and shaking us. It’s telling us, ‘Get out of your trance.’ If we don’t take action now, if we are not about action when we are in the middle of this moment, then what does that mean for our educational system not just today but tomorrow?

“What kind of over-investment do we need to make in order to truly empower, yes, that Black boy in South Dallas or that Latina girl in Pleasant Grove but also that little White girl in Lake Highlands?”

Life is a challenge for all children, for some more than others. Scottie Fitzgerald was a rich little girl living in Paris, daughter of parents who were more or less the rock stars of their era. Eventually I stayed awake long enough to read the rest of the book (Scottie, a great read, by Eleanor Lanahan, Scottie’s daughter). Believe me. Not many people would want Scottie’s childhood.

But kids are also wonderfully resilient, adaptable, and empty little jugs waiting for the world to come by and fill them. We were figuring out all of this before the pandemic. Surely we can again now. And just think. What if Sanders is right? Maybe the virus is shaking us by the shoulders. What if we learn to do it all even better and rescue even more new lives?   


Write to [email protected].

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