Reading & Literacy Commentary

Reclaiming America, One 1st Grader at a Time

By John Merrow — December 01, 2008 6 min read

“The purple pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a fish.”

When the 1st graders in Elizabeth Holloway’s class at Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in New Orleans read the sentence above on the blackboard, they almost jumped out of their chairs, waving their hands excitedly.

Is something wrong with that story, I asked?

Lots, they volunteered eagerly: Pancakes aren’t purple, they can’t swim, and they don’t eat fish.

That silly story produced similar reactions in another 1st grade class at Banneker and in 1st grade classes at Fannie C. Williams Elementary School, also in New Orleans. That is, the children understood what they were reading.

To be certain, I picked children at random and asked them to read from Nate the Great, a book that is not used in New Orleans 1st grades. All of them read with comprehension.

Learning to read with understanding is the foundation for all learning, but most low-income children in the United States are below grade level in reading by the 4th grade. So any New Orleans 1st grader who is learning to read in school is beating the odds.

In the years before Hurricane Katrina, most New Orleans 1st graders were not learning to read. Today, only 26 percent of current 8th graders read with proficiency, and 80 percent of all students are a year and a half or more behind, according to Superintendent Paul G. Vallas.

Long before Katrina, parents of school-age children had voted with their checkbooks: In 2005, more than half of New Orleans children were in private or parochial schools.

Louisiana created the Recovery School District to run 60 of the city’s worst schools, and in 2007 hired Vallas, who previously had run the Chicago and Philadelphia school systems. Vallas has filled 30 percent of his classrooms with teachers from programs that recruit eager but untrained people and give them summer training before they begin teaching.

Benjamin Banneker Elementary, where Elizabeth Holloway teaches, is one of a handful of schools that were not devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding. The school, which sits on a piece of high ground called “the sliver by the river,” enrolls 286 students in pre-K through 8th grade, 88 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch, a generally accepted marker for poverty.

Another school where 1st graders were reading when I visited recently, Fannie C. Williams Elementary School, looks nothing like Banneker. Of its nearly 400 students, 92 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. The school itself is a collection of trailers out in east New Orleans. Most of that area was under water for weeks in the hurricane’s aftermath, rendering nearly all school buildings unusable. Williams has no playground to speak of, but it does have an experienced principal, Kelly Batiste.

While Banneker’s principal, Cheryllyn Branche, has staffed her school with veteran teachers (“I prefer people who know what they’re doing,” she said), 40 percent of Kelly Batiste’s classroom teachers are new, many of them from Teach For America or a similar organization.

But experience may not be the key variable. Second graders in Lindsay Enters’ class at Williams, for example, were reading with excitement and comprehension. The recent University of Wisconsin graduate is part of Teach NOLA, a Teach For America-like program. “There is really no way to prepare yourself for teaching and the challenges you face. It’s the same for people coming out of regular education programs,” she said. The rookie teacher decided to make reading the core of her class, “to make them all phenomenal readers,” as she put it. “When I came in, not one of them was reading their chapter books, and now I have 16 out of 19 doing it.”

Then she said the magic words: “If I’m teaching it, but they aren’t getting it, then I have to change what I’m doing.” Attitude matters!

Of course, not all New Orleans 1st graders are reading. Sarah T. Reed Elementary School is also a collection of trailers in east New Orleans. As at Banneker and Williams, most of Reed’s students (95 percent) live in poverty. But the similarities end there. My nonsense story about the pancake produced a less enthusiastic response there, and fewer hands went up when I asked what was wrong with it.

Only one or two children read from Nate the Great with comprehension. Most read without expression, clear evidence they did not understand the meaning. One boy, already 8 years old, could not even decode.

It took a “perfect storm” of inauspicious circumstances at Reed Elementary to create the disaster. The school’s principal and 75 percent of her teachers were in their first year. It had expected 125 students to enroll, but 387 showed up. One 1st grade was taught by a substitute from January to June because the regular teacher was let go for reasons the principal wouldn’t explain. That gentleman wore a Bluetooth device during class and at least twice appeared to be talking on the phone.

Another 1st grade teacher there, Nicole Tate, is a military veteran who was hired in November. She acknowledged her lack of preparation. “I thought if I let them read and they hear themselves read, they’ll be better readers. But I never had anybody say, ‘OK Miss Tate, you’re doing this wrong, but let me show you how to do it.’ Nobody ever came, so I had to figure it out on my own.”

What might the future hold for children in schools such as this one who don’t master reading in 1st grade? Research indicates that those who are behind in reading in the 1st grade have only a one-in-eight chance of catching up. But if New Orleans and other hard-pressed urban districts devote serious resources to such schools, the grim prognosis could be reversed.

These children do not, however, need more drill in decoding. They get too much now, probably because most tests reward decoding, which tempts teachers to treat it as a goal, rather than a means to an end.

Our national goal—all children reading by the end of 3rd grade—is a ludicrously low floor that may have become a ceiling. Children don’t learn to walk to get somewhere more efficiently. So too with reading: Children want to learn to read so they can make sense of the world around them. Good teachers capitalize on that intrinsic motivation.

What is happening in New Orleans should not stay in New Orleans. That is, principals everywhere should put their best teachers in 1st grade (and kindergarten) classes and then devote whatever additional resources are needed to ensure that children learn to read with comprehension. To do otherwise is to create candidates for remediation, special education, and other expensive programs.

Paul Vallas is bubbling with confidence. He’s extended the school day and school year, standardized the curriculum, established regular benchmark testing, set up jobs programs for high school students, and introduced heaps of technology. What’s more, he’s brought in hundreds of young, idealistic, but inexperienced teachers through Teach For America and Teach NOLA, people he’s convinced will work until they drop—and make a huge difference. “I’m expecting double-digit gains this year,” he told me. “Hopefully, it will be double digits beginning with a 2, maybe even a 3. But I expect double-digit growth this year.”

However, unless 1st graders in New Orleans are learning to read, Vallas and whoever succeeds him will be playing catch-up forever.

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Reclaiming America, One 1st Grader at a Time


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