Summit looks at gaps in reading education

Speaker after speaker seemed to agree on a main point Friday: strong reading skills are essential to success in the classroom, and Idaho’s long-term economic health.

But New Plymouth school Superintendent Ryan Kerby clamored for something more — concrete statewide goals.

“I think there needs to be a reading goal that somebody sets, that has some kind of consequences,” said Kerby. Without a goal, and the sense of urgency that comes with it, “You’re not going to see long-term change.”

Kerby was one of more than two dozen speakers who discussed reading and literacy Friday at the inaugural Idaho Reading and Literacy Summit. More than 400 teachers, political officials and business leaders attended.

Reading and Literacy Summit, 11.15.13
Panelists discuss the politics and policy of reading education at Friday’s summit. From left: State Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, House Education Committee chairman; state Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls; Tom Massey, former chairman, Colorado House Education Committee; Mary Laura Bragg, Foundation for Excellence in Education; Ralph Smith, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The summit came just a week after Idaho landed in the middle of the pack in a National Assessment of Educational Progress report; the state’s fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores were virtually unchanged from 2011. And the summit came as the state considers a $350 million to $400 million list of education reform recommendations from a gubernatorial task force; one recommendation says students should “demonstrate mastery of literacy before moving on to significant content learning.”

The task force recommendations — and the looming legislative debate over funding the plan — was a recurring topic Friday. Another topic was an omission from the report. The task force was silent on pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten.

The task force did not focus on pre-kindergarten or full-day kindergarten, choosing to focus on other K-12 priorities, said House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, an Eagle Republican and a member of the 31-person task force. And three obstacles stand in the path of expanding into pre-K or all-day kindergarten, said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls: funding, parental choice and political will. “Right now, I don’t think those three have come together.”

Like what you’re reading? Sign up for our weekly newsletter »

The Legislature has repeatedly rejected pre-K programs — with opponents saying the state cannot fund early education, and saying young children are best taught in the home. Rep. Hy Kloc, D-Boise, is preparing a bill that would establish a pre-K pilot program.

The debate over pre-K and full-day kindergarten points to a larger issue, said Ralph Smith of Philadelphia, head of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national coalition focused on improving third-grade reading proficiency. Some children simply need more time to learn to read — and on that point, he said, there is an “emerging consensus.” The question is whether that time should be invested in preschool or kindergarten — and when it is necessary to have a student repeat a grade.

In his keynote address Friday morning, Smith urged Idaho educators to do a better job of making sure students make the most of the school year — by tracking the social and health issues that affect student attendance. If students miss too many school days, it is almost a “mathematical certainty” that they will fall behind.

Smith also stressed cooperation. Preparing young children is not a sprint, but a “relay,” he said, and it’s critical to pay attention to the handoffs from parents to preschool to kindergarten and beyond. And he decried the “scapegoating” of teachers for larger societal problems, since it will drive teachers out of the profession. “We’re going to need a generation of teachers who are a lot stronger than we are today.”

While funding is a key ingredient in any education debate — over pre-K or over the education task force recommendations — some speakers urged Idahoans to look beyond the mere bottom line.

Funding is important, said Louisa Moats, a Sun Valley reading specialist. But at the same time, it’s critical to make sure funding goes into programs that will work.

Deputy state superintendent Roger Quarles echoed this point. He praised P16 — a community-based preschool program that launched during his tenure as Caldwell School District superintendent. He said schools must be willing to embrace changes. If the schools spend their money the same way they do now, they will get the same results — and make no political headway. “We’re going to get the same pushback.”

Four focus areas

Focus areas identified in the Idaho Reading and Literacy Summit

  • School readiness: All of Idaho’s children will enter school prepared to learn, have access to quality early childhood experiences and have access to books and other print materials through book lending or book ownership programs.
  • Summer learning loss: All of Idaho’s children will have access to, and engage in, summer learning opportunities that have been shown to prevent summer learning loss.
  • Chronic absenteeism: All of Idaho’s children will be actively engaged in reading and learning. Students will attend school and districts will have effective and timely interventions for students who are chronically absent.
  • Quality instruction: All of Idaho’s teachers will have the skills and resources to provide quality instruction, meet the needs of their students, and build strong reading skills. Every struggling reader will have access to quality assessments, diagnosis and interventions in reading.

Disclosure: One of the sponsors of Friday’s summit was Don’t Fail Idaho. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation funds Don’t Fail Idaho and Idaho Education News.