Some Advice for Parents Looking for a “Good” School District

While searching online for something or other involving early reading instruction recently, I happened to come across what is perhaps the master list of Balanced Literacy strategies for decoding: 

In addition to its ridiculous length (apparently more is always better), it seesawed so outrageously between the dangerously ineffective (“look at the picture”) and the absurd (how exactly are children supposed to “read fluently” if they don’t know what the words say?) that I couldn’t resist posting it on Twitter, where someone responded by asking “What is this, a manual for how to create reading problems?”

Close, I said, but actually it’s from the Wayland, MA, public schools—Wayland being one of the highest-performing, most affluent towns in the highest-performing state.

That got me thinking: exactly how many children in Wayland—and towns like it—learn to read exclusively from school? When a town has such such a high proportion of educated, high-earning parents, it can be hard to tell how much of students’ achievement is attributable to what happens in vs. out of school. Of course, somewhere around 40% of children will learn to read regardless of what type of instruction they’re given, but that still leaves a huge number of students who will struggle—no matter how well off their families are. 

Trust me when I say it’s not about the money. I tutored a number of struggling 16-year-old readers who lived in some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. Not only could they not sound out unfamiliar words, but they did not even seem to know that words could be sounded out. They looked at first letters and plugged in something that vaguely made sense. Something in their early reading instruction had clearly gone terribly awry.  

I don’t make this point to minimize the disproportionate effects of poor reading instruction on disadvantaged students, merely to emphasize that the problem exceeds class boundaries—a fact that is often obscured because affluent families can easily turn to private remediation. 

In fact, one of my first discussions with Emily Hanford centered on the difficulty of convincing the public that schools in “good” districts could actually be doing anything seriously wrong. And yet, a staggering 53% of students in Massachusetts read below grade level—53%! In a state that would top the world PISA rankings in reading if counted on its own. 

To be clear, this is not about the amount of time a school spends on reading instruction. If students are not taught to decode properly and then spend extended blocks of independent reading time looking at words they haven’t learned to sound out and guessing based on pictures, the result is that kids learn that reading is about looking at pictures and guessing (or looking at the pages and pretending to read). If, on the other hand, childen are given a highly structured 30- or even 15-minute phonics lesson daily, along with decodable readers that allow them to practice the specific skills they’ve learned and gradually move them toward being able to manage non-controlled texts, then most of them will be fine. 

Good reading instruction doesn’t have to be complicated; indeed, it shouldn’t be complicated. It just needs to be explict, systematic, and based on how the English language actually works. 

So a word of advice to all the parents Covid-fleeing to the suburbs and looking to buy a home in a “good” school district: don’t go by the test scores alone—they’re only part of the story. 

Instead, do two things:

1) Find out whether the local elementary schools use an explicit, systematic phonics program, or  Writer’s Workshop and a leveled reading system like Fountas and Pinnell (or a combination of the two). 

Keep in mind that consistency plays a significant role in determining the effectiveness of a program—if children are being taught phonics but then given texts with sound-letter patterns they have not yet learned, causing them to guess, the phonics portion may be undermined. (Wayland, which is very clear about being a Balanced Literacy District, uses the phonics program Fundations alongside Lucy Calkins’s Writer’s Workshop—given the list of guess-and-check Balanced Literacy strategies, it’s hard to gauge what actually goes on in a classroom.)  

2) Call a local tutoring center, and get the real scoop. 

Find out what types of reading problems they see and whether they tend to cluster in students from a particular school. The private tutors are the people most likely to see the unvarnished truth of where children actually stand and understand exactly what they need to do to get them up to speed. Generally speaking, they are less bound by ideology and more likely to teach in accordance with what (reliable) research has demonstrated to be effective. 

Compare, for example, the convoluted, guess-and-check Balanced Literacy approach to decoding to that of a tutoring company serving Wayland and the surrounding towns: 

Our program starts with a phonetically based approach to learning how to read. It is vitally important that the child become able to decode words rapidly with meaning. Research shows that understanding the relationship between letters and sounds is fundamental in learning to read. The English language is 85% phonetic. Sight words that must be memorized make up the balance. The “Learning to Read” program addresses both.

With this approach, the young student gains the ability and confidence to read with fluency. Specific exercises to develop the child’s visual and auditory discrimination abilities are used, and fine motor skills are also emphasized from the beginning. 

The sounds of vowels and consonants are taught in a specific order. The child progresses to sounding out common short words. Then the student begins to use a series of storybooks and workbooks with phonetically controlled texts. As the student develops reading fluency the program’s focus shifts towards an emphasis on vocabulary and grammar development to assist in reading comprehension.

It’s pretty safe to assume that they don’t lack for clients. (Quick anecdote: Richard recently mentioned that one of his longtime tutors had gotten a job as a reading specialist at a school whose terrible reading instruction had reliably sent the Fluency Factory a steady stream of clients of over the years. “Oh well,” he mock-grumbled, “I guess we’ll just have to find students somewhere else.”) 

You could, of course, be one of the lucky ones: your child(ren) could be among the 40% who only need a little bit of instruction to learn to read—although the lack of systematic instruction could cause gaps that only become apparent years down the line. But the point is, take some time and figure out what you’re getting into. Not just whether you like a school’s culture, or if children seem engaged, but whether they’re actually getting taught in ways consistent with mastery of skills necessary for success in both school and life. Loving to read is wonderful, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for methods that result in too many children not being able read.  

Unfortunately, schools do not typically jump to provide intervention when students’ reading skills start lagging. If your child begins to struggle, you’ll likely be told—very kindly, if perhaps a tad condescendingly—to wait and see, that s/he is “just a little behind,” that every child learns at a different rate and perhaps s/he “isn’t ready to read yet”…  This can easily go on until a child has fallen several years behind their peers. And even at that point, the only diagnosis you might get is the catch-all “processing problem” and the only solution extra time.  

Realize also, that most teachers, while almost certainly kind and well intentioned, will probably never have learned even the basics about the science of reading, or how to create a structured literacy program, or even how to teach phonics—and that even if teachers do know about these things, their ability to implement them is not infrequently hamstrung by their administration.

It is not fair, and it is not right that you cannot take professional competence granted. Parents should be able to trust that teachers have been trained to teach what they are responsible for teaching, and that they should know what constitutes effective vs. ineffective methods. But when it comes to reading, that is often not the reality. And is better to know that ahead of times and be able to take steps to head off problems before they have the chance to get out of hand.