Why the “Race to the Top” Grants will not Solve the Low Reading Test Scores in K-12 Schools

The competition among states for Race to the Top federal grants of almost 5 billion dollars totally misses the real problem of why one in four students drop out and about 20% of high school graduates in the U.S. read at 5th grade level or below. By requiring states who participate to do performance-based merit pay and link reading test scores to teacher performance, the federal government is not addressing the real problem.

The reason that so many of our students have poor reading skills and can’t read at grade level is due to popular use of the “whole word” language approach which teaches readers to memorize words instead of learning how to sound them out. Most textbooks used for reading instruction in public schools today use this method and do not teach students to read using the phonetic code and phonemes, the sounds that go with the letters. Some students figure out the code on their own but many do not. Research on phonics instruction has proven repeatedly to result in better readers than teaching by the whole word language approach.

I have taught dozens of middle school and high school students in public schools who couldn’t sound out unknown words of three or more syllables because they learned to read by the whole word method. It is hard to have good comprehension of reading material if you can’t read the words in the first place. Imagine what it is like to read a foreign language like Russian when you don’t know all the symbols and sounds. This is what reading is like for students who are reading at their frustration level and are unable to sound out unknown words.

Beginning in fourth grade, when students begin to read silently, a certain percentage of students fall through the cracks. They start reading below grade level because they can’t sound out unknown words and can’t understand the material. They read at the frustration level, get poor grades, and often get placed in a remedial reading class. This starts to effect their self-esteem and causes them to give up or misbehave.

It is totally wrong to give merit pay to teachers based on performance when that performance is tied to test scores. That is a requirement of the Race to the Top grants. Some students have more than one teacher. Others skip school, don’t try, take drugs, or speak another language at home. Why should this be blamed on the teacher? Is it fair to compare test scores of teachers with honor classes with a teacher that has a remedial reading class full of problem kids? Even if the merit pay is based on improvement in scores, it can be difficult to make problem students care enough to try. I’ve seen high school students make a Xmas-tree pattern down the answer sheet and refuse to read the test. Why should this be the teacher’s fault?

There are certainly other factors besides the method used to teach reading that impact reading skills. Early language development, parenting styles, and exposure to books are just a few. But it would benefit the schools if more publishers revised their textbooks and emphasized phonics instruction for beginning readers. We would not have so many students below grade level in reading or placed in an ineffective remedial or intensive reading class where students don’t behave because they don’t care and plan to drop out.

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