The Ottumwa Courier

October 11, 2012

Chapter 1 in education: Address reading gaps early

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — It’s cruel, some say. Others say it’s about time. Gov. Terry Branstad’s plan states a child who can’t read well by third grade cannot move on to the fourth grade.

“We don’t want to wait that long. If we can identify [trouble reading] in preschool or kindergarten, that’s when we want to address it,” said Ottumwa Supertindent Davis Eidahl. “We want to address it before third grade.”

The local report this week from Jennifer Burns, a teacher leader in Ottmwa’s Reading Recovery program, said 72 percent of children in Reading Recovery graduated from the 12-20 week course, and most are now reading as well as their fellow first-graders.

Burns said the idea isn’t just to have children learn to read for the sake of reading. It’s to have children who can read the work assigned in class — and learn from that material.

“Because of the intensity of the program, a Reading Recovery teacher is only allowed to have four students per morning,” Eidahl said. “They have one student for 30 minutes of intensive reading intervention.”

When the teacher is done with that child, but before they move on to the next student, they mark down what they observed about the child’s reading. And they plan the next day’s lesson based on what the child needs most.

“[Burns] is trained to train teachers in Reading Recovery,” Eidahl said.

There are 13 RR teachers learning the process now in Ottumwa. All of the students are in first grade.  

The next project Eidahl is looking at is a “kindergarten prep” program to prepare children “for success in kindergarten, which is more rigorous than even 10 years ago.

“The expectation is that they’re reading, and writing multiple sentences. It’s probably where first grade used to be in the ’80s.

“We would prefer if there are reading gaps, that we address those early,” Eidahl said. “So we have set the goal that all children are reading at grade level by the end of first grade.”

The governor’s “blueprint for education” says children must be reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

But Eidhal and other superintendents say they’ve seen studies that the same states that are seeing improved reading scores are starting to see higher dropout rates amongst kids who were held back a grade.

“Research has said this: Retaining kids is sometimes detrimental to kids,” said Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont Superintendent Dean Cook. “You have to be thoughtful about how you do it. If we just take this blanket approach (of every child who doesn’t pass the reading test is held back), I don’t think that’s right.”

“What’s the long-term effect of holding a student back?” asked Fred Whipple, superintendent of the Pekin school district.

Eidahl, too, has similar concerns.

“That’s [another reason] why we want to address this early,” he said.

No superintendent said every child must move on to the next grade every year. But that’s a discussion to have with a teacher, the child’s parents and the school principal.

“Are we not going to have teacher involvement?” asked Cook. “Who better to make the decision? It goes back to putting a good teacher in every classroom.”

“We have to look at each child and figure out what’s right for them,” Whipple said. “Every teacher wants every child to read, but each child is different.”

“There is not a simple answer,” Cook agreed. “Getting a youngster to read at grade level, we’re going to need multiple approaches.”

“My statement would be ‘for every problem, there’s a simple solution that won’t work.’” Whipple said.

“He’s hit it dead on,” responded Cook.