I don’t normally get political but reading State Senator Alan Clark’s Senate Bill 349 demanded a response, so I wrote the following to two members of the Arkansas Senate Education Committee.
We’ve had a problem in this country with reading for much of my life. “Reading wars” have been fought for years. Finally, we seem to be at a point that there is a good understanding and evidence for what works best in reading instruction. As a state, we’re early in the training and implementation of required “Science of Reading” programs. Alma School District acted early and made significant investments to implement Connections, one of the top science-based reading programs, so my concern here is not so much for Alma as it is for the rest of the state where resources might be lacking.
Children who happen to be born into poverty have inadequate health care, poor nutrition, and limited exposure to learning experiences when their minds are at crucial developmental stages. Often these children have traumatic experiences and cope with toxic stress that interferes with their ability to receive and process new learning. Children in poverty have much less exposure to conversation, text and learning opportunities than their middle and upper-income peers.
When these Arkansas children of poverty enter our schools, thankfully, they begin to receive state-mandated evidence-based instruction in reading (Science of Reading) that is still early in implementation at this point. Ideally, this instruction will be led by highly trained teachers who receive continued professional development in the Science of Reading.
Republican State Senator Alan Clark of Lonsdale proposes in SB349 that if these children of poverty don’t respond to this good reading instruction in a timely manner, their schools should be penalized by reducing the money available for teacher training and additional personnel. I guess hitting people with a stick when they’re down is a simple solution but it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for a rational or humane response to a complex problem.
I’m not sure if the reason for Alan Clark’s proposed bill is lack of understanding or meanness. A rational response would be to provide adequate oversight and strong intervention if districts refuse to implement Science of Reading programs, but that would be a complex response to a complex problem, not a popular approach these days.
Jim Warnock, Principal, Alma Intermediate School
February 22 update: After reading Alan Clark’s response to criticisms of his bill and rereading the bill itself, I still agree with everything I wrote above about this bill.
After looking at last year’s ACT Aspire scores for many schools in the state, most schools in poverty have less than 70% of their students scoring Ready or Exceeding in reading. Aspire is beneficial for monitoring the progress of student, but to make a school’s funding dependent on one single assessment is not a sound practice. Taking funding intended to improve teachers away from schools with large numbers of students living in poverty still seems simple-minded and/or mean to me. It’s an example of throwing a simple (and unjust) solution at a complex problem.