I have had the pleasure of attending many education conferences over the past month and have met so many education leaders who share my commitment to helping children read. Not only was it beyond a breath of fresh air, it was awe-inspiring and energizing.
Third grade reading retention laws were a popular topic during these conferences. According to the National Council of State Legislators (NCSL), sixteen states plus D.C. require retention for students not reading at proficiency by the end of 3rd grade. Most states allow “Good-cause exemptions” for limited English proficient students, special education students, participating in an intervention, parent, principal or teacher recommendations, previous retention, demonstrating proficiency through a portfolio (student work demonstrating mastery of academic standards in reading), or passing an approved alternative reading assessment. As I listened to many esteemed education professionals and policy experts discuss the myriad assessment tools and tests being mandated at the city and state level, one nagging question lingered in my mind: “What about the books?” I didn’t attend every single session at the conferences, but mandated access to books via classroom libraries or school libraries didn’t come up once in any of the panel discussions or presentations that I attended.
How can states consider and pass laws mandating that all students achieve a specific level of reading proficiency when no equally audacious requirement for all children to have access to age-appropriate and culturally responsive books exists? The metaphor that I returned to again and again to articulate my frustration about students lack of book access was that of a piano student with no piano. A piano student can have a highly trained piano teacher who has access to the best assessment tools and training, but if the piano student only has access to a piano during the piano lesson, progress will be molasses slow.
The passion and funding being poured into the assessment and remediation of students’ reading deficits should be reframed and reallocated to support more asset or strength-based reading interventions that ensure all children have daily access to the highly engaging content they want to read. Policy conversations, funding priorities, and program development that focus narrowly on reading assessments and teacher training ignore the critical role that leveled classroom libraries play in supporting the most cost effective reading intervention — out-of-school time reading and pleasure reading.
Many struggling young readers in a growing number of states only have one guaranteed “literacy” right: the right to remain tested. But we can change it.
To help Barbershop Books provide out-of-school reading opportunities for more children donate here.