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Ed in the Apple: A Magic Bullet: The Key to Teaching Children How to Read

On the Tuesday after Labor Day teachers in New York City return to school. For some, a few weeks vacation after teaching summer school, others, taking college courses required for certification or working in a camp, or getting reacquainted with their own family. If you’re an elementary school teacher you may have spent a few weeks learning how to teach a required new phonics-based reading program.

Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) was on the bestseller list for 37 weeks and the so-called Reading Wars have lobbed grenades for decades. Read an account of the battle here.

The selection of a reading program was traditionally left to schools; it wasn’t until the fall of 2019 that the chancellor and the teacher and principal unions agreed to survey schools, halted by the COVID plague, the Lucy Calkins Teachers College Reading and Writing Project was the predominate program.

In February Chancellor Banks announced, with substantial fanfare, New York City schools, all schools, will switch to one of three phonics-based curriculums, chosen by the superintendent; half of school this year, the remainder next year with extensive training opportunities offered this summer.

Forbes takes a deep dive into the three choices with many detailed criticisms. Read here.

The Science of Reading crowd may not have won war; they certainly have won the battle.

Controversial reading expert @LucyCalkins announced yesterday 8/31 that she is leaving @TCRWP (Teachers College Reading and Writing Project) and starting a new org “Mossflower Reading and Writing Project.” She remains a professor @TeachersCollege (1/2)

My reading expert friends tell me the teaching of reading is dependent on the teacher, the ability to use the correct “tool” to address the needs of the individual student.

Early literacy is the foundation of learning and learning to read is essential, remediation is not recovery; children fall further and further behind.

Maybe three or four years from now we’ll be able to say the evidence proves the switch to phonics-based instructional programs dramatically improved student outcomes, or not.

Magic bullet? I don’t think so, in a few years we may have a new mayor, a new chancellor and maybe every student will have a personal chatbot.

There is a magic bullet: improving daily attendance.

The US Department of Education issued a sobering report (Read here)

Chronic absenteeism is widespread. Research show the reasons for chronic absenteeism are as varied as the challenges our students and families face. – including poor health and a lack of safety, which can be particularly acute in disadvantaged communities and areas of poverty.

Whatever its causes, chronic absenteeism can be devastating,

  • Chronic absenteeism may prevent children from reaching early learning milestones.

Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the end of the third grade. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of the third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.

  • Irregular attendance can be a better predictor of whether students will drop out before graduation than test scores.

A study of public school students found that an incidence of chronic absenteeism in even a single year between 8th and 12th grade is associated with a seven-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out.

  • Frequent absences from school can shape adulthood

High school dropout, which chronically absent students are more likely to experience, has been linked to poor outcomes later in life, from poverty and diminished health to involvement in the criminal justice system.

Yes, getting kids to attend school on a regular basis improves school and life outcomes and the attempts to address chronic absenteeism have stumbled.

The evidence is overwhelming.

A decade ago the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School University released a superb report, A Better Picture of Poverty (Read here)

Chronic absenteeism correlates with deep poverty–high rates of homelessness, child abuse reports, male unemployment, and low levels of parental education. In fact, the report states, chronic absenteeism is a much better index of poverty than the traditional measure of the number of children eligible for free lunch. Moreover, it’s very hard for schools to escape the pull of poverty: only a handful of schools with above-average rates of chronic absenteeism had above-average pass rates on their standardized tests for math and reading–and most scored far below,

The report points to poverty as a factor and goes on to define poverty.

The report identifies 18 “risk factors” that are associated with chronic absenteeism, both in the school building and in the surrounding neighborhood. Schools with a very high “risk load” are likely to suffer from poor attendance. Some of the school factors are: students in temporary housing; student suspensions; the perception of safety; and principal, teachers and student turnover. The neighborhood factors include: male unemployment, presence of public housing or a homeless shelter in a school’s attendance zone, adult levels of education, and involvement with the Administration for Children’s Services.

The good news is that focused attention on improved attendance can make a big difference … an inter-agency task force to improve attendance … was successful–some schools were able to improve attendance quite a lot–but rates of chronic absenteeism remain high. The rate of chronic absenteeism in elementary schools declined from 23 percent in 2009 to 19 percent 2013.

Sadly rates of chronic absenteeism have increased and during the pandemic skyrocketed as too many school districts ignore the facts.

Ed Trust, a highly regarded advocacy organization points to a number of strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism. (Read full report here)

5 Things for Advocates to Know About Chronic Absenteeism

  1. Chronic absence is often hidden
  2. Chronic absence is a reflection of the school and community environment
  3. Punitive responses are not effective
  4. Improving attendance requires prevention and early intervention
  5. Reducing chronic absence requires authentic partnerships with student’s families and communities.

The NYC Department of Education deserves kudos, without fanfare the Department is addressing chronic absenteeism. Each district has a Director of Attendance, every school must design an attendance plan with specific strategies and the effectiveness of the plan is closely monitored. Attendance for every student is available at the end of each school day; chronic absenteeism and “approaching” chronic absenteeism for every student is available daily. “Insight” (See here) provides a wealth of student and school specific info.

Chronic absenteeism is 18 days or more absent. The city holds weekly meetings to create new data points to improve attendance and new strategies to improve attendance along with old strategies. The notes/directives are sent to superintendents and are encouraged to be implemented in every school.

Principals have the final say and can lead to lack of uniformity and not using best practices in all schools.

Smaller schools struggle with assigning staff to oversee attendance and usually their attendance suffers even with fewer students. 

Schools are encouraged to designate a specific staff member to contact parents of absent students as soon as possible in the school day.

In too many schools attendance fell by the wayside, it simply was not a high priority; the Chancellor is attempting to spotlight successful strategies and monitor implementation.

District staff is participating in interagency meetings, trying to coordinate actions, challenging, different agencies have different goals and the migrant student crisis only exacerbates a critical situation.

Chronic absenteeism spirals starting in pre K; and worsens in every grade. If you monitor dropouts addressing chronic absenteeism should at the top of the list.

It’s not magic.


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Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman is a career NYC high school teacher, education consultant, and district representative for the United Federation of Teachers. ...