Why Raising The Standards Won’t Make Kids Read

I recently sat in on a class in which none of the students had done the reading. It was an 11th grade English class; they were reading a fat canonical American novel, maybe 350 pages long. And none of them had read it—at least not the chapter they were supposed to have read the night before.

The teacher, a smart, dedicated older man, stood in front of the class trying to lead a class discussion. Crickets.

As the teacher stood lobbing question after question, the kids sat at their desks making eye contact with no one, shifting uneasily in their seats and waiting for the time to pass so they could leave.

Reader, I’ve been there. Maybe not in a situation where all of my students didn’t do the reading, but often when a very substantial number did not, a situation that would inevitably put me into a panic of misery, shame and frustration. What should I have done? What was I doing wrong? If the kids didn’t read the book, how could they write an essay that meant anything?

So as I sat in the back of that incredibly awkward class, I emailed a friend of mine who teaches in South L.A., one of the best English teachers I know, asking her what percentage of her students usually did the reading. “Half,” she emailed back. “Less if the reading is especially challenging.”

I recently asked another friend, an exceptionally dedicated and motivated English teacher, how many of her 35 students in the class I’m watching probably did the reading every night. She thought a moment, counting in her head. “About nine,” she said finally.

Here’s something I’ve seen over and over and have personally experienced: if you teach in a community where kids didn’t get the enrichment of preschool, may have attended terrible elementary schools, may have stressful or chaotic home lives and often live in very crowded situations where they have no space to themselves and sometimes have to babysit or work after school—in other words, a substantial percentage of LAUSD students—a large number of students are reading far below grade level and often do not read the book you are supposed to be reading.

I’m not saying this as a judgment, though people outside the classroom often express this observation as a judgment, usually on the teacher, though often on the students and their families as well. I’m saying it as a situation I’ve observed over and over, an abyss of non-reading that’s glossed over in our national conversation about standards, which presumes that kids are not learning because the teacher is not holding standards high enough or using the right teaching methods. But the situation on the ground is that many kids are coming into high school with very low reading levels that make meeting those standards close to impossible with the time and resources provided no matter how excellent the teacher is.  I recently sat in an 11th grade classroom where none of the students could define the word “entertainment” (or was willing to try and risk being wrong). How many hours will it take to get those kids up to grade level, or even able to read the books we ask teachers to assign? Is an hour and a half three times a week except in summer and over vacations really going to be enough?

As the nation begins to roll out Common Core tests, demanding that children read at high levels of complexity, when we find out that they can’t, what are we going to do about it? Assign teachers a poor rating and fire them? Shut down the schools and replace them with new ones? Or are we going to acknowledge that if our students are going to learn to read, they are first going to need the conditions in which reading can be learned?   And those conditions require resources, both material and personal:

First, kids need books. I don’t care if they’re e-books or physical books, kids in low-income communities have very little access to them, ever. Their homes don’t have books, their communities don’t have libraries, their schools don’t have books, readers or internet access. I have visited a shocking number of schools in which there are not even enough books for kids to take home the book the class is reading; due to budget cuts there’s just a “class set,” meaning kids put the book back in the box at the end of the period so the next class can read it. Really? Seriously? And we’re going to spend billions to test their reading level?

Kids need a quiet place to read.Many kids tell me there’s no quiet place at home to read. I think of Dennis Danziger’s student who discovered the power of reading only when he was sentenced to go to the library, whose silence amazed him. How are we going to ensure that kids have a quiet, safe place to read?

Kids need time. Somewhere in the day, whether it’s after school or on weekends, and certainly over the summer, kids who are behind need some kind of peaceful and supportive situation in which they can develop the habit of reading.

Kids need early positive exposure to reading. Right now there’s an astonishing amount of national conversation about whether we should fund universal preschool. Again, really? Seriously? When studies show that kids in poverty have heard 30 million less words by the time they’re four than their more affluent peers? Do we really have to be sold on this?

Kids need encouragement at home the school I’ve seen with the most success in getting kids to do the reading is Animo Leadership, whose parent partnership is exceptionally strong. Though the program costs a parent coordinator’s salary and the full collaboration of all teachers, this 100% parent buy-in gives kids the support they need and seems to give parents a close network in order to maintain that support.

Kids need personal support from teachers and other trusted adultsas I saw in the class where the kids wouldn’t risk defining “entertainment,” kids who have low reading levels often try to hide how little they can read.   We have to stop cramming students into gigantic classes that prevent teachers from getting to know them and then pretending we’re shocked when those kids don’t read well.

Finally, we all need to be honest. Nobody has figured out how to motivate kids who are far below grade level to read at home (except Animo Leadership, so when I am education czar, my first move will be to try their strategy universally.) A teacher whose struggling students do not read outside of class will see those students only four hours a week, which is why Teach Like A Champions people get so feverish about not wasting a second, though there is no persuasive evidence showing that this is any substitute for outside reading.   Right now, we’re demanding results from teachers and asking them to raise reading levels drastically in a very short time, something nobody has figured out how to do yet. Can we admit that first? And can we then approach this as an experiment, something at which we’re all taking shots in the dark?

Instead of just raising reading standards, can we ask first what our students need in order to meet those standards? And can we stop pretending that any teacher can be excellent if those needs are not met?


18 thoughts on “Why Raising The Standards Won’t Make Kids Read”

    1. Thanks, Mary. I wrote this because when I was teaching, I thought it was my fault. Now I see it almost universally in underserved communities no matter how excellent the teacher is. I think maybe if teachers talk about it more, maybe we’ll be able to address the deeper needs, which involve early reading support and more intervention time during and after school and over the summer for kids who don’t yet read well.

  1. I think the Animo Leadership model is a great idea that needs to be implemented at the elementary level, with additional support in middle schools. Then it won’t be needed in high school if done correctly. Wouldn’t that be nice…

    Ellie, The following has nothing whatsoever to do with your blog but I feel a compelling need to share it since it illustrates something about the nature of teaching and how our students can impact us as much as we hope to impact them.

    You can always delete it if you feel it’s too far afield:


    I first met Michael when he was a student in my 8th grade physical science class at John Muir Middle School in Los Angeles. My most distinct memory of him is this round faced boy who was polite and friendly and always seemed to have a smile on his face. Muir was a difficult environment to say the least, and the fact that Michael always seemed so happy was a source of light on many days filled with stress. Michael was actively involved in the class, asking questions, hand often raised to respond to whatever I was teaching.
    Over the course of that year, I met his grandmother, Debra Lloyd, at school events such as Back-to- School nights and open houses. Mrs. Lloyd actively participated in the school’s events, attended school meetings regularly and kept in touch with the teachers to make sure Michael was doing well and had the proper support. She was always friendly and polite with an easygoing personality. I came to enjoy her visits and respected her immensely for her dedication to her grandson. I could see where Michael got his smile and warm personality.
    At the end of that year, I moved on to Cal State Long Beach and Michael went to high school. I lost touch with the family until September of 2010, when I began my second year at a charter high school about 6 or 7 miles south of Muir. That year I had a 9th grade advisory and on the first Back to School night, who should show up but Mrs. Lloyd. Another of her grandsons, Bill, was a student in my advisory class. Mrs. Lloyd immediately remembered me. To make things even better, Michael had joined her and Bill for that night’s event. It tuned out that Michael and Bill were brothers.
    Michael was excited to see me and told me he was about to graduate from Humboldt State. I was so happy to know that one of my former students was doing so well, especially someone like Michael. He would come back to several events during the next couple of years along with the family. He always updated me on his progress, from college graduation to jobs and told me of his hopes of furthering his education with post-grad work.
    Over the next 3 years, when Bill and I crossed paths on campus (which was often since it’s such a small school), he would occasionally greet me with, “Mr. Shaheen, my brother says hi”, or I would ask how Michael was doing. Bill kept me posted on Michael’s progress, and I came to realize that Michael’s laid back personality hid a fiercely motivated persona that was beginning to show itself in accomplishment after accomplishment. Michael was impressing people wherever he went with his intellect, his ability to relate to people (especially the autistic children he worked with), and his commitment to helping others less fortunate than himself find success and hope for the future.
    I moved from the charter school to another high school this year, and as I drove home from work yesterday, the voice on the radio announced that a local family had confirmed the death of one of their members on the bus, a counselor from Humboldt. I half-listened without expecting to recognize the name until I heard “Michael Myvett”. I tried to dismiss it as a coincidence. Then the commentator introduced a sound clip of his grandmother, Debra Lloyd, describing the boy who always made people in the room feel better with his smile and good nature. Not wanting to believe it, I immediately texted former colleagues at Bill’s school and received quick confirmation that it was indeed Michael.
    We like to think that we have resolved ourselves to the fact that random events happen to people and there’s no sense in questioning it. It’s easy enough to accept that reality when it happens at a distance to people we don’t know. But once we’re confronted with a loss of our own or to someone who we know, the need to know why becomes a focal point of thought. Why Michael and his fiancée were chosen, along with the others, to be taken so suddenly and seemingly without purpose is a question we can’t help but ask and expect to have answered. Why would the people who need him so much, his students and family, who have overcome so much to get this far, be suddenly confronted with yet another overwhelming hardship? I know I’ll never know the reason, but I can’t accept that right now. All I can think is: Mrs. Lloyd deserves better. Bill deserves better. The autistic children who Michael served deserved better. The families of the other victims deserve better.
    I have no trouble believing the quote from Kyle Farris, Michael’s supervisor, who described him as “a child at heart who loved comic books and video games.” I realize that I am lucky to have known Michael for the brief time that I did. He demonstrated such grace and vitality, a love of life that many of us born into much easier lives often take for granted. I know that he will be greatly missed and that the many achievements he was destined to make will now leave a void in the world.
    And I wish I could change that.
    Go with God, Michael. We all love you.
    Al Shaheen
    April 12, 2014

    1. Al, this is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing it. My heart breaks for all the children and chaperones on that bus, so full of hope and excitement about the future, and for all of the family and friends who loved them. It is an incomprehensible loss.

  2. This is where good ole patience, time, and breathing room saved a lot of kids. In the old days (ha, 10-15 years ago), I built in extra time for silent reading and installed a program called free choice. Time to fidget, time to avoid, time to watch the clock, but doggone by the end of the year if I couldn’t get 3rd graders to want to read for 30-40 minutes and I don’t think any other skill is more important. When my own book loving child deviated from reading (due in large part of Accelerated Reader assignments), the only thing that kept him hanging on were game guides. As long as they’re reading, there’s hope.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I just discovered your blog. I will catch up on the archives and look forward to reading more! One correction: sadly, it is a 30 million word gap. I know, I was astounded at the number and had to re-read it just to be sure I wasn’t mistaken. 30 million words, and all the benefits that come with them: cadence, context, grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, understanding, connections, and a deep, broad understanding of the English language, to name but a few.

  4. You make a lot of good points here, but you miss the mark on some, too. Your last section is titled, “We all need to be honest.” Agreed. Problem is, that undermines your call for universal pre-K. The only studies which have shown long term positive benefits from such programs for poor children were carefully controlled and had exceptional programs in place. In the real world, universal pre-K will look a lot like Head Start, which has been shown to have virtually no long term benefits. So yes, we need to be honest and acknowledge that no preschool intervention program is going to make a dent in what these kids are getting (and not getting) at home.

    As it has been since the dawn of time, it’s all about the culture. Whether we’re talking about the inner city of Los Angeles or the mountains of North Carolina, there are huge populations of people who are simply apathetic, if not outright hostile, toward education. As sad as it is to say, they don’t CARE what happens to the Joad family or why Jay Gatsby is so mysterious. Twitter, Facebook, and other electronic diversions are much more interesting to them than anything that happens in A Tale of Two Cities. Even if they could read better, it wouldn’t change their attitudes. And quiet time? Hard to find that in homes where the television is on 24/7.

    Even if you can manage to get these kids somewhat engaged in elementary school, middle school tends to lose them. Other, more relevant things happening. Hormones. Peer pressure. You name it, it’s all more important to them than school.

    Would giving them books help? A few, sure. There are always some kids here and there who are determined to do better for themselves. My own mother was one of those. But for most… no way. They still won’t read the assigned chapters and likely will end up losing the book sometime before the study is finished because it has no value to them.

    I think back to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie is excited about starting school, but the local school is fetid swamp of apathy, violence, disobedience, and plain meanness. Francie finds her way to a better school, one where the culture was much different and where learning could happen. Her brother, Neeley, however, values fitting in with the local crowd over getting a good education, so he hangs with his peer group and figures out how to rub along while not learning much academically. It seems to me that the best bet for America’s academic swamps is to do everything we can to help the kids who want help, and just try to contain the damage from the rest. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him read Shakespeare.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding. I’ve seen that study on Head Start but have seen other longitudinal studies that present evidence of long-term benefits.
      I have to disagree with you, though, when you say that there are huge populations of people who are (inherently) apathetic. The chaos and stress of poverty causes children to develop a variety of defense strategies, including disengagement. In my experience, too, kids care quite a bit about what happens to Gatsby. They just can’t always access the book’s vocabulary and social references. I don’t think we can make any assessment about who “wants” to learn without first providing conditions in early years and in communities where children can develop a love of reading and literacy (something Francie always had, however poor they were.)

      1. Yes, you’re right — Francie had that. Most kids don’t. Look, I have seen kids who start off in first-grade bright-eyed and excited about learning, but then middle school hits and the anger boils up and what their peers think is more important than anything. And given the cultures we’re talking about, what their peers think has nothing to do with school. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve seen it with white rural kids, and I’ve seen it with black kids in both rural and urban environments. And even when you manage to get one of these kids mildly engaged, they start being made fun of for it, and that’s all she wrote.

        You mentioned the possibility that kids don’t speak up in class because they’re afraid of having the wrong answer. Maybe. But I would wager just as many, if not more, are afraid of having the RIGHT answer, thus setting themselves up for possible negative social repercussions. It’s tough to overcome that kind of situation, and I think we delude ourselves by thinking pre-K programs will make a serious dent in it.

        Just a thought: I wonder how many words Abraham Lincoln was exposed to before he was five…

  5. Another good post and I so agree with what you have written. For a very long time there has been a real effort on the part of the Republican party to privatize American schools. By pulling public money out of public schools and giving it to private schools in the name of funding better schools. Any thing the Republicans can do to destroy public education in this country they are doing. Unfortunately it has been working. Now I am not saying the Democrats have done a better job. They have allowed the Unions (and please don’t believe that I believe that the problems are all the Unions. They are not.) In states such as Florida, we’ve gotten tests like FCAT. So our public schools are becoming more like testing centers and not places of education.

    The public schools that do very well are those that are in rich districts that can afford the extras and where parents are actively involved.

    Quite some time i figured out what a ruse this direction toward the privatization of American public is. The reasons that private schools do so well: They don’t have to take every student. They get to pick the best and the brightest. They also don’t have to pay their teachers a living wage. They are not bloated down with all the rules that public education have to follow. And finally they are not administrative top heavy.

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