Evelyn Johnson: To improve Idaho kids' reading skills, support teachers


March 28, 2014 

We have a crisis in education in Idaho. By virtually every metric of public education quality, Idaho is near the bottom in the nation. In Education Week's Quality Counts 2013 report, Idaho ranked 49th in the nation and received failing grades in our ability to build capacity and to invest in the teaching profession.

It is no wonder that with these ratings of our public education system, we also experience some of the lowest levels of reading proficiency nationally.

In Idaho, only 50 percent of students enter school with the foundational skills that help them learn to become good readers. This is an alarming statistic because we know through research that we can predict with almost perfect accuracy which children will be at risk for poor reading outcomes at very young ages.

In other words, children who start school with low reading achievement tend to continue down that path unless provided with costly and intensive intervention once they enter school. And since reading proficiency affects all areas of learning, children who don't learn to read well by third grade are at a greatly increased risk of low outcomes throughout school and of dropping out.

What's especially disturbing about our poor rates of reading proficiency is that Idaho's standard for determining reading proficiency is one of the lowest in the nation. That means that even when a child meets the standards Idaho has set to be a "proficient" reader, that student might not truly have the reading skills needed to go on and be successful. With the adoption of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment, which has much higher standards for proficiency, it is highly likely that we will see a sharp increase in the number of children who are unable to meet grade-level reading targets.

That's the really bad news.

The good news, however, is that research-based methods exist in Idaho and have already significantly improved reading outcomes on smaller scales throughout the state. The formula is simple: When great teachers receive great training, our students achieve great outcomes. Here are just a few examples of what the Lee Pesky Learning Center has been able to accomplish working with teachers:

• At Desert Springs Elementary, we reduced the number of students in need of special education services for reading by 75 percent.

• In the Idaho Falls School District, we increased the percentage of students meeting grade-level reading standards by 58 percent in one school year.

• In Caldwell, we nearly doubled the percentage of children entering school ready to read when compared with district averages.

And we accomplished all of this working side-by-side with principals, teachers, parents and community leaders.

When teachers engage in meaningful, sustained, professional development as active participants and professionals, student outcomes improve. When we collectively focus our efforts and resources to build the capacity of our teachers to provide excellent instruction, our students achieve amazing results.

It is time to bring public and private stakeholders together to scale successful solutions and make a meaningful difference for Idaho's children.

Evelyn Johnson, Ed.D., is the executive director of Lee Pesky Learning Center and professor of special education at Boise State University.

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