In the powerful words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
What I find ironic, however, is that while most educators can share their firm belief in Mandela’s words, at a systemic level, we haven’t taken action to ensure that ALL students have access to that most powerful weapon: a quality education. The reality is, in order for our students to succeed, one of the fundamental skills they need to attain at an early age is the ability to read. When discussing the cracks in our education system, we often talk about achievement gaps and dropout rates, and while both of these can be linked to students performing and often reading below grade level, little has be done to address the real issues.
According to a report released by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school in comparison to students who demonstrate proficiency. Add more salt to the wound? The number rises when those kids also come from poverty. Yet, even with the research telling us that so much of our students’ success stems from a strong early foundation, why are we not focusing more on providing the resources to students earlier on?
I was a middle school teacher for the first two years of my educational career. Each year, one of the main metrics used to measure growth was a student’s reading level. While I wish I could say I was able to help my students achieve grade-level proficiency, the mere fact that I was congratulated for moving a 6th grade student from a 2nd grade reading level to a 4th grade level, is and should be an issue. I didn’t know any better so I really did think I was doing something for those students. My colleagues all shared the same goal: getting our students closer to grade level. But if we looked close at the numbers, most if not all of our students came in reading at an averaged fourth grade level. These were 6th-8th grade students, struggling to catch up after years of being behind.
Now, even after knowing all this, there seems to be a common thread in many elementary schools serving low-income communities. These schools are often lacking resources and struggling to meet the needs of all students. Unfortunately, these schools also have to deal with the scrutiny that comes with those end-of-year state assessments that evaluate how well a school is actually “performing.” At the elementary level, those assessments are only proctored to 3rd-5th grade students, so what does this usually trigger? A high emphasis on moving “high performing teachers” to the upper grades, with the hopes of them magically helping increase students test scores. As if this whole concept was not already another problem in itself, there is an even bigger issue at hand: somehow, school leaders seem to forget it’s in K-2nd that students learn some of the most fundamental skills. One of them being reading. So why is it that almost every time there is a need to move a teacher that is not “performing” up to par, the teacher is moved to the lower grades?
And no, I am by no means saying that all lower grade teachers are somehow less effective. I know first-hand in my own school, that some of our lower grade teachers are probably some of the best teachers that I have ever known. But are they receiving any extra support, access to resources, additional professional development opportunities considering they are teaching students at one of the most critical times of their educational journey? Of course not.
If “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” then why are we not giving our teachers in the lower grades the necessary resources to provide our students the opportunity to be transformational and change the world?
It’s time we stop criticizing the system and instead take steps towards changing it, even if with small actions at a time. I recommend that we start with paying a closer attention to what we are doing to ensure our K-2nd grade teachers are successful. If early investment is key, then we should practice what we preach.
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