"A" for Effort

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POSTED: Friday, February 21, 2014 - 10:30pm

UPDATED: Saturday, February 22, 2014 - 12:17am

Compared to the rest of the country, Texas has the highest percentage of adults who did not finish high school. Many say Texas' education system is flawed and one of the worst in the nation. But , is it? Teachers and lawmakers go back and forth how to make it better. We found out the problem starts with reading skills.

"These kids only have one shot at education, I think it's our responsibility to give them the best shot," said former school board member Jose Feliciano.

Reading is the core to every subject, but why is it that so many people in our society really can't read?

"Sometimes we might not be doing what works," said Chair of Education at UT Tyler Kouider Mokhtari.

So what does work? According to statistics, 32 million adults in the US can't read, and 21% of adults read below a 5th grade level.

"When you think about reading think of it in two ways. If you can't do that you're going to devote all your energy to try and figure out how to read it out loud," said Mokhtari.

Mokhtari said in learning how to read, kids first need to learn phonemic awareness then fluency and the connection pattern then vocabulary and comprehension

Mokhtari teaches an after school program at two schools, Caldwell Elementary and Dogan Middle school to help kids who struggle in reading and writing.

"Many districts and campuses struggle with, along with Tyler ISD is the writing scores," said Kim Tunnel with TISD.

But, this shouldn't be a surprise because Mokhtari says 20 to 30%, or he believes, even more kids need extra help in school.

"If you want to get a kid in 1st or 2nd grade and they are struggling and behind and you want to bring them close to where their peers are, it's estimated roughly somewhere between 40 to 80 hours of instruction intensive," said Mokhtari.

And what Mokhtari points out, this doesn't even include the lower economic schools. Moktari said looking at schools in lower economic areas, more than half of the kids first language isn't English.

"Rural schools, poor schools, don't attract good teachers," said Moktari.

So, this brings an even bigger challenge to the teachers. Those schools in lower economic areas have poorer readers, test takers and dropouts than the rest of the area. Education experts said this is why juvenile crime is up, when kids don't understand how to read, they give up and drop out of school and when kids drop out of school, they get into trouble. In 2013, most of the juvenile criminals did not continue school past the 8th grade and have the reading skills of a 5th grader. So going into adulthood, 63% of inmates can't read.

Feliciano said its not because of the areas these kids are from, it's the method they're teaching in the classroom. Feliciano was on the TISD school board from 1994 to 1997. During his time on the board, the AEIS report showed 76% of kids going into the 4th grade were below level in reading.

"If you don't monitor these kids until the 4th grade the damage is already done," said Feliciano.

Granted that was about 20 years ago, but according to the state's new accountability rating, there are still some East Texas schools needing improvements in all subjects. A program he found successful in other school districts is the Spaulding method, a method of teaching used at Cumberland Academy, where they assess their kids on a daily basis.

"Spaulding has taken them from not reading to reading," said Cumberland Academy 1st grade teacher Elizabeth Littlefoot.

The Spaulding method is child-centered , phonics based and helps all learners, auditory, tactical, kinesthetic and visual.

"We see it, we hear it, we write it," said Littlefoot.

Littlefoot has been a 1st grade teacher for more than 16 years. She believes not a lot of schools use the Spaulding method because it doesn't seem too exciting on the surface, but 90% of the kids taking it are successful in reading.

So, some call this type of teaching phonics, being able to teach the kids how to read a lot of words and understand the structure of the English language. While other schools teach the whole language, where students do not need to sound out the words, but should look at words they don't know and figure it out using context. Or in simpler terms, the look and guess method. Kids are taught over and over again to memorize the words.

"When I started teaching, it became very interesting to me why kids were struggling when they got older because really that kindergarten to second grade, we're teaching them how to read and really from 3rd grade on, they're reading how to learn. So what is it that we're doing at kindergarten to second it really puzzled me why children would be in 3rd grade and not know how to read," said Kindergarten teacher at Jack Elementary LeAnne Lewis.

Lewis took a year long study in reading recovery, where she learned how to help kids who are the lowest level in literacy.

"I think as children progress up, if they have difficulty, they really aren't understanding how words work and the importance that when they read it makes sense and if it doesn't make sense then they have to go back and reread and where is the breakdown."

So what method really works? Because by the 4th grade, schools expect children to go from "learning to read" to "reading to learn."

"Students are being asked to do a lot more," said Cumberland Academy 4th grade teacher Katherine Powell.

But, how can they if they still don't understand the basics of reading? If they didn't get it in 1st grade how are they going to get it in 4th grade?

"That phonetic sound and the decoding and the syllables go through weekly helps that," said Powell.

They struggle with more complex words, longer dialogs and harder subjects. Now, children struggling with reading before the 4th grade have trouble keeping up, they get frustrated and develop attitudes to anything connected with reading. So parents still question, why can't my child read, why does he or she struggle in spelling? If it needs to start at the kindergarten level, what is the state doing to help get these kid's up to state standards? According to national statistics, Texas is one of the worst states to get a primary education in. If it's not getting any better today, will it get any better in the future?

 

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