Matthew Stokes: A positive step for reading

Matthew Stokes: A positive step for reading

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

State Rep. Terri Collins was awfully busy during this recent legislative session.  Though she made headlines for her work on anti-abortion legislation, her lasting impact is likely to be felt in our state’s elementary schools.  Collins introduced House bill HB388, also known as the Alabama Literacy Act. The Act would require that any student not reading at grade level by third grade be held back until competency is achieved.  The bill would require additional support for struggling students along the way, and there are some important and specific exceptions for students with learning disabilities. Passed by both houses, the Act now awaits Governor Kay Ivey’s signature.

This is a good piece of legislation because it puts in place a firm, statewide metric that everyone understands.  It is true that some school systems have standards that go above and beyond, and there are metrics that denote how well a school is doing in one respect or another.  Most Alabamians are familiar with the concept of a failing school as defined by the Alabama Accountability Act, for example. Any educator can recall faculty meetings that spend an hour detailing the way the school hit the metrics of No Child Left Behind, the bipartisan Bush-era education reform.  Those metrics are tiered in such a way that if a school fails in one respect it could likely make up the difference in another. The new requirement in Alabama is different because it is clear and concrete; everyone – administrators, teachers, parents, and even students – will know the rules and the consequences.  It may be that for the first time in a very long time, everyone involved with elementary education in the state of Alabama will have skin in the game.

The conversation around education is often stymied by our never-ending praise of teachers and administrators.  Of course we should be grateful for their work! Teaching is not easy, and I’m glad to see that this legislative session also produced a pay raise for educators.  (I’m in favor of doing even more to increase teacher pay over time.) Still the conversation often resembles the meeting where everyone recounts old business for so long that only a few minutes remain for important new business.  We spend so much time being grateful for teachers that we rarely allow ourselves to publicly hash out what is wrong with our schools in very specific terms. Sure, we say this or that about Common Core or graduation rates, but the real talk about literacy and math skills usually gets hammered out at the neighborhood pool, the ballpark, or it eats into the majority of time in Sunday School.

This legislation forces our state’s institutions, from the state board of education down to every elementary school, to reckon with the fact that too many children have managed to move up the ladder without achieving the appropriate level of literacy.  Of course exceptions will exist for children with sincere learning disabilities – IEPs and the like – but the concerns of some legislators that a nineteen year old will hang around like a sort of Billy Madison in third grade are unfounded. Any child in that situation clearly has other issues that should be addressed.  If we’re talking about an eight year old without disabilities, it is important to have a clear bar of achievement.

Some might point to concerns about students in poverty, but let me suggest that this new standard will rightfully force a bit of pressure on all involved.  Teachers and administrators will know with full certainty that their students have to clear this bar before moving on to the next grade. That provides them with a singular focus, and given that literacy is a skill, and not a set of facts, it limits the capacity to simply teach to the test.  Parents, too, will feel the pressure to make sure that their children get over the hump, and while I would hope no child feels too much shame, it may not be a bad thing if students know there is a very real and negative consequence should they choose to loaf around when it comes to schoolwork.  If the circumstances of some students are still so dire that they cannot pass muster, then it will be a good thing to clear the air so that everyone know who to help and how to help them.

Alabamians often joke that at least we’re not Mississippi, but on literacy, our neighbors to the west already beat us to the punch when it passed the Literacy Based Promotion Act in 2013.  According to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the act has resulted in increases of literacy at grade level while showing decreases in literacy below grade level.  Students have shown marked improvement on the state’s reading assessments. Our neighbors in Florida have shown similar improvements, though they have operated under such requirements for a longer period of time.  Alabamians should be glad for the opportunity to join our friends and neighbors in improving the lives of our students and their families.

This legislative session was full of controversy, much of it contrived and some it well-earned.  But in many instances our legislators proved their muster, and in this particular piece of legislation, our elected officials chose to do right by our students and educators by holding them to a firm but reasonable standard of success.  We should thank these leaders now and make certain that our children thank them in the future.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.