Our local newspaper has been involved in a long-term project in our area: teach a bunch of first graders how to read. The project has been going on for 3 years now, and the first graders are now third graders.
When I was in college, I tutored at a local elementary school. Some of the third graders were still learning words like mom, dad, the, etc. I thought that was really sad. My just-turned-5 year old can read those words.
So what distinguishes my 5 year old from those third graders? And why are only 14% of the students at Creighton Elementary School, where the newspaper has poured tremendous resources and private tutors volunteer their time, able to read at a 3rd grade level? Can anything be done about it, to teach the kids to read?
My 5 year old has had a lot of help. At age 2 she went to Kindercare, where they taught her letters, numbers, and colors. Most of the kids, my daughter included, knew all their letters, numbers, and colors before they turned 3... if they had been in the program for most of the year. When she was 3, her and most of her Kindercare peers learned the letter sounds, and most could count up to somewhere between 10 and 20.
At 3 1/2, I started homeschooling her part time, and at age 4, my daughter was homeschooled full time. Which really only amounted to an hour or 2 a day, but it was private tutoring. By 5, she learned to read cvc words... that is, consonant vowel consonant words like hat, bad, mom, dad, etc. She also learned several sight words.
What disadvantages do the children at Creighton Elementary, the school I tutored at, and other students have? For starters, many of them start out at a disadvantage because they do not speak English. So they have one additional problem to tackle that my daughter does not. Many of them move a lot. 1/3 of the students that started the program at Creighton Elementary did not finish third grade there. Although we have moved, it didn't cause her to have to change schools.
Many of the students come from poor families. While our family went through some difficult financial times and did not have much money for a while, it was different than what many of these children experience. When you have a college student who graduates and has to work as a secretary for $7 an hour straight out of college, the family mindset is different than of someone who might make the same income but has been at that level their whole life. The college graduate has different experiences and knowledge that he or she can impart to their children. Many of the third grade students, for example, didn't know what a garage was. One child figured it out. "That's a house where rich people park their cars, right?" Well, that's one way of putting it. While we do not have a garage, I asked my 5 year old if she knew what garage meant. She does.
Studies have been done that show that programs like Head Start do not work in the long term. I'm not sure whether it is just because Head Start as a program does not work and they would do better in a program like Kindercare's, or if the student does not find the benefit because of other reasons.
I finished reading Freakonomics the other day. In the book, it says that studies have been done that show that families with a lot of books in their homes have children that do better in school than children without books... even better than children that go to the library regularly, and even if the child in the house of books is plopped in front of the TV all day. Why is that the case? Is it because parents who buy lots of books have more money, are more interested in education? Most of the Creighton kids probably do not have a lot of books in their homes. But sending them truckloads of books probably wouldn't change much either... since the root causes of having a lot of books in your house is probably the same root cause for a children to learn how to read, not the presence of books making one smarter via osmosis.
One thing that I have come to believe as I have researched and started my homeschooling journey is that it is perhaps helpful to follow the same curriculum in order to prevent gaps in a child's education. On some level, a core curriculum, such as outlined in the "What Your ___th Grader Needs To Know" books, makes a lot of sense. My daughter's textbooks don't exactly follow the Core Knowledge curriculum, but I do try to supplement a bit from there, and I also know that she is not going to really run into gaps if I stay with the same textbook manufacturer, as everything is eventually covered. Students that move a lot don't get the advantage of staying with the same curriculum, as they change schools. The drawback to using a core curriculum is that local control is lost, and care would have to be made to ensure that what is thought of as necessary to teach is something that could be agreed on.
The children at Creighton Elementary School have made a lot of progress, despite being behind. The students in the program with the extra resources and tutors are doing better than the students from the year before that did not have the extra resources. Maybe that's the best we can do.