Chapter 6: The Print Climate in the Home,
Did you ever notice the similarity between reading scores and rodeo scores?
For the sake of discussion, let’s say the nation’s leaders suddenly decided that rodeo was the most important subject in our schools’ curriculum. (This is not as far-fetched as you might think: If the price of gas keeps rising, some people are going to be looking very differently at horses.)
Early access to horses
brings better rodeo scores. So too for books and
There would suddenly be new courses created around horsemanship, saddles and equipment would have to be ordered, riding coaches credentialed, and mandatory riding and roping instruction begun in rodeo lab classes. All of this would culminate in mandatory grade-level rodeos (including “exit rodeos” for the high school seniors) to ensure that “no rider was left behind,” and everyone would be “racing to the top corral.”
And sure as the sun sinks in the West, in this scenario there would be states that excelled and those that failed. In fact, to show this idea isn’t all that wacky, set your browser for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and look at any of their standings. You’ll find the high scorers all come from states like Utah, Texas, Nebraska, Oregon, and Colorado, rich with ranches, horses, and cattle.
Already we could easily predict which states would be on the “failing schools” list for rodeo—places that have the fewest horses, like New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware, and Maine. It’s tough to get good at rodeo if you’re missing a horse, right?
The same role played by horses in the rodeo world is played by print in the reading world. Like Texas or Oregon with rodeo, there are places in America where they annually have the highest reading scores. And in the same country, under the same government, there are homes, schools, and communities that scarcely have seen a new book in decades. And newspapers seldom hit their doorstep. It’s difficult to get good at reading if you’re short of print.
Government programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top ensure that children who are behind in reading are entitled to after- school tutoring and extra help with phonics. Nice. But giving phonics lessons to kids who don’t have any print in their lives is like giving oars to people who don’t have a boat— you don’t get very far.
Before I go any further, allow me to state that the gap in the American print climate— home or school— is entirely fixable. Price is not a problem. If we can rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq at a cost of $800-plus billion, we can easily fix all the urban schools and public libraries in America. All we have to do is believe that it’s worth it.
The past two decades of research by respected researchers like Neuman, Duke, Krashen, McQuillan, Allington, and Lance powerfully connect access to print with higher reading scores and, conversely, lack of access with lower scores. It’s a shame the education experts haven’t figured this out, even when one of the researchers (Neuman) was an assistant secretary of education in Washington.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been measuring student performance in most major subjects since 1972. It has also been surveying students on the number of books in their homes, then drawing correlations to their scores in reading, math, science, civics, history, and writing. In every test subject, the more books in the home, the higher the score, often by as much as forty points. In fact, the prevalence of books often compensates for differences in parental education.
My favorite example of the impact of the book climate on entire school districts is the one involving three California communities, twenty and forty miles apart on the map but worlds apart in other ways. Stephen Krashen and colleagues at USC did a print inventory of homes, classrooms, and libraries in the three communities— Beverly Hills, Watts, and Compton.
In Beverly Hills, 93 percent of its high school students go to college, while relatively few go to college from Watts and Compton. In 1999, Compton’s state-appointed administrator reported that barely one in ten students was performing at grade level. One look at the chart above clearly shows the print desert surrounding urban children, versus the print “rain forest” surrounding others.
Krashen’s evidence was presented to a state commission revising California’s language-arts curriculum in the 1990s after the state tied for last in the nation in reading. With the state holding one of the nation’s largest child-poverty populations, and lowest support for school and public libraries, California politicians responded with $195 million for more phonics instruction. How effective was that? Last in the nation in 1996, even with the increased phonics funding, by 2011 it had risen to forty-six out of fifty-two states and jurisdictions—District of Columbia taking sole dominion over last place.
California’s ratio of school librarian to student ranks fifty-first in the nation, with 1 librarian for every 5,124 students, more than five times the national average of 1 to 916. Even the state’s adult prison system does better, with 1 librarian to 4,283 inmates.
Since school is meant to make up for home deficits, you would expect at-risk children to meet good classroom libraries— or some semblance of No Child Left Without a Good Library. Instead, Nell Duke found the same home deficits in the school when she spent a year studying twenty first-grade classrooms—ten suburban and ten urban—in Massachusetts. (chart right)
Despite having teachers with an average eighteen years’ experience, the urban students were more restricted in how often they could use the classroom library, the library selections were older and of a poorer grade, their class reading time was spent on less complex text, they spent more time copying and taking dictation, their teachers read to them less often and from simpler texts, and the books- per-pupil ratio was half that of the high-SES classrooms. Additionally, seven of the advantaged classes were read to from chapter books, while only two of the low- SES classes heard chapter books.
Aware of the negative impact of “summer setback,” the low scores of poverty children, and how little access these children have to print outside of school, Richard Allington, Anne McGill-Franzen, and research colleagues identified 852 early-primary student participants at seventeen high-poverty schools. They would be compared with 478 similar students in a control group, and the study would be conducted over three consecutive summers.
Easy-access during the summer
led to higher scores.
During the spring semester, the experimental students were allowed to select books at a school book fair, twelve paperbacks that would not be given to them until the beginning of each summer vacation but would be theirs to keep. (The control group had no book fair and received no free books for the summer.) The books placed in the fair, selected in advance by the researchers, were on early-primary levels and aimed at meeting the students’ interests in pop culture (movie, sports stars), series books, minority characters, and science/ social studies subjects in the curriculum. (The last two categories were the least popular.)
End result after three years: The experimental group had significantly higher reading achievement (compared with the control group), directly attributed to more frequent reading because of easy access over three straight summers. Interestingly, the most disadvantaged students had the highest gains of all students in the study. Among the factors driving the students’ success were (1) access to books, (2) personal ownership of the books, and (3) self-selection of the books. While the reading gains were not large, the researchers found the gains were equal to or greater than those made by either a comprehensive school reform or summer school; the experiment was also less expensive and less extensive than school reform or summer school.
How much would a three-year book program like that cost for 852 students? Less than $120,000. And where do we find that kind of money on a national scale? Well, if you took just one week’s expense for the Iraq war ($2 billion), you could run this program in 16,000 schools. That would be absolutely workable, if we truly wanted it.