We welcome Guest Blogger, Representative Mimi Stewart, who talks about an issue which is critical to the future of New Mexico's work force. Please feel free to share your views and leave a comment for Representative Stewart.
About 6 years ago, "Where We Stand" editorials from Sandra Feldman, the then president of the American Federation of Teachers, appeared in my legislative magazines. It was high stakes testing time, and her column highlighted the achievement gap as already a factor when kids begin school. She suggested extending the school year for high poverty students and called it "Kindergarten Plus." I was an Early Childhood Liaison at the time and I was excited by her proposal because Kindergarten teachers had lamented repeatedly to me, "If I just had some more time with these young kids...!"
As a legislator, I offered House Bill 61 in 2003, the first in the nation, naming it "Kindergarten Plus" after Sandra Feldman. This project has been so successful that last year I offered HB 198, "Kindergarten to Third Grade Plus," another pilot extending the school year for 25 days in Kindergarten through 3rd grade for high poverty students. Legislators were so impressed with the high academic achievement for students in Kindergarten Plus, the new bill passed easily.
But what about the naysayers who cry, "Just adding days doesn't make a difference!" To them I say, yes, adding days is only half the battle. Our biggest battle in elementary schools is how we are teaching reading. The old reading wars are over, and we have won the battle. Trouble is, most teachers and administrators don't know the terms of the settlement, i.e. what does the research say about the way children learn to read?
If you are a brain surgeon and a colleague discovers a procedure that can save the lives of another 5% of your patients, within two months, everyone is using the new procedure.
Why is it so difficult in education to extend our knowledge of teaching reading? We're not getting much help from our colleges of education; many of those professors are in denial, have never themselves taught struggling children to read, and are not held accountable for the lack of success in public schools.
We now have strategies, procedures, and new knowledge, based on scientific research, that enables us to teach 95% of our students to read, not just the current 40% we are reaching. If we start early, if we use explicit and systematic teaching of the five big ideas: phonemic awareness, the alphabetic code, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, and if we will make the commitment to train teachers in these strategies, we can diminish almost every education problem we are facing.
But where is the leadership in our districts and at the state level that is promoting the science of teaching reading? In fact, at both the state and local levels, we are making decisions that deny the research on teaching reading, decisions that will continue to yield reading scores among the lowest in the country.
Change is hard; some say we have to honor educators' belief systems. But teaching reading is not a religion. It's hard work, rocket science, in fact, and just as important. It's time for real leadership in teaching reading in New Mexico.