By Susan E. Miller, Acting Director of the Robinowitz Education Center
Those of us that work in New Jersey public and private schools know there’s a revolving door of curriculums in the never-ending quest to remedy low reading and math performances. After not seeing the gains expected by the new curriculum(s), district personnel begin shopping for something new that will do the trick. Change is in the air, though, as more parent groups and organizations such as The Reading League are appealing to school boards and district leaders for high-quality professional development, not necessarily new curriculums. Why? Teachers are leaving New Jersey schools of education without the knowledge base to successfully and expertly implement whatever curriculum lands on their desks. The chart below published in 2020 by the National Council on Teacher Quality illustrates the lack of knowledge pre-service teachers in New Jersey receive on foundational literacy skills such as phonemic awareness.
Not surprisingly, given the emphasis on comprehension rather than the foundational skills that are required in order to comprehend text, pre-service teachers are taught to use assessments such as individual reading inventories that have been found to be no better than flipping a coin in terms of identifying struggling students. Book walks and scaffolding during the course of some other reading assessments give a false picture of a student’s ability to read and comprehend. Accurate decoding is not prioritized, but rather a child’s ability to use the pictures and context to cobble together a sense of what the book is about is the goal. Well-designed and researched screeners that measure early literacy benchmarks are absent from pre-service syllabi. Along with the absence of psycho-metrically sound assessments, pre-service teachers are not learning the typical progression of early literacy skills and how to develop them in their classrooms.
At the moment, the National Council on Teacher Quality is celebrating states like Pennsylvania whose pre-service college programs have changed for the better and are now addressing fundamental literacy skills for the benefit of generations of students in their state. What’s the easiest solution right now to address NJ’s persistent low scores – invest in high-quality professional development focused on the components of Structured Literacy missing from the syllabi of too many colleges and universities in New Jersey. Plan for the future – individuals interested in a teaching career should do their homework and investigate the course load of the colleges they are interested in. If the college is heavy on theory and short on research and the components of Structured Literacy, take your money elsewhere – your future students will thank you. Let’s not forget, teachers teach, not programs.
Stay tuned for what administrators should be asking teacher candidates during interviews….