The final nail in NCLB’s coffin?

Pundits aplenty are busy parsing the latest NAEP results. On Wednesday, the federal government released reading scores on the “nation’s report card” — also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — for fourth- and eighth-graders around the country.

The results disappointed almost everyone. Over at The Washington Post, Jay Mathews said the latest scores “can be read as an epitaph for No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). He also noted that the state with the most encouraging results, Kentucky, offered no real explanation for its success in a column by his Post colleagues Nick Anderson and Bill Turque: “Desperate for something to say with no new initiative to promote, the Kentucky education department spokeswoman decided to belabor the obvious: ‘It’s our teachers,’ she said. That is true, of course, but it really doesn’t give us much to argue about, so it’s a big disappointment.”

But elsewhere online, in Catherine Gewertz’s Ed Week coverage, Kentucky is revealed to be doing things, however small, that might actually matter: “Terry K. Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, attributed the gains to Reading First and to multiple state reading initiatives focusing on elementary and middle school. Reading coaches were dispatched to many schools to work with teachers, he said, and professional development in reading instruction was provided not just to English/language arts teachers, but to those in other subjects as well.”

This last point should not be overlooked: if my time teaching English at the middle and high school levels convinced me of anything, it was that most teachers don’t consider themselves responsible for the reading and writing skills of their students. Many teachers seem to think that it is the English teacher’s duty alone to teach reading and writing. But how flawed this mentality is!

One consequence of this mentality is that students are often not taught how to read historical or scientific texts — it is assumed, wrongly, that they know how to do so simply because they know how to read English — and this is hugely problematic. The same holds for writing: students need to be taught how to write in each discipline. Writing about a poem or novel is different than writing about Napoleon or the Big Bang.

In fact, every teacher is a teacher of reading and writing — most just don’t think of themselves in this way. This failure, I believe, is a plausible partial explanation for our nation’s woeful NAEP scores in reading.  So, in providing professional development in reading instruction to all teachers, Kentucky is quite possibly onto something of great importance.

On a final note, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is perhaps the only one jumping for joy at the recent NAEP results. Anderson and Turque of The Washington Post captured Rhee’s excitement over her district’s results: “‘We’re very heartened by this,’ Rhee said. ‘It’s hard to discount the fact that D.C. has never seen gains like this before relative to other jurisdictions.’ ”

Jay Mathews of the Post says the D.C. results virtually guarantee Rhee will hold onto her job as D.C. Schools Chancellor for at least the next year or two. I’m not so sure. When you’re at the very bottom — as Washington, D.C. is on most meaningful measures — there’s room for nothing but improvement.

Justin Snider