Recently I had the opportunity to have a e-conversation with Beth Fertig, the author of the new book, Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read. It is a fascinating glimpse into the teaching of reading in public schools and the sometimes mixed results it achieves. Fertig spent a year following three students who had reached high school in the New York City Public school system without being able to read. In addition to a look at the history of the teaching of reading and the current political attempts at school reform, she tells their stories, highlighting the very real difficulties of teaching some students to do what most people consider the most basic of all academic skills – read.
1) How did you come to profile these particular students?
I met them while working on a WNYC Radio series about the low
graduation rate for special education students. Less than a quarter of
the students with disabilities in NYC were graduating with full
diplomas in 4 years. The rate statewide was 50%, which was about the
national average. One would expect it to be lower than average (70% in
the US) because the students have special needs. But most can graduate
if they get support services, because the vast majority have learning
disabilities, emotional problems, or physical issues that don’t affect
I asked the attorneys at the non-profit group Advocates for Children
to put me in touch with kids with disabilities who had trouble getting
through high school. They led me to Yamilka, who had graduated with a
special ed diploma knowing only 8 letters of the alphabet, and
Antonio, who was on track to graduate with a special ed diploma but
wanted the real kind so he could go to the army. Special ed diplomas
have no real academic value and aren’t accepted by colleges or the
military. After the radio series aired, I spoke more with Yamilka and
we decided there should be a book. Her brother Alejandro participated,
2) Since they represent the most difficult of learning disability
cases, why them and not a student for whom identification of reading
problems is more straight-forward and for whom there are proven interventions?
There are proven interventions for these kids. They may have extreme
disabilities but they’re at the extreme end of a spectrum, in that
they have reading disorders and language disabilities that affect
reading. They represent what can happen if kids don’t get the help
they need. There are many, many more students with milder disabilities
that could hold them back if they’re not identified and treated on
time. And Alejandro and Antonio aren’t even that extreme as I think
about it. They have dyslexia. I think they seem severe because they
were older when they got the help they needed. But they progressed
very well once they got the right help (multi-sensory instruction).
3) Education, generally, follows trends. As a young teacher I was
often told that reading programs came and went but were always basically the same, just with new names. What role does this play in the reality of some children not learning to read?
It could be argued that the kids in my book might have fallen through
the cracks in part because phonics was shunned when they were
children, as whole language was all the rage. But that seems too
simplistic. A good teacher should have known they needed more help and
they needed teachers who specialize in working with reading problems.
The fact that the city let them down is the reason why they won
thousands of hours of tutoring. Likewise, it could be argued that the
city has more reading interventions now that phonics has more emphasis
(it’s part of the balanced literacy approach). The city also has
trained 5000 teachers in the Wilson Reading system, which is multi-
sensory and can help kids who can’t decode very well. Ideally this
will save kids like the ones in my book. But there are still kids who
slip between the cracks even now. Just less of them judging by the
reading scores (only 3% at the bottom level in elementary and middle
school vs. more than 17% when Bloomberg took office).
4) How do kids like Yamilka, Alejandro and Anotonio happen in an age
of special education? Why aren’t they caught?
Yamilka wasn’t caught for 4 years because they put her in ESL classes.
They didn’t realize she needed special ed services (I know, it seems
incredible). Then, when she was placed in special ed, they merely gave
her a smaller class (15 kids instead of 25 or 30) and didn’t give her
any intensive help to meet her individual needs. She was also going to
schools that were not considered very good. Her brother suffered the
same fate. Antonio was labeled special ed in second grade. They knew
he had trouble reading. But again, he didn’t get the right services.
He kept getting transferred to different schools and didn’t progress
academically. He also had ADD which contributed to the problem,
because I think his teachers found him difficult. He was mistakenly
labeled mentally retarded for 2 years. The city changed the diagnosis
afterwards back to learning disabled.
5) What role do things like speaking English as a second language,
family/environment and socio-economics play in the lives of kids
like these? Are they non-factors? Just excuses that schools use when
These kids all suffered in large part because their parents were poor
immigrants from the DR with little or no formal education. So they
couldn’t read to their children at an early age and give them the same
advantages as middle class kids. Then, when they ran into trouble at
school, the parents didn’t know how to help them either. Middle class
or educated families would have hired attorneys and sought out
specialists in dyslexia or learning disabilities. But the schools
failed them, too, of course.
6) How have government interventions like NCLB, Mayor Bloomberg’s
overhaul or even Race to the Top really helped the schools and
students who are in the greatest need?
Race to the Top is still a big question mark. The Obama administration
will pick the first states in spring of 2010. NCLB is widely
criticized but the critics agree it did force states and districts to
identify WHICH kids were failing. They couldn’t just say most kids
passed. They had to give the % of black, Hispanic, low-income, English
Language Learners, Special Ed, and white and Asian kids who passed and
failed the state exams. Once they had this information, the schools
then had to try to raise the achievement scores of all students. Many
would argue too many states set the bar too low, with easy tests more
kids could pass. We see evidence of this every couple of years when
the national (NAEP) exams are given in math and reading and the pass
rate is always much lower than it is on the state exams. THat’s why
the Obama Administration wants national standards, so states can agree
on the same standards when they come up with exams.
Bloomberg’s overhauls focused on changing the management structure
when he was put in charge of the school system. He also got more money
into the classrooms, because of the boom on Wall Street and because of
a lawsuit that wound up increasing the city’s share of state education
aid. Finally, he and Chancellor Joel Klein put a heavy focus on data.
They created a web-based computer system for tracking students
(several states have these, NYC is just the largest school district to
do it). The city required schools to give more frequent assessments in
math and reading so they’d know which kids were in trouble before the
big annual tests. The teachers had to pay more attention to the
struggling pupils and schools were graded on student progress. And
there were more reading interventions. So this could explain why the
percentage of kids scoring at the lowest level on the state exams in
NYC fell from over 17% to 3% by 2009.
The attorney I dealt with at Advocates for Children says he still sees
kids who can’t read and need to get tutoring at city expense because
the schools didn’t help them. So some kids still slip through.
7) Where are the young people in your book now? Can they read? Are
they able to pursue their dreams?
Antonio is a loader at UPS. He’s been there for a year and a half. He
dropped out of high school but the tutoring helped him get to about a
fifth grade reading level. That was good enough for him to get on the
internet, send text messages, and pass the orientation at UPS. He now
wants to use some of the tutoring hours he never used (he only went
for about 6 months) to improve his reading so he can pursue a GED or
high school equivalency degree.
Alejandro stuck with the tutoring for the full 2 and a half years, and
progressed from a kindergarten to 9th grade reading level. He would
love to go to college but he’s had a hard time taking GED classes
because his reading is still very slow, and his math is terrible. He
is looking for classes that can help him.
After 2 years of tutoring Yamilka was only reading at a low elementary
level. She wanted to continue trying to read so she went to a clinic
for adults with learning disabilities. They have more specialists and
after testing they concluded she has a very complicated problem with
language – a “global” disability, it’s not just dyslexia or a reading
disorder. It turns out she can’t hear rhymes very well. If you can’t
hear that the A in CAT sounds like the A in BAT then you won’t know
how to sound out the words, and learn to decode. So the instructors
helped her with speech therapy to hear rhymes and they taught her
sight words. She only had 3 hours a week of instruction though (she
had that much per day when the city funded her tutoring but this is a
clinic; they can’t offer the same intensive services — she relies on
Medicaid). She finished her instruction there and learned more sight
words. But she can’t read a book. She is trying to accept this
disability and hopefully learn a trade like cooking (she’s a great
cook). But it’s very hard. There aren’t many places she can go to get
trained given her limited reading skills.
Photo: book cover