Beth Fertig: Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?

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  
cognitive skills.

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  
 kids fail?

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


Sheila Scheibl
Sheila Scheibl8 years ago

It doesn't help that school funds are cut all the time. Why would the government take money away from the schools when the children are the future, THE PLANET'S future, one that we just so happen to be killing? This is why we are all here on care2! :)

Yes! We should help these LD children reach the highest degree they possibly can, just as with any other child. The only problem is that schools also get more funds for more Special Ed students... vicious circle...

Even I suffered at a considerably decent school. I had all of my credits covered for my senior classes, and one open slot at the end of the day. I wasn't one for doing homework at home, so I asked for another study hall, but students were only allowed one. The classes available for that time slot were all too advanced for me, like guitar3, or classes I had already taken. I had talked to the guidance counsellor, who basically told me I just had to pick a class.... ended up taking a credit I already had. Come to find out that since it was my last class of the day, I could possibly have been job shadowing. Did they think I was just another person who won't make anything of myself and that I didn't need an opportunity like job shadowing? That I didn't DESERVE it?

If you aren't told all of your options and not helped through, if you have LD's or no, how are you supposed to make the proper decisions for the rest of your life? Be a contributing member of society?

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p8 years ago

very good article. i think every child deserves all the help it needs to get an education.

Lauren Hale
Lauren Hale8 years ago

good article!

Leia P.
Leia P.8 years ago

reading is fundamental

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

All kids should have the right to learn, even if this requires extra help.

Maria H.
Past Member 8 years ago

Learning disabilities happen in upper middle class kids, too- if we proposed not treating THEIR kids, there would be hell to pay. And the people suggesting we needn't foot the bill for the poor kids who haven't got any other chance at an education need to consider their karma!

Georgia D.

Children should absolutely get all the help they possibly can from schools to teach them how to read! That's the reason that they're there in the first place!

Anita Z.
Anita Z8 years ago

There may be people around how did get treated badly at school for this problem, I can tell you it makes or brakes a kid

Deb R.
Past Member 8 years ago

I was a teacher. Some parents are not capable of helping their children learn basic literary skills. By not helping these children in school, the cycle continues.

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

You send your kids to school to learn, other things besides what and in addition to what parents teach their kids, but what's the point of sending your kid to school if the school can't, or won't, teach/help your kids?