blank.gif (51 bytes) January/February 2000
So Why Can't
Nevada Johnny Read?

by Deborah Carson

he statistics are clear: Reading failure is a real problem here in Nevada and all across America. The situation is serious. Children who do not learn to read, do not make it in life. While about 5 percent of our nation's children learn to read before entering school, 12 times that many—another 60 percent—find learning to read a formidable challenge. But it's even worse in the Silver State.

In Nevada, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only an abysmal 21 percent of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders read at or above grade level.

Even under the more forgiving Terra Nova test, a mere 48 percent of Silver State fourth graders during the 1998-99 school term were able to read at or above grade level.

What's going on? Why do Nevada kids have such reading problems?

The answer can't simply be poverty or immigration or that English is sometimes being learned as a second language. Clearly 79 percent (or 52 percent) of Nevada's fourth graders aren't impoverished or immigrants.

Furthermore, in Texas and many other districts, poor and immigrant kids regularly surmount those challenges and excel— when they receive clear and focused instruction in the skills they need. There's a large, rich base of empirical research that documents this (see the discussion of Direct Instruction in An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform, prepared by the American Institutes for Research).

But that same empirical research also explains how and why Nevada kids are being so badly shortchanged: Reading is a matter of skills—skills that Silver State youth are not learning. "Good readers are phonetically aware," says the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "Good readers understand the alphabetic principle. Good readers can apply these skills to the development and application of phonics skills when reading and spelling words. Good readers can accomplish these applications in a fluent and accurate manner."

Why aren't Nevada kids learning these skills? Robert Sweet, a staff member of Congress' Committee on Education and the Workforce, testified before the 1999 Nevada Legislature's education committees after evaluating the state's reading curriculum. While the curriculum texts mention phonics, the NICHD standards are not actually being met, he said.

In other words, decades after scientific research established that kids need sequential, systematic instruction in the alphabetic principle—in laymen's terms, phonics—Nevada is still stubbornly ignoring that research. Sweet told the members of the education committees that the whole language models which Nevada uses are based at best only on anecdotal studies.

Sweet, author of the national Reading Excellence Act passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1998, had come to Carson City to testify for Assembly Bill 294, introduced by Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R-Washoe). The bill—co-sponsored by 21 other members of the Assembly—would have put Nevada reading instruction firmly on the road to excellence by including REA language in state law. The legislation was even titled "The Nevada Reading Excellence Act."

No longer would the state board of education and district school boards have been able to evade providing Nevada kids with solid phonics-based courses of study in reading. Indeed, continued evasion of that responsibility would have been classed as a misdemeanor under state law.

"If AB 294 were passed," Sweet told state lawmakers, "Nevada would be placed on the cutting edge of reading reform and the most current research-based practices in reading instruction would be part of Nevada's classroom teaching."

AB 294 had overwhelming public support, positive testimony by witnesses and solid supporting empirical research evidence behind it. So why did it fail?

Union Again Resists Reform

The NSEA teacher union opposed the bill, sending out voting instructions by way of its newsletter and its lobbyists. The subsequent vote in the Democrat-dominated Assembly Education Committee was 8 opposed and 3 in favor. The union's line was that the misdemeanor penalties were too "punitive," and some special-education students did not "do well" under phonics.

The real objection became apparent later, however, when an attempt was made on the Assembly floor to add key wording from the federal Reading Excellence Act to a Senate education bill. SB 445 dealt with core academic subjects that Nevada schools must teach. But when an effort was made to add a mere seven words to the bill, the NSEA mobilized in opposition. Under the amendment, instruction in reading would have become  instruction in "reading supported by scientifically based reading research." Proponents said the change would boost Nevada's  chance of securing an REA grant. But because phonics is the instruction method that scientific research supports, the teacher union passed the word to vote "no." Despite the fact that no penalties were involved, and the reading method for special-ed kids would have been whatever scientific studies endorsed, the amendment lost by a near party-line vote, 26 to 15. Only one Democrat, Assemblyman Tom Collins Las Vegas, broke ranks to vote for the bill, alongside all 14 Republicans.

The makeup of the Nevada Assembly in 1999 reflected an NSEA investment, directly and through its affiliated PACs, of at least $260,000—"at least" because members' online campaign contribution reports often contradict reports by the union and its affiliated PACs. To the 30 Assembly members who voted on the SB 445 amendment, the NSEA 1998 contributions averaged $8,326. Of those 30, 25 of them voted as the NSEA instructed.

So now you know why Nevada is failing to teach its children to read.  It's the same reason that Nevada won't receive REA funding to support its reading programs, even though the NSEA usually goes for every federal education subsidy in sight.

Nevada's kids clearly are not a real priority for the NSEA. If reading instruction methods that actually work require an ounce of perspiration, or contradict leftwing ideology, the NSEA is against them. 

So next time you see your child's teachers, ask them if they know that their union dues are used to fight the very kind of reading instruction that would make Nevada kids excellent readers—and give them a fair shot at life.  NJ

Deborah Carson, a former schoolteacher, follows Nevada education issues closely and writes from Reno.


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