Capitol Comments: Student literacy is in crisis; why isn’t this a state priority?

Published 8:45 pm Friday, April 26, 2024

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Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

Literacy was my passion as a first-grade teacher, and it’s still my passion. I absolutely loved teaching reading! Literacy is the most important academic subject in school. If you can’t read, you cannot master any other subject — math, science, history and more. Reading is a great equalizer. The ability to read proficiently opens doors of opportunity for a lifetime.

Peggy Bennett

Our state has a big problem. Less than half of students (49.9%) in our state can read proficiently. Only 47% of Minnesota third graders can read proficiently.

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Some blame the COVID pandemic for these low reading scores. However, the simple fact is that reading scores have been extremely poor (59-60% proficient) for long over a decade — well before the pandemic. It’s been a concern, and it’s an even bigger concern now.

Can we fathom the seriousness of this issue? Over half of Minnesota schoolchildren cannot read at grade level! There are about 1 million school-age children in Minnesota. That’s over half a million children in our state who are unable to read proficiently.

This reading crisis is screaming red alert! My heart breaks for these children who are unable to read well. What kind of pathway in life do these readings scores put these half a million kids on? It’s a road to failure, struggle and dependency.

Do you know who is hurt the most by this? People of color. Their children, many in the inner cities, have even lower scores. This sad pathway to an automatic handicap in life is simply unacceptable.

I don’t blame our hardworking teachers for this crisis. They have had years of mandate after mandate foisted upon them. They’ve been pulling their hair out trying to find time to teach core subjects like literacy, along with being peddled faulty reading instruction methods that have been promoted for years by certain major curriculum companies.

The one decent piece of literacy legislation passed last session — the Read Act — has received very little priority by the majority party. With an $18 billion surplus (totally spent!), and a flaming hot reading crisis, our schools received a mere $70 million to focus on proven literacy strategies, teacher training and curriculum. A little more funding may be in the works this year. This is not nearly enough for our schools to accomplish this huge task. If we’re going to do the job, let’s do it right.

Instead of empowering our schools to focus on literacy, educators were handed 65 new, mostly unrelated, mandates. Schools are now forced to focus on things like putting menstrual products in boys’ bathrooms and teaching kids to judge and suspect their peers based upon their skin color with new “ethnic studies” mandates.

This greatly saddens me on behalf of our Minnesota children.

So, what did receive priority funding? The high-speed train to Duluth got $194 million. Renovations for the “palace for politicians” received $750 million.

Even legalizing marijuana was prioritized with $120 million.

Well, at least when these struggling readers grow into adult struggling readers who have difficulty navigating the workforce and affording life, they will have pot available to soothe their frustrations!

We heard a couple of testifiers in one of my education committees recently complain that the quality, proven reading curriculum programs on the new recommended list at the Minnesota Department of Education are somehow racially insensitive because these programs have too many white authors and illustrators.

This kind of thought is part of the problem. I’ll tell you what’s racially insensitive: when kids can’t read! Let’s stop worrying about the skin color of authors and illustrators and start focusing on curriculum that is actually proven to work to fix the problem and get our kids reading successfully.

So, what do we need to do? First, prioritize literacy in our schools — because literacy is learning. Give schools the teaching time and literacy dollars needed to get our kids on the road to success with this core subject and highly necessary skill.

Second, free our schools to innovate and meet the needs of their students instead of burdening them with all of these new mandates. Local control is innovation.

Lastly, we should empower parents to be a part of the solution. Empowered parents are engaged parents — and learning increases with engaged parents.

I am saddened by the lack of legislative focus on what really matters for our kids and our schools. When over half of our kids in school cannot read proficiently, it’s a crisis that deserves the utmost attention. Legislators need to get their priorities in order and start helping our schools focus on core academics like literacy.

I will never give up on this fight for literacy in our schools. Our children’s futures, our state and our nation depend upon it.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 23A representative.