A Tool to Make School Reform Local and Personal

Published September 13, 2014

As a new school year begins, polling shows support for nationalized education via Common Core is collapsing among parents and teachers alike.

The time is right to refocus school reform on practical objectives that can be achieved in local communities. Fortunately, a new online tool can empower parents and local school boards to work in unison toward an important common goal: ensuring third-graders have learned to read.

With a few clicks of a mouse, any reasonably computer-literate person can now ascertain how well any public school in the nation is teaching third graders to read—with the level of poverty of its students’ families taken into account. The site can be found at http://education.consumers.org/national.htm.

This new technology comes with a calculator that provides a forecast of the federal, state and local tax burden each reading-deficient school and district will pile on taxpayers as a result of dropouts and minimally-prepared graduates (http://www.education-consumers.org/Calc/).

Through grade 3, children learn to read. Thereafter, they read to learn. Chances are if they are a year or two behind grade level in reading, they will never catch up. Studies by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and ACT have shown two of three such children will drop out or finish high school unprepared for the workforce or higher education.

“The numbers are shocking,” said John E. Stone, president of the nonprofit Education Consumers Foundation (ECF), which has spent 10 years developing universal reading charts and the program’s cost calculator. That is shocking enough, he says, that he hopes to use these tools “to energize civic-minded individuals to support reform-minded candidates or run for school board,” where many key spending decisions can still be made regardless of national and state education policies.

The lifetime cost in public social services is upwards of $90,000 for a dropout and $30,000 for an unprepared high school graduate. Factoring those numbers together with statistics about deficient readers, ECF calculated a total cost for a single graduating class in Knox County, Tennessee at just under $60 million. Costs accumulate with future classes and constitute what Stone calls a “hidden tax.”

Knox County is just an example from Stone’s home state. The same data are available for every district and school in the country. Consider the Los Angeles Unified School District: a $719 million hidden tax for 2011. For the City of Chicago: $476 million. Ouch.

Not all the ECF-amassed data spell gloom and doom. The reports on 2013 school scores on state proficiency tests, considered together with the percentages of kids receiving free or reduced-price lunch, helps put the lie to the “poverty is destiny” cop-out. (Some states required quite a bit less than the National Assessment of Educational Progress does for students to be marked proficient in reading. Nevertheless, within-state comparisons of performance are valid.)

As an example, consider some results in Virginia. In inner-city Richmond, Fairfield Court Elementary practically maxes out on the poverty scale, with 94.9 percent of its kids eligible for subsidized meals. Yet, an impressive 91.86 percent of its kids achieved reading proficiency. George W. Carver was close: 93.44 percent qualified for free lunch, 84.06 percent were reading-proficient.

Of course, many other schools fit the pattern of high poverty and low performance, such as Chimborazo: 91.12 percent free lunch, 29.33 percent reading-proficient. Woodville: 96.85 percent free lunch, 30.86 proficient. But what about schools like Fairfield Courts and G.W. Carver? What are they doing to help their children learn to read that their demographic peers are failing to do?

In fact, those beacons of hope in the city are outperforming many suburban schools that have far less poverty. For instance, in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, Crossfield Elementary has only 3.91 percent of students on free lunch and just 71.74 percent of its students are reading-proficient. That’s some 20 percentage points short of Fairfield Court’s performance.

John Stone wants to fire up school board candidates and citizen-activists and arm them with charts and graphs to make the case for early-reading emphasis and excellent teacher-directed instruction. These treasure troves of data should also help parents who want to demand the right to the most effective locally-based reform of all—school choice—when their children are stuck in a precursor to a dropout factory.

Robert Holland ([email protected]is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.