British educator Katie Ashford, the spunky curator of Tabula Rasa Blog, is stirring-up much needed education reform thinking. “Education in the UK isn’t always good enough,” she says in her first “Why I Blog” post. “Far too many children pass through the doors of our schools into the real world knowing little, unable to read, and incapable of expressing themselves. To me, this is a tragedy. Our education system is flawed and we need to do something about it urgently.”
That commitment to raising educational standards and sense of urgency certainly shines through in her most recent commentary, “Please teach my daughter to read,” posted January 17, 2016, and now generating quite an online reaction. In it, Katie utilizes the case of a British teen’s amazing turnaround in reading fluency over 18 months to demonstrate that “correct methods” can work apparent wonders in making Special Education Needs (SEN) all but disappear.
She certainly spins a compelling story. As Assistant Head at Michaela Community School, in the Wembley District of London, Ashford reports that the student’s father enrolled “Georgia” in her school convinced that her academic struggles, entering secondary level, stemmed from not being able to read. Without promising miracles, she took on the project based upon her “hunch” that Georgia was “yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes” and, rather than having a “cognitive disability,” simply needed to be taught to read through proven, research-based methods.
Her “hunch” was borne out by Georgia’s experience. Eighteen months later, Ashford reported that “Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousnds of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age (level) has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress.”
Ashford and her Tabla Rasa Education blog are, as expected, drawing flack from ‘diehard’ progressive educators either wedded to “whole word” approaches or simply hostile to academy schools such as Michaela with its explicit KIPP educational philosophy. Resorting to such criticisms is revealing because it attacks the institution without really confronting the evidence of success.
Hunches about the impact of early reading failure on the rising incidence of SEN coded or designated students are well-founded and supported by mounds of research findings. Since the mid-1990s reading research has tended to show that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. The poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time.
The recognized pioneer in the field is Canadian researcher, Dr. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritas at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thirty years ago, Stanovich pointed out in his well-known paper (1986) on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) that failure to acquire early word reading skills has lasting consequences ranging from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).
“Catch Them Before They Fall” is the key message conveyed by Joseph K. Torgesen, Jamie Metsala and other leading reading research specialists. “It is a tragedy of the first order,” according to Torgeson,” that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.”
Early reading failure is now recognized as a critical factor contributing to the burgeoning numbers of Special Needs students not only in Britain but elsewhere. The Reading Reform Foundation has led the charge in the U.K. and one of the best articles making the connection is Dr. John Marks piece “Special Need or Can’t Read?” published in the May 2001 RRF Newsletter. In it, he expressed alarm that the U.K. had ten times as many pupils with ‘Special Educational Needs’ than in 1980 and over a million and a half pupils in total.
Across Britain, Marks reported in 2001 that more than one in five of all pupils were on ‘Special Needs’ registers – and in some schools the figure was as high as a staggering 55% or more. The numbers of SEN children with “statements” of severe disabilities stood at 2 to 3 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of SEN students were what was described as “soft” with, at best, moderate or undiagnosed learning disabilities. He then posed the fundamental question: “Is the explosion in ‘Special Needs’ real? Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly – and to teach reading in particular.”
A recent shift in British SEN policy is beginning to address the problem identified a decade ago. In September 2014, Special Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms to the Children and Families Act were introduced to better track and properly designate students by their SEN provision. Since then, the total number of SEN students has dropped from 1.49 to 1.3 million, while the number with a clear SEN “statement” stands at 2.8%, a slight increase over the past year. This was consistent with a 2010 Ofsted Study that found about one-quarter of all children labelled with SEN and as many as half of those on “School Action” lists, did not actually have SEN.
Literacy levels are now considered to be a major contributing factor perpetuating economic inequality. A 2014 report of the National Literacy Trust and commissioned by Save the Children has now sparked the publication ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’ produced by the Read On. Get On. coalition. That U.K. campaign brings together teachers and other professionals, charities, businesses, publishers and local communities pursuing the lofty goal of all children reading well by the age of 11 by 2025. Much like Katie Ashfield, they see the potential for all children learning to read if taught by more effective methods and fully embraced by the school system.
How many of our Special Education Needs (SEN) population are actually casualties of ineffective early reading instruction? Why are education reformers questioning the incidence of SEN student numbers often labelled as hard-nosed or unsympathetic to students? Which early reading interventions work best in producing fluent readers? If we were to “catch them early,” what would SEN programs look like and would we actually be serving those who need intensive support much better?