bY: John Kuehn
District 38 Senator
Education equalizes social disparities, expands options, and stabilizes communities. The Nebraska Constitution reinforces the value our state places on education, stating in Article VII, "the Legislature shall provide for the free instruction in the common schools of the state all persons between the ages of five and twenty-one years.” Proficiency in basic skills, including reading and math, is the primary function of public education.
Parents, students, and employers assume that advancing from one grade to the next means a student has mastered the material in that grade. It is also presumed to indicate the student is prepared to begin learning the more advanced material in the next grade level. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many children in Nebraska. The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reports only 39% of Nebraska fourth graders are proficient in reading. By 8th grade, that proficiency falls to 38%. This statistic should outrage parents and concerned citizens. Put simply, students are being advanced through school without mastering basic reading. This proficiency gap is the impetus behind LB 651, a bill that requires schools to ensure reading proficiency in the early elementary years and create an action plan to develop proficiency in students who are behind.
If unable to read at grade level, students cannot continue their educational growth and progress in math, science, social studies, or vocational education. Advancing children to higher grades, expecting more complex work without mastering reading, sets students up for failure. The fact that the proportion of students not proficient in reading remains static between 4th and 8th grade demonstrates that the deficiency is not addressed between elementary and the end of junior high.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, nearly 90% of the students who fail to graduate from high school struggled to read in the third grade. Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare assistance.
Not developing reading proficiency early has lifelong consequences for Nebraska children. As children fall further and further behind in school, their options for higher education and career success decrease dramatically. Over 60% of community college students require remedial education, paying hard earned dollars to obtain skills they did not master in high school. Nebraska’s ACT scores demonstrate most high school graduates are not prepared for success in college level reading, math, and science.
Six in ten Nebraska children in 4th and 8th grade are not proficient readers under the current system. This is unacceptable. The challenges faced by teachers helping students learn to read are very real. However, not confronting the problem of poor literacy among Nebraska children is not an option. Teaching children to read is the fundamental function of Nebraska schools.
The opposition of the education establishment to defining clear expectations that every 3rd grader in Nebraska should be able to read at grade level before moving to the next grade is disheartening. LB 651 has been the target of a significant misinformation campaign by the education lobbyists and the teacher’s union. Criticism has focussed on the effects of holding a child back on their self esteem, ignoring the fact the bill outlines a stepwise progression to ensure children receive intervention and individualized strategies every year of their early elementary years.
Repeating a grade is a last resort, only after significant intervention has failed. LB 651 anticipates special circumstances and outlines specific criteria for students with special needs, including learning disabilities, English as a second language learners, and other individual needs. Formal cooperation and communication between parents, the student, and teachers are integral components of the proposal.
Nebraska children need an education that helps them succeed, and it begins with elementary reading proficiency. Nebraska taxpayers have a right to expect schools to establish and maintain basic reading standards in exchange for the $11,000 and more they invest in the education of every student annually. All Nebraska students deserve to be equipped with the basic reading ability to enable them to be independent citizens.