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No Time for Reading:
A Lesson Learned at Gunpoint


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Education World editor Linda Starr reacts to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that 68 percent of U.S. fourth graders fail to achieve minimum grade level proficiency in reading.

According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card, 68 percent of U.S. fourth graders fail to demonstrate minimum grade level proficiency in reading. Yes, you read that right:

Sixty-eight percent of U.S. fourth graders fail to demonstrate minimum grade level proficiency in reading.

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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What's going on in our schools? Aren't we teaching reading in the primary grades anymore? I looked at a sampling of first- and second-grade curricula from schools across the country to find out. It turns out we are teaching reading. We're also teaching -- or attempting to teach -- a staggering array of additional concepts and skills, including (but not limited to!) fundamentals of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis; physical science, Earth science, and life science; geography, ecology, and health; keyboarding, multimedia, information literacy, and Internet use; community awareness, social responsibility, patriotism, tolerance, and "aesthetic valuing." The Maryland state legislature has even considered requiring schools to teach gun safety. What's more, we're attempting to teach all that in 180 five-hour days!

Not long ago, my teenage son was clerking in a small market when three 16-year-olds robbed the store at gunpoint. The fledging felons emptied the cash register -- and my son's wallet. When they were -- inevitably -- caught, my son and I attended the court proceedings. I was determined to see that the young thugs were taught a lesson in responsibility. "I want you to order these kids to get jobs and repay the money they stole," I told the judge.

"The law forbids the imposition of impossible sentences," the judge replied. "I can't order these kids to get jobs. They can't read well enough to fill out a job application."

The lesson learned that day was mine; we can't teach kids to be responsible, productive citizens without first teaching them to read.

Reliable research indicates that 95 percent of students in this country can learn to read. Yet 68 percent of our fourth graders -- and 85 percent of our juvenile criminals -- can't read. It's time we recognized that schools don't have the resources -- and teachers don't have the time -- to successfully teach all the subjects currently mandated for primary grades. It's time -- it's way past time -- to toss the dross and postpone the merely important in our primary curricula. We've got to focus our efforts on what matters most -- because if we don't teach our kids how to read, we might as well teach them how to handle a gun.