The downfall of ELA education

In this spread, we explore the reasons for declining reading and writing — whether that be a distaste towards reading or a clash between teachers and school board members — as well as what disparities and solutions exist. 
The downfall of ELA education
What’s the issue?
Data compiled by Isabella Kunc from Minnesota Compass

A growing crisis is evident: declining literacy rates. According to the Minnesota Compass, 57.2% of third graders achieved reading standards in 2013, compared to only 47.4% in 2023, as measured by the MCAs. In Mounds View Public Schools specifically, only 50.8% of 3rd graders reached these standards in 2023, ranking the district at 121 out of 326 in the state.

From basic grammar rules to comprehending texts, several English teachers have reported that they’ve had to teach things they previously did not. “I find that I have to teach basic comprehension skills in a way that I never used to have to because I think kids don’t read nearly as much as they used to,” said Rebecca Hauth-Schmidt, Mounds View High School English teacher. 

The pandemic contributed to a sharp decrease in literacy rates between 2019 to 2021, as students could not receive an education of the same rigor or with the same level of support. Distance and hybrid learning also significantly hurt students who did not have access to resources at home, which increased disparities in literacy development. 

However, literacy rates and general reading and writing abilities have steadily declined for far longer. In this spread, we explore the reasons for these trends — whether that be a distaste towards reading or a clash between teachers and school board members — as well as what disparities and solutions exist. 

Mind the gap: racial disparities in English education

“Minnesota schools are worst in the nation for our children of color” reads billboards across Minnesota highways. Sponsored by the Ciresi Walburn Foundation, the advert was prompted by large disparities in graduation rates and literacy rates between white students and students of color. In 2019, according to the Minnesota Report Card, the difference in reading scores between white and Black students was 40 percentage points, with over 70% of Black students falling short of reading proficiency. 

Historically, literacy disparities between white students and students of color were attributed to gaps in access to education. From the end of the Civil War to desegregation in the 1960s, Black schools were in session fewer days per week and received far less funding than white schools. 

Desegregation had profound impacts for Black students. National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores increased dramatically for Black students in the decades following desegregation policies. Black enrollment increased as well. Yet Black students still trailed behind white students.

Today, some studies, including research from the American Educational Research Association, suggest that most indicators of student achievement, such as teacher education and experience, per-pupil expenditures and teacher-pupil ratio, are nearly equal among predominantly white and Black schools. 

But even if this is the case — which it may not be, as other studies have disputed this assertion — it ignores the fact that so-called “universal” measures like per-pupil spending are not necessarily equitably distributed. At predominantly white schools, money may be spent on new lab equipment or books, while at majority-minority schools, money is more likely to be spent on special and remedial education and teacher retention initiatives — teacher turnover is highest in schools with at least 35% minority students. This lack of investment in tangible resources in these schools, students who start out with fewer resources and have greater needs outside the classroom continue to fall behind their more well-off peers.

In 2022, the Ciresi Walburn Foundation unveiled their latest billboard campaign: “40% of white kids in MN can’t read either (at grade level).” And while the issue of declining reading proficiency affects all students, it seems necessary to understand why and address the fact that some students are trailing behind others.

Monkey see, monkey do
Data compiled by Isabella Kunc from the Pew Research Center

You may have seen the stereotypical iPad kid with their eyes happily glued to their screen or a flustered mother handing their tantrum-throwing child an iPad to get them to be quiet for one second. Gone are the days when kids would be regularly poring over novels or book series in a matter of days. 

Although it is easy to blame teachers for declining literacy rates, several factors at home also contribute to the problem. The advent of electronic devices has made reading less popular than before. It is far easier for parents to use electronics — an immediate and highly stimulating source of entertainment — to occupy their child rather than encourage them to read. With less early exposure to books, children cannot build a strong foundation for reading and writing. 

Even many parents have stopped reading books for fun. A 2022 Gallup survey found that, on average, adults read six fewer books per year in 2021 than in 1999, at 12.6 vs 18.5 books per year respectively. Because children often mirror the actions of their parents, when parents do not read, their kids are less likely to read as well. “Parents who actually read as adults ha[ve] children who then read as adults, because […] you see that that’s something they enjoy as their pastime, so, therefore, you enjoy it as your pastime,” said Carolynne Ladd, Mounds View High School social studies teacher.  

That isn’t to say that all parents do not read books regularly. Many parents who do read have simply switched to digital forms, such as e-books. However, children may interpret digital reading as parents surfing the web, especially when they have already connected electronic devices with fast-paced entertainment. 

Declining interest in reading is also apparent in high schoolers. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of 17 year olds who never read for fun increased from 9% in 1984 to 27% in 2019. “The time I would spend reading, I spend on my phone or watching a show, which I feel like I should be changing, but that’s just how it is,” said Julia Gronert, a junior who used to read 100 books a year but now rarely reads for fun. 

Teachers have also noticed this shift in the classroom. “There would always be a group of kids who had a book they were reading, and they couldn’t wait until those free 10 minutes of class where they could pull up their books and start reading,” said Rebecca Hauth-Schmidt, Mounds View High School English teacher. “Nowadays, I would say I have maybe two kids in a class who might do that.” 

Reading less means that students of all ages have put less time into improving their comprehension and vocabulary range. “It’s just like playing basketball or playing piano. The more you read, the better you are at it,” said Hauth-Schmidt. 

Even though students do read thousands of words a day from social media captions or articles, they do not use the same critical thinking or analyzing skills that reading books requires. Short-form content also does not require the same level of reading stamina, which is another skill that takes time to develop and is crucial for reading comprehension and enjoyment. Consequently, many students may not be able to understand advanced texts or focus for longer periods of time like past students could.

Overall, several factors at home have contributed to declining reading proficiency, as the influence of technology makes it difficult for books to take precedence. Whether students can get back to reading as often or long depends not only on teachers but also on parents and students themselves. 

Teachers face backlash

Teachers in the United States face growing challenges in curriculum and time constraints regarding how they instruct English. Facing these challenges requires an accurate diagnosis of why students struggle to maintain their interest in reading in order to improve the falling literacy rates widespread across Minnesota and the country.

Some teachers believe that the policy of not penalizing late work is a major factor, diminishing the incentive for students to apply themselves in English classes. “If something was late [two years ago], it was 10% off for each day that it was late […] and we’re not allowed to do that anymore […] I think if we went back to holding kids more accountable, then I think we could get back to teaching at a level and expecting kids to perform at a level that we used to,” said Rebecca Hauth-Schmid, Mounds View High School English teacher. 

The leniency towards late work in English classes is particularly problematic due to fewer traditional tests that are unaffected by the late work policy. In subjects like math, however, where there are typically more frequent assessments, students have fewer chances to turn in work late without facing consequences in the form of reduced grades.

Additionally, teachers, parents and school boards are at odds with each other regarding the literature being taught in school. There is a growing effort by parents across the country to remove literature that touches on subjects that are deemed too “controversial.” “If parents don’t agree with something that’s being taught with something that’s in a book, they can just say, ‘Oh, I don’t want my students to read that book,’” said Hauth-Schmidt. 

Parents have become more influential in curriculum development, especially in English courses. When parents exempt their children from certain books, teachers must come up with a new curriculum that teaches the child the same things, often with very little time to do so, according to Hauth-Schmidt.

Many English teachers also feel that they do not have enough time in one 50-minute class period to help students. “Time constraints make it difficult. There’s a lot more I’d like to teach. And there’s such an abundance of stories out there that I want my students to experience that sometimes that feels a little bit limiting,” said Michelle Sorensen, Chippewa ELA teacher. 

Some teachers are experiencing a similar issue at the elementary school level as well. “We certainly don’t have enough time to do writing […] and let them try out some of those [phonics skills],” said Kelly Hofmeister, Turtle Lake Elementary School first grade teacher. Phonics is a method that teaches students to associate sounds with letters, which is taught through reading and writing. However, with both grouped into the same course, teachers often cannot adequately cover reading and writing in the allotted time. 

Teachers may also neglect writing due to the pressure of meeting expectations on standardized tests. According to data from EdWeek, nearly 80% of educators feel moderate to large pressure to have their students perform on these tests. English standardized tests typically consist of multiple choice questions that concentrate on reading comprehension and vocabulary rather than writing skills. With limited time and testing expectations to meet, teachers often prioritize standardized skills in their lesson plans. Consequently, 75% of students across all grades are not proficient in writing according to recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

As teachers strive to navigate these challenges, it becomes evident that addressing the multi-issued needs of English education requires collaboration between parents, teachers and school boards to ensure a positive impact on students. 

Fixing the literacy crisis
Fixing the literacy crisis

Even with iPad kids, teacher constraints and disparities among students from different racial backgrounds, hope is not lost for student literacy. There are ways to improve students’ reading and writing abilities, whether it be from parents, elementary school or high school.

Parents can help children improve their reading and writing skills by creating literature-rich environments at home. Simply having books in the home can boost students’ learning outcomes. An analysis from Australia National University showed that adults who had more books at home as children had higher literacy levels. Even though owning books may not be an easy option for every household and does not ensure immediate success, giving children exposure to books from a young age can positively impact their literacy and academic success for years to come.

Shifting to education in schools, some teachers suggest that separating writing and reading classes can improve students’ abilities to learn these important skills. “Because of the shift of focus to focusing on literacy, there just might not be enough time during ELA classes to be able to focus on writing,” said Hannah Kostick, Chippewa Middle School ELA teacher. She notes that teaching separate classes can help students focus on one subject at a time, as the standards for each subject are complex. 

At Mounds View, while independent writing and reading classes are offered for upperclassmen, the standards for 9th and 10th grade English classes focus on both. Making separate units for writing and reading-related skills can build students’ writing skills outside the realm of literary analysis, which often dominates the spotlight in underclassmen English courses.

Furthermore, making English class activities hands-on can make students understand the diverse applications of the language. “I really enjoyed 10th-Grade English because […] we were able to do other things outside of English like acting with the Shakespeare novels,” said junior Henry Collins. Adding more units incorporating English in acting, debating or rapping can make students more enthusiastic about applying what they learn to their own lives.

Out-of-classroom activities can also make students more enthusiastic about English. “Incorporating things that aren’t just the reading, like activities with a class [or] field trips […] makes the context of the book more interesting to students,” said junior Julia Gronert. She noted that one activity that nurtured her experience in English was interviewing her grandpa, a Vietnam war veteran, for a project as a sophomore.

When it comes to addressing differences in English education among minority students, surrounding them with educators from similar backgrounds can improve education outcomes. According to a study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black students who have at least one Black teacher in grades K-3 are 13% more likely to graduate high school and 19% more likely to enroll in college than Black students at schools without Black teachers in those grades. Even though it is difficult, employing a more diverse English teacher body and encouraging students of color to pursue teaching careers can increase success for minorities in English classes.

In the curriculum, incorporating books that cover stories from diverse points of view can also make English classes more appealing to minority students. “If you are able to see connections in the things that you’re learning to your own life, regardless of the subject area, I think you’re naturally going to want to expand your knowledge of that area,” said Steve Morrissette, Mounds View High School English teacher. 

Sharing perspectives from minorities, such as in the book “The Hate U Give” or a Native American literature unit, gives schools the opportunity to share stories that reflect the diversity of their own student bodies. By incorporating books with diverse perspectives, students can learn how to approach discussions about controversial topics instead of administrations and parents seeking to ban books to avoid conflict between beliefs.

Ultimately, whether it be in a student’s home, elementary school or high school, there are several ways educators, students and parents can help increase achievement and interest in English. Finding the right solutions may take time but nonetheless are possible. 

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