Thaddeus Lott’s neglected formula for student success

By Baker A. Mitchell Jr.  August 23, 2023 06:00 AM

A new “Report on the Condition of Education” from the National Center on Education Statistics shows a significant increase in the percentage of school teachers with advanced degrees, which in many districts will earn them extra pay.

What the report doesn’t show, however, is that the increase in advanced teaching degrees has been accompanied by corresponding decreases in student achievement in reading , math , civics , and U.S. history .

How can this be? According to NCES, “the number of master’s degrees conferred in education” jumped 5% from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year. Yet, the increased percentage of supposedly better-educated and better-prepared teachers seems to be producing increased numbers of poorly educated and poorly prepared students.

The problem doesn’t lie primarily with America’s 4 million teachers , though some certainly appear more interested in union activism than teaching. The problem lies with 1) school administrators who seem averse to time-tested, effective curricula and teaching methods and 2) the 1,300-plus colleges and universities that offer teacher-certification degrees , which are failing, and in some cases refusing, to focus teacher education on the most critical elements of student success: order in the classroom, the need for an effective curriculum, and reading proficiency.

I separated reading out because it is arguably the most critical skill for students to master. If students can’t read proficiently (and in some cases read at all) by the fourth grade, they’ll likely struggle in life. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation has noted, “Third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read.” After that, “students are ‘reading to learn.’”

Teaching reading successfully is a straightforward, well-documented process, and most children, with proper instruction, should be successful readers by the end of kindergarten. Most of the kindergarten students in our charter school network will be reading before then.

The federal government began a 10-year, billion-dollar effort called Project Follow Through in 1968 that tested various methods for teaching reading to at-risk children in grades K-3. It compared 22 curriculum models in 178 communities with 200,000 children. The “Direct Instruction” model, the study found, “produced the best results in all areas.” The findings were further validated in a 2000 follow-up report from the National Reading Panel , an expert advisory group convened by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with the Department of Education, to study “the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.”

Yet instead of embracing direct instruction, which has been widely available for decades and is integral to the curriculum of our schools, most school systems and, as they are taught, most teachers snub direct instruction. As a result, year-after-year significant numbers of nonreaders advance through traditional public schools. These aren’t just students who can’t read at grade level; many can’t read at any level.

We have first-hand knowledge of this. When the 2020-21 school year began, the four charter schools our organization manages received record numbers of transfer applications from parents of children who had been attending traditional public schools, which remained closed due to COVID-19 fears.

Reading problems surfaced immediately. Of the 168 first- and second grade transfer students who joined us, 51 first graders and 24 second graders were unable to pass the basic readiness assessment to begin kindergarten-level reading instruction. Not only could they not read at any level, their vocabularies were so limited they wouldn’t be able to understand basic reading instruction. So, we enrolled the 75 students in a direct instruction kindergarten preparatory course called “ Language for Learning ,” which they had to complete before reading instruction could begin.

The youngest transfer students weren’t the only ones unable to read. Many newly enrolled students in grades three to seven also couldn’t read or write. So, instead of wasting their time (and their teachers’) by having them sit through grammar or history lessons that required reading, we assigned them to Language for Learning classes as well.

The problem I just described isn’t a local one. State and national testing indicates that large numbers of students are pushed through the public education system every year without being able to read. On last year’s NAEP reading test, fewer than one-third (32%) of North Carolina’s public school fourth graders performed at or above the “proficient” level, exactly matching the national average . Students in just eight states exceeded that average.

Yet most of the education establishment ignores Language for Learning, “ Reading Mastery ,” and other direct instruction programs because to embrace them would shift blame for nonreaders to teachers, administrators, schools of education, and the lawmakers who ignore, or make excuses for, widespread public school failings.

Two decades ago, I was a volunteer science instructor in a low-income inner-city Houston elementary school run by Dr. Thaddeus Lott, one of public education’s most successful innovators. His innovation, bucking popular trends that continue to this day, was to emphasize student behavior, reading, and direct instruction.

His students thrived and excelled — so much so that Lott was persecuted by higher-ups in the school system and accused of cheating. Lott stood up to the bullies and won. He was then given three additional hard-luck schools to manage; they thrived as well.

My friend and mentor has since died. But his formula for student success lives on: orderly classrooms, direct instruction, and reading proficiency.

Baker A. Mitchell Jr. is the founder of the Roger Bacon Academy in Leland, North Carolina, a former member of the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council, the state Charter School Advisory Board, and past chairman of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The Roger Bacon Academy manages the Classical Charter Schools of America in southeastern North Carolina.