Yet another stab at our decades-long reading crisis

First, one learns to read. Then, one reads to learn.

Abort step No. 1 and you almost guarantee a life less prosperous and less meaningful.

Thus it was heartening to read that one of the first proclamations from the pen of our newly minted governor, Brian Sandoval, was to encourage reading proficiency in the elementary grades.

"WHEREAS," reads the third paragraph of Sandoval's proclamation, "developing reading skills at an early age elicits skills that enable a student to evaluate, analyze, and integrate and interpret texts of various subject matters …"

Useful skills at any age, but, as the proclamation declares, not ones nearly enough Nevada children are acquiring. According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, fully 43 percent of Nevada fourth-graders lacked basic reading skills. Only 20 percent were proficient at reading. This was little changed from the 2007 test and well below the national average.

The governor then resolves to encourage families to dedicate time every day to reading with their children, urges the Nevada Department of Education and all schools to develop a test to gauge the reading proficiency of second-graders and find a way to "better understand the steps necessary to ensure all students are proficient in reading by the end of third grade."

This is 2011 for crying out loud. "A Nation at Risk," a report by President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, was released in April 1983.

The report sounded a strategic jeremiad: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

The report set off a flurry of education reforms, few of which have shown any success. In fact, things may be worse today.

One state, Florida, has had at least a modicum of success in raising the proportion of students proficient in reading skills.

In 1999, Florida instituted secondary education reform, including performance-based pay for teachers, grading schools, annual tests and, most importantly, curbing social promotion. Florida students must pass the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test before being promoted to the fourth grade.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal this past week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush observed, "While preparing kids for college and careers starts on the first day of kindergarten, the first good indicator of their chances for success may come in fourth grade. That is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn."

He remarked that the 2009 NAEP test found 33 percent of fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. (As noted above, the figure for Nevada was 43 percent.)

"Yet failure does not have to be our destiny," Bush writes. "Florida's experience in reform during the last decade gives us the road map to avoid this slow-moving economic calamity.

"In 1998, nearly half of Florida's fourth-graders were functionally illiterate. Today, 72 percent of them can read."

Additionally, according to a Heritage Foundation study, Florida's black and Hispanic fourth-graders scored as well or better than the composite score for all Nevada students on that NAEP test.

As we near the 2011 legislative session, public education, which already gets more than half of all the tax money collected by the state, will be a top issue for discussion. And many will recommend that ever more money be spent on education in an effort to remedy the failings of the system.

The Heritage study quotes professor Paul Hill of the University of Washington on the lack of academic progress in public schools despite huge increases in funding. Hill found "money is used so loosely in public education -- in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning -- that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can't choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results."

Whatever failings our education system may have, there are ways to determine whether a child can read proficiently. One key to improving reading skills is to stop promoting to higher grades children who can't read.

If they fail step No. 1, they are doomed to fail step No. 2. Whose fault is that?

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor of the Review-Journal. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ Read his blog at