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From the archives: Too many can’t read

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Spring 1998 print edition:

by Lynette Hazelton and Helen Gym

Every school year, thousands of kindergartners enter the Philadelphia School District. The event, faithfully captured by the news media, stands as a symbol of hope for the family of every student.

Yet, according to the latest SAT-9 test scores, for every 10 kindergartners who enter school, only half will finish 4th grade reading on a basic level. By the time they graduate from the average comprehensive high school, they would be lucky to find even one among them able to manage a "solid performance" on the SAT-9 test. Two or three would have partial mastery of basic reading skills. At least four of the ten would be considered poor readers.

"I think we need to face up to the fact that we are in serious trouble and that we need to do something about it," said Jane Hileman, director of the 100-Book Challenge, a reading program hailed as one of the few bright spots in the District. "We have to raise expectations."

That reading skills in Philadelphia are at a low level, we know. That this must be remedied if students are to become successful, we know.

But between these two points of agreement, lie uncertainty, frustration, disbelief, and anger. The stories in this issue of the Notebook address the challenges we need to face if our students’ reading skills are to improve.

First, we must face the reality and the magnitude of the situation. With or without the test scores, most people interviewed in the preparation of this issue of the Notebook agreed that the reading skills of the majority of students in the District are not where they need to be.

"We are still at a point where there are pockets of excellence in the schools, but if you are looking for success on a larger scale, it’s hard to find," said Eileen Feldgus, reading specialist for the Office of Assessment.

"The reading level is horrendous," said Karen Little, a parent at Rhodes Middle School. "Kids are 12, 13 years old and they can’t read. Reading should have been addressed years ago."

Second, teachers and schools, for the most part, are operating with minimal guidance, resulting in vastly erratic and, frankly, chaotic results.

"In any given school there might be three different reading programs in use," said Elaine Culbertson, the District’s reading curriculum specialist. "At some schools, you’ll find that there’s no reading done in kindergarten. At other schools, the expectation will be that every child is exposed to reading at that age.

"We have no criteria for what teachers should hold a kid accountable for knowing or whether a program someone uses actually does help a child learn to read. "

Lack of guidance

At one point, each elementary school was required to have a reading specialist. Since the policy was changed, many local schools have cut reading teachers from the budget, an act Culbertson calls "unconscionable."

Without guidance or a clear directive as to what constitutes "best practice" in the area of reading, many schools often implement reading programs because of teachers’ particular preferences or because a publisher makes a good sell for a program.

Barbara Moore Williams, director of the Teaching and Learning Network, which handles professional development, said the District’s primary reading initiative is the curriculum frameworks, which were published in February.

Yet the majority of schools will not receive the frameworks until late in the year. In addition, the frameworks merely offer examples of good practice. They do not mandate them.

Culbertson said the frameworks are a good start but not enough to make a difference to teachers seeking answers and students who are lagging behind.

"There used to be a slogan in the District that that every teacher needs to be a reacher of reading," Culbertson said. "Somehow we’ve forgotten that."

Some parents voiced their fear of a "word-poor" daily routine they see all too often. The Notebook followed a bilingual high school student who was assigned to read nothing longer than a one-page passage in a workbook for the entire day and had no literature, social studies or science classes scheduled on a typical Friday.

"My daughter graduated from high school with honors and when she went to college, they tested her and said she was reading at a 9th-grade level. She was very frustrated," said parent Lillian Amaro.

Some progress

Yet within the system, concrete efforts are being made to address the problem.

Philanthropist Walter Annenberg recently granted $5 million to 28 schools in the Frankford, Kensington, and South Philadelphia clusters to improve literacy in the primary grades.

A teacher forum, sponsored by the Notebook, showed that many teachers are emphasizing the importance of reading, reading frequently, and reading literature which incorporates the experiences of students.

At Childs Elementary School, students are expected to read books of their choosing at least 30 minutes per day.

Culbertson said the District is planning to host a literacy retreat this spring, where teachers and administrators will discuss, analyze and eventually publish a book on best practices in reading.

"People are going to be held accountable for the kinds of programs they use, " Culbertson said. "We’ll be able to say these are the best programs to spend your money on. If your students are not where they should be and you’re not using these programs, then what’s the problem?"

Parents at a number of schools are expanding their involvement to include a specific focus on academics and pedagogy.

Dealing with an administration and a union many feel have not taken their children’s plight seriously, these parents are placing reading at the top of the school agenda. They are also holding schools, administrators and teachers accountable when schools fail to meet their minimal requirements.

"Parents have a lot to offer," said Lucy Ruiz, a parent at McKinley Elementary School. She has toured high-achieving schools in other cities and said she and other parents hope to offer their insights into best practices and develop priorities for the school staff.

Ultimately, teachers and parents discover that they must work together to see that reading is no longer regarded as a simple skill for the elementary grades. Reading must be a dynamic and fundamental part of all learning experiences.

"It’s about power – making sure [students] are not reading to please us but to explore and enjoy and take control of their lives," Hileman said.

"We have to continue to challenge our students," said Magna Diaz, a librarian at Kensington High School. "At times, it may seem hopeless, but there has to be a way to change things.

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