This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Jack Silva didn’t know anything about how children learn to read. What he did know was that a lot of students in his district were struggling.
Silva is the chief academic officer for Bethlehem, Pa., public schools. In 2015, only 56 percent of 3rd graders were scoring proficient on the state reading test. That year, he set out to do something about it.
“It was really looking yourself in the mirror and saying, ‘Which 4 in 10 students don’t deserve to learn to read?’ ” he recalls.
Bethlehem is not an outlier. Across the country, millions of kids are struggling. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of 4th graders and 24 percent of 8th graders aren’t reading at a basic level. Less than 40 percent are proficient or advanced.
Educators have long pointed to poverty as an explanation for poor reading performance. Bethlehem, a small city in eastern Pennsylvania that was once a booming steel town, has plenty of low-income residents. But there are fancy homes in Bethlehem, too, and when Silva examined the reading scores, he saw that many students at the wealthier schools weren’t reading very well either.
Silva didn’t know what to do. To begin with, he didn’t know how students in his district were being taught to read. So, he assigned his new director of literacy, Kim Harper, to find out.