Why Philly Kids Can’t Read

by Christopher Paslay


Although the Philadelphia School District’s 2008 PSSA reading scores have improved for the sixth straight year, only 45.9% of students can read at a proficient level.  As a high school English teacher, here’s what I believe the district must do to ensure that 100% of our students are reading on grade level.


Cut class sizes.  To keep the teacher-to-student ratio low, there should be no more than 27 students in a class (let’s get serious; it should be no more than 15).  This way, teachers could give the students the one-on-one attention needed to help them get through challenging assignments.


Track students by ability level, to keep slower students from falling behind, and more advanced students from being held back.  This way, teachers could use one text for the whole class, and analyze it much more thoroughly.


Place a reading specialist in every class.  This would further improve the teacher-to-student ratio, and provide a valuable resource for reading strategies. 


Encourage students to practice reading at home, and implement the reading strategies they learn in the classroom.  To make this work, teachers would need the help of parents.  Moms and dads need to be there to help students work through difficult text during homework assignments, and to help with reading comprehension.


Unfortunately, city schools don’t operate in this kind of learning environment.  Here’s how things work in the Philadelphia School District:


Class sizes are not manageable.  When you squeeze 33 students in a room, there isn’t enough time to give each student the one-on-one attention needed to teach them to read properly.  Class sizes aren’t manageable because the district doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more teachers .    


Classes are heterogeneously grouped.  This means you have kids in a class who are on different reading levels.  Some are on 6th grade levels, some are on 11th grade levels.  Which means when you teach, you have to spend time differentiating instruction (this is a fancy way of saying the teacher must adapt the reading material to ALL ability levels . . . something that is impossible to do).  And you not only have a bunch of students on different reading levels, but you have English Language Learners as well (EELs).  These are foreign born kids who can barely speak English at all.  And then you have inclusion students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  These are students with learning disabilities who are mainstreamed into the class and need even more specialized instruction from the teacher who is trying to teach 32 other students (on different reading levels) to read.  Classes aren’t grouped by ability level because the district doesn’t want to damage the self-esteem of the students.  In other words, it’s better to pretend that kids are smart now, and let them find out the truth the hard way later in the real world.      


You must teach without a reading specialist.  Sorry, the teacher-to-student ratio must stay high.  And no, you can’t have specially trained teachers to help you implement reading strategies.  Again, it’s not in the budget. 


Most kids don’t practice reading at home.  Why? Because education isn’t a priority in the home.  Moms and dads either don’t care, or aren’t there, or can’t read themselves.  So the kids don’t practice reading.  But you can’t hold parents accountable; it’s not politically correct.    


This is the reality of the situation.  Sure, the Philadelphia School District is making progress in reading, but at a snail’s pace.  If the city and the SRC and the various communities of Philadelphia genuinely cared about teaching kids to read, they would cut class sizes, group kids by ability level, hire reading specialists and demand parents get involved with school work. 


Then all students would be able to read.