John Thompson: Liberals and conservatives agree, early reading comprehension is the key

John Thompson is an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at He contributes regularly to our blog on education issues.

In 2000, when serving on the Steering Committee for MAPS for KIDS, I grinned as arch-conservative Leland Gourley demanded a “warranty” that Oklahoma City Public School students would be reading at grade level by 3rd grade. Little did I know that cognitive and social science research would soon show that Gourley had identified the key to closing the achievement gap.

I recalled Gourley’s prescience recently when the liberal Schott Foundation for Public Education announced that New Jersey has the nation’s highest graduation rate for Black males. In contrast to the national rate of 47 percent, or Oklahoma with a rate of 52 percent, in New Jersey 69 percent of  Black males graduate from high school. The Schott Foundation also reported 4th grade NAEP Reading test results showing 66 percent of Oklahoma Black males score Below Basic, as do 58 percent of Black Males nationally. In New Jersey, 45 percent of Black males score Below Basic, 40 percent score Basic, and 15 percent score Proficient or Advanced.  Better still, in contrast with the normative trend where Black NAEP scores drop by the 8th grade, there was no fall-off in New Jersey.  This is crucial because social scientists have long used New Jersey as evidence that the best way to help poor children is to invest whatever is necessary so that elementary children read for comprehension.

The headlines attributed New Jersey’s success to the Abbott school finance case which resulted in the state investing an additional $3,000 per year per student. But Gordon MacInnes’ masterpiece In Plain Sight shows that the story is more complex, and that Gourley was right. Though averaging more than $15,000 per student, districts like Camden, Newark, and Trenton have seen a “relative decline” in achievement. But systems like Union City, Elizabeth, and Orange, have seen “virtually unprecedented” improvements over entire districts, as opposed to gains in scattered schools. They succeeded by narrowing the “kindergarten gap.” Their “sensible” strategy is to start early, invest in diagnostic assessments (as opposed to high stakes test) and spend whatever time is necessary to bring young students up to grade level in reading and writing

The Cottonwood School in Coal County, Oklahoma, used the same methods to increase its API score to a remarkable 1374 on a scale of 1500, and to sustain that improvement. Now three and four year olds in one of the poorest counties in America post reading readiness scores that are four times above the national average.

Where did most schools in Oklahoma and the rest of the nation go wrong? No Child Left Behind encouraged “quick fix” solutions that may have helped older students belatedly increase their decoding skills, while not improving reading comprehension. Cottonwood’s Principal Teri Brecheen told a legislative committee that the first step in turning around the district was recognizing that “we’re talking about human beings, not test scores.” She also said that all administrators should be required to teach first grade because, “you don’t know where zero is until you teach 1st grade.” Other school leaders, said Brecheen, “were not worrying about kids before the 4th grade” when testing kicked in, and then the rule was “fake it until you get a fictitious score.”

I draw two lessons from these results.  Just spending more money, as with NCLB, will not solve our educational problems.  If we start early and invest in building non-cognitive and reading skills for young children, the best evidence is that those early gains will persist throughout school.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

One thought on “John Thompson: Liberals and conservatives agree, early reading comprehension is the key

  1. One issue regarding the national debate since 1982 that I have witnessed very little discussion centers on the performance of schools of education in terms of student performance. Specifically, much data is generated regarding the performance of individual public school districts, but what about the performance of teachers associated with various schools of education. It seems appropriate, since research indicates that the classroom teacher is one of the most if not the most important factor associated with student success, that we look for preparatory programs, i.e. higher education colleges of education, that are best preparing teachers. I am not talking about the curriculum they teach or the programmatic things they focus on, I am talking about simple results. What teachers from what colleges of education get the best or worst student performance results?

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