This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 26, 1997

November 26, 1997 - Reading Scores

I’ve been measuring my own experience as a parent, as a former home educator, as a librarian, as a charter school advocate and former charter school board member, and as a passionate believer in the importance of high quality public education, against the recently published results of reading and writing scores throughout Colorado.

On the one hand, like most parents, I suffer from the “Lake Wobegon Effect.” I want to believe that my children are “above average.” As local taxpayers, we likewise want our local school district to be above average. Well, the Douglas County School District 4th grade students ARE above the state average.


There’s the sociological analysis. Douglas County has a relatively homogeneous population. Most of our students’ parents are white, well-educated, white collar workers. All else being equal, that analysis alone tends to place us statistically “above average.”

Another factor is based on research I’ve cited in this column several times, but bears repeating. In 1992, the Library Research Office of the Colorado State Library conducted a study. It demonstrated conclusively that the greatest single predictor of Colorado student success in reading (itself a reliable predictor of academic success generally) was the presence of a well-funded school library. The study was adjusted for general funding. In other words, strong school libraries (with lots of books and trained staff) were more important than the per capita income of the various student families, or the income of the school. Douglas County school libraries are better than the state average, particularly in the book-to-student ratio. So are our reading scores.

Some pundits argue that the whole issue of 4th grade student achievement in reading and writing reduces to a single educational thrust: phonics versus whole language. That’s nonsense. As any home schooler with more than one child can tell you, some children need phonics, and some don’t. It should be provided to those who do, as promptly as possible. In my opinion, phonics is a very good place to start with all students. But you don’t learn to love reading, you don’t learn the rhythm of speech and written language, by phonics drills.

Let me be absolutely clear: the more books and magazines you read, the better you read and write. Reading, not classroom instruction, is the key to better reading scores. That’s why not only school libraries are important to the education of your child, but also the regular use of a public library.

Yet another factor is curriculum. Charter schools tended to test very well in the state, in particular those schools based upon the Core Knowledge Curriculum (even more particularly the Core Knowledge Institute of Parker). Such schools differ from most public schools in our district in that they are focused around a remarkably specific set of curricular expectations.

Speaking as a strong advocate of the Core Knowledge Curriculum, as one who has served on a district curricular advisory committee, and as one who reads widely in the area of public education (albeit as a layman), I can’t help but view this as confirmation of my prejudices. In brief: a clear, demanding curriculum sets a higher standard of performance. That higher set of expectations results in a higher level of student achievement. In my opinion, the curriculum (to the extent such exists at all) of general public education in this state still trails the Core Knowledge Curriculum in clarity and consistency.

You will no doubt draw your own conclusions from the reading score data. Here are mine: aside from such broad social factors as the education and income of the parents, the greatest single influence in a child’s education is parental involvement in instruction. If children are lucky enough to have parents who check their homework every night, those children will outperform their peers. Educational reform starts at home.

The second greatest influence in the child’s education is the presence and use of a well-stocked and well-staffed school (and/or public) library. The third is the presence of a demanding and well-defined curriculum.

But regardless of your take on these matters, here’s one thing surely we can all agree on: the education of our young must be one of our most important concerns. It’s a subject that deserves our most vigorous debate, and most honest appraisal. To that end, the publication of local and statewide reading scores is a big step in the right direction.

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