Why Johnny can’t read: and what you can do about it.

Back in 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book by this title. In it, he decried a sight-reading approach then coming into favor among educators and advocated a return to phonics, saying the latter provided children a sounder framework for learning new words and advancing their skills.

Monday’s Washington Post story on the recent Louisiana flooding by Ashley Cusick called all of this to mind. An excerpt (the fuller piece merits your attention):

BAKER, La. — Twenty-two districts across a vast swath of southern Louisiana were forced to close last week by a historic flood, delaying or interrupting the start of the school year for tens of thousands of children.

Although some districts remain closed indefinitely — and the superintendent of one hard-hit district is living in an emergency shelter — the majority plan to welcome students back within the next two weeks, according to John White, the Louisiana state superintendent.

But school leaders are far more worried about making sure they have enough teachers than they are about the physical condition of classrooms, White said.

“There is the facility and capacity in the region to serve all students,” he said. “The greater challenge is displacement, especially of teachers.”

He estimated that 4,000 teachers and other staff members who are critical to the schools’ operation — including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals and janitors — have been displaced by the flood.

Public servants considered “essential personnel” are entitled to expedited assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, White said, adding that his agency is pushing for educators and school personnel to gain this swift relief.

“But there is a very large number of displaced people,” White said. “So there is a question of what housing will be available.”

At stake is not only whether schools will be able to provide students with stability and routine at a time of great upheaval, but also whether students — many of whom are disadvantaged — will lose out on more precious learning time.

East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, the second-largest district in the state, had been in session just two days when floodwater coursed into the city. So far, six schools there have been deemed too damaged to reopen, spokeswoman Adonica Pelichet Duggan said. That number is expected to rise.

Classes in East Baton Rouge Parish Schools are scheduled to start again Wednesday. But Pelichet Duggan estimated that the flood affected about one-third of the district’s 6,000 employees, making it impossible to operate schools normally.

For meteorologists, or for the hazards community more generally, the story is depressingly familiar. Disasters such as the recent Louisiana floods tend to hit those already disadvantaged – including the poor, children (and especially children who are also poor) – the hardest. Speaking of the disadvantaged, when a society that underpays its teachers, they can themselves fall into this disadvantaged class. And schools, like other critical infrastructure, are not vulnerable solely by virtue of location or construction. Schools, every bit as much as the electrical or communication utilities, or water and sewage, healthcare, or transportation, require workers for their function and maintenance. When the teachers lose their homes, or vehicles, and their own kids lose their schools, then the educational system is compromised – and so are the future prospects of those kids in some corresponding measure.

Which brings us to the “what we can do” part.

In his exhortation sixty years back, Mr. Flesch had a more general audience in mind – educators and parents. But chances are that you and I, working in our more specialized community of practice: weather, hazards, community-level resilience resilience, or related fields, can make additional, vital contributions.

This is especially true when it comes to maintaining the continuity of the education at the community level. Through NOAA’s Weather-Ready-Nation initiative, and similar efforts sprouting across the country, meteorologists and social scientists can work with the public to increase America’s preparedness, raise public situational awareness, and improve emergency response. But we can also go further. Through stress-testing (modeling community-level performance under different weather-water-climate conditions), we can address a very simple set of questions:

  • What severe weather-, water-, and/or climate scenarios will disrupt our community schools?
  • What policies, regulations, and other measures available to us (land use, building codes, fortifying critical infrastructure, dealing with endemic poverty, etc.) can change our level of public-school risk and by how much for what level of investment?
  • Ranking options by greatest impact for lowest cost, what are reasonable first steps?

Interestingly, I’m told something like this was the first approach suggested for an international decade of natural disaster reduction back in the very early 1980’s. Gilbert F. White, the great American geographer, chaired an NAS committee at that time charged with formulating a plan. They proposed a deceptively simple goal: that every community worldwide protect its public schools from natural hazards. To achieve it would be more than a matter of rigid school-building construction. It would require communities to adopt sound land-use planning and safe housing for every family with kids, as well as for the teachers; ensure business continuity; invest in and maintain robust critical infrastructure; eradicate community pockets of poverty; and more. Schools can’t be more resilient than the larger system in which they’re embedded. In the event, the prevailing powers rejected this approach and established a second committee, under the leadership of George Housner. That second report was published in 1987 and became the basis for the IDNDR.

Had we listened to Gilbert White 35-40 years ago and taken action, who knows? The recent flooding might not have produced such dreadful consequences. Can’t change the past… but we could change the future.


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4 Responses to Why Johnny can’t read: and what you can do about it.

  1. James Henderson says:

    Great blog Bill especially the last paragraph. It should be required reading for every school board in the U.S. I will pass it on to my school board and to my daughter who is a school teacher so that she can send it to the Superintendent of our district. Keep up the good work.

  2. Wendy Marie Thomas says:

    Another informative posting, Bill. In time, I trust that decision makers will see the value in developing community-based resilience — for which protecting schools (and other critical infrastructures) will be a priority. If nothing else, the weather-disasters are highlighting that society needs to “get it together”.

  3. Nancy Dickinson says:

    “Schools can’t be more resilient than the larger system in which they are embedded.” Beautifully expressed, Bill. Clearly, our attachment to and history of piece-part attention and policies is dramatically revealed with every natural disaster. Lack of land use planning and safe housing, and callous disregard for communities’ peoples enduring entrenched poverty place hundreds of thousands of American’s in desperate danger. The issue sadly becomes one of survival; resiliency would be a privileged problem at this point. Let’s get to where we can be worried about resiliency, please.

    Thank you for another enlightening blog, Bill. I always learn so much following your policy-sensitive postings.

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