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Speaking to Fox News Digital this week in a telephone interview about American students and literacy, former Secretary of Education William Bennett pulled no punches.
“Our nation is awash in bad educational news,” he said.
“While there is far too much of it, I believe what may be the very worst is the significant learning loss leading to precipitous drops in third-grade literacy,” he also said.
Bennett said that ever since he served as Education Secretary during the Reagan administration, “I have been astonished by the consistent connection between third-grade literacy and any other measure of academic, social or economic success imaginable.”
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“If children are not reading by the third grade,” he said, “their life chances are radically diminished.”
Bennett noted, “Any key academic measure falling is bad news. Third-grade literacy falling is catastrophic both nationally and individually. And as has always been the case, when schools fail, the groups that are the hardest hit are those already at highest risk.”
In addition to his work as Education Secretary, Bennett also served as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H. W. Bush. Bennett holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in political philosophy and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has been an adviser and consultant for many groups and organizations.
He said that he “could speak at length about horrible literacy statistics emerging out of the states, but it does not need to be that way.”
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He said that instead, “I’d rather focus on something far more important. Success.”
Bennett referenced three significant numbers: 18, 48 and 62. “Respectively, those are the percentage of proficient readers in second grade for the school years 2018-2019, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 at Brewbaker Primary School in Montgomery, Alabama.”
He said Brewbaker Primary School is known locally as “BPS Amazing School” — “which it is,” he said. “The student body at BPS is 100% free- and reduced-lunch eligible. It is a 98% minority population.”
“When we find an example that jumps out for not just bucking the trend but for blowing the doors off it — we must understand what is driving that.”
Bennett explained the magnitude of the school’s achievement: “In 2019 the comparable figure for Montgomery was 50% and for the state 35%. Brewbaker started out well behind — and during COVID-19 it has surged ahead of where both the district and the state were.”
“We must not ignore the torrents of truly bad news and educational failure we are facing, or brush over it with phrases like ‘delayed learning,’” said Bennett. “But more importantly, going forward, when we find an example that jumps out for not just bucking the trend but for blowing the doors off it — we must understand what is driving that.”
Pulling from his philosophy background, Bennett said, “We prove the possible by the actual.”
“Put another way, we do not have to accept that this third-grade literacy collapse had to happen or that it cannot be addressed, or that the least advantaged kids cannot improve.”
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Bennett shared with Fox News Digital that “to better understand what was driving” these successes in Montgomery, Alabama, he had a “wonderful conversation” with the principal of Brewbaker, Jaclyn Brown Wright.
“Her enthusiasm and willpower for these children to succeed is amazing — just like the name of her school.”
“I learned that she believes two fundamental things drove this,” he said. “The first surprises me none: school culture. Brewbaker’s staff and its over 600 students live by their six core values, and they mean it.”
“They do what they need to do to reach every student,” he said. “And they never take a reason it cannot be done for the final answer. Her enthusiasm and willpower for these children to succeed is amazing, just like the name of her school.”
The school’s six core values are: “We work smartly. We respect ourselves and each other. We invite innovation. We reach our academic and behavioral goals. We help each other. We are terrific in every way!”
Bennett said they also discussed what Principal Wright believes is a second key aspect of the incredible literacy success story at Brewbaker.
He described the “intelligent tutor” called Amira, the first of its kind. “Unlike any other computer-based reading assistant, Amira is based on the science of reading,” he said. “It works by listening to the student read — then applies customized interventions.”
“While doing that, Amira is gathering detailed diagnostics for the teacher, allowing teachers to save huge parts of their day otherwise spent on routine diagnostic work,” he said.
“This allows the teachers to focus on the far higher value work of one-on-one personal interventions.”
“This is an incredible literacy success story — and it is happening with the most challenging populations.”
Said Bennett, “Principal Wright told me the students love working with Amira because as it listens to them read, they receive real-time feedback. And teachers love Amira because it lets them focus on where they can make the most impact.”
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“The bottom line is that this is an incredible literacy success story — and it is happening with the most challenging populations.”
Brewbaker is not alone in finding improvement with this approach, Bennett reported.
“Hundreds of other schools and states” have experienced similar jumps forward in literacy progress, he said.
“From principals to governors and all leaders between, we must seize on examples like this, study them and very quickly expand them.”
“The costs of students not achieving literacy by third grade are very well known.”
He added that he is an adviser to a small number of programs and organizations, and that Amira is one of them.
He said, “I’ve been asked to join a lot of advisory boards over the years. I’ve only joined a couple — and I joined this one because of the excellence of its track record.”
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“The costs of students not achieving literacy by third grade are very well known,” Bennett also said. “Now we are seeing some proven approaches to fix it. There is simply no time to waste.”