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Viewpoint: Closing the reading gap between boys and girls

As an educator for 31 years I have always been aware of how important it is for students to develop strong reading skills. My awareness and concern was significantly increased this past spring when I reviewed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test results for our district students and noted a significant gap in reading proficiency between our male students and our female students.

The number of female students identified as proficient in reading was approximately 10% higher than the number of male students identified as proficient in reading, a pattern consistent across nearly all grade levels.

And while improvement was noted at several grade levels, there was a widening of the gap at another. Unfortunately this problem is not new. There has been an achievement gap between male students and female students in reading proficiency for several years.

One of my commitments as the superintendent of schools is to "own our data" and to work effectively to reduce, and eliminate, identified achievement gaps. In writing about this issue I'm hoping to raise awareness amongst families across our district, including those without school age children, and encourage you to participate in addressing this serious concern.

As the father of three boys, my wife Jane and I worked hard to encourage our sons to develop strong reading skills. Let me share some lessons learned and some subsequently acquired knowledge in this area of critical concern.

One of the best pieces of advice we received was from an elementary teacher in the school district who told us "never stop reading to your child."

There are many positive aspects of reading to our children. First, and perhaps most important, we spend additional time with our children. In our "way too busy" world, quiet time with our children is truly priceless. Reading to our kids demonstrates our interest in reading and helps expand their reading skills as typically we try to read materials that are beyond their current level of competency.

Reducing the time children (especially boys) spend in front of a television, computer screen or some type of portable screen has been identified by psychologists as being significant in healthy growth and development in many ways. Don't fool yourself into believing that children are gaining any type of educational advantage from such activities. The amount of time many young boys spend playing video games is truly astounding and clearly having a negative impact on their social and academic development, particularly in reading. Do whatever you can to reduce screen time and increase time spent on other reading.

Visiting your local library is a great way to encourage children to read. We are very fortunate in our communities to have several branches of the Washington County Library system. Check out their current hours and find a time when you can take your children to the library. This is a great way to find some new reading materials without spending a lot of money, just a little bit of time.

It has become a passion of mine to spread the word to all men--fathers, grandfathers and others, the importance of them developing strong reading habits. Why? Because young boys are very observant and we can tell them over and over again how important it is that they develop strong reading skills, but if they don't see us (men) doing the same, they'll get the message, "it isn't really that important."

I firmly believe that all men need to model the behavior of reading to those young boys over whom they have influence. I really don't think I can overstate the importance of this. Men, if any of you are reading this, when was the last time your child or grandchild saw you reading a book?

I am extremely proud of this school district and the fact that we hold all students to high expectations. When we fail to meet those expectations I want you to know that we will do everything we can to eliminate this and other achievement gaps. In the case of reading, you too can help address this issue. The South Washington County Schools is truly one of the best school districts in Minnesota; we just want to keep getting better.

Mark Porter is superintendent for District 833. His "New Beginnings, High Expectations" column appears occasionally in the Woodbury Bulletin and South