About six years ago, I asked a group of the country’s leading reading researchers how many courses on teaching reading the typical elementary teacher candidate takes in college. The answer was “one course in one semester.” I was shocked by their response, so I consulted my 85-year-old mother, a retired elementary school teacher, to find out how she learned to teach reading. She had been considered a gifted reading teacher who was successful with low-income students. “Did you have any college courses on the teaching of reading?” I asked. “No,” she responded. She had to learn by watching other teachers and eventually figuring it out herself.
Nationally, the reading skills of elementary and secondary students have changed little over 30 years. Worse yet, they are shockingly low with big gaps between white students and students of color and between low-income and more affluent students that have closed a bit, but not nearly enough. Just as alarming, the gaps in reading between U.S. students and those in other industrialized countries are also large and increase as students get older. And now a new report on adult literacy finds that American college students’ reading proficiency actually declined between 1992 and 2003. There was a silver lining: Adult literacy rates for African Americans and Asians went up.
Alarmed policymakers have adopted reading standards, purchased new textbooks, hired reading coaches, and enacted a billion dollar federal program focused on reading in the early grades. While there has been progress here and there, reading literacy has stagnated nationally.
Several factors seem to have collided to hinder progress, but they could be reversed.
Make reading instruction a core part of teachers’ education
There have been many efforts to strengthen teacher preparation programs these past few years. An upcoming report from the National Council on Teacher Quality will show some improvement in requiring courses about teaching reading, but there is a long way to go.
Direct the most experienced teachers to the schools that need them most
It is well documented that the most under-prepared and least experienced teachers are working in the highest poverty schools. Many children in these schools have undereducated parents or parents stressed from the struggles of poverty who don’t have the time and/or know how to help their children develop pre-reading skills. Good preschools working on pre-literacy skills can help.
Learning to read is not a natural process and only a skilled reading teacher can be successful with disadvantaged youngsters when they arrive in school. We need incentives to attract such teachers to high poverty schools.
Ensure that federal funds support the programs that are proven most successful
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires that its funds be spent for programs with “scientifically based research” behind them. Its $1 billion Reading First program is no exception. Yet U.S. Department of Education consultants allegedly have discouraged states and districts from using these funds for the two programs evaluated numerous times and rigorously as the most effective—the Success for All (SFA) and Direct Instruction programs. (GAO and the Department of Education Inspector General are now investigating allegations of conflicts of interest among these consultants.) The reading programs of huge textbook publishers are being purchased instead. As I have witnessed first hand, these publishers have large numbers of smooth salespeople who wine and dine educators at all levels. Admittedly, their textbooks and accompanying materials are less expensive, which makes them attractive to local superintendents and school boards. But they do not offer the on-site coaching, regular monitoring of student and school performance, program quality control processes, and required added supports that SFA does. (I have no experience with Direct Instruction.) These aspects of SFA make it both more expensive and more effective.
Invest more in professional development on teaching literacy
District adoption of uniform reading and math curricula is an important strategy not only to better monitor instruction in these welcome times of greater accountability for all students learning, but also to address the urgent problem of low-income student mobility. But curriculum standards and textbooks are tools that teachers can learn to use effectively only through high quality professional development. Most districts underinvest in it.
Stop diluting funds targeted to high poverty schools
This little-understood practice violates the stated purpose of federal education programs and many state programs to get extra resources to low-income schools. Instead of looking at actual teacher salaries, most school districts allocate money among schools as if all teachers made the same salary. But better-paid teachers with more years of experience or advanced university credits are much more likely to work in lower poverty schools. Consequently, these schools end up with more state and local money per pupil. This practice is exacerbated by a big loophole in the federal Title I requirement of “comparability” in state and local expenditures before spending Title I funds that exempts teacher salary differentials based on years of employment. Just as bad, researchers like Marguerite Roza of the University of Washington have found that districts often respond with more money to parent complaints from more affluent schools who want the same “extras” that the high poverty schools get, again diluting help for the struggling schools.
Finally, too few teenagers especially, no matter what their income or skill level, are motivated to read more than minimally. Maybe policymakers can’t do much about student motivation. But they can use their bully pulpit to urge teachers and parents to limit TV watching and computer-game time and assign more books to read.
This nation—policymakers and the public alike—needs to get much more serious about ensuring that there is a well-prepared and effective teaching force developing reading skills from pre-school through high school and beyond. Student knowledge and skill development to high levels in virtually all other fields is not possible without strong reading literacy skills.
Cynthia Brown is Director of Education Policy and served as Director of the "Renewing Our Schools, Securing Our Future" National Task Force on Public Education, a joint initiative of the Center for American Progress and the Institute for America’s Future.