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Reagan Proposes Effort To Raise Literacy Level

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Washington--President Reagan last week unveiled a new initiative designed to help the nation's estimated 23 million illiterate adults learn to read and write.

"The economic and social costs of adult functional illiteracy are high," the President said during a White House ceremony attended by approximately 200 educators, businessmen, and literacy volunteers. "Our national security, the health of our economy, and our position in the international marketplace depend upon literate people."

The President's plan, which is divided into seven main parts, will focus primarily on tutoring arrangements conducted by volunteers and financed largely by businesses and charitable organizations.

According to an Education Department spokesman, Mr. Reagan will not seek additional funds from the Congress to help carry out the new program.

Under one part of the plan, colleges and universities will be asked to offer their students federal College Work-Study funds and academic credit if they agree to become volunteer tutors. Demonstration projects of this type will begin at Boston University, the University of Southern California, Columbia University, and Portland (Ore.) Community College this fall.

The National Institute of Education will be asked to identify and disseminate information about model adult-literacy programs and to help in the development of new programs. And a third part of the plan calls on the Education Department to organize a "cadre" of volunteer tutors consisting of federal employees.

The President's Sept. 7 announcement, which came one day before the celebration of International Literacy Day, apparently marked another step in his effort to strengthen his public image as a strong supporter of education.

And, according to at least one observer, it also illustrated Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's recent emergence as a major force in the Reagan Cabinet.

"For a long time, we've known that the adult-illiteracy problem has been high on Secretary Bell's personal list of priorities," noted Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "I'd say this is as good a yardstick as any for measuring how far he has come since the National Commission on Excellence [in Education] released its report."

Functionally Illiterate

Recent statistics indicate that as much as 15 percent of the adult work force is functionally illiterate, Mr. Reagan noted during last week's ceremony. "An additional 46 million adults," he added, "may be considered marginally illiterate, for a total of 72 million Americans who function at a marginal level or below."

"Let us resolve to roll up our sleeves and get to work," the President said. "Across this land, let those who can read teach those who cannot."

Among those accompanying Mr. Reagan at the ceremony was Marva Collins, who gained widespread attention for her reported success in teaching poor children at West Side Preparatory School in Chicago, which she founded.

Mr. Reagan took special note of her presence. "I've been a fan of Marva Collins ever since I heard of her and at last I have the opportunity to meet her," he said.

The event was also attended by Sherman Swenson, chairman and chief executive officer of B. Dalton Bookseller. Earlier in the week, Mr. Swenson announced that the company would distribute $3-million worth of books to community groups involved in adult-literacy programs.

The main components of the President's initiative are as follows:

National Awareness Campaign. The Education Department, in cooperation with several education and business groups and the National Advertising Council, will promote a public-relations campaign to recruit literacy volunteers and to encourage private-sector funding of literacy efforts.

National Adult Literacy Project. This project, which will be administered by the National Institute of Education, will provide support to public and private organizations offering literacy training. According to a spokesman for the department, the institute will award a contract to one of its affiliated laboratories or centers "to develop, test, and disseminate information" about model adult-literacy programs.

Adult Literacy Councils. State governors would be encouraged by the department to establish such councils at the state and local levels.

College Work-Study Students. The department will work with col-leges and universities to promote the assignment of college work-study students to adult-literacy programs. Four pilot programs of this type will begin this fall. Postsecondary institutions would be encouraged to offer students academic credit for their volunteer work.

Networking. The department will request that the special-education, vocational-education, vocational-rehabilitation, and adult-education communities develop programs for out-of-school youths and adults with learning disabilities.

Federal Employee Literacy Training Program. Federal employees would be encouraged by the department to become literacy volunteers. The department would also be responsible for ensuring that space is made available for tutoring sessions.

Voluntary and Private-Sector Support. The department will establish liaisons with volunteer groups and encourage them to become involved in literacy programs.

Cautious Responses

Representatives of several education associations greeted the President's announcement less than enthusiastically.

"The proof will be in the pudding," said August W. Steinhilber, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. ''There is obviously a need for action here, and we want to do all that we can in this endeavor. But we are somewhat cautious, given the President's record on the federal budget. We want to see how much of this is window dressing."

"The irony here is that this Administration refuses to provide additional funding for the Chapter 1 program" for disadvantaged students, added Mr. Husk of the Council of Great City Schools. "It seems to me that the Administration is trying to deal with one end of the adult-illiteracy problem without looking at the other."

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