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Business, School Leaders Call for Massive Effort On Literacy

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Leaders from the business and education communities issued a joint call last week for American institutions of all varieties to join with schools in a nationwide effort to improve literacy skills, particularly among the disadvantaged.

At a New York City press conference called to release the latest in a series of reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress on the problem, speakers said that the demands of an increasingly complex society made such concerted action mandatory.

"Schools will deliver whatever we expect of them,'' said Archie E. Lapointe, NAEP's executive director. "If we send a clear signal, as a society, that higher skills are necessary for all segments of the population, we can expect things to happen.''

"It is an educational problem, situated in schools, and the education community bears the heaviest burden,'' said Sol Hurwitz, senior vice president of the Committee for Economic Development. "But it goes beyond the conventional limits of what we consider education.''

He predicted that businesses would embrace the effort, which could remove, he said, the burden of spending billions of dollars annually to teach entry-level workers the literacy skills they did not learn in school. "Business cannot afford to continue to make up for the deficiencies of the public school system if our workforce is to remain competitive,'' said Mr. Hurwitz.

"There is a growing awareness in the business community of the importance of human capital,'' added Dan Lacy, vice president of the Business Council for Effective Literacy. "Businesses are paying more serious attention to schools than they did five years ago.''

'Survival Issue'

NAEP is a Congressionally mandated project, administered by the Educational Testing Service, which collects longitudinal data on the performance of young Americans in various learning areas.

The report issued last week--"Learning To Be Literate in America''--analyzed the results of four recent NAEP assessments of the reading and writing proficiency of school-age children, as well as the literacy skills of young adults.

These studies--"The Reading Report Card''; "Writing Trends Across the Decade, 1974-84''; "The Writing Report Card''; and "Literacy: Profiles of America's Young Adults''--found that, while most children and young adults demonstrate a surface understanding of a range of materials, only small percentages can reason effectively about what they are reading and writing.

"On the one hand, the levels of literacy that have been attained ... are a remarkable national accomplishment in which we can all take pride,'' states the new report.

"On the other hand,'' it says, "children are not learning the reasoning skills they need to meet some of the changing demands of our increasingly technological and complex society.''

Those conclusions "confirm what many of us in business have known for some time,'' writes David T. Kearns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation, in a forward to the report.

"The basic skills of our entry-level workers are simply not good enough to give us the kind of workforce we need to compete in a fiercely competitive global market.''

"This is no less than a survival issue for America,'' he concludes.

Skill Gaps

The new report also points to consistent gaps in the literacy skills of certain groups, indicating the need to focus resources on disadvantaged students. Blacks and Hispanics, and those who lack support in the home for literacy attainment, performed less well than whites and those with such home inducements, the past N.A.E.P. studies have found.

"As a group, black and Hispanic students are well behind white students by grade 4, and the difference is not made up even for those who attend college,'' the new report states.

These disparities will pose a problem for businesses as the proportion of blacks and Hispanics grows in the next few decades, said Mr. Hurwitz. "Business will have to devote more resources to preparing and training these people on the job,'' he said.

Moreover, the report states, the failure to effect improvements will condemn the next generation of students to similar patterns, since children tend to adopt the literacy practices found at home. "Illiteracy is an inherited disease,'' said Mr. Lacy.

Early Intervention

The report also found that the quality of schooling--particularly in the early years--makes a difference in student performance. Students who did well in early grades, performed better on the assessments than those who did less well.

"We know a great deal about what needs to be done,'' said Mr. Hurwitz of the Committee for Economic Development. "We need early intervention, and sustained intervention throughout school years.''

However, recent instructional reforms aimed at developing the reasoning skills of students have been ineffective, the study found. Students in the 1980's, who have been exposed to such changes, are only slightly more literate than their predecessors, it found.

The report suggests that the instructional reforms, which stress the process involved in acquiring reading and writing skills, have been used only superficially, or for weaker students who need additional attention.

"Simply providing students with exposure to new activities may not be enough to ensure they learn how to use these skills effectively for improving their reading, writing, and reasoning,'' the report states.

'Multi-Layered Approach'

Real improvements, the business and education leaders said, will require an effort in which schools are aided by other institutions.

"It takes a multi-layered approach,'' said Mr. Hurwitz. "Every level of government, the public sector, the private sector, institutions not directly related to education--health-care, welfare, criminal-justice--all institutions have to be brought to bear on the issue.''

Mr. Lacy added that "improved literacy training, as much as any improvement, happens only when you get the community solidly behind it.''

Reforms not directly linked to schools, such as increased funding for adult education, as well as reforms in the welfare system, would help in solving the problem, he said.

Among the N.A.E.P. report's specific recommendations for policymakers, administrators, and teachers are the following:

  • Universities, colleges of education, state departments of education, local districts, and schools should work together to develop new approaches to train teachers.
  • Policymakers should use educational indicators that reflect students' ability to reason effectively, rather than relying on those that measure surface understanding.
  • Administrators should bring parents into schools and teachers into the community to help improve the home environment for literacy.
  • Teachers should cover fewer topics in greater depth, and use a wider variety of materials.

Copies of "Learning To Be Literate in America'' are available for $3 each from NAEP at the Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541.

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