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What Are They To Read?

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There has been a troubling trend trumpeted from Washington since the days of Ronald Reagan and William J. Bennett. Perhaps best summed up by the phrase "blame the parents" (although "blame the victims" would also do), the calls have come for parents to provide more help on increasing amounts of homework and more parent involvement in schools (oddly occurring in an era in which most families with school-age children now have both parents in the workforce). What seems to have happened across the last 10 years is that Washington policymakers have decided to try and redefine school failure as parent failure. (Redefining the problem is a common strategy when policies currently in place seem to be having little effect on the problem). Last month, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley continued the assault on parents and kids by U.S. Education Department officials with his comments at the news conference called to present the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Mr. Riley told parents to "slow down the pace of your life to help your children grow" and suggested that the television be turned off in favor of more family literacy activities. Children should be reading substantially more outside of school, he said, and parents should be reading to their kids more and serving as models by reading alongside them in the home.

Well, yes, Mr. Riley, we agree that kids might be reading more at home and watching less television (though we also wish they were reading substantially more in school and doing more reading and fewer dittos for homework). We even agree that such a scenario would represent a positive shift in American society, especially if parents also read alongside their children. Our argument with Mr. Riley and others now riding high on the "let parents do it" bandwagon (actually a "let Mom do it'' bandwagon) lies in the incredible failure of federal policy to even begin to foster reading in or outside of school. After peaking in the late 1960's or early 70's, federal support for book-buying has been diminished to a trickle. Our work on two different projects at the National Research Center for Literature Teaching and Learning has made us pointedly aware of just how limited access to books is for the children of low-income families, both in and out of school. The question we would put to Secretary Riley is, "What are they supposed to read?"

Whether comparing Head Start and other publicly funded preschool book collections with those found in middle-class day-care centers or comparing school library collections in schools (both urban and rural) that enroll many children from low-income families with the library collections of schools with few poor children, we have found a common pattern: Poor children have few books to read at school. Watching 4-year-old Head Start participants jockey for position to view or even handle one of the half-dozen frayed books displayed in the book rack drives home the potential that increasing access to books could have there. Watching a 10-year-old in a Chapter 1 school library trying to find anything to read from a collection that features half the number of volumes found in a non-Chapter 1 school less than five miles away makes one aware of the "savage inequalities" that Jonathan Kozol has written so passionately about. Observing that the middle-class day-care center and the suburban schools have many of the recently published children's books featuring ethnic-minority characters, stories, and authors, while both the Head Start center and Chapter 1 school have virtually none of these books, makes one uneasy. Finding that middle-class preschoolers and suburban elementary students are encouraged to take books from their centers and schools home at night, while the Head Start center and the Chapter 1 elementary school both proscribe this practice, makes one wonder what the less advantaged children will find to read out of school. Noticing that almost three-quarters of the books on the shelves of the Chapter 1 school library are over 20 years old and feature the once-common "ESEA" stamp (for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act)--all of these observations make us wish Richard Riley had made a different announcement on that recent day.

What we wish the Secretary had said is something about the enormous differences in access that advantaged and disadvantaged children have to books that they might read at school or at home. We wish he had said something about the inequality that has suburban children improving upon their bedroom book collections with books brought from school, while other children have access to neither a bedroom library nor a classroom library and are not allowed to take even the old books in the school library home.

What we wish Secretary Riley had said was something about a new federal initiative that might address such inequalities. He might have announced that he would push for the reauthorization of something like the old ESEA title that put books into the hands of so many poor children in the 1960's, even before books were "cool." More recently, across the "back to basics" era, millions and millions of federal dollars bought hundreds of millions of workbooks, skill sheets, achievement tests, and other consumable educational products for educating poor children. But little federal money bought books for poor children.

Much of the policy talk about the reauthorization of Chapter 1 has been directed at shifting that program's goal to one of "building school capacity'' to better serve disadvantaged children. One way to build such capacity, we would argue, is to substantially level the playing field as it pertains to access to books and magazines in schools. Don't worry about building more library space or employing more librarians just yet; allocate funds that will put books in poor children's hands. Begin with providing opportunities to develop richly diverse classroom libraries in every elementary school classroom and stocking each classroom with a few up-to-date reference materials (and maybe a magazine subscription or two). Provide the opportunities for poor schools to ship outdated books to recycling centers and restock their school libraries with books that accurately depict our diverse society, our scientific advances, and the changes in global politics. We cannot blame the kids, or even their parents, for the sad state of so many school libraries and the woeful lack of classroom book collections.

Head Start centers, Even Start centers, special-education preschools, and other publicly funded early-childhood efforts need an impetus to substantially expand the number of books for children to handle, view, be read, and read. Children who have had few book experiences before starting school, or even before starting preschool, will need the richest print environments if they are to have any hope of catching up with their more experienced peers. The majority of the low-achieving children in our schools today were children who arrived with few experiences with books. Without giving such children substantial and rich preschool and early-grades experiences with books and stories, we can hardly expect any other outcome. Yet children with few experiences with books at home are the children who have the least access to books once in preschool or the elementary grades. Altering this current inequity would be the first step to building the capacity of schools to serve disadvantaged children.

We would have Secretary Riley go further, too. Where are the bookmobiles that used to prowl the rural countryside during the summers, providing poor children with access to books? Why are the libraries in poor rural and urban schools not open year round? What has happened in our big cities to the neighborhood branch libraries? What about substantially increased support for Reading Is Fundamental? Mr. Riley might use the bully pulpit of the office to shame corporate America into providing more funds for RIF to put books in children's hands. Why not vouchers for poor children that allow them to select books from the school book clubs (or mall bookstores) that suburban kids use to fill out their bedroom libraries? Why not business tax credits for honor libraries at customer-contact points in low-income neighborhoods? Since so many poor children end up identified as handicapped, there might even be a special funding stream for book purchases that equals the current federal outlay for developing and purchasing technology-based instructional opportunities for handicapped children.

We are sure that gathering up some of the brightest Washington policy analysts and getting them to focus their considerable skills on this issue of access to books and other print materials would result in far more comprehensive and rewarding schemes than those we have sketched here. We, too, would like to see both parents and children reading more. But our work suggests that Secretary Riley overestimates the availability of books in many households and underestimates the serious inequities that currently exist in children's access to books, both in and out of school. Books are a luxury in low-income households, and federal policy shifts across the past two decades have made books even harder to come by in many homes and communities. Rather than blaming parents for the limited reading that many of today's children do, we might instead consider the messages we send some children and their parents when so few books are accessible and so little school time is devoted to book reading.

Anne McGill-Franzen is an assistant professor and Richard Allington is a professor in the reading department of the State University of New York at Albany's school of education.

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