Literacy Woes Put in Focus

By Catherine Gewertz — September 22, 2009 6 min read
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A national panel urged federal policymakers last week to “take a more active role” in promoting adolescent reading and writing, and called for nothing short of a “literacy revolution” to keep students in school and ensure they are able to learn the complex material that college and careers will demand of them.

The final report of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy caps a five-year effort to examine literacy skills among students in grades 4-12. It asks federal leaders to pay for more research into adolescent literacy, back key legislation on the subject making its way through Congress, and support the development of common academic standards.

“Our goal must be to build a national movement from schools to the White House that support[s] young people in becoming engaged and competent readers,” says the 108-page report, “Time to Act.”

Vartan Gregorian, the president of the foundation, urged the policymakers, academic experts, and philanthropic leaders gathered here Sept. 15 for the report’s release to push for sound adolescent-literacy policy and practice, given the pivotal role such skills play and the low level of mastery students have shown on national tests.

In addition, the literacy panel last week released five companion reports that explore specific issues and practices in adolescent literacy. Three dozen other reports that have been supported by the Carnegie initiative since 2002 form the main report’s bibliography. (The Carnegie Corporation also supports Education Week’s coverage of pathways to college and careers.)

Decoding Not Enough

The concluding report by the Carnegie panel notes that while elementary reading scores have shown progress in recent years, achievement in middle and high school has stagnated. It is time, the panel says, to expand on the gains made by the federal Reading First program, and extend explicit literacy instruction into upper grades—and not just in English classes, but in every subject area.

Catherine Snow, a Harvard University education professor who chaired the panel, said a central aim of the report is to move the nation toward a recognition that the traditional approach to literacy—focused on building the youngest pupils’ skills—isn’t enough to help students navigate the complex vocabulary, composition, and concepts they encounter in high school.

Best Practices vs. Business as Usual


SOURCE: Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy

“We do not inoculate students against illiteracy by teaching them to decode in grades K through 3,” she said.

To remedy the problem, federal policymakers should increase the portion of Title I money for disadvantaged students that goes to middle and high schools—which the report estimates at 5 percent—or create a separate funding stream “squarely focused on middle and high schools” to support that work, the panel says.

Former Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia, who is the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington group that advocates high school improvement, urged audience members to take the conversation about adolescent literacy “from here to there,” pointing out the window to the dome of the U.S. Capitol just blocks away.

Mr. Wise said the approximately $100 billion in economic-stimulus money available for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the guidelines on its uses, offer natural avenues for the pursuit of strong adolescent-literacy policies in states and districts.

Marshall S. Smith, who is helping to shape stimulus spending as a senior counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said that the four key areas federal officials have outlined that qualify states for stimulus aid to education “address the structure” to support adolescent-literacy efforts: developing good data systems, turning around low-performing schools, crafting sound standards and assessments, and making sure well-trained teachers are having a positive impact on students.


“It is time to act,” Mr. Smith said, referring to the title of the report. “I think we’re all thinking that way in the department.”

A Democratic aide to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who attended the event, said she sees a growing recognition among federal lawmakers that adolescent literacy is a crucial piece of the puzzle in improving reading and writing skills, and that literacy is a vital part of improving low-performing schools.

That understanding has grown into “an entrenched commitment” to legislation that expands support for adolescent literacy, said the aide, whose job prohibits her from being quoted.

“This is all one pipeline,” she said. “It’s part of a more comprehensive approach to school improvement.”

Indeed, members of Congress are working on legislation thatwould boost funding for literacy programs in grades 4-12 far beyond the $35 million that the federal government now provides in its Striving Readers program.

Promising Practices

In addition to calling for a stronger federal role, the Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy is exhorting school leaders to structure their schools around literacy, hire teachers skilled at teaching it across all subjects, and help teachers build on those skills.

It urges district leaders to ensure good professional development in literacy for all principals and teachers, help them analyze data to shape professional development on literacy, and not shy away from “reorganizing” their districts if that’s what it takes to make literacy the cornerstone of schools’ work.

State leaders should set reading and writing standards at a high level, the report says, and consider pegging state tests to the levels of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They should work to build statewide data systems to inform all literacy instruction, and push for the infusion of adolescent-literacy training in state teacher-certification programs and in professional development, it says.

The report also contains vignettes drawn from research on schools, districts, and states that have taken steps of the sort envisioned by the Carnegie panel.

In remarks here, Carol Lee, a panelist who is a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, used the Declaration of Independence as an example of the need for literacy instruction geared to the complexity of the reading material. She noted that the opening paragraph is one long sentence, requiring the deconstruction ofmany clauses and predicates, a daunting task for a teenager with elementary reading skills.

Michael Kamil, another panelist and a Stanford University education professor, said English teachers cannot be expected to teach literacy across all subjects in middle and high school because at those levels, literacy instruction is grounded in the “nuance” of the content.

Mel Riddile, who was the principal of two high schools in Virginia before becoming the associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he came to the same conclusion, and it led him to distribute responsibility for literacy instruction to all his teachers.

“I’d make the English teachers stand up and say, ‘Look at them. This is the last time we are going to look at the English department when we say literacy,’ ” Mr. Riddile said. “We need teachers that know how to teach the language of their content areas.”

John Garvey, a panelist and a former dean of the Teacher Academy and Collaborative Programs at the City University of New York, said he would have liked to see the panel’s recommendations extend through college. Too often, he said, placement tests that exempt students from college remediation are too easy, sending “dopey” signals about the skills they need to thrive in college.

Mr. Smith agreed that extending the focus on adolescent literacy through college could create a “really powerful” improvement in educational outcomes.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Literacy Woes Put in Focus


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