Panel Urges Attention to Adolescent Literacy

By Catherine Gewertz — September 15, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mr. Smith’s name. His correct name is Marshall S. Smith.

Leading figures in education policy, academia, and philanthropy called today for a “re-engineering” of the nation’s approach to adolescent literacy, saying nothing short of a “literacy revolution” is needed to keep students in school and ensure that they are able to learn the complex material that college and careers will demand of them.

The experts gathered to discuss and draw attention to the release of the final report of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, which has spent five years examining the need for better reading and writing skills among students in grades 4 through 12. Vartan Gregorian, the president of the foundation, urged audience members to “be good ancestors” to future generations by pushing for sound adolescent-literacy policy and practice, given the pivotal role such skills play in young people’s lives, and the low level of skill students have shown on national tests.

In its capstone 108-page report, “Time to Act,” the council calls on school leaders to structure their schools around literacy, hire teachers skilled at teaching it across all subject areas, 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 to shy away from “reorganizing” their districts if that is what it takes to make literacy the cornerstone of the schools’ work. (The Carnegie Corporation supports Education Week’s coverage of pathways to college and careers.)

The panel called on state leaders to set reading and writing standards at a high level, 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, the report says.

In addition to its overarching report, the literacy panel also released five companion reports today that explore specific issues and practices within adolescent literacy. Three dozen other reports that have been supported by the Carnegie initiative since 2002 form the main report’s bibliography.

Call for Federal Role

Federal policymakers, the panel said, should “take a more active role” in promoting adolescent literacy, in part by boosting the portion of Title I money for disadvantaged students that goes to middle and high schools—which the report estimated at 5 percent—or by creating a separate funding stream “squarely focused on middle and high schools” to support that work. The report calls on federal leaders to facilitate more research into adolescent literacy, back key legislation on adolescent literacy making its way through Congress, and support the development of common academic standards, such as the effort being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (“Draft Literacy Bill Would Boost Funds for Older Students,” June 17, 2009.)


“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,” the report says.

Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who is now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group that advocates better high school policy, 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, which was visible just blocks away. He said the $100-plus billion in stimulus money available for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the guidelines about what it should be used for, 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, noted that the four key areas targeted by federal officials for reform using stimulus money all “address the structure” to support adolescent-literacy work: developing good data systems, turning around low-performing schools, developing sound standards and assessments, and making sure well-trained teachers are making a positive impact on students.

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

A Democratic aide to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who attended the event but spoke only on background, 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 at all levels of school is a key part of improving low-performing schools. That understanding, she said, has morphed into “an entrenched commitment” to legislation that expands support for adolescent literacy.

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

Decoding Not Enough

Members of Congress are working on legislation that would 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. (“Transparency of Common-Standards Process at Issue,” July 30, 2009.)

Best Practices vs. Business as Usual


SOURCE: Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy

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

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

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 of many clauses and predicates, a daunting task for a teenager with 4th grade reading skills.

Michael Kamil, another panelist and a Stanford University education professor, said English teachers cannot be expected to teach adolescent 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 Northern 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.”

The study noted that while elementary reading scores have showed progress in recent years, achievement in middle and high school has stagnated. It is time, the panel said, to expand on the gains made by the federal Reading First program, by extending explicit literacy instruction into upper grades, and not just in English classes, but in every subject area.

John Garvey, a panelist and a former dean at the City University of New York system, 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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