Reading & Literacy

Gleanings From a ‘Funders Forum’ on Adolescent Literacy

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 29, 2009 3 min read
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The Wal-Mart Foundation plans to get involved in improving literacy in the middle grades in a big way, while the Carnegie Corporation of New York is pulling back somewhat from its sharp focus on funding adolescent literacy. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is inviting states to compete in an application process for $7 million of funds left over from fiscal 2008 from the Striving Readers program for middle and high schools, the same program U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said the Obama administration wants to expand from $35 million to $370 million per year and extend to elementary schools.

Those are some of the news tidbits I gleaned yesterday while covering the 6th annual meeting of a group of private and public funders of adolescent-literacy research and initiatives. Participants included representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Ed Department’s Institute of Education Sciences and office of vocational and adult education, as well as the Wal-Mart Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York. They called the meeting a “funders forum.”

Let me elaborate on the news:

—Margaret McKenna, the president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, which gave away $423 million last year, reported that her foundation supports literacy in middle school and programs for youths to “re-engage” in school as part of its efforts to promote “youth success.” This past year, the foundation financed the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to support literacy among students in the middle grades. But the foundation would like to change direction and find a way to provide tutors on a very large scale across the country for this group of students. McKenna said her staff is exploring options, such as training volunteers who work with Americorps, Vista, or other programs, to be tutors. “While the rest of you are fixing the [K-12] system, we can train tutors to work with students who are two or three years behind grade level in grades 4 to 8,” she said.

—In September, a report on adolescent literacy is scheduled to be released by the Carnegie Corporation of New York called “Time to Act.” The release will include publication online of a report about the publishing industry and a report on how much various literacy programs cost per student. While the foundation will continue to fund literacy efforts, it is scaling back somewhat, according to Andres Henriquez, the program officer and manager for the adolescent-literacy project of the foundation.

—Marcia J. Kingman, the program director for Striving Readers for the Ed Department, reported that evaluation proved to be a very important part of the Striving Readers program, which is in its third of five years of implementation. Seven school districts and one state (Ohio) are participants in the program that requires teachers across a whole school to get involved in supporting literacy. Each district receives $3 million to $5 million annually to improve adolescent literacy. A good share of the money has paid for literacy coaches, Kingman said. One of the issues that has arisen is how best to sustain literacy programs in middle and high school, Kingman said. “Is it better for a district to grow it’s own literacy model or buy a commercial model?”

She said it looks as if Chicago, one of the participating districts, is going to expand the use of the Striving Readers model that it developed, which speaks well for the sustainability of the literacy effort there. Commercial programs, she said, tend to be more expensive and “teachers don’t buy in to them to the same degree.”

Another issue, Kingman said, is that “schools are struggling with initiative overloads,” so it can be hard for them to schedule a 90-minute block of time for struggling readers, as the Striving Readers program requires. She said the $7 million in leftover funds that states may now compete for will be used to implement only the part of the Striving Readers program that targets struggling readers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.