Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Literacy Education: The Foundation for All Learning

By Sen. Patty Murray — May 11, 2011 5 min read

There is a lot of talk these days about making sure that the United States remains competitive in the 21st-century global economy. Government officials and the business community are working on ways to create and maintain jobs in growing industries, and policymakers and others are trying to figure out how to make sure our schools are effectively preparing our students for the jobs of tomorrow.

These efforts certainly need to continue. But as a former preschool teacher and school board member, I know that if students don’t have a strong foundation in reading and writing, there is very little else we can do to help them succeed in the modern world. Literacy needs to come first, and it needs to get the strong and consistent support from the federal government that it deserves.

Every teacher and administrator understands that literacy issues are a serious concern. Unfortunately, they see it every day. Too many students are struggling in classes, not turning in homework, and falling further and further behind.

It is a terrible thing to see a child struggle like that, and it’s happening far too often. More than 8 million students in grades 4-12 read below grade level. Only 32 percent of America’s 8th grade students, and roughly the same percentage of 12th graders, meet standards for reading “proficiency” for their grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And this problem is even worse in low-income areas. Among low-income 8th graders, just 16 percent read at a proficient level. And in a typical high-poverty urban school, approximately half of incoming 9th graders read at a 6th or 7th grade level.

This is simply unacceptable. Children who are not at least modestly skilled readers by the end of 3rd grade are far less likely to graduate from high school. And we all know the devastating effects of not having a high school diploma on students’ future career prospects.

Unfortunately, however, the federal commitment to literacy education has been inconsistent and, frankly, inadequate. In just the last few years, federal literacy funding declined from almost $540 million in fiscal year 2008 to $147 million in 2009, up to $200 million in 2010, and then down to absolutely nothing in 2011.

This doesn’t make sense. How can districts, schools, or teachers plan their literacy programs when they have absolutely no idea how much support they can expect from the federal government? It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to the students who desperately need for these programs to work.

So I feel very strongly that the federal government needs to be a strong and consistent partner in literacy education. I worked closely with teachers, administrators, policy experts, and advocates to put together legislation that would make this a reality, and I was proud to recently introduce the product of that work, a bill called the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation, or LEARN, Act.

My bill would provide $2.35 billion in grants to fund state and local school-based literacy programs. This is a serious investment, but I believe it is one well worth making. First of all, there is the moral issue: Every child deserves to know how to read and write. But I also think that if we don’t take literacy seriously, we will end up facing far greater costs down the line in the form of reduced economic output from students who could have earned more and paid more taxes if they knew how to read and write, higher safety-net spending for their families, and, unfortunately, increased use of the criminal-justice system.

I feel very strongly that the federal government needs to be a strong and consistent partner in literacy education.”

These grants would be used to fund literacy education at all grade levels, from birth through high school graduation. I have heard from so many parents and teachers who have told me stories about students whose reading and writing fell behind in their early years, and who were then never able to catch up. So the LEARN Act specifically dedicates resources for literacy instruction and high-quality support on a continuum across all ages and developmental and grade levels.

My bill would make sure that the federal government can be counted on to be a strong partner to states and local districts by providing resources needed for new as well as existing literacy programs. It provides states with the flexibility to make their own decisions on selecting district grantees based on student need and reading-test scores. And it makes sure these programs are held accountable for their outcomes by requiring a rigorous national evaluation that includes stringent conflict-of-interest restrictions for programs’ peer-review processes.

The LEARN Act would also enhance the role of states in improving literacy instruction by supporting state literacy-leadership teams composed of literacy experts and relevant stakeholders tasked with developing comprehensive state literacy plans that build upon promising practices already being implemented in many states.

Since I know how important teachers are in literacy education, my bill also provides high-quality professional development for instructional staff and school leaders so they can stay on the cutting edge and continue their outstanding work teaching our students.

And finally, it would ensure that literacy education is strong where it is needed most by targeting funding to low-income schools and schools with low literacy levels, and by providing additional support to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English-language learners and students with disabilities.

To sum up, the LEARN Act proposes a new comprehensive federal literacy program to make sure students have the literacy skills to succeed in school and their future careers. It will help ensure that high-quality literacy instruction starts early and continues through high school for students who need extra support. And it fills a critical void at an important time, as so many states and districts across the country face especially tight budgets.

Here in Congress, we are working to reauthorize and reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to guarantee that it is actually working for our students and schools. I urge my colleagues in Congress to take up this fight with me, to ensure that the students of today, who will be the workers of tomorrow, have the literacy support they need to succeed.

As a mom who proudly remembers my own children learning how to read and write, I believe strongly that every child deserves to be able to discover the joy of opening up a book and diving into a story. And in the 21st century, literacy is no longer a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity to succeed in school, in future careers, and in life.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Literacy Education: The Foundation for All Learning

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