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Posted at 2:46 PM ET, 05/ 6/2010

How Obama should set literacy goals

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Dolores Perin, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, in the Reading Specialist Program. It is the first in an occasional series by college faculty, who will write about reforms proposed by the Education Department in “A Blueprint for Reform,” the Obama administration’s vision of how to rewrite the federal law commonly known as No Child Left Behind.

By Dolores Perin
The release of every new national literacy report is a cause for the heart to sink.

Although there are small gains here and there, the reading and writing levels among our nation’s schoolchildren are very low for an advanced industrial society (now an information society) that not only provides twelve years of publicly-funded education but requires postsecondary course work.

The educational system is rich in its teaching workforce. Most teachers are dedicated to the needs of children, and willing to work in the trenches where it really matters.

However, these strengths are often undermined by a lack of understanding of the reading and writing process, and strategies to teach students how to perform the intricate procedures needed to comprehend written text and produce meaningful writing.

The Obama administration’s proposal for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, A Blueprint for Reform, is on the right track in its literacy goals.

Who can argue against effective instructional materials, improving teachers’ knowledge and skills, effective literacy instruction for all learners, including English language learners and students with learning disabilities, comprehensive literacy programs, language and text-rich classroom environment, and the implementation of high quality literacy instruction?

However, the goals as currently stated are very general and as such run the risk of leading to literacy approaches that might not help the many children who need to improve their reading and writing skills.

Some important literacy topics not mentioned in the blueprint need special attention.

First, reading and writing instruction leading to college readiness should be a priority and start early.

Literacy instruction should be aligned across grade levels, resulting in seamless entry to college for all graduating twelfth graders. Preparation for postsecondary reading and writing should begin in middle school. Secondary school teachers should collaborate with college instructors to design literacy instruction geared to prepare students for the reading and writing demands of college content-area classrooms in both academic and career and technical subjects.

The national discussion of college readiness now centers on standards. However, educational efforts need to go far beyond stating standards. It is far easier to state standards and test for those standards than to provide the types of instruction that ensure that standards are met.

Second, teacher preparation for adolescent content-area literacy should be emphasized.

Middle and high school content teachers, both pre-service and in-service, should be prepared to integrate literacy instruction into their routine subject-area instruction.

Currently, many students cannot learn well from a content curriculum because they have difficulty reading assigned text and fulfilling subject-area writing assignments. Secondary content teachers need to understand literacy processes and become aware of evidence-based reading and writing techniques to promote learners’ understanding of the content material being taught. Extended school-based professional development should be provided through collaborations between literacy and content-area specialists.

Also, schools of education should be supported in preparing future secondary content area teachers for adolescent literacy instruction.

Third, there should be a strong focus on gathering evidence as new programs are implemented under the reauthorized education act. Data-gathering should focus on areas for which there is currently a great lack of empirical evidence, including those mentioned above, adolescent content literacy, and reading and writing instruction for college readiness.

Basic questions need to be answered.

What types of instructional materials are effective for the nation’s many low skilled middle and high school learners? How can middle and high school teachers’ knowledge of and skill in literacy instruction be improved? What approaches to literacy instruction help learners prepare for the reading and writing demands of postsecondary education?

The role of institutions of higher education will be of critical importance in gathering systematic data to inform the new educational efforts promised in the blueprint.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 6, 2010; 2:46 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Reading  | Tags:  literacy goals, obama and blueprint for reform, obama and literacy, reauthorizing ESEA, rewriting nclb, rewriting no child left behind  
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"Middle and high school content teachers, both pre-service and in-service, should be prepared to integrate literacy instruction into their routine subject-area instruction."

I spent many years teaching secondary school,and had numerous students with either severe learning disabilities, come from a home where English was not the primary language,or had some other compelling reason for literacy difficulties. I have lost count of the number of extra workshops I took to incorporate various literacy strategies into my content area, which had plenty of its own new developments to contend with.

While I believe some of the suggestions offered here are valuable, such as secondary teachers collaborating with college teachers to better prepare students for college literacy,others ignore reality. Ex: there are schools in our metropolitan areas that have 50 or more languages spoken in the student population. Many schools do not have adequate ESOL, special education or evaluation services. It is inevitable that these students - and there are many - will not be able to be absorbed into the lovely, seamless flow of literacy alignment across all grade levels envisioned here under our present system.

If a student cannot reach literacy expectations for the reasons described above (or others) by middle school or high school,instead of expecting content teachers to remediate those students while trying to teach content, then those students deserve specilized tutors - tutors they should have had all along.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 6, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

Agree with the above poster. Biology (or Spanish, or Music) teachers should be aware of literacy problems among their students, and should be able to refer them for tutoring, but should not have to teach basic reading skills. Now, writing, that's another issue entirely. The feedback that content area teachers give their students on writing assignments is a big part of the student's instruction in writing, at the middle and high school levels.

Another point: passing all high school students on to college is a great way to turn college into high school. There are many, many perfectly competent people who do not want to continue their educations in a reading/writing intensive way past high school. Further education, sure; text-based learning, not so much. Why can't we learn to respect those aspirations?

Posted by: jane100000 | May 7, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

One gets tired of the same old literacy "pap" year after year, and the previous comments are spot on. Who can argue that all teachers in a school should be sufficiently skilled to teach reading and writing, and they should do it every day. Teachers that cannot or will not should seek other careers. But why hasn't the Nation moved the ball on this for several decades? Here's a few hypotheses worth investigating:

1. Teach literacy and numeracy together as the fundamentals of the workplace. If necessary, use team teaching techniques when the math and reading teachers are working as a team in the classroom at the same time.
2. Ramp up the intensity of instruction so that students don't have time to forget. The principles that sports coaches use to teach fundamentals are instructive here.
3. Apply newfound reading and numeracy skills to solve problems of progressively higher complexity, including workplace problems. Whenever possible do problem-solving that requires both literacy and numeracy (viz. reading and math) skills.
4. When students reach designated levels of skill, give them academic credit and accelerate their progress through the school curriculum so they don't have to repeat what they already know. Instead, let them progress to advanced placement academics or career-technical courses.
5. Relegate the factory-model high school to the scrap heap of the long gone industrial era. Requiring 85% of our middle and high school students to change what they what they do and with whom every 45 minutes in response to a bell and in the traditional academic silos does little to help teachers development relationships with their students and is a huge time waster besides. And the results have been mediocre.

Posted by: bsels | May 7, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

"...there should be a strong focus on gathering evidence as new programs are implemented under the reauthorized education act."

I also agree with the other posters, but feel this quote is the crux of the problem with public education and learning: Curriculum is constantly being changed without any empirical evidence comparing the new curriculum strategies with the "old".

I started teaching in my current school division in 1989. In those 21 years, I have seen more curriculum changes/teaching strategy changes than I can count. And with the changes, I haven't seen a whole lot of improvement in the intellectual, creative, or literate growth of students. If anything, it has gotten worse.

For each change, there is substantial cost, both in money and energy. Perhaps, as educators, we need to focus on something that really works...and what works for one student population may not be practical for another.

It is as if we are the ones with ADHD.

Posted by: ilcn | May 7, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

For each change, there is substantial cost, both in money and energy. Perhaps, as educators, we need to focus on something that really works...and what works for one student population may not be practical for another.

It is as if we are the ones with ADHD.


You're you're right you're right...... rephrase slightly; there are a lot of things that work - some of them old, time-honored - but not everything works for every student.

Think our whole country is ADHD!!! Everything is done in 2-year,4-year or 5-year plans, not to mention sound-bites.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 7, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Best for Obama to be focusing on reading. If he makes math a priority, people will actually understand that his budgets don't come close to adding up.

Posted by: charlesbakerharris | May 7, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

It's true that the Obama administration's proposal for literacy instruction is short on details, but I would encourage the author to review the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act (H.R. 3047/S. 2740). The bill was introduced last year by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and is supported by over 50 national education organizations.

The LEARN Act would provide funding for state and local school-based literacy programs that span birth to grade twelve and focus on reading and writing instruction. Professional development would be provided to principals, teachers, and other school staff so that literacy instruction is embedded across the content areas. Schoolwide literacy programs would also provide additional literacy supports to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities. Finally, the bill would require grantees to participate in a rigorous national evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the literacy strategies being used.

Posted by: akarhuse | May 10, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

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