This morning, the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy releases its much-anticipated “Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success.” For those who have been playing in the literacy game for the past decade or two, we know it has been a game played primarily on the elementary school playgrounds. Get a student reading proficient by fourth grade, and we have success. If they don’t make the cut, we hope they will catch up in the later grades, when there are more demands on their literacy skills and less time spent specifically focusing on reading proficiency (particularly reading comprehension, the Holy Grail of reading instruction). The full report can be found here.
We like talking about teaching young children to read. But we find it incredibly difficult to wrap our hands around once they hit those ‘tween years. Other than the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next report, few have focused on the issue of adolescent literacy. And even fewer have done it with the passion and pointedness that Carnegie has now done.
Back in the winter, President Obama pledged that the United States would have the highest percentage of college graduates by the year 2020. We’ve sold virtually every student on the promise that a postsecondary degree equals career success. School districts across the nation have enacted reform plans to improve high school graduation rates, moving more and more kids to college. But it is all meaningless if those high school grads don’t possess the learning skills necessary to succeed. Those students who struggle for reading proficiency in fourth grade rarely find that magic elixir in middle or high school. They don’t catch up, literacy wise, they fall further and further behind. And then we wonder why half of those going on to college have to take remedial reading or math courses just to keep up in college-level courses.
Nationally, the statistics haven’t been pretty. According to NAEP scores, 8th and 12th grade reading proficiency has remained relatively stagnant for decades now. And they are stagnated on numbers that aren’t very pretty, particularly for historically disadvantaged students. Clearly, the status quo won’t hold if we are to live up to the promises of college graduation, innovation, races to the top, and opportunity for all.
In Time to Act, Carnegie lays out clear action steps for educators and school leaders to take if they are to improve adolescent literacy and ensure that their students are indeed prepared for college-level work. But in this era of education reform and intervention, perhaps the most interesting recommendations are the challenges that Carnegie puts forward for federal and state policymakers.
For federal policymakers, the first order of business is to get their hands dirty and get involved in adolescent literacy instruction. To help them prioritize, Carnegie offers the following reccs: 1) increase Title I support for middle and high schools; 2) adopt the common standards we’ve all be talking about; 3) look at linking NAEP to international literacy tests like PISA and PIRLS; 4) develop middle and high school literacy demonstration sites in high-poverty areas; 5) support states in the development of P-12 literacy plans; 6) develop early warning systems for middle school students; 7) increase funding for the National Writing Project and Struggling Readers program; and 8) increase funding for adolescent literacy research.
Those at the state level aren’t spared any responsibility. The charge to state leaders includes: 1) aligning state reading standards to other national and international benchmarks, including NAEP; 2) revise teacher certification and professional development standards; 3) define and provide the means for districts to identify and intervene when they see struggling readers; 4) require credit-bearing reading intervention classes for students who are two or more years behind grade level; 5) build the right statewide data systems that will collect comprehensive P-12 literacy data; 6) track RTI efforts; and 7) institutionalize those adolescent reading efforts that have been piloted in recent years.
For some, these federal and state recommendations may seem common sense. But sometimes (or most of the time) we have to remind ourselves of what we know and why we know it. Carnegie has done just that, synthesizing the data and providing a clear path to stakeholders as to how we can improve reading proficiency among middle and high school students. This isn’t just an effort to take what we know about K-4 literacy and applying those lessons to middle and secondary schools. Carnegie offers a real look at the adolescent literacy field. And they do so at just the right time.
In all of our zeal and concern over Race to the Top, the soon-to-be-revealed Investing in Innovation Fund, and core standards, we seem to have forgotten that there is a new reading instruction bill circulating around Capitol Hill. Building off the successes of Reading First, this new bill (Yes, We Can Read, if you will) is being developed to place a far greater emphasis on both adolescent literacy and teacher training and PD in reading instruction. Couple that with current ED activities around standards and data systems, and we can see how close we can get to Carnegie’s vision for advancing adolescent literacy. This think piece has a real chance of becoming an actual action statement.
That would be a real accomplishment, particularly in this environment. If Carnegie and its advocates can find a way to keep the Time to Act drum beating well beyond today’s report release, we could actually see this research transformed into policy. It offers a strong enhancement to the current draft of the reading bill, while offering specific action steps that are both realistic and cost-manageable. Now all they need is a drummer … or an entire corps.