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'Race to Literacy' Plan Proposed

From guest blogger Nora Fleming

Washington
U.S. students' literacy skills are not up to snuff to meet the growing demands of jobs in the 21st-century workforce, and a new federal grant competition may be necessary to give incentives to states to do something about it, said panelists at a Brookings Institution event today here.

The event was held in conjunction with the release of a new issue of Brookings' and Princeton University's journal, "The Future of Children," which focuses on how to improve students' literacy in the 21st century, and includes a policy brief by Harvard University professors Catherine Snow and Richard Murnane, and Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, both Brookings' senior fellows and co-directors of the institution's Center on Children and Families, all present at the event.

While the push to implement the common standards in literacy and mathematics—now adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia—is a step in the right direction, the speakers said, the standards alone will not be nearly enough to ensure students are prepared to compete with international students and be college- and career-ready.

To improve students' literacy on the national scale, the brief's authors argue, states need to develop and adopt assessments linked to the new standards (currently underway), improve the system for reporting school performance, improve the curriculum taught in schools to meet the new standards, and provide better professional development to ensure teachers are prepared to help their students to meet these new benchmarks.

But both money and urging are needed to do this, they said. The authors propose a new competitive federal grant program, which they call "Race to Literacy," that would give money to states for proposing and submitting literacy improvement plans. They suggest the paying for the grants by redistributing "a significant portion" of Title I dollars.

According to Mr. Murnane, it's not that students' literacy performance has dramatically worsened, as measured by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress subject assessment or state standardized tests; it's more that the definition of "literacy" today is changing and the bar will continue to be raised to meet new expectations for what it means to be literate.

In addition, the literacy gap between low-income and higher-income students, particularly for deeper-level skills, is continuing to widen, he said, especially as these demands increase. And with the implementation of the new standards, many of the students, both low- and higher-income, who have performed well on the NAEP or state standardized tests will no longer be considered at proficient literacy levels.

A panel discussion moderated by Mr. Haskins opened halfway through the event in which the brief's authors and other panelists—Cara Cassell, a word-generation coach at Baltimore City Schools' SERP Institute; Michael Petrilli, the executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; and Matthew Chingos, a Brookings Institution fellow—offered their own perspectives and suggestions for improvement.

A few takeaways from the discussion:


  • We need more of an understanding of what reading curricula is actually being used in schools before we can improve them.

  • We need more research on what works (and what doesn't) with these curricula.

  • Teachers need more assistance and more time to understand how to implement the new standards.

  • We need to improve students' content knowledge in addition to reading abilities and critical-thinking skills to provide a context for what they are reading.

  • Education schools need to get on board to teach new teachers these skills as well.

Only a few questions were asked by members of the audience, mainly related to improving student, parent, and teacher engagement around literacy. Interestingly, no one among the around 60 people in attendance commented on the Race to Literacy proposal's potentially controversial recommendation of using the Title I money all states receive in conjunction with efforts to implement the common core standards, which not all states have adopted.

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