Becoming a Literacy Leader: The Root Cause of Poor Student Achievement in Our Secondary Schools Is Poor Literacy Skills. There Is Help for Administrators Who Want to Implement a Comprehensive Literacy Approach

By Covey, Donna | Leadership, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

Becoming a Literacy Leader: The Root Cause of Poor Student Achievement in Our Secondary Schools Is Poor Literacy Skills. There Is Help for Administrators Who Want to Implement a Comprehensive Literacy Approach


Covey, Donna, Leadership


Throughout the state, middle and high school principals, district office administrators and teachers are grappling with the challenge of supporting standards-based curricula for students who do not have the basic skills to read and comprehend classroom text. The 2002 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that more than 35 percent of fourth-grade students in the U.S. lack basic reading skills. What are the implications for secondary schools?

Upon entering high school, 25 percent of students still lack basic reading skills, about 40 percent lack the skills necessary to access grade-level text across all content areas, and an additional 30 percent lack the ability to critically examine or elaborate upon what they have read.

These data are not surprising to California's high school and middle school educators. Every day, teachers are forced to find different ways to teach content, knowing that large numbers of their students are unable to read or comprehend their texts. We must face the fact that the root cause of poor student achievement in our secondary schools is poor reading and literacy skills.

In recent years, well-deserved attention and resources have been given to K-3 reading instruction. However, there has not been the same sense of urgency at the secondary level. Yet the data continue to tell us that we need to incorporate basic reading skills and strategies into the everyday middle and high school curricula. If people continue to disbelieve the data, they should talk to faculty at our California State Universities and at the University of California about incoming students' reading and literacy skills and the effect they have on these students while in college.

More progress needed at secondary level

Last spring, I attended a meeting with a group of literacy leaders who have been working with secondary schools and districts in California for the past three years as part of the Support for Secondary Schools in Reading grant program. These educators reported some progress is being made at the secondary level to confront the literacy crisis.

Some middle and high schools have taken the lead and have started by implementing intensive interventions to teach basic reading skills. Others have introduced interventions to teach students strategies to access content area text. However, very few schools and districts have implemented a comprehensive approach that is schoolwide and districtwide. Why not?

The challenges of being a school literacy leader

The No. 1 challenge of being a secondary school literacy leader is finding resources, including time. Today's administrators, especially principals, face many challenges in their roles as instructional leaders. Their plates are full and somehow more seems to be added every day. Now add secondary literacy!

Most secondary principals admit that often their daily activities have little to do with improving and supporting classroom instruction. In terms of schoolwide literacy, the reality for busy site and district administrators is finding money, resources and time to design and conduct a comprehensive, research-based professional development system while juggling all of the other requirements of running a school or a division in a school district.

The second challenge is the system. It is necessary to understand that implementing a comprehensive, schoolwide literacy approach means that administrators must challenge every aspect of the existing system. …

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