Academic journal article Policy Review

Don't Read, Don't Tell: Clinton's Phoney War on Illiteracy

Academic journal article Policy Review

Don't Read, Don't Tell: Clinton's Phoney War on Illiteracy

Article excerpt

President Clinton is to be congratulated for calling attention to a national disaster: the inability of 40 percent of American eight-year-olds to read on their own. Reading is the gateway skill. It opens the door to all other learning. It is essential for participation in the knowledge-based economy of the next century. The president is right to insist that every American child learn this indispensable skill by the end of the third grade.

But the president's answer for this disaster does not provide a real solution. Under his proposed "America Reads Challenge," the government would recruit a million volunteers, many of them minimally trained college students, to teach children to read under the direction of AmeriCorps workers. The program sounds wonderful--we're all for voluntarism. But it diverts accountability from the colossal failure of the public-education system to achieve perhaps its single most important mission.

Think about it. Forty percent of third-graders cannot read. What a terrible indictment of our public-education system! What more important responsibility do schools have than to teach reading? Almost every child can learn to read by the end of first grade, if properly taught. But schools aren't achieving this by the third grade. For this failure, heads should roll. All teachers or principals or school superintendents who have failed to teach 40 percent of their third-graders to read should be looking for a new job. If 40 percent of third-graders cannot read and nothing has been done about it already, then teachers and principals obviously aren't being held to the right standards of performance.

Even more important, current methods for teaching reading must be completely overhauled. There are now 825,000 teachers from kindergarten to third grade whose principal job is to teach the three Rs. A high percentage of these teachers have master's degrees; almost all have been specially trained to teach reading. Obviously their training isn't working.

The federal government already spends $8.3 billion on 14 programs that concentrate on promoting literacy, including Title I funding for school districts with high proportions of low-income or poorly performing students. If 40 percent of third-graders can't read, then this money has not been wisely targeted and the teaching philosophy must be faulty.

Federal, state, and local governments spend another $40 billion a year on special education, with about half targeted at children with "specific learning disabilities." According to J.W. Lerner, writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "80 percent of children identified as having learning disabilities have their primary difficulties in learning to read." Special-education reading methods don't seem to be working very well, either. According to research by B.A. Shaywitz and S.E. Shaywitz, more than 40 percent of high-school students identified as "learning disabled" drop out of school prior to graduation; only 17 percent enroll in any postsecondary course, 6 percent participate in two-year higher-education programs, and 1.8 percent in four-year programs. The loss of human potential is staggering.

The 1993 National Assessment of Education Progress reported that "70 percent of fourthgraders, 30 percent of eighth-graders, and 64 percent of 12th-graders did not . . . attain a proficient level of reading." These students have not attained the minimum level of skill in reading considered necessary to do the academic work at their grade level. The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), released in 1993, revealed that between 40 million and 44 million Americans are unable to read phone books, ballots, car manuals, nursery rhymes, the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, the Constitution, or the directions on a medicine bottle. Another 50 million Americans recognize so few printed words that they are limited to a fourth- or fifth-grade level of reading. …

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