THE LITERACY GAP
JANUARY 9, 1997
According to a report recently released by the federal government, the disparity between caucasian and minority children's literacy rates is on the increase. Elizabeth Farnsworth leads a discussion of what should be done to reverse this trend, with three education experts.
JIM LEHRER: Now more on improving reading and writing skills and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As we just heard, improving literacy is a key theme in the debate over Ebonics. The gap between academic achievement rates of whites and minorities is widening again after 20 years of narrowing. According to a report released last month by the Education Trust, a non-profit research organization, minorities are learning less at every level. For instance, among fourth graders approximately four of every ten white students are proficient in reading but only one in eleven African-American and one in eight Latino fourth graders are proficient readers.
We get three perspectives now. Carol Rasco currently serves as director of President Clinton's Domestic Policy Council. In the second term she will direct the administration's new literacy project at the Department of Education. Paul Harleston spent three years teaching in Oakland, California grade schools. He now teaches fifth grade and language arts in the Washington, D.C. public schools. John Chubb is the director of curriculum at the Edison Project, a non-project education organization working primarily in inner cities. Thank you all for being with us.
Ms. Rasco, the Oakland school board was clearly trying to deal with the real problem, the levels of literacy among the students in the Oakland schools. How big a problem is this?
CAROL RASCO, Domestic Policy Council: Well, the problem of literacy among our elementary school students is a serious one and a widespread one. You've just talked about the numbers and often we hear those numbers, I think, related to urban schools, but I would say that across the country we see that problem, whether in rural or urban. And I always try to look behind those numbers. And I think of the children I've met and children I hear about that fit those numbers and what does that really mean, and that's when it becomes real and you understand that there's something there far beyond just lacking that skill to read. But as children go further and cannot read, it affects how they look at themselves, and it certainly affects how well they can do in other subjects, or how well they do not do. It's of great concern to us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Harleston, you've--what kind of skills do you see the students that you're seeing lack?
PAUL HARLESTON, Elementary Reading Teacher: There's a lack of--I notice we go to skills, but certainly lack of reading emphasis in the communities that the kids live in that I teach, that they don't see--as often, and because of that, they're not as interested in reading. Some of them are not as interested in reading, and you can see a clear difference between students are in a print rich environment that have gotten a head start in reading either through the school or from their parents that have gained a love of reading, and that branches into success in all other areas of academics, and students that don't have that, that background and that basis are kind of denied access.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In your experience, would you call it a crisis? Do you think this is being hyped? How do you see it?
PAUL HARLESTON: No. I don't think it's being hyped at all. I would agree with Ms. Rasco that it's not just an urban problem, it's an urban rural problem, and the statistics seem to show that kids are being left behind. Some kids are being left behind the majority of students in the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How are the kids in your fifth grade class doing this year?
PAUL HARLESTON: I actually have the fortune of a great fifth grade class this year. I would say that the majority of my students are reading near, above, or at grade level, which I think is a testimony to some of the programs in evidence in my school like--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We're going to get back to that. We're going to come to programs in a minute. Mr. Chubb, I made a mistake in introducing you. Your organization is for profit, I understand.
JOHN CHUBB, Edison Project: (New York) That's correct.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me. How big is the problem? How serious, in your view?
JOHN CHUBB: Well, I think that the other speakers have it correct, that it is a serious problem. I take some--I take some considerable encouragement, though, from the world of research and experience, and that's what we've tried to draw on in the communities in which we work. There is a great deal known about promoting literacy skills, and we'll get around to the programs later. But I think that we know what it takes to promote reading and writing and speaking and listening skills among all kids, regardless of background. But we as a country have not committed ourselves efficiently to making this happen. We do know how to make it happen.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let's get into the reasons for this. There has been attention to illiteracy in this country for many years now. Why is this such a big problem still and especially in--among minority students? What are the reasons for the problem, Mr. Chubb?
JOHN CHUBB: Well, the--you begin with the--with the home environment and the community environment. And if there is not sufficient reinforcement or emphasis on, on traditional education, especially reading, writing, and mathematics in that environment, and the school has, has an uphill battle. And I mean, as a society, we still have lots of problems of poverty in the cities and rural areas, where the schools have to begin with kids substantially behind. And I think that's the essence of why we still face such a difficult battle because of the social--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it a problem of home, of poverty? You mentioned already that you thought a lot had to do with whether you're being read to at home. Resources for the schools, is that a problem?
PAUL HARLESTON: Absolutely. I would say that one of the problems that schools have, especially under resourced schools, are libraries, and books that are interesting to kids. Once, you know, the schools have done what they can to spark the interest in reading in the students, then sometimes it's very difficult to get good literature in their hands.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Has that been your experience?
PAUL HARLESTON: Absolutely. I've been in school libraries where we have books that still refer to Richard Petty as the young lion. And he recently retired. And things like that--and there's just things that kids are not as interested in reading. It's very difficult to find interesting literature for them, and that starts to let that spark die in there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What other reasons would you give for the problems?
PAUL HARLESTON: I think that it's--I think that the way that school districts maybe sometimes attack the problem. Often instead of focusing on--I think the Ebonics example is very, very relevant. Instead of focusing on the problem, which is the fact that the students aren't achieving, they start to look more for which group or which method is to blame. And a new method comes in. I've been in staff development with teachers and will be introduced to a new curriculum or a new way of teaching, and what seems that way to me is a relatively new teacher, and I'll hear experienced teachers say, oh, you know, we tried that in 1978, oh, we tried that in 1990, and things--there's always a cure being looked for, and sometimes the problem, itself, gets ignored.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's interesting. What do you think about the reasons for this problem? This is not a new--people have known for a while we have a literacy problem in this country.
CAROL RASCO: Right. Well, I think in relation to what he just said, people are always looking for that magic solution. They're looking for the cookie cutter that's going to fit every child, and we know that you have to look at the individual child. And we talk about that so often, and yet when it comes to being so very busy and having children that we're trying to meet a number of their needs we tend not to carry over that rhetoric of needing to look at the individual child into. How do we meet that child's learning needs? Reading is a skill, not just a course you take. And so how do we look at where that child is and take them where they are and move them to a reading level?
I also want to stress, and I think we've already said it, but the preschool experience, and part of that experience is do we have children who are healthy? I often find when I visit a preschool, day care centers, or other preschool experiences, or even schools that teachers tell me that far too often we don't pay attention to can that child hear, can that child see what's going on, or be--see the printed page.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me for interrupting, but you're actually moving to the Department of Education to be part of a major literacy program that the Clinton administration is hoping to get funded in Congress. Is that going to be part of your program? And tell us what else is involved in your program.
CAROL RASCO: Well, certainly the preschool experience is part of what we will be stressing. The components of the "America Reads Challenge" that the President has set forward. It's based, first of all, on the knowledge we have that 40 percent of our fourth graders cannot read at basic levels on challenging national tests. And so we, in designing the program we are putting forward, we've looked at things that we know work, that research has told us these are components that can help.
The first component is to start with that early childhood period, and to see what we can do to help promote programs that are going on all across the country and are showing successes. Where we support parents as first teachers, parents are the first and best teachers, and we want to have a program that we're reaching out to those programs that are showing successes in those areas. And those programs do things like help parents know how to take a child through a picture book and work with them and get them excited about how to learn more about nutrition for their children, about regular health checkups. We also want to see the extension of Head Start in the ages three and four. Another part and the largest part of the program will be what we're calling the Reading Corps. And this will be for kindergarten through third grade. Where we want to invest in more reading specialists who can direct after school, weekend, and summer programs, we want those reading specialists and people who are serving in AmeriCorps to supervise the one million volunteers that we want to recruit who will be partners with the schools. For example, I taught sixth grade. I think the--the ache in my heart to this day from that experience is remembering young people in my class whose heads hung lower and lower as the year went on because they just realized they couldn't keep up because they couldn't read the materials.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Harleston, do you think--what do you think needs to be done? Does this seem like it would be helpful? What would you do if you could be in charge of a program?
PAUL HARLESTON: I think a lot of what Ms. Rasco said is very helpful. It's the right road for us to be taking. We have a program at our school. It's called HOSTS, Helping One Student To Succeed. And through that program we've seen kids that are mentored four days a week during their lunch periods in addition to the regular instruction they're receiving, starts to succeed at a greater rate than some of the other students.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who's funding that program?
PAUL HARLESTON: That's through a national program I think out of Washington, but I'm not sure. And things of that nature, things that will, I think, get a number of volunteers working in schools, getting the country, a million volunteers getting a country energized behind this literacy problem I think is going to be something that will prove ultimately successful.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Chubb, what do you think works? What do you think needs to be done?
JOHN CHUBB: Well, at the Edison Project we're working in right now in eight communities around the country with, with roughly 7,000 students. And we take a comprehensive approach, much as the other speakers have described is necessary. I'll just review briefly some of the key elements of that. No. 1, we do teach reading directly in addition to stimulating kids with lots of exciting, and colorful, and engaging children's books. We do provide direct instruction in the phonetic basis of language which is important for many, many kids. There are lots of kids who will learn to read almost by osmosis, just--to great books and literature and so forth. But many kids do need direct instruction in reading and in something called phonics in the popular world. And we provide a substantial component, both of the literature rich approach and of a phonics approach. Second--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Chubb, I don't want to hurry you but we're just about out of time, so if you could run through them fairly quickly, it would be great.
JOHN CHUBB: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sorry.
JOHN CHUBB: Just very quickly, we provide individual tutoring to kids who are falling behind. We provide a longer school day and a longer school year, which are somewhat radical ideas, but many kids from disadvantaged situations simply need more time. And that also--that also is crucial. And then finally technology is an important part of the solution. Computers can help engage kids and reinforce instruction.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I'm going to interrupt you. We're tight tonight with time. But thank you so much, all of you, for being with us.
JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, domestic violence, a Gergen dialogue, and China remembers.