A Tale of Two Schools Bearden Elementary Walton Elementary
The Documentary The Challenge Get Involved
The Challenge
History of the Reading Wars
State of Reading Reform
Closing the Achievement Gap
Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Separate but Superior
Jackson Clarion-Ledger: Delta Schools Search for Answers
State of Reading Reform

According to PIRLS, the US ranked ninth in a study of fourth-grade readers in 35 industrialized nations. Although students in Sweden, England, Canada, and Hungary all scored higher, US students managed to outpace their counterparts in Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, and Israel.

Yet the fairly positive results received scant media attention.

The belief that there is a reading crisis in the US seems fairly entrenched in public consciousness today, and many educators would argue that it should be. There is less consensus, however, as to what is causing such a crisis and what its cure should be.

Some educators are disappointed that more attention is not paid to the extensive background research released with the NAEP test results.

NAEP researchers also collect information on students that regularly demonstrates the importance of the home environment. Consistently, students are seen to perform better if they have books at home, are read to by their parents, and watch less TV.

The fact that students in higher grades show less progress may also be further proof that socioeconomic conditions play a major role in student reading skills. "The impact of poverty shows up more and more in upper grades," says Paul Reville, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

When it comes to teaching reading in the US, trends come and go, but in recent years marked attention has been paid to the mechanics of the subject.

Kids need more help learning to "decode," the argument goes. In the more liberal 1960s and 1970s, there was more focus on drumming up enthusiasm for reading by offering students a rich variety of books — which left some educators worried that basic skills were neglected, leaving US students in the dust ever since.

Focus on "decoding" is good, says E.D. Hirsch, professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But it won't be enough to strengthen reading.

US reading scores began to decline in the 1940s, says Professor Hirsch, a development he links to the lack of coherent curriculum. Students today may not have enough background knowledge to make sense of what they read, he suggests.

That struggle for meaning becomes even tougher in an era of high immigration, when there are a record number of non-English-speaking students, says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.

And immigration is not the only pressure on US schools today, he adds. Changes in the workforce, advances in information technology, huge swings in state budgets, the need to prepare students for an uncertain economic future - all of these forces also weigh on the nation's schools and educators.

That's one of the dangers of using test scores as the measure of progress, he says.

"Folks in schools are very busy while also trying to focus on reading and math," he says. Meanwhile, he adds, students are applying to college in higher numbers than ever before, even as high schools graduate classes that are more diverse than at any time in the past. Those are also signs of progress, he says, but "that's not reflected in the test scores and we sometimes lose sight of that."

Copyright (c) 2003 The Christian Science Monitor www.csmonitor.com All rights reserved.

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Photo Credit for Bearden Elementary: Maude Schuyler Clay
Photo Credit for Walton Elementary: Chris Hamilton

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