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A CRITICAL MISSION: SREB Report Urges States to Develop Comprehensive Adolescent Literacy Policies that Can Improve Reading and Writing in Secondary Schools

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“We can’t expect to see achievement rise in math, science, and other subjects unless students can read, write, and communicate at more advanced levels.”

Improving middle and high school students’ reading comprehension skills is the most important action states and schools can take to improve achievement in all subjects. So says, A Critical Mission: Making Adolescent Reading an Immediate Priority in SREB States, a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), which urges states to develop comprehensive adolescent literacy policies that can improve reading and writing in secondary schools.2

“We can’t expect to see achievement rise in math, science, and other subjects unless students can read, write, and communicate at more advanced levels,” said Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D), the chair of the SREB. “Our nation’s economic prosperity depends on our making progress in education.”

According to the report, public schools generally do not teach reading after the elementary grades. And, unlike speaking skills, students generally do not develop the advanced reading skills on their own. As a result, far too many adolescents cannot read well enough to succeed in school and future careers while other students have not been challenged to develop the levels of literacy they will need to succeed in college and career training. It notes that while some SREB states are among the nation’s leaders in improving students’ reading achievement in the early grades, SREB states, and the nation as a whole, have made little improvement with students in middle and high schools.

None of the SREB member states has included reading in their academic standards for each of the subjects in high school. Because of this, few teachers have been asked to teach the reading skills that students need in each subject. According to the report, some teachers in various subjects have resisted efforts to incorporate reading instruction into their courses for fear that they will be asked to become “reading teachers.” But, the report notes that asking a teacher to become a reading teacher is “distinctly different” from asking a teacher to “help students master texts within the teacher’s own field.” It argues that subject-area teachers should not be expected to teach basic reading skills, but they can help students develop critical strategies and skills for reading texts in each subject.

The report finds that the impact of low literacy levels is far-reaching, for both individuals and states. For example, strong reading skills help adults engage more in their communities, assist their own children as learners, manage family responsibilities, and access information. For states, poor literacy levels translate into a workforce that increasingly will not compete effectively in the global economy.

In addition, states will be unlikely to raise high school and college graduation rates unless they help more students learn to read at higher levels. According to the report, students who leave eighth grade with weak reading skills quickly fall behind in high school. “More students in SREB states repeat ninth grade than any other grade, swelling ninth-grade enrollment by 14 percent in the SREB media states in 2005,” the report notes. “Students who falter in ninth grade are likely to become high school dropouts.” At the college level, one in four freshmen must take remedial reading classes—and few of those students earn a degree, the report finds.

Kaine led the SREB Committee to Improve Reading and Writing in Middle and High Schools, which included some of the nation’s most prominent researchers and policy experts in literacy. The committee’s recommendations to states on how to improve reading among older students served as the basis of the report. Its six recommendations are as follows:

  • Develop statewide policies that establish improvement in reading as the top priority in all public middle grades and high schools.
  • Identify the specific reading skills students need to improve their achievement in key academic subjects.
  • Change the curricula to include the reading skills identified as crucial for students in each subject.
  • Help teachers share subject-specific reading strategies with students.
  • Assist struggling readers so that those who are behind can catch up before they become likely high school dropouts.
  • Call for state education agencies to work with local school systems across the region to make sure these changes begin to take place and that every educator knows higher reading skills are the top priority in public education.

The complete report is available at http://www.sreb.org/cgi-bin/MySQLdb?VIEW=/public/docs/view_one.txt&docid=671.

2) SREB was created by southern governors and legislatures in 1948 to help leaders in education and government work cooperatively to advance education and improve the social and economic life of the region. Its member states include Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

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