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CONFRONTING THE CRISIS: New Alliance Report Offers Solutions for Nation’s Literacy Crisis

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“While the trend lines for educational and workforce demands are steadily rising, students’ reading and writing skills are not keeping pace,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “This results in unprepared college students taking remedial courses, employers spending more money on job training, and good jobs going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates. This is a critical time for the federal government to partner with all states by fully investing in comprehensive literacy plans to ensure that every student graduates from high school with the advanced skills necessary for success in college and a career.”

More than 60 percent of twelfth-grade students leave high school without the advanced reading and writing skills needed to succeed in college and a career, seriously constraining their future employment options and restricting national and state economies, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report, Confronting the Crisis: Federal Investments in State Birth-Through-Grade-Twelve Literacy Education, identifies promising solutions underway at the state level, including implementing the newly adopted common core state standards in English language arts (ELA) and the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (SRCL) program. It also includes recommendations for how the federal government can help states build upon these initial efforts and ensure that all young people graduate from high school with the advanced skills essential for success in the modern world.

“While the trend lines for educational and workforce demands are steadily rising, students’ reading and writing skills are not keeping pace,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “This results in unprepared college students taking remedial courses, employers spending more money on job training, and good jobs going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates. This is a critical time for the federal government to partner with all states by fully investing in comprehensive literacy plans to ensure that every student graduates from high school with the advanced skills necessary for success in college and a career.”

The report notes that since 1973, the share of jobs in the United States requiring postsecondary education has increased from 28 percent to 60 percent. During the same time period, however, the literacy performance of seventeen-year-olds has remained the same. Additionally, 25 percent of eighth graders nationwide lack even partial mastery of grade-level knowledge and skills, according to the 2011 Nation’s Report Card in reading, putting these students at risk of dropping out before earning a high school diploma.

The good news is that states are taking action to increase students’ literacy achievement. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted the common core state standards in ELA. Additionally, forty-six states and the District of Columbia received federal funding under the SRCL program in 2010 to develop a plan to improve literacy development and education across early education programs, elementary schools, and middle and high schools. However, as Confronting the Crisis points out, additional funding for the SRCL program is in doubt. So far, only six states (Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas) have received a second round of funding to put their plans into practice, shutting out the remaining forty.

“Unless Congress provides additional funding for the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, state literacy plans are more likely to sit on a shelf and gather dust than they are to help improve students’ reading skills in the classroom,” Wise said.

According to the brief, federal investments in literacy have centered on the early grades and have largely ignored middle and high school students. Even though a concerted investment in K–3 reading produced the highest achievement in reading for fourth-grade students in thirty-three years, it has proved insufficient to inoculate against failure in the upper grades.

Without the reading and writing skills needed to succeed in college, students often must take remedial classes, which offer no credit toward a degree. According to the report, 44 percent of all students at public two-year institutions and 27 percent of all students at public four-year institutions enrolled in remedial courses. Remedial education at the postsecondary level costs the nation an estimated $3.6 billion annually. Additionally, students who enroll in a remedial reading course are more than three times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years than are students who take no remedial education courses.

The report notes that restoring funding for the SRCL program to $250 million would expand the number of states that are able to implement research-based, comprehensive systems to strengthen student literacy. Additionally, it says that the pending reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind, offers the best opportunity for the federal government to help states implement a seamless system of literacy development and education at the early childhood, elementary, and secondary levels. Should ESEA reauthorization stall, the report suggests the federal government do the following:

  • Support the voluntary, state-led movement to adopt college- and career-ready ELA standards and aligned assessments to ensure that students receive a consistent, high-quality education.
  • Enhance the role of states in improving literacy instruction by supporting the implementation of state-led comprehensive literacy plans for students from birth through grade twelve.
  • Support and invest in increasing the quality of teacher education and professional development to ensure that teachers acquire the competencies to provide literacy instruction aligned to the ELA standards.
  • Invest in ongoing research and evaluation to promote better understanding of adolescent literacy and the factors that impact the implementation and effectiveness of literacy programs.

Confronting the Crisis is available here.

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