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STATE ACTIONS TO IMPROVE ADOLESCENT LITERACY: NASBE Report Says that Addressing the “Pervasive” Low Level of Adolescent Literacy Will Take a Concerted Statewide Policy and School Improvement Effort

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“States need to implement strategic literacy plans that are woven into their overall vision for preparing students for a global, knowledge-based economy.”

A new report from the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) argues that state education leaders are “painfully aware” of the low literacy levels among large numbers of adolescents, but these leaders have experienced difficulty framing an organized response to the crisis because states and districts generally lack systemic strategies for scaling up literacy instruction as part of subject-matter learning. However, the report, State Actions to Improve Adolescent Literacy: Results from NASBE’s State Adolescent Literacy Network, finds that when state leaders have the opportunity to focus their efforts and collaborate with key stakeholder groups, large-scale progress can be made.

“The role of the state in bringing to scale effective literacy instruction as part of content area learning is critical,” said Mariana Haynes, NASBE’s director of policy research. “States need to implement strategic literacy plans that are woven into their overall vision for preparing students for a global, knowledge-based economy.”

The report notes that many states have not developed the coherent policies and structures needed to support, scale up, and sustain high-quality literacy instruction through the K–12 system. It notes that there are several reasons behind the lack of literacy instruction, but it underscores that having such instruction “necessitates having well-prepared teachers who have adequate knowledge of language and reading psychology and who can manage reading programs based on assessments of individual students’ needs.”

According to the report, the preparation of middle and high school teachers “generally focuses on content knowledge related to a teacher’s specific discipline and, at best, requires only a single generic course in reading to meet the state licensure requirements.” As a result, many teachers are not prepared to teach reading. “Without paying attention to the quality of the teaching profession and building the capacity to provide literacy instruction within content area classes, efforts to strengthen public education will continue to stall,” the report reads.

The report also argues that addressing the “pervasive” low level of adolescent literacy throughout the nation cannot be solved with extra tutoring or supplementary programs for those unable to read. Instead, it will take a concerted statewide policy and school improvement effort to “reach deep into districts to impact the instructional practices of teachers across the curriculum.”

The report is based on the lessons NASBE learned in eighteen months of work with the five states—Connecticut, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Utah, and West Virginia—that formed the State Adolescent Literacy Network. During this time, the network was remarkably successful in building state policy frameworks and capacity to improve adolescent literacy. The report indentifies four key elements that the states adopted to drive improvements in literacy instruction and performance:

  • adopting comprehensive literacy plans that connect reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking while integrating literacy instruction within subject areas;
  • strengthening teacher licensure and preparation of teachers to provide research-based reading and writing throughout the curriculum;
  • developing a continuum of supports and interventions for struggling readers; and
  • designing policy structures and supports to drive local implementation of district- and school-wide literacy plans.

Even with these successes, NASBE acknowledges that much more work remains to be done. Moving forward, the report addresses two systems over which states exercise jurisdiction—the institutions for training educators and the accountability and assessment systems that measure school performance. It argues that states must foster partnerships with universities and districts in order to redesign teacher preparation and professional development to improve content-area literacy instruction by “grounding preparation in actual school settings and as a part of a community of practice; merging expertise within the colleges and among school, district and university staff; and providing strong clinical components.”

States must also rethink the design of accountability and assessment systems that drive what students learn and how teachers teach. In discussing the move toward higher, clearer standards, the report notes that the highest-performing nations create standards, curriculum guidance, and assessments that focus on twenty-first-century skills such as the abilities to find and organize information, communicate well in multiple formats, analyze and synthesize information, and self-monitor one’s understanding.

The complete report is available at http://nasbe.org/index.php/file-repository?func=startdown&id=888.

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