Literacy

Half of all US adults cannot read a book written at an 8th grade reading level. 20% of adults cannot read their local newspaper, and the Department of Education estimates that 36 million adults lack the basic reading proficiency to sustain employment. 

Data Source: Stanford Education Opportunity

The Path Forward 

Educators, administrators, and policymakers have struggled for centuries to figure out the right tangible tactics for improving education. Do we bus students to better schools? Do we give families housing vouchers to move to better neighborhoods? Do we incentivize teachers to teach at struggling schools? The solutions below focus on reading specifically, as well as some new proposals that have gotten strong traction recently: 

  • 🧑‍🏫 Require Reading Licenses for Teachers — Only 19 states require that teachers have sufficiently rigorous training for teaching students how to read. In these states, teachers have to pass a test indicating that they know how to actually teach students how to read. Meanwhile, 40% of teachers are relying on techniques to teach students how to read that will actually not work nor will it benefit the students. Texas recently passed bill HR3 in its state legislation to require all teachers to take the The Science of Teaching Reading (STR) Exam (293). 

    • Case in point — In Union City, NJ, the school district’s superintendent, Silvia Abbato, uses federal funds to help pay for teachers to obtain graduate certifications as literacy specialists, and as a result, students consistently score a third-of-a-grade-above the national average on reading tests. This is exceptional because Union City has a median income of just $37,000 and only 18 percent of parents have a bachelor’s degree. About 95 percent of the students are Hispanic, and the vast majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. 

  • 🎁 Don't Allow Parents and Teachers to Screen for Gifted Programs — While the No Child Left Behind Act provided a definition for what “gifted” means in a school context, most states rely on parents and teachers to identify these students. These tapped students then have to take a test, but these tests vary widely across states, and even within states. Ohio alone has 27 different tests for identifying gifted students. Instead of allowing parents to screen first, universal tests should be administered across districts or even states. ​

    • Case in point — Broward County in Florida administered a universal gifted test and found that the share of Latinx children identified as gifted tripled, to 6%t from 2%; the share of Black children rose to 3% from 1%; For Whites, the gain was more muted, to 8% from 6%. Unfortunately, Broward cut the program after the Great Recession due to budget constrains.

  • 🌗 Deploy Controlled-Choice Integration in more districts — Controlled-Choice Integration is a strategy that has not only improved learning outcomes for 4 million students, but it has also saved costs for school districts across the country as well. With Controlled Choice Integration, parents effectively rank their top choice in schools, and the district reserves half of each school’s seats for low-income and half for higher-income students. Socioeconomic integration is a legal alternative to racial reintegration — ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2007 in the case of Parents Involved v. Seattle — and basically produces the same effects. This means that low-income students aren’t stuck in poorly funded schools, but also doesn’t require busing to send them to better regions. 

    • Case in point — In 2009, President Obama introduced a new $120 million “Stronger Together” grant program to support local efforts to integrate schools by income. A RAND study found that this program helped low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland boost their reading and math scores by 9 points, or almost 1 full-letter grade, moving from B students to A students. Programs have sprung up in both Red and Blue states — Cambridge, MA, and Berkeley, CA as well as Beaumont, TX; Nashville, TN; Omaha, NE; Rock Hill, SC; Salina, KS; and Troup County, GA.