A Literate Nation for 2012

01/05/2012 11:35 am ET | Updated Mar 06, 2012

If I could change one thing in 2012 to improve the quality of life for every American, it would be to ensure that every child in the nation left school literate. By literate, I mean that every child possessed the ability to read, write, and speak in a manner that allowed him or her to succeed in school, pursue dreams, and contribute to society. You may ask, "Why literacy?" The fact is that the ability to read and write underpins all other learning in school and beyond. Through reading and writing children develop the ability to think deeply and critically about subject matter. If a child cannot read and write well, then that child's ability to learn history, government, civics, biology, chemistry, physics, and every other subject we expect children to learn before leaving high school, becomes exceedingly difficult. Sadly, 75% of eighth graders today don't read well enough to comprehend their text books , and 26% of entering ninth graders fail to graduate from high school.

Low literacy is the number one reason students fail to graduate and is linked to a plethora of undesirable outcomes such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, unemployment, prison, and homelessness. The negative economic consequences of our failure to teach every child to read and write well, to both the individual and the country as a whole, are almost incomprehensible. Consider, for example, the economic toll our prison system places on our society. We spend about $35,000 per year per prisoner in our overcrowded prison system. Estimates are that about 90% of the prison population has low literacy skills. In short, crime looks much more attractive when a person has low literacy and thus, poor job prospects. Low literacy is rampant among individuals living in assisted housing and receiving food stamps. We cannot simply say to these individuals, "Go get a job." What job can they actually get? Certainly jobs that pay above minimum wage require literacy.

The biggest tragedy is that it doesn't need to be this way. There is clear science to inform schools about how to best teach every child to be a reader and writer. This science has demonstrated that even children who have a genetic predisposition for reading problems (i.e., dyslexia) will learn to read and write well when appropriate instruction is provided. Likewise, children who enter school ill-prepared for school because of poverty and/or second language learning also achieve grade level expectations (or better) when provided scientifically aligned and well delivered instruction. So why do we continue to be in this mess? The answer is complex and complicated, but at the core, the answer is that, as a nation, we have yet to implement in most of our schools what science tells us is necessary to ensure that every child leaves school literate. Currently, there is a 30 year gap between what is known about teaching literacy to all children, and what typically happens in schools. Nationally, we do a poor job teaching teachers how to teach literacy before they enter the classroom and then provide little support to them for upgrading their practice to align with the science of literacy instruction, leaving teachers to do the best they can, but not knowing how to do it better. This situation must change (see for a call to action).