The most recent National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test results were released today, and the results are decidedly mixed. First, some bad news: nationally, just 33% of fourth graders, and 32% of eighth graders, scored at or above a "proficient" level on the reading test. The results were even worse for low-income students. Only 17% of low-income fourth graders and 16% of low-income eighth graders scored at or above a "proficient" level.
The good news? Fourth grade reading scores in some urban school districts--notably New York City--have risen over the past several years, and that trend continued in 2009. Troublingly, though, this success has not spilled over into middle school. Even in New York, eighth grade reading scores have remained depressingly low.
Why has success in urban elementary schools not translated into success at the middle school level? One theory is that urban schools are doing a relatively good job teaching kids how to read in the early grades--promoting, for example, intensive phonics instruction and basic reading strategies. But once kids have the basics down, urban schools are not doing a very good job teaching students how to read "deeply." Instead, urban schools tend to focus on reading strategies--explicitly teaching kids, for example, how to "look for the main idea," how to "ask questions while reading" and so forth.
There are two potential problems with this strategy: first, if students are focused on reading strategies as opposed to the substance of the text, they may feel bored by what they're reading--and by reading generally. Second, as a number of commentators over at the Core Knowledge blog have argued, real literacy requires more than just these basic "reading skills." To make sense of a novel, a newspaper article, or any other complex text, the reader typically requires a modicum of background content knowledge. (For example, imagine reading "Huck Finn" without knowing that African Americans were, at one point, enslaved in the American South). But, as we've noted on this blog before, content simply isn't being sufficiently taught in American secondary schools.
Completely eradicating the "content instruction gap" in American schools may require changes in the secondary school curriculum. But there is an immediate impact you can make as an individual. If you're on this site looking for ways in which you can make a real impact, consider donating sets of books that are both engaging and help teach kids about...you know...stuff. Literacy teachers are always looking for engaging texts for their students, and there are a number of books geared towards young adults that touch on historical or scientific themes.
And don't worry if you don't have specific titles in mind! If you want to, say, fund a teacher's purchase of interesting historical fiction, you can just create a gift earmarked for "historical fiction." The classroom teacher who claims your gift can select the specific titles.
The NAEP results were particularly disheartening for Detroit, one of the four major cities The Generation Project currently serves. Detroit students' reading scores--like the math scores released in December--were the worst in the 40-year history of the test. Incredibly, not a single Detroit fourth-grader--in a city of nearly 1 million people--scored at an "advanced" reading level.
These are trying times for Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools. As state revenues fall, the city shrinks, and schools close, many Detroit students and schools are left in need of even the most basic supplies. Please consider designing a gift for Detroit through The Generation Project.