Literacy is Everyone's Problem

Poor Arne Duncan.

Nearly five months later--a lifetime in the news cycle--his snipe at white suburban moms is still lighting up the blogosphere.

You wouldn't know it from the headlines, but the scuffle over Duncan's one-liner isn't the main issue in American education.

The politics surrounding the Common Core standards isn't the main issue in American education, either.

The new (improved?) SAT--the topic du jour--isn't the main issue in American education.

But fresh controversies attract attention--and generate traffic--so we spend energy and airtime pointing fingers and taking sides. The real crisis doesn't make the front page or the homepage.

And what is the real crisis? Literacy.

A few weeks ago, UNESCO released a report showing that at least 250 million of the world's 650 million primary school aged children are unable to read. The day before the report came out, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a study showing that two-thirds of all American children are not reaching the most important benchmark for future educational success: reading at grade level by 4th grade. The study's dire prediction: in just one decade, the country will not have enough skilled workers to "compete in the increasingly competitive global economy."

Pretty dismal. In fact, there are so many such dispiriting reports from so many different sources that there is a kind of tragic sameness to news about the literacy crisis. No wonder we're more interested in reading about the Education Secretary's foot-in-mouth.

For a lot of Americans--particularly well-educated, better-off Americans--such news is often read as foreign reporting, chronicling the troubles of other people's children. But literacy isn't someone else's problem. It affects all of us and all of our children.

How to improve literacy is a question we both confront every day. As founders of Learn with Homer, a digital literacy platform for children ages 3 to 7, former advisors to the Common Core Standards effort, and mothers of primary school-aged children, it's both a policy question and a personal one. We don't claim to have an easy answer, but we're trying to find one.

Here's our take:

The mudslinging over education reform has become a distraction. Sure, there's lots wrong with the nation's top education official alienating any group of committed parents. And getting testing right is going to stay hard and controversial.

But there's also a lot that's right about what Duncan was trying to say. It's fair to suggest our anxieties over test results--no matter how valid--shouldn't cause us to back away from demanding more rigor in schools. It's fair to argue our kids can--and should--achieve more. That's the real spirit of the Common Core, and we shouldn't give up on it just because it's going to be hard to implement.

We've faced down way messier, tougher challenges before in public education. But whatever side of the Common Core debate you choose, it's hard to argue with the notion that raising the literacy bar--full stop--is a good thing. For everybody's children.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the policy debates. When we step back to where our hearts really lie, though--at home with our own kids--there's lots we can do to make a difference. No one parent can solve a global problem single handedly. We get that. But like so many other problems our country has solved, this one needs individuals--parents--to start the real work at home.

The good news? That work is pretty straightforward. And deeply satisfying.

So what to do?

First: read aloud. Often. Children develop language and literacy skills even before they learn to speak or read themselves. The more they are exposed to stories, facts vocabulary, big ideas, the better readers they'll be later. Visit the library. Share books with friends. Mother Goose matters. Bedtime stories add up.

Include non-fiction in your reading routines, even for the youngest children. 3 year olds love learning about the planets. Ever spent time with a 6-year-old boy who can't stop explaining the difference between a Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex? Sheer delight. And we love the teacher who tells her kids to get their parents' "John Hancock" on the weekly schoolwork folder. Knowing "stuff" like that--getting the reference, understanding less common vocabulary words--plays an enormous role in a child's reading ability.

Ask questions about what you've just read to your children. Kids love knowing we're curious about their ideas. The more we ask them what they think, the more they'll, well, think.

Big, emotional battles over policies like the Common Core can dominate the conversation. They flare up, for a time, then burn out, replaced by the next big, emotional policy battle.

We say, don't think so much about the headlines. Do your homework. The real literacy war is being fought--and will, someday, be won--one book, one child, one family, one classroom at a time.