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Revolution Needed for Teaching Literacy in a Digital Age

Unless the American education system changes course quickly to integrate literacy and digital culture into our current educational paradigm, academic achievement gains will continue to stagnate.
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Written together with Michael Levine, Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

America is celebrating.

The Fourth of July is a time for parades, parties, BBQs, fireworks---we certainly have much to be thankful for here in America, the most innovative country on earth.

But one area of American life that is consistently resistant to innovation is our education system. On our nation's birthday--a cause for celebration of our founders' audacity, independence, courage and innovation skills-- we are sadly mired in the muck.

Perhaps most tellingly, we cannot even teach our kids how to read well and comprehend the complex issues our generation has utterly failed to address! Millions of kids are reading below grade level in fourth grade, a key measure of school success. Why should everyone care how well kids read at the fourth grade?

Because children who are below grade level by age ten tend to stagnate and eventually give up and drop out in high school. Harvard educational psychologist Jeanne Chall famously called this phenomenon the "fourth grade reading slump," where children cannot make the transition from learning to read to "reading to learn," which hinders their learning in all other subjects. International comparisons show that because of these early literacy setbacks America is losing the global race in science and math, areas central for 21st century skilled jobs.

While national policies such as No Child Left Behind have strongly emphasized the need to teach key reading skills like decoding and phonemic awareness in the early grades, far too many students hit a wall by fourth grade and by high school more than 7000 students per week are dropping out, a national crisis that costs us billions of dollars in lost wages, according to Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, DC.

It has been 25 years since the landmark study A Nation at Risk, and we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to ramp-up children's mastery of basic skills. Unfortunately, the current approach to solving the literacy crisis is locked in a time warp, almost totally removed from the ubiquitous digital media consumption that currently drives children's lives outside of school. Unless the American education system changes course quickly to integrate literacy and digital culture into our current educational paradigm, academic achievement gains will continue to stagnate.

To rectify the reading problem, we need to make sure that children have been exposed to a wide ranging vocabulary with complex words and ideas before age five. Kids who are read to frequently or who have a regular dialogue with parents or family members are exposed to a wide variety of experiences which prepare them for school. Unfortunately, today many low income children do not have this luxury. They have unemployed parents and difficult living situations and schools that failed to teach early literacy in a way that compensates for the lack of these skills.

It is here that digital media can make a vital contribution.

Educational video games, simulations, modeling tools, handheld devices, and media production tools can allow students to see how complex language and other symbol systems attach to the world. Digital media has the potential to increase the "book" vocabulary, and the concepts attached to such words, for children whose families are unable to do so.

In the classroom, digital media also have other major advantages. These media teach students to master the production of knowledge, not just the consumption of knowledge. Kids learn to create videos, write blogs, collaborate online; the also learn to play video games, do digital storytelling, fan fiction, music, graphic art, anime and even more.

Their informal process of learning, collaboration, and transforming passion into knowledge is desperately needed in schools today. Despite sluggish gains in reading, our nation has not seriously integrated digital tools and new teaching practices into all classrooms. Schools of education are still failing to teach student teachers how to integrate digital media in the classroom. For example, most teachers, experienced or newcomers, have never even heard of Open Education Resources (OER), which offers thousands of free online resources for teachers; nor have they heard of Creative Commons, an open licensing format to help teachers share work and work collaboratively.

We recommend the following for policymakers, business leaders and practitioners to consider help make schools more effective.

Establish a Digital Teacher Corps
Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Most practitioners are unskilled in embedding new media in powerful instructional practices. A Digital Teacher Corps should be established to work in the lowest-performing elementary schools in order to train teachers to help students learn to read by transforming information for discovery and problem-solving.

Provide incentives for schools of education to update curriculum
Teacher training programs should be modified so that all beginning teachers learn how to use online collaborative tools, video production tools, blogging tools, mobile tools and a variety of commercial and non-profit programs targeting the classrooms. Frequently young teachers know how to use these tools on a personal level but not in the classroom.

Design alternative assessments and include project based learning in standards
Besides measuring traditional skills, assessments should be measuring skills based on project based learning, digital skills, problem solving skills and collaboration skills. Assessments drive the curriculum and so we need new assessments to drive a 21st century curriculum.

Support after-school programs and create a "Digital Hangout for Kids" in every community.
Kids are already spending nearly seven and a half hours every day consuming all types of media, but very little of this time is spent on quality media or intentional learning, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Let's building on national models like Communities in Schools, First, Computer Clubhouse, Club Tech of the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Quest to Learn, Digital Youth Network and School of One models in Chicago and New York City.It is time to extend the learning day and create a place in every community where young children can gain confidence in their literacy and interactive technology skills.

Establish Model Digital Schools in every state
Highly successful, innovative small charter schools such as High Tech High, Green Dot and KIPP Academies have proven that kids can learn essential literacy skills starting in early childhood with a personalized curriculum, integrated technology, and skillful teachers. Each state should establish at least one digital partnership elementary school as a model and demonstration site. These schools should be laboratories for testing many different digital approaches to learning and assessment, as well as for testing different ways to break down the barriers between in- and out-of-school learning. They could become a hub for the professional development of digitally savvy teachers.

Modernize public broadcasting
Public broadcasting initiatives should advance experimentation with new formats such as games, virtual worlds, and social network communities that will engage children in both literacy and digital skills. Educational media companies should also make available publicly-supported productions to educators at low or no cost via the internet and new communities of practice.

One hundred fifty years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and author of Democracy in America, wrote: "I (fear) that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all."

Hopefully, American policy makers and educators will not refuse to move and soon embrace the potential revolutionary power of the digital tools that have defined the first decade of the 21st century. Then we will have cause to really celebrate.

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