Kids go to school to learn how to read and then they read to learn. The longer they stay in school, the less they like to read and the less they read. By the time they are seniors, more than seventy-five percent will not read a book unless they have to. Yet the students who are the easiest to teach, who find school work the easiest to do, who get the highest test scores, and who are more likely to graduate from college are the ones who read the most books. The ones who read the most books choose the books they read and read because they like to.
Educators know how important reading is in a child’s education. Reading and language take up the most time in a school day, take up the biggest dollar in the school budget, and take up the most space on achievement tests. Over the past two decades, countless billions have been spent analyzing and developing practices to improve reading skills. In 1983, the report Nation at Risk concluded that inadequacies in our educational process threatened our future as a Nation and as a people. Since then, panels of blue-ribbon educators have analyzed thousands of pages of exacting research; new teaching practices have poured into teacher seminars and then into classrooms. As a result of billions of dollars of effort over twenty years, reading test scores went up about 10% for nine-year-olds, less than 5% for thirteen-year-olds, and a little over 1% for seventeen-year-olds. In those same years, the number of kids who read for fun every day declined five percentage points for thirteen-year-olds and nine percentage points for seventeen-year-olds. These numbers suggest that intensive efforts to improve our educational system have resulted in practices that diminish a child’s interest in reading for fun as that child moves through the system. Correspondingly, the maturing child then does increasingly less well on assessments of reading skills.
As the years pass since Nation at Risk was first released, the tone of concern over continuing inadequacies in our educational system has intensified. In 1990, the report of the first Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America’s Choice: high skills or low wages! was released. It concluded that the United States should concentrate on raising educational standards to increase workers’ skill levels. In a globally competitive market, labor requiring low skills would continue to go to other countries where the price of low-skilled labor was the cheapest. In 2005, the Commission was revived: a decade of development in the global economy had shown that countries such as China and India were producing even high-skilled labor that would work for far less than would workers with equivalent skills in the United States. Published in 2007, Tough Choices for Tough Times, the Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called for no less than complete and radical change for our entire educational system.
Twenty-six years have passed since analysts first recognized that inadequacies in our educational system in an increasingly competitive global market were a threat to our standard of living. Accountability has been increased, charter schools have proliferated, philanthropists have poured money into experimental reform, and courageous efforts towards fundamental change have been launched in various public schools across the country. So far, progress has been measured in the low single digits. So far, changes in our educational system have been peripheral.
There is, however, a far simpler solution to inadequate educational outcomes that has been at our fingertips all along. It is one that can be slipped into the current education system as soon as the next school year begins. Evidence has shown that this solution can deliver progress measured in the double digits within the first year of implementation. Give school kids access to the books they want to read and give them the time to read them. Twenty to thirty minutes a day and an increase in the book budget is all it takes to get started.