An Open Letter on Literacy to President-Elect Obama

  • 02 November, 2008

Okay, okay, I know. The election won't really take place until Tuesday, but let's face it, it would take a miracle to prevent Barak Obama from being elected President of the U.S. His victory celebration is supposed to attract about 1 million people to a site just a few blocks from my home, and commentators are talking about how important a quick transition is going to be this year with the economic crisis. Given all of that, I don't think it is too early to let the transition team know that literacy policy is going to this president's attention (and that literacy is not a Bush-only issue). If you supported John McCain in this election, my condolences; if you supported Senator Obama, then congratulations. But frankly, it doesn't matter who you were for or against as long as the new administration makes headway in increasing America's literacy.

  So here is my open letter to the new president.

 Dear President-Elect Obama:

  Congratulations on your impending historic victory. As President you will have lots of demands on you, but please don’t forget about America’s literacy needs. This is something that you know something about (you’ve set up tutoring programs, served on the Senate education committee, and donated book royalties to the Illinois Reading Council). We need a bipartisan effort to improve reading. Here are 10 things I hope you will do to ensure that America gets stronger in this aspect of education.

  1. You want the federal government to increase teacher salaries. Do that, but not on the basis on test scores as you have proposed, but by increasing the lengths of school years. Incent the states to increase the lengths of their school years by about 8 weeks per year. Nothing improves student learning like teaching, so this would be a smart investment. Increasing the time teachers spend with kids will make America more competitive (kids will be safer, and teaching will become more like other comparable jobs in terms of structure and pay which will help attract a new group of talented individuals to teaching).
  2. You’ve wisely kept silent on Reading First during the campaign, so you can do what is right rather than playing to any interest group. We need to continue to try to improve reading achievement in the United States. Reading First either must be revitalized or it must be replaced with an alternative program—not just a shift of more funds to Title I.
  3. During your Senate years, you have shown great concern for helping kids get through college. You should follow these investments with some kind of sustained reading help and encouragement in grades 4-12, too. Either support Striving Readers or replace it with another initiative that will encourage states to upgrade standards and efforts at these levels.
  4. You intend to double the educational research budget. That’s great. Earmark about $10 million of that annually to the study of how to improve reading comprehension for readers who have basic skills (particularly for second language kids).
  5. It isn’t enough to do research, it needs to be applied. Don’t back off on federal requirements for following the research.
  6. Expand the charge, support, and autonomy of the National Institute for Literacy (involving it in all literacy efforts by all cabinet departments, including Justice which is not included now). Require the Institute to provide a state of American literacy policy report to Congress every fourth year, beginning in 2013 (an independent report that does not need to be approved by any department).
  7. You have been saying that we are testing accountability against the wrong tests. I agree. Pay to develop a reading test based on consistency with the American Diploma standards and encourage schools to work towards that test performance.
  8. The big increase in preschool that you intend is very exciting. Make sure that money is spent in pursuit of guiding kids with a 21st-century literacy curriculum—one that includes a lot of attention and support in the area of oral language development.
  9. Encourage the expansion of Internet-based literacy and language instruction available free to teens and adults.
  10. Make sure all Science, Engineering, and Math initiatives address the issues entailed in doing the demanding reading of Science, Engineering, and Math.

  Good luck.


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An Open Letter on Literacy to President-Elect Obama


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.