Congratulations on your recent well-deserved appointment. Your success as Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools depended greatly on improving achievement. Secretaries of Education aren’t usually held responsible for such gains, but maybe they should be. Given your competitive spirit, why not hold yourself to that standard anyway.
So what steps can a Secretary of Education take in this regard? I can think of several.
- Your boss campaigned on the idea of doubling federal support for preschool education. That’s $10 billion in new funding. The Secretary of Education can require that the curricula for such programs be consistent with the forthcoming National Early Literacy Panel report (it is to be released in Washington, DC on January 8).
- Reading First should be renewed and reformed, too. As you know, the nation invested $5 billion trying to improve primary grade literacy. The program was wracked with problems, but much was learned. This is a good time to double down (Congressional support is likely to be there if you do) and renew and reform that effort. It can be made to work and it should be made to work.
- Another area where your boss wants to invest is in STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and math). Given the great needs in those areas, this is not hard to support. But don’t lose sight of the fact that reading is a cornerstone of success in STEM. Require that STEM efforts address students’ abilities to read science, math, and technology, and you’ll go a long way toward success.
- President George W. Bush invested in the reading improvement of young children. Don’t just continue these efforts but extend them up the grades. America can no longer afford to teach reading in the elementary schools and to ignore it after that. Support Striving Readers and other programmatic efforts to ensure that adolescent literacy improves (this will be critical if President Obama’s ideas of expanding access to colleges are going to work).
- U.S. literacy needs are closely linked to the progress of English learners. The Obama education plan calls for doubling the investment in educational research. What a great opportunity to figure out the most effective way to enable immigrant children to succeed in U.S. schools. Earmark a big chunk of that new research money for figuring out how we can teach literacy more effectively to these kids—and pledge to follow the results of that research in federal policy.
- Don’t forget the adults either. There is a need for increased emphasis and coordination of educational efforts for adults who don’t have adequate literacy. The federal government supports literacy programs through the Department of Education, but it also does so through Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, Justice, and Labor. The states have their own patchwork of programs, too. Who is getting helped, where are we double programming, how could we coordinate services better are just a few questions that you could lead the administration to ask.
- President Obama led efforts in the U.S. Senate to make college more affordable and available to students. What a great idea! But colleges are starting to respond to increased access by lowering literacy requirements. It is critical that any increases in funding for colleges and universities carry the requirement that students improve in literacy achievement during those years.
- You learned a thing or two as a superintendent of a big city school district, such as how to lower educational standards to increase success. Incent states and districts to raise literacy standards—and to meet these higher standards—rather than allowing them to make themselves look better.
- Teacher education was a thorn in your side in Chicago. You were always trying to expand the pool of teachers. It would be better if you helped upgrade the quality of teacher education and linked this to student learning. The federal government could do a lot to lead states towards teacher preparation standards that make sense in the area of literacy (and data management plans like those developed in Chicago could do a lot to make these efforts effective).
- The National Institute for Literacy should be given an independent voice in literacy policy. During the Bush administration, NIFL couldn’t even report to Congress as required by law without the approval of the Department of Education. Allow NIFL to lead on these issues and to provide information to the Congress concerning which federal efforts are working and which are not.
It’s a big agenda, but literacy is a big problem. Good luck!