7 Lessons Learned From Leaders in Business, Education Working to Boost Literacy

Associate Editor

The inability of 25 million U.S. children and teens to read proficiently, and the impact of literacy challenges in the workplace, became the catalyst for an exchange of ideas and experiences as part of a National Reading Coalition gathering held in D.C. last week.

Literacy gaps that limit the ability of children to succeed exist “across the country, in every community—from urban to suburban, to rural,” said Alicia Levi, president and CEO of Reading is Fundamental, which convened this first meeting of organizations working on the issue.

In this country, “we take a very ‘silver bullet’ approach,” to literacy, said Dane Linn, the vice president of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of some of the largest corporations in the U.S. “The problems are complex, so the solutions should be complex,” and solving the puzzle will require family supports as well as traditional “how-to-read” approaches.

Linn encouraged literacy leaders to think beyond the “boutique” solutions each of their organizations might be pursuing to respond to the issue.

It was a Business Roundtable survey and “CEO Action” report released by his organization in 2016—Why Reading Matters and What to Do About It—that inspired the gathering, which focused on workforce issues caused by literacy gaps.

Here, then, is a summary of seven pieces of advice in the conversations about how literacy challenges are being tackled:

  1. Get New Governors on Board: This year, 36 gubernatorial elections will be held, and candidates are looking for an agenda. “I think governors are key to this,” said Linn. “If you want to get to scale…in my opinion, start with the states. And create a policy structure that is sustainable beyond any governor’s stay in office,” he said.
  2. Address Talent Gaps: Companies need to make the business case to policymakers, according to the Business Roundtable. “We have a problem recruiting talent who know how to read,” said Linn. Fifty percent of the CEO respondents to the organization’s survey reported difficulties in finding employees who can read, write and do basic math. New employees used to be trained in six weeks, but now need 12 weeks of job training for the same position, he added.
  3. Link to Larger Efforts: Too many “siloed” solutions create redundancies in how the literacy problem is being approached and leads to gaps between the silos. Linn said it’s important to use assessments and data to track progress, then collect relevant data in the system. “It’s hard to make the argument that you want more money if you can’t demonstrate the impact,” he added. “How do agencies link together to leverage their money around literacy?” North Carolina’s Birth-3rd Grade Interagency Council, established this year, is an example of a partnership intended to bridge a child’s education from preschool into the early years of K-12.
  4. Even Reading Volunteers Need Training. “Teaching reading, if that’s what volunteerism is about, requires some skills,” said Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the former director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools. Often volunteers don’t want to invest time in that training. But when companies allow their employees who volunteer to be taught, “you see much more successful programs,” he said.
  5. Companies Should be Careful in How They Approach ‘Helping.’ A company in the medical field sent Shanahan its comprehensive plan to address this issue. “I won’t name them,” he said. “It would be embarrassing.” Although it had no experience in education, this business decided it would hire three teachers for a charter school, buy a new reading program that it had already chosen, and measure success using a predetermined assessment. Then, the company planned to ask Shanahan to write a paper identifying this as the basis for a national model “and we were going to fix urban education,” he said. The proposal was presumptuous.
  6. Focus on the Lifespan of Literacy. Literacy levels will not rise to what is needed in this country until “we address literacy needs across the lifespan,” said Shanahan. That theme resonated among several presenters. Rebecca Zalesnik, the director of innovative programs at the Sheldon Independent School District in Texas, works in a district where nearly every student qualifies for free- and reduced-price lunch, she said. Organizations “pour money into funding ideas” to encourage reading in elementary students, she said. But in middle and high school, so many parts of the system write them off,” she said. Those students need support for literacy from outside their schools as much as the younger ones do, Zalesnik added.
  7. Don’t be Afraid to be Bold. To spur interest in teaching reading to adults via an app, the Dollar General Literacy Foundation launched a $7 million XPRIZE challenge with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. This global competition tasks teams with developing mobile apps for existing smart devices that result in the greatest increase in literacy skills among participating adult learners in 12 months. Five teams are finalists. The adult literacy needs of 36 million Americans who lack basic English literacy “ are not being met by the existing system,” said Denine Torr, the senior director of community initiatives at the Dollar General. Launching the competition has spurred investors “who had not come into the ed-tech space before” to invest $1 million in one of the winners, too, she said.

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