Passport to the Future

Most jobs in the 21st century economy require advanced literacy skills such as categorizing, evaluating, and drawing conclusions from written texts. Several studies comparing students in the world's top economies, demonstrate that the literacy skills of average U. S. students fall below international standards and that the gap in literacy skills between students from advantaged and disadvantaged families is huge.

Beyond, jobs, leaders in government, education, politics, business, finance, armed forces, and diplomatic communities continue to assess the nation's education challenge in the context of national security. Conclusion reached is that educational outcomes are posing direct threats to our nation: (1) to the protection of U.S. physical safety, (2) to the development of United States human capital, (3) to intellectual property and competitiveness, (4) to U.S global awareness, unity, and cohesion, and (5) to economic growth.

The human capital of a country will determine its power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine the country's security as it is doing today. Large undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.1"


For more than forty years, the nation has shown little to no growth in students' reading and writing (NAEP ). Merely 30 percent of all students read at "proficient" levels, and three percent are "advanced". About a third of American students are at "basic" and another third are "below basic" in reading. At the secondary level, the inability to read and comprehend complex text predicts that students may not graduate high school, will not succeed in college, or in gainful employment. And, we are not just speaking about the less advantaged youths (racial and language minorities, students with learning differences, and those living in poverty) as one may assume, but also the great middle class appear stuck with mediocre achievement levels.


The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-old students from thirty-four developed nations in reading literacy, math literacy, and science literacy. The U.S. government considers PISA one of the most comprehensive measures available. Every three years the test is produced by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and aims to measure student skills near the end of secondary school as an indicator of their tertiary school performance and workplace readiness along with the future GDP of competing countries. The 2009 study should stir concern for the future competitiveness of the U.S.: its 15-year-old students' scores took a deep dive in all criteria in the international ranking. U.S. students ranked in the bottom tier, placing twenty-fourth out of the thirty-four OECD countries in math, science, and reading literacy. For example, our students scored behind their peers in Korea, Poland, China, and New Zealand. Worse, students from seventeen of these countries outperformed U.S. students so drastically that the difference reached statistical significance.

The College Board, created in 1900 to expand access to higher education, reported that the 2011 college-bound seniors' scores on the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark were the lowest in forty years. Simultaneously, the overall educational attainment of the U.S. is declining as the aging workforce of the Baby Boom generation moves toward retirement. This better-educated, skilled workforce must be replaced, but current trends are not reassuring.

Throughout the 20th century the U.S. led the world in high school graduation rates. Now it ranks 21st out of the 27 developed nations with competing economies. High school dropout rates have tripled in the last thirty years, continuing a downward trend. Furthermore, the College Board reported that the U.S. standing in college degrees awarded (as a percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds) has declined significantly-from first place to 12th place among developed nations. South Korea, Ireland, Russia, Israel, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, France, China, Belgium, and Australia have all pulled ahead of the United States.


One of the single most misunderstood aspects of education is the fact that the human brain was never genetically programmed to learn to read. Reading is one of the most complex and demanding "new circuits" that the young brain has to learn. Learning to read and write, therefore, is neither easy nor natural for many of our students, and the teaching of reading and writing-particularly to children with diverse learning challenges-demands an expert level of knowledge from teachers. For generations Americans have been a literate people in spite of similar challenges. Foreign competitors, by contrast are teaching a billion students to become literate in two or more languages, and many are first generation. Yet in America we seem to lag behind in this opportunity for reasons known and unknown.

One of the biggest U.S. challenges is how to attract, prepare, support, reward, retain, and advance high-quality new teachers, while in parallel, support existing teachers with new skills in evaluation, categorization and targeted instruction. As in all countries, the students most at risk for underachievement in reading and writing require advanced teacher expertise in effective, comprehensive, intensive, direct, systematic, and informed teaching methods. Many teachers are underprepared for these varied challenges because they have never been advanced in their knowledge on the complexity of reading attainment: the various reasons children fail to acquire it, and the multitier support systems available to ameliorate the failure. A teacher's relative lack of success will contribute greatly to job dissatisfaction and turnover, which is preventable. Additional, as science has validated that all a few percent of students can become reading literate by third grade, if third grade reading became a mandate, the road for content area teachers to teach subject-literacy will be much easier.

For example, we know from extensive research across many disciplines that reading development involves a progression of skills that begins with understanding spoken language and that culminates in the deep understanding of written words. Reading development covers a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds, spelling patterns, word meanings, grammar, and patterns of word formation, all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skills are acquired the reader can attain advanced literacy, which includes the ability to approach printed material with critical analysis, inference, and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought. Essentially, reading literacy unleashes each citizen's potential to make informed decisions, enriches his or her life, and empowers him or her to participate fully in society. Every teacher needs to understand both the complexities involved in reading development and failure and the consequences to the individuals who fail to become proficient.

In the past, student reading scores that ranked below proficient levels were most often associated with poverty, limited English proficiency, learning disabilities, and dyslexia. In contrast to these trends, research funded by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies confirms that all but a few percent of first graders can attain grade level reading skills, and a large proportion of those who are below basic in the other grades can also improve significantly. Evidently, we are not applying the lessons from research on a wide enough scale.


What can we do? Without a doubt we can reverse these negative trends. First, we should let science guide decision-making. Legislation, educational policies, and implementation guidelines such as teacher preparation, curriculum frameworks, technology, data systems, and program adoptions must be guided by our best scientific research and must be specific enough to discourage ineffective practices. Second, early, universal screening should be used to flag students at risk, and data must be used to monitor the progress of those students so that they will perform at their highest levels of capability. Third, we must build the leadership capabilities of principals and school-based leaders so that they can nurture, support, and evaluate the work of teachers. Fourth, all teachers of reading must be trained in the essential components of reading development and differentiation of instruction necessary for the range of learners in their classes; they must become certified by the state and pass a rigorous Reading Instruction Competence Assessment.

The Coletti Institute researchers have synthesized four hundred scientific studies and compiled a body of knowledge in Teacher Preparation Programs in Institutes of Higher Education, Teacher of Reading Certification and Licensure Assessment, Reading Instruction, Multitier System Supports in General Education; Data Use and Implementation. The specifics of each area can be found in four forms for use:

  • One-page summaries of each section of science for literacy attainment
  • Key component summaries and graphs of the science and knowledge
  • Detailed implementation, information and Model legislation language for lawmakers to enact each section of science

Essentially these documents offer a template for action on these issues so the U.S. education system produces the seeds for a literate nation.

In conclusion, we have learned that scholars across the globe have found a direct correlation between literacy and levels of wealth, health, poverty, security, and general quality of life. Americans must confront and reverse the downward spiral that is affecting all of us. State by state, we can outpace global competitors by investing in high quality teachers, high quality instruction, technology, data systems, and the supportive contexts that will enable learning. Parents, citizens, and grassroots organizations now have the tools to empower their legislators to take the reins and implement state literacy laws that are likely to increase the number of students who can achieve the Common Core State Standards and be prepared for college or careers. It is time for all of us to drive policy to ensure that the United States will lead the literate nations.

By Jason Boog