Research shows that there have been positive trends in literacy achievement in the past 25 years. These gains, however, have not included a significant closing of the gaps between racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, a fact that represents a serious issue in education today. “The literacy achievement gap in particular is important because literacy achievement often serves as the proxy for overall achievement,” said Dorothy Strickland, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Professor of Education at Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
Strickland discussed this pressing issue at the fourth annual Jeanne Chall Lecture, “The Literacy Achievement Gap: Research Evidence for Policy and Practice,” Oct. 23 at the Gutman Conference Center. Chall was a Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) professor and an influential figure in reading research and instruction.
Historically, research surrounding the literacy achievement gap has focused on three major themes: socioeconomic and sociocultural factors, linguistic background, and quality of instruction. According to Strickland, these factors are deeply interconnected and ultimately point to the need for high school reform.
There are a number of discontinuities between many children’s school and home experiences, both linguistically and culturally, that contribute to the way they learn. “There is lots of criticism of schools in the literature, either that schools don’t recognize these issues, or if they do, they haven’t done a very good job of bridging them,” Strickland said.
One of the primary disconnects is that between a child’s home and school languages. According to Strickland, despite a great deal of research, there is a persistent notion that a different home language or dialect is an automatic deficit. “Recent research shows the linguistic and dialect variability within communities might be more important than the difference between a child’s home language and the language of his school,” she said. Going forward, more of this research needs to be done, and the results need to be made real to schools so that they can better approach these differences. “The key issue is that home language is not an automatic deficit,” Strickland averred.
The quality of teachers and instruction is another important focus of research today, as reformers are realizing that a teacher’s effectiveness in helping kids learn is just as important as his or her knowledge of the material. “In teacher preparation, we need to be going beyond the knowledge base and have actual demonstration of ability,” Strickland said. “New teachers need to be able to go into a classroom and feel in control, feel that they can do something.” She noted that students are regularly expected to demonstrate their knowledge, but this hasn’t yet become common practice with teachers.
Ultimately, schools need to change the way they operate and approach the problem of the literacy gap. There is evidence that enriched preschool programs and early childhood reform are having a positive impact, but it is not sufficient. “It’s not enough to go in and intervene and do something good; you’ve got to do it in a way that will be sustainable,” she said, indicating that the greatest challenges for educators arise in the middle and high school years.
As a result, many reformers are looking at how to transform the nation’s high schools to decrease dropouts and provide meaningful diplomas to all students. Strickland described more rigorous standards, personalized education, and alternative pathways as some of the most recent, yet somewhat contentious, ideas. “We need to implement reforms with a clear focus,” she said. “And most of these aren’t new ideas; it’s just a matter of getting them done.
“It remains safe to say that the research has left us far from final answers; the gaps remain challenging and persistent,” Strickland concluded, stressing the need for continued concern. “This is something Jeanne Chall and I talked about, and over the years, people have realized that what happens to one of us happens to all of us.”
Following Strickland’s lecture, Assistant Professor Nonie Lesaux presented the Jeanne S. Chall Doctoral Student Award to Kathleen Spencer Ed.M. ’00, Ed.D. ’08, whose work focuses on the reading and writing skills of middle school students with disabilities.
In addition, the second Jeanne S. Chall Research Grant was given to Julianne Scott, a research associate at the University of Waterloo who studies parent-child home language interaction, with a particular interest in father-child interaction. Scott plans to use the grant and HGSE’s Chall collection to perform a historical analysis of the widely held notion that that parent-child shared storybooks are one of the most important means for developing good readers.