Today, being literate requires us to create, manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of information and to generate meaningful messages for remarkably different groups — from family members to strangers thousands of miles away. In every era, what it means to be literate evolves and changes. In 18th-century America, being literate meant being able to sign one’s name on official documents. Later, in an era where books were scarce and highly valued, the ability to “sight read” and recite poems and passages from memory defined the literate citizen. Just as schools changed to meet shifting definitions of literacy in the past, today we must change again.
Common habits of mind among those who have developed the literacy skills necessary to lead full and successful lives today include creativity, persistence, curiosity, and responsibility. Every student deserves the opportunity to cultivate these skills across a lifetime, through high-quality literacy instruction. In a time of fiscal austerity, it is natural to look for a way to limit the time and resources required to provide quality literacy instruction. But high-quality literacy teaching necessarily requires ongoing learning and collaboration among educators, adequate resources for literacy learners, continuous opportunities for students to read and write across all subject areas, and deep knowledge of assessment design as an integral part of student learning.
Equity is paramount. Because all students have a right to expect a high-quality literacy education, educators, administrators, and policymakers alike must create the conditions that support literacy learning. These foundational ideas should guide governmental action designed to support literacy learning in 2014:
Literacy is a lifelong learning process and is essential for the ability to learn across all of life’s endeavors. Students deserve literacy instruction in all disciplines that sets them on a path leading to active citizenship, valuing arts and humanities, professional engagement, and academic advancement. Both federal and state governments must invest in measures designed to place students and educators alike on this path. These measures include
- Providing access to powerful literacy learning resources for students across all disciplines, including stable funding for libraries.
- Supporting educators across all disciplines to continue to learn sound literacy instructional and assessment practices in their content areas.
- Funding literacy learning programs that are designed to move forward from the present knowledge and capacity of students and educators rather than to only map backward from a desired endpoint.
- Supporting reading and writing in all STEM initiatives so that students can communicate findings, explain their significance, and pose new questions.
Professional learning of educators is necessary for high-quality literacy instruction and student learning at all academic levels. Professional learning depends upon tapping the substantial expertise that already exists and upon sharing constantly emerging knowledge about literacy teaching and learning. This kind of professional learning requires time and is nurtured by
- Ensuring that all students, PreK through grade 12, have the teacher they deserve — a teacher of record who has been rigorously prepared through an accredited teacher education program and who engages in ongoing professional learning.
- Establishing protected release time for collaboration among educators — including those from across all disciplines — to learn from student work, reflect on shared practices, plan curricula, and design assessments.
- Making professional learning available to all educators, from child-care givers and Head Start teachers to adjunct and contingent faculty.
- Including participation in professional learning as an essential element in teacher evaluation.
- Affording principals, as literacy leaders, time for sustained professional learning, including collaboration with teachers.
- Valuing the expertise of educators — expertise grounded in research, practice, and knowledge of their students — as the primary source of policies designed to improve literacy learning.
Assessments should aid learning, not merely audit it. Assessment for accountability purposes is necessary, but assessments are most valuable when they are locally constructed, provide immediate and useful feedback, and involve students in meaningful activities. We recommend
- Distinguishing between formative assessments that can be used by teachers to monitor and plan ongoing student learning and interim assessments that only provide summative information.
- Ensuring a focus on student classroom work as a primary source of assessment data.
- Using multiple kinds of evidence to describe and assess student growth and learning, such as portfolios and student engagement in challenging work.
- Gathering multiple measures of college and university performance and progress in addition to completion rates; these include constant focus on essential learning outcomes and use of high-impact educational practice.
- Encouraging careful analysis of the field testing for PARCC and SBAC assessments related to content, capacity, and procedures before moving to full implementation. This analysis should document the capacity of schools related to the required technology, the development of clear procedures for implementing testing, and the validity of the test content.
- Making certain that conditions are in place to support high-quality assessment (e.g., teacher knowledge and access to technology).
- Limiting the use of PARCC and SBAC assessments as summative evaluations of the performance and achievements of teachers and students until calibration data can be gathered over several years. Research does not support using changes in students’ standardized test scores as a primary measure of teacher effectiveness.
- Saving valuable instructional time and money by using sampling across schools, as currently occurs with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), instead of testing all students each year for accountability purposes.
- Ensuring that student writing on assessments is scored by capable teacher assessors whose feedback can enrich future assessment design.
Investments in literacy generate innovation, fresh solutions, informed decision making, and opportunities for social mobility. When these investments are made for all students, everyone benefits. Policymakers invest wisely by
- Reauthorizing, as soon as possible, an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that supports comprehensive literacy programs (birth through grade twelve) by including the elements in the LEARN Act and Strong Start for America’s Children Act. A generation of students has missed the benefits of an updated ESEA.
- Reauthorizing a Higher Education Act (HEA) that expands access, improves affordability, advances equity, supports high-quality programs, promotes literacy across disciplines, and encourages completion. To ensure quality in higher education, improved support for contingent faculty, who shoulder an increasing amount of the teaching load, is essential.
- Providing state funding for both PreK–12 and higher education necessary to support powerful literacy learning across the student’s academic career. This funding should sponsor state literacy teams and state literacy plans that coordinate literacy instruction from birth through university.