Improving Reading Skills Is 'Most Urgent Task,' Education Secretary Says
By Rene Sanchez
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said yesterday that the "most urgent task" facing American schools is to improve how well students read, and he urged teachers and parents across the nation to make that their priority in the classroom and home.
Citing scores that show students' reading skills are stagnant and in some cases declining, Riley warned that schools and communities must emphasize the subject more or risk sending a generation of young people into the nation's demanding new job market virtually doomed to fail.
"Our national reading scores are flat and have been flat far too long," Riley said yesterday in his annual "State of Education" address. "America does reasonably well on international comparisons when it comes to literacy. But too many of our young people are groping through school without having mastered the most essential and basic skill."
In 1994, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely considered the best barometer of student achievement, showed that 41 percent of fourth-graders, 31 percent of eighth-graders and 25 percent of high school seniors scored below even the basic reading level. "That's just not good enough," Riley said.
In the speech, delivered at a public high school in St. Louis, Riley nevertheless sketched a promising portrait of the nation's schools, saying many are striving to improve despite budget shortages and record enrollments. He said he was heartened to see many educators working to create higher academic standards and proclaimed that "the era of `dumbing down' is over" in American education.
"The standards movement is alive and well," Riley said. "We've have had our peaks and valleys . . . but we're beginning to expect more of our children."
The nation's governors, worried that attempts to create higher standards have lost momentum, have scheduled a summit in New York next month to revive the movement.
Riley said educators must confront other serious issues. He called on schools to pay more attention to "the forgotten middle" academically average students who drift through school with untapped potential. He urged colleges to "hold the line" on tuition, saying that too many families are being overwhelmed by those costs. And he pleaded with parents to "try to slow down your lives" and read more to children.
"If every parent in America made it their patriotic duty to find an extra 30 minutes to help their children learn more, each and every day, it would literally revolutionize American education," he said.
The secretary also used the address to promote some of the Clinton administration's views on education. He denounced plans that some states and congressional Republicans have to give students tuition vouchers for private schools, and he touted proposals Clinton has made to wire all of the nation's schools with computer technology by 2000 and to have public school students wear uniforms.
Riley called vouchers a "retreat from the democratic purposes of public education" and said some supporters of the idea want to destroy public schools.
This week in Wisconsin, the state supreme court is studying whether students should be able to receive vouchers to attend private religious schools. In Congress, Republicans are promoting a bill that would allow experiments with vouchers in dozens of cities. Those who back the idea say it gives needy families more education options and will force mediocre public schools to improve or be closed.
Riley said he supports other attempts to change the structure of public schools, such as "charter schools." Those are funded publicly, and are free, but set most of their own teaching and administrative rules. Riley said his department intends to spend several million dollars cultivating charter schools nationwide.
But that promise came as House Republican leaders unveiled a study suggesting that federal spending on education is "out of control." The Republicans said that they found more than 760 education programs spread across the federal government, that the programs' obligated funds total about $120 billion, and that only 6 percent are focused primarily on helping teach students math, reading or science.
"It's pretty shocking," said Cheri Jacobus, a spokeswoman for the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. "Obviously, something has gone wrong."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company