1988 Annual Report
The Foundation's primary commitment in education has been--and will continue to be--to liberal-arts colleges, universities, and research institutions. During the past few years, however, a small number of grants have been made to organizations concerned with helping to improve the quality of secondary-school education. Then, in the spring of 1988, the Foundation began a more intense review of pre-college education, focusing particularly upon questions related to the ability of students (as well as other groups within American society) to write intelligently, to read thoughtfully, and to understand (as well as apply) basic mathematical concepts and operations. At its December 1988 meeting, the Board of the Foundation approved three major grants in the field of "literacy."
Of course, considerable attention has been given recently to the entire range of topics and issues that have come to be defined as literacy. The past two decades witnessed a steady decline in average College Board scores (through the mid- 1980s), a set of heavily publicized results indicating comparatively weak student performance on other forms of standardized tests, and some striking evidence that United States students do less well than their peers from several other nations on examinations designed to measure a variety of fundamental skills and types of knowledge (particularly in mathematics).
In addition, a number of reports (beginning with A Nation at Risk in 1983) have highlighted important interrelated problems, including the extent to which economic productivity is linked to literacy--especially in societies that are increasingly dependent upon the creation of new ideas and on technological innovation as essential means of remaining competitive. The Carnegie Corporation has made valuable contributions on this topic (and others), particularly through the work of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. Perhaps the most detailed efforts to define and evaluate the state of literacy in the United States have been carried out by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) unit at the Educational Testing Service.
The main conclusions of these and other studies are sobering, even if one allows for inevitable imperfections in the assessment process. For example:
More than 96 out of 100 White young adults are estimated to read at or above the level of the average fourth grader; however, roughly 92 out of 100 Hispanic and only 82 out of 100 Black adults are estimated to have attained or exceeded this roughly basic level. At about the level of the average eighth grader, there are 85 in 100 White adults, as compared with 7l in lOO Hispanic and only 53 in lOO Black adults. By grade ll,the numbers for White, Hispanic, and Black adults drop to 68 in 100, 52 in 100, and 31 in 100 respectively.
(I. Kirsch and A. Jungeblut, Literacy, NAEP, 1986, p. 41.)
International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second, and in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.
Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.
About 13 percent of all 12-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate.
(A Nation at Risk, Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 8.)
Although the picture presented by the data just cited--and those contained in several other surveys--is itself cause for serious concern, the situation is obviously not a static one, nor is there by any means unanimity of opinion concerning a number of the most important points at issue (including the definition of literacy itself).
For example, widespread efforts at school reform during the last few years have led to a good deal of healthy experimentation, and have produced some quite concrete effects, including changes in teacher-certification procedures, improvements in teacher compensation, new curricular designs, mid-career "renewal" opportunities for teachers, and the exploration of promising uses of technology. Very recently, moreover, the NAEP unit has reported clear progress--measured in terms of rising annual scores--on the part of minority students in mastering basic literacy skills.
Finally, although the current rates of semi-literacy or functional literacy are disturbingly high, there is little doubt that these rates are less high than those of a quarter-century ago--and far less high than half a century ago. In one sense, the literacy situation in America, viewed in historical perspective, can be seen as somewhat reassuring: very large segments of the population were once clearly illiterate, and this is simply no longer the case; concomitantly, larger proportions of the population are now achieving basic (fourth-grade) and intermediate (eighth-grade) levels of literacy than ever before--granted that it is not necessarily adequate to conceive of literacy as an isolated set of skills that can be effectively measured in terms of standard grade-levels.
If there is much that is reassuring, why is there so much intense concern about the state of literacy in America? There are several reasons:
In spite of the fact that some improvements are now underway, and that a backward glance reveals evidence of genuine progress over the course of the last several decades, it is nonetheless the case that the demands and expectations of our society are changing rapidly, and are in fact currently outpacing the capacity of our educational system to respond. More situations in ordinary life--and certainly in the world of employment--require individuals to read instructions, directions, correspondence, and other forms of communication than ever before. In addition, we routinely expect individuals to take messages and summarize them in writing, or to cope with train and bus timetables, or checkbooks and bank statements, income-tax forms, safety instructions and manuals, and a host of other materials that are part of modern life and that were far less pervasive in earlier eras.
There are serious differences of opinion among scholars concerning the extent to which literacy (in all its various forms) is critical to economic progress and greater productivity. Cross-cultural analyses reveal quite differentiated patterns. What seems more clear, however, is that highly developed societies are increasingly dependent upon skilled workforces, even in those industries that once employed significant numbers of illiterate or barely literate individuals. Moreover, in a knowledge-based, service-oriented society such as ours, the proportion of total jobs that demands higher levels of "literacy sophistication" has increased in recent decades, and there is no discernible reversal of this trend in sight. Thus, while we may not have an "illiteracy" problem, we do have a literacy problem. As Kirsch and Jungeblut have suggested: "By the standards of the information age, we should press harder for more rigorous education and training in the knowledge and information-processing skills that now limit the flexibility of . . . 50 percent or so of our adults" Literacy, pp. 5-6).
Whatever solace we may take concerning our own progress as a nation--over the course of several decades--in the sphere of literacy, that solace cannot help but be offset to some considerable degree by the sobering statistics of how United States students fare when compared to their peers in the international arena.
Averages can obviously be misleading. Time-series data that indicate progress in combating illiteracy and even semi-literacy must be disaggregated to be properly understood; when they are, the gaps revealed between the achievement levels of different ethnic or racial groups are striking, and the extraordinary problems of many inner-city (and rural) school systems are thrown into sharp relief when compared to the relative stability and solidity of many suburban systems. Data concerning the low level of literacy in analogous segments of the adult population are equally disturbing. Hence, whatever the general picture may suggest, the problems faced by large numbers of individuals and members of specific groups remain enormous.
Even those advances which have in fact been made in average levels of literacy achievement have generally taken place at quite basic levels. It is perhaps heartening to know that a high proportion of adults (in nearly all ethnic and racial groups) demonstrate a mastery of certain literacy skills ordinarily expected of fourth-graders. But the percentages drop significantly as soon as one shifts to the eighth-grade level, and they drop even more dramatically if one imposes an eleventh-grade standard.
Although "basic" elementary-school skills are important--indeed essential--it is obvious that they are not sufficient to provide for the kind of continued personal and vocational growth which most individuals wish to sustain throughout their lifetimes, and which much of American society expects and indeed requires. Yet the challenge of improving the capacity of our educational system, in order to equip individuals to move from mastery of basic to more complex literacy skills, is immense. As the 1984 NAEP assessment of writing skills indicated:
One of the most distressing findings is the continuing difficulty older students have explaining and defending their ideas. Even at grade 11, relatively few students were able to provide adequate responses to analytic writing tasks . . . .
A major conclusion to draw from this assessment is that students at all grade levels are deficient in higher-order thinking skills . . . . Because writing and thinking are so deeply intertwined, appropriate writing assignments provide ideal ways to increase experience with such types of thinking.
(The Writing Report Card, ETS, p. 11.)
Not only have our society's expectations and requirements with respect to literacy altered, but the meaning of the term itself has changed significantly, especially in recent years. A century ago, the accepted test for distinguishing the literate from the illiterate was an individuals ability to write his or her name. Later, as more and more of the national population attended school--for longer periods of time--the standards related to literacy shifted. The ability to read as well as to write, and to do so at some recognized minimal level, was a natural and inevitable extension of earlier standards. Now (as already indicated) there are far more sophisticated conceptions of literacy, as well as a far greater awareness of the difficulty of assessing literacy skills (or of defining acceptable standards) with any accuracy.
For example, "literacy" has recently been perceived less and less as a set of disembodied processes ("reading" or "writing") that can or should be learned--beyond very basic levels--as if they were freestanding subjects in themselves. Instead, there has been an increasing awareness of the extent to which an individual's ability to make substantive progress in writing or reading depends deeply upon his or her ability to think in a probing and precise way, to master the content or subject-matter of specific fields of knowledge, and to learn what forms of evidence or proof (and what forms of exposition) are appropriate to different disciplines.
At a common-sense level, we all know that many of the skills required to read, analyze, and write intelligently about a poem are different from those needed to write an essay about the main causes of the American Revolution--or to write a report describing a complex experiment in Biology. The thinking and the writing in every case require some substantial knowledge of how one goes about such tasks in each of the different disciplines, and they also demand that one have a good deal of relevant information concerning the content of the subject at hand. Much recent research and experimentation in literacy have consequently tended to focus upon ways in which "process" and "subject-matter" can be taught and learned in tandem, in order to deepen students' awareness and mastery of the full set of intertwined skills necessary to progress from very basic to more sophisticated forms of literacy. Finding effective means to bring about such progress, however, is an extraordinarily daunting challenge. In short, we have a clearer sense of what needs to be accomplished educationally, but we are still a very considerable distance from knowing how to achieve the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves.
It was against this background that the Trustees of the Foundation recently approved funding for a limited number of new initiatives in the field of literacy. This action was taken after the Board had reviewed staff reports on the current state of the literacy field, in an effort to determine what kinds of projects might prove to be most promising. Clearly, there were many alternatives, and all too many needs. The main challenge, therefore, was to decide upon a set of priorities and to develop a program that possessed sufficient clarity and coherence to offer the potential of yielding long-term benefits.
Broadly speaking, there were several possibilities: one might have chosen to single out specific population-groups (adult literacy; broadly defined "at risk" groups; college-age students; elementary- through secondary-school students; pre-school children); or certain programmatic approaches (curricular re-design, textbook revision, new methods of assessment, development of new technologies, etc.); or programs that stressed teacher education and "renewal" (through summer institutes, collaborative arrangements with nearby colleges and universities, etc.) or school restructuring.
There are also other considerations. For example, much of the impetus for practical reform in the field of literacy--and much that has contributed to our more sophisticated understanding of the concept of literacy itself--has in fact derived from significant research carried on at a number of centers and universities during the past quarter-century. We know far more now, as compared to the 1960s, about the entire process of how students learn to read (and therefore how they can be taught more effectively), and we have a much greater appreciation of the need to take into account the role of the student as an active agent in the learning process--as someone who inevitably brings to that process a great deal in the way of formal and informal knowledge, opinions, attitudes, forms of reasoning, and varieties of literacy.
Some progress has also been made in helping to bridge the gap between the culture and implicit values of formal school-situations, and the often very different cultures and values which increasingly heterogeneous groups of students bring with them from their homes and communities. In short, while much of the research in literacy and cognitive science may appear to be highly specialized and recondite, it has (like basic research in other fields) gradually had a very significant cumulative impact on how many "generalists" and even ordinary citizens now think about the entire process of education.
Recently, for example, more than one statewide board of education has elected to substitute traditional stories and serious literature as the basis of its elementary- and middle-school reading curriculum, in place of the simplified "basal" reader" textbooks which had been used previously. It is highly unlikely that this change would have happened if a number of research projects--resulting in books such as Learning to Read in American Schools, edited by Professor Richard Anderson and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois--had not demonstrated the urgency of making such a change.
Even highly popular books of a rather general kind have drawn heavily on such research in order to advocate quite explicit programs of curricular reform: E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, for example, devotes major chapters to "The Discovery of the Schema" and "Research on Background Knowledge," drawing heavily on the work of Professor Robert Glaser (Co-Director of the Learning and Research Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh), Professor Richard Anderson, and others. Whether one agrees with Professor Hirsch's own proposals for reform is not the issue. The point, rather, is that basic research in the field of literacy has now begun to reach a point of maturity and substantiality, and its results are beginning to be broadly disseminated. Teachers, administrators, school-board members, and others--who may never have read the original research reports or technical studies--are being influenced by such work, simply because of the gradual diffusion process that has taken place in recent years.
While an investment in significant new research was one possible alternative for the Foundation, it seemed equally important to consider ways in which actual school practice might be affected even more directly. Were there important projects-involving efforts to re-design the ways in which individual schools or entire school-districts approached aspects of literacy--that were in need of support? If so, how could one identify the best such projects--those which seemed thoughtfully conceived, that were informed by recent research, and that were also concerned to monitor and evaluate the results of their efforts? Here, the problem was not any lack of current experiments; instead the question was how to make thoughtful choices, since a major goal of the Foundation's literacy program was to assist projects that might possibly have a broad and general impact on the field as a whole.
What emerged from this process of analysis is a Foundation initiative in literacy that has the following points of focus:
First, the goal of the program is ultimately a practical one: to undertake a carefully selected number of projects intended to help improve the literacy skills of school students, in the hope that such students can gain increased opportunities to lead more effective, productive, and satisfying lives.
Second, while the needs in the field of adult literacy are extremely important and pressing, the Foundation has decided to concentrate primarily on school children in grades K-8, with possible extensions into the high-school years or pre-school years.
Third, some substantial part of the Foundation's program will be devoted to the special difficulties confronted by "at-risk" students, and to the complex challenges (experienced by teachers and students alike) which often exist in classrooms and schools that are highly diverse from an ethnic, cultural, or racial point of view.
Fourth, the conception of literacy will include the development of both fundamental and advanced skills in a set of linked fields--including reasoning and argumentation, speaking, reading, and writing--across the major subject-matter areas relevant primarily to the K-8 curriculum. Consequently, the Foundation's program will be concerned with important aspects of literacy in humanistic subjects (such as literature), in some social sciences (especially history), and in selected sciences and mathematics.
Fifth, the program will seek to strike a balance between support for significant research, for experimental or "demonstration" projects undertaken collaboratively by researchers and schoolteachers, and for more applied projects that can put into practice ideas and approaches that have proven to be effective in certain contexts and are ready to be adapted--sensitively and flexibly--to new situations.
In keeping with the priorities and guidelines just described, the Trustees of the Foundation approved three initial grants at the December 1988 meeting. Each has a strong research component, but each also involves collaboration between research groups and public schools.
One grant--to the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh--focuses upon the social sciences and will explore the kinds of reasoning or thinking characteristic of work in subjects such as history. How do "experts" in such fields go about the task of sifting and organizing materials and of constructing persuasive arguments? How can young students be taught to identify and evaluate evidence that is pertinent to a particular historical event? How can they be taught to marshall evidence and ideas in order to prove important points? Once they have gained experience in argumentation, how can they be helped to write essays that are more coherent, precise, and compelling?
A second grant, to Carnegie-Mellon University, will concentrate upon specific aspects of scientific literacy. The project will include research into the kinds of difficulties which many young students experience as they begin to study certain topics in science and mathematics. This research will be closely linked to quite practical projects, including an analysis of how important scientific materials are presented and explained in textbooks as well as in teacher presentations. Finally, a great deal of emphasis will be placed on student writing, with particular attention paid to the problems that students have in mastering and using scientific terms and in organizing scientific facts or evidence in a clear and logical manner.
A third grant was awarded to the recently established Literacies Institute, a collaborative effort involving teachers from several public-school districts and faculty members from a number of Boston-area institutions (including Boston University, Harvard, BBN Laboratories, MIT, and the Education Development Center [EDC]). The Institute is located at EDC and will focus specifically on children in school settings that are highly diverse from an ethnic or racial point of view. Research is intended to increase our knowledge of the ways in which the information, attitudes, and literacy "styles" of students from different cultural backgrounds interact with the expectations, structures, and culture of school settings. Student storytelling, writing (especially of narratives), and the reading of different types of literature will provide one important context for the pursuit of such research. Analogous projects will focus on social-science materials and on selected topics in science. An equally important characteristic of the project will be the extent to which researchers and schoolteachers will work together as teams--usually in classrooms, but in special workshops as well--in order to develop and refine curricular and pedagogical approaches that can work more effectively in multi-cultural school settings.
The Foundation expects its Literacy program to remain relatively modest in scale and scope, and we do not want to raise false expectations concerning the number of new proposals that can be funded. Particularly during this initial stage, there are no detailed program guidelines or explicit "Requests for Proposals." Dr. Gardner Lindzey, currently the Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, California, will be working with the Foundation as its chief advisor for the program. He will chair a panel of experts--composed of individuals with different kinds of experience in the literacy field--whose purpose will be to evaluate projects which the Foundation might support. The number of such projects will remain small, and the main responsibility for soliciting proposals will rest with Dr. Lindzey, assisted by members of the Foundation staff and the special panel.
Neil L. Rudenstine
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
140 East 62nd Street
New York, NY 10021