All this talk of science and innovation might lead one to think that literacy and early education are sliding down a notch on the Administration’s priority list. Let’s hope not. In fact, this is an opportunity to demonstrate how tightly linked these three pieces are. We won’t create smart scientists without helping students develop rigorous reading skills, and those reading skills will be hard to develop without giving children a strong foundation of early learning, starting long before kindergarten and continuing unabated throughout the early grades of elementary school.
A recent forum at the American Enterprise Institute, perhaps timed to ensure that the literacy problem isn’t forgotten, highlighted the urgency of improving reading instruction. “It is my belief that if we don’t figure out how to teach reading and writing better,” said Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools and a panelist at the event, “any kind of school reform will be ornaments on a dead tree.”
Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent for Chicago Public Schools, offered his city as an example of failed approaches so far, recounting 20 years of literacy initiatives including the Chicago Reading Initiative and Reading First. Despite it all, he said, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows “flat” achievement over the years, and a recent analysis of reading scores showed that only 17 percent of students in the city are reading proficiently.
A video making the rounds on the Internet provides a compelling case in point. It is narrated by Paul Anderson, a teacher at Bozeman High School in Montana who broadcasts his ideas on YouTube, and focuses on how Anderson uses gaming technology in his A.P. biology course. It's fascinating stuff, but listen closely to what Anderson has to say about reading:
Anderson stresses on two separate occasions that his students will only succeed if they understand what they are reading. “Reading comprehension is a big deal,” Anderson says. Without strong reading skills, his students cannot grasp the scientific concepts required for scoring well in the game and doing well in his class.
The push for better STEM education is important, and there’s little doubt that we need more teachers with backgrounds in science and engineering. In fact, this movement should also include pre-K, kindergarten and early-grades teachers trained in how to take advantage of young children’s natural curiosities by introducing them to the fundamentals of scientific inquiry. But we cannot lose sight of the literacy skills that today’s students will need to succeed as tomorrow’s scientists, engineers and inventors. We must push for investments that provide good literacy instruction throughout school and establish a strong base of language development in children’s earliest years.
To build a new generation of innovators, we have to recognize the critical connections between STEM, literacy and early learning.
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