100% Literacy for all of our Children: We Guarantee It!
by Dr. Lynell Burmark
Executive Director, 1000 Days to Success School Network • Associate, Thornburg Center for Professional Development
MultiMedia Schools • January/February 2001
There might as well be a bumper sticker that says, "Read or go to jail."

This surly sentiment isn't what the law should be. But the reality is that, in California at least, if you don't know how to read by the end of fourth grade, the state is building you a prison cell. It knows the sad statistics: If you can't read by then, your most likely fate as an adult is to live behind bars.

Remember when our literacy objectives were, "Seventy-five percent of the students will be able to read grade-level texts with 80 percent accuracy by the end of the second grade"? Remember when teachers felt they were doing a good job when they achieved such ambitious benchmarks? Remember when there were jobs for people who did not know how to read?

Times have changed. As the National Research Council reports in its landmark publication, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children: "Reading is essential to success.... In a technological society, the demands for higher literacy are ever increasing, creating more grievous consequences for those who fall short." The vast majority of welfare recipients are without high school or GED diplomas; most cannot read above fifth grade level. Every corporate leader questioned expresses the view that illiteracy profoundly damages the productivity of workers and restricts American competitiveness in the global marketplace. Studies consistently demonstrate that poor readers suffer worse health and submit more insurance claims than good readers. The cost of all this, in economic impact as well as human suffering, is staggering. It represents billions of dollars lost in the American economy and, even more importantly, it shortchanges the lives and opportunities of millions of Americans.

So who in his right mind would dare to suggest as a realistic, attainable objective that every child be taught to read, without fail and without excuse? Many educators have understandably taken the default position of saying it can't be done.

Until now.

Stephen Kay, principal of Scott Lane Elementary School, in Santa Clara, California, is the nation's first educator to not only establish 100 percent literacy as an intractable objective, but also to create a unique, official warranty program to guarantee that his students will all learn to read.

"Just 20 years or so ago," Kay explains, "we expected a sizable percentage of students to go through school without learning to read. Today the social climate has changed. People are no longer willing to see a quarter, a third of their kids fail to read. We decided that it was important to finally take a stand on 100 percent literacy, for two main reasons. First, of course, is that it's desperately necessary, even though no one's figured out how to accomplish it before. Second, we're sure 100 percent literacy is an historic inexorability."

Kay points to other social currents that have shifted in recent years as examples of what he means. The emergence of the designated driver and the increasing backlash against smoking are trends barely imaginable only years ago. But even drinking and smoking do not impact society the way literacy does.

The time has come to preempt rap sheets with resumes, and the place to start is the early literacy classroom.

Scott Lane Elementary School has become a classic David-and-Goliath story. Located in the heart of the industrial section of the Silicon Valley, 69 percent of the students receive federally subsidized lunches. As most families live in month-to-month rentals and most parents change jobs as soon as they can find a better one, the neighborhood serves as a kind of half-way house between immigration or unemployment and the securing of a decent job. Continuity in the children's education is less of a priority than finding employment to put food on the table and a roof over the family's head. Half the students are learning English as a second language, with 23 native languages spoken on campus. The ethnic makeup of the student population represents the diversity of people who have come to work in the Silicon Valley: 47 percent Hispanic and 21 percent Asian, with Punjabis and Bosnian refugees as the fastest-growing groups. Property within a mile of the school has been largely taken over by storage rental trailers, high-tech companies, apartment and retirement buildings, and a motley assortment of motels and small businesses. Over a third of the families are wedged into a row of low-income apartment buildings along one street, one block north of the school. One block east of the school is a strip mall featuring a bar, a liquor store, an adult bookstore, and an X-rated video rental shop.

With the most "at-risk" population in the school district, Scott Lane was hardly the logical school to make a public commitment to 100 percent literacy. But, as the principal asked one skeptical parent, "Are you willing to point out to me which children we should allow to fail?"

No hyperbole. No excuses. Just a simple goal of 100 percent literacy, every student reading at or above grade level by the end of the second grade. Literacy is being pursued with a dramatic level of commitment, represented by the school's reading warranty program that pledges every child entering kindergarten will learn to read over the next 1,000 days. (Kay got the concept of 1,000 days in 1997, while listening to the radio, hearing there were a thousand days left in the century, and forming his timetable with that in mind.)

From the realization of the 1,000 days timeframe Kay further developed his concept of a warranty program. He was buying a new set of tires for his car and was suddenly struck by the warranty that came with them. "I realized the warranty was a shared agreement between the customer and the tire manufacturer," he recalls. "From that experience, I developed the metaphor of a warranty program for achieving literacy. Our reading guarantee is designed to share responsibility. The school commits to do all it can, but parents must also pledge to work at home with their children, to provide support, keep them in regular attendance, have regular medical checkups, and to work with the teacher and the school."

Scott Lane quickly adopted a guerilla approach to teaching literacy, using every conceivable resource—counseling interventions, uninterrupted literacy blocks, staff development, cross-age tutoring, volunteer reading buddies, and the Waterford Early Reading Program software.

Technology, in particular, has proven vital to Scott Lane's dramatic reading goal. While the average American child enters kindergarten with around 3,000 hours of language experience, most Scott Lane kindergartners have never been read to and don't even know the letters of their own names. How can one teacher make up 3,000 hours times 20 students? Only with technological tools. The comprehensive Waterford computer-based reading program, for example, draws children to computers like magnets. Experiencing success on the computers has boosted the children's confidence while creating dramatic gains in their reading scores. I was fortunate to be present at one dramatic example of success, during Waterford's year-end testing of kindergartners. When the tester walked in with one shy little boy, I was sure he would not be able to answer any of the questions. To my surprise, when asked if he knew the alphabet, he burst into song with a perfect and loud rendition of his favorite Waterford melody! (The Waterford software offers 27 different songs to teach the alphabet to children.)

This incident also demonstrates one of the most significant aspects of the Waterford program—its multiple intelligences approach to teaching reading, particularly its use of music. Any effort to achieve a goal this sweeping must employ multiple intelligences in order to ensure that every child's way of learning is accommodated and honored.

Is the warranty working? Are the efforts paying off?

As measured by the Waterford Reading Inventory, there were significant gains in every criterion. The average percentage of kindergarten students able to identify final phonemes, for example, jumped an astonishing 72 percent. Identification of initial phonemes improved by 65 percent. The ability to create rhyming words showed a 50 percent gain. Pre-testing showed only three students scoring above 80 percent in identification of letter sounds. Post-testing showed 56 students with above 80 percent scores.

Literacy Observation Survey Results
Date of Testing  2nd graders at/above grade level
May 1997 42 percent
May 1998 67 percent
May 1999 75 percent
May 2000 98 percent

As measured by the Literacy Observation Survey (administered quarterly, district-wide), the book level benchmark used for the end of second grade is Level 22, 95 percent accuracy/Independent Reading (see table at right).

Daring moves in education are always high-risk. This one is no exception, although its risks are sharply balanced by how much there is to gain. Scott Lane School has drawn national attention for its 100 percent literacy program and has fired the imagination of other schools. The strangely out-of-place term "failure" would be more than mere irony in this situation. Were it to occur, flames of inspiration and hope would be cruelly snuffed out, and it is grim speculation to consider how long before they might dare ignite again.

But nobody said making history was easy. Now there's a growing network of schools spreading nationwide that is committed to the vision, putting its warranties where its mouth is. Educators, politicians, and the public are starting to realize these people are very serious, despite the tremendous historical odds against them. The 1,000 Days to Success network sees itself in the vanguard of a decisive moment in time. If they're right, the world will never be the same.

For more information about Scott Lane School and the 1,000 Days Network, visit our Web site at http://1000-days.org.

For an illustrated account of the establishment of the reading warranty program at Scott Lane Elementary, visit the Thornburg Center Web site: www.tcpd.org/burmark/special/reading/warranty.html.
 
 

Communications to the author can be sent to Dr. Lynell Burmark, Associate, Thornburg Center for Professional Development; 713 Saranac Drive, Sunnyvale, CA 94087; phone: 408/733-0288; fax: 408/732-4316; e-mail: lynellb@aol.com.
 

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