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Retooling Literacy Education for the Twenty-First Century: Key Findings of the Reading for Understanding Initiative and Their Implications


There most certainly is no 'one size fits all' approach to closing the gaps in human and social capital that we see today. Adaptive flexibility will be an essential characteristic of any intervention effort. The specific problems to be tackled, the range of resources available, and the constraints in a particular context will vary across communities and regions. As [William T. Grant Foundation President] Adam Gamoran urged, we need to move beyond 'what works to what works for whom and under what circumstances.' The economic and workforce challenges presented by emerging technologies and globalization vary by industry and may require different approaches in one region or locality than in another. Social challenges also vary by location and across racial and ethnic groups. Effective initiatives must involve the negotiation and integration of the perspectives of stakeholders with different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise, with a focus on bringing them to the point of coherent, collective action.

Kirsch et al., Choosing Our Future

The work of the RfU initiative has not yet concluded. While all of the six project teams have finished their grants, the mining and reporting on the data collected will go on for years, as well as the development and dissemination of the instruction and assessment products that were initiated. For example, the National Academy of Education is working on a synthesis of the RfU project, with expected delivery of the report and supplemental monographs on specific issues by 2020.

In this report, the authors attempted to capture and communicate some key insights that can serve as principles for action now. Using the "race to the moon" metaphor, we suggested that change would require a shared vision that places value on the importance of improving reading development for all citizens. Second, the destination must be clear: What it means to be a proficient reader in the twenty-first century has changed, and assessment and instruction should follow suit. Third, change requires engineering a system that impacts policy through assessment, instruction, curriculum, professional development, and implementation of innovation for sustainability and continuous improvement. Adapting to the gradual accumulation of solid, stable empirical findings of research is important, but so too is learning to adapt educational practices to better serve children of today, large percentages of whom continue to fail to achieve reading comprehension levels at the standards we have set for our nation. In the spirit of empirical science, we recommend that innovations in policies and practices should be considered and implemented where needed, but with an eye toward understanding better what works for whom and when. The insights here hopefully can serve as a foundation for such innovation.