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

Part One: Why It Matters: The Increasing Role of Reading Literacy in the Pursuit of Equity, Opportunity, and Prosperity

Evidence clearly shows that increasing disparities in opportunity and the resulting gaps in human and social capital have significant impacts on both adult outcomes and the transmission of opportunity from one generation to the next. ... We want to see many more children, irrespective of the circumstances in which they are born and grow, develop critical skills and enrich their social capital, enabling them to reach their full potential as workers, parents, community members, and citizens. Ideally, this would require us to address not only the disparities in opportunity for future generations of children, but also the widening gaps in educational, social, and economic outcomes of the current generation of students and adults.

The landscape of opportunity in America today is not simply the result of forces beyond our control. Certainly, globalization and technological innovation will continue to accelerate and both will reshape workplaces and the labor markets attached to them. As a result, both as individuals and as a nation, we will need to continually adapt to rapidly changing economic and social contexts. But the stratified nature of opportunity, with access that varies based on economic status, geographic location, and race and ethnicity, has been strongly impacted by a range of choices made over time by policymakers at all levels of government, as well as by corporations and individuals.

Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands

Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America 6

The evidence that education and skills are associated with individual prosperity and economic success is accumulating.7 Figure 2 shows the increasing gaps in men's and women's wages (as measured by real weekly earnings) since the 1960s based on education level. Not only are the most educated doing better, but the least educated are doing worse. Further, when direct measures of literacy and numeracy skills are considered, there is an additional gap not accounted for by education level alone. That is, it not only matters that one graduates, but that one acquires the skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace.8

There has also been a parallel increase in the necessity of enhanced digital skills in everyday life. Transactions with employers, doctors, and government agencies are increasingly conducted online. Many job applications are digital; scheduling appointments or accessing results of tests are frequently conducted online; student records are accessible to parents on the web. Digital navigation, searching, access to digital devices, and the internet are no longer optional lifestyle choices but functional literacy necessities. And this is an area that the United States is not excelling in—over 60 percent of adults are demonstrating only limited skills needed to acquire, evaluate, organize, and utilize information found in digital environments.9

Figure 2: Changes in Real Wage Levels of Full-Time U.S. Workers by Gender and Education, 1963 – 2012

The U.S. education system itself has been historically uneven in the allocation of quality educational services. African-Americans have had to use the court system to fight for basic civil rights and equality of education. Language and linguistic immigrant minority groups are the fastest growing demographic subpopulation in the United States, but schools are largely unprepared for adapting services to their needs. More generally, students concentrated in low-income neighborhoods attending underfunded schools show large achievement gaps that are becoming persistent across generations. The Jeffersonian aspiration was that our education system would aid in creating a more level playing field of achievement and skills so all Americans could enjoy at least a prerequisite level of human capital—the knowledge, skills, and experiences needed to seek happiness and prosperity. It was probably not intended to reproduce or reinforce existing differences. However, the U.S. educational system over the past several decades has been stratifying human capital based on social capital; in other words, there has been a vicious cycle where better education is found (and shared) where there is already greater prosperity. By social capital we refer to the family structures and social networks into which children are born and raised, the behavioral norms they develop, and the trust that connects members of their communities. We need not deny the existence of individual differences in ability or talent, but we should be able to provide instruction in a set of skills achievable by most. The education system should not simply distribute educational opportunities based on where one is born, the social network of family and friends, or even by cultural and behavioral attitudes and beliefs, yet evidence is accumulating that this is what is occurring.10 Once identified as a problem, however, this is a trend that we can seek to reverse with systematic, sustained leadership applying research-based evidence to policy and practices.

It is against this backdrop of national economic, social, and literacy concerns that the RfU initiative was launched. Large disparities in both human and social capital that are present early in life tend to magnify over time and stabilize across generations. Concomitantly, the distribution of high-quality educational experiences is increasingly associated with the social capital of the environment in which one is born. While education level is associated with higher economic outcomes, the strength of this relationship is tempered by skills, especially those sophisticated proficiencies required to succeed in a modern economy. Although there are disparities across different groups with respect to their access to technology, lack of resources is an insufficient excuse for not teaching and supporting advanced comprehension skills for application in today's digitally rich literacy environment. As a nation, we must grow together and not leave anyone behind. We need to rally around a common, aspirational goal.


6 Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands, Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2016), 40-41.

7 Kirsch et al., America's Perfect Storm; Carbonaro, "Cross-National Differences," 1819-1842.

8 Goodman et al., Literacy, Numeracy.

9 OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013.

10 Kirsch et al., Choosing Our Future.