Americans can be reassured that at least their schools have held their own in teaching reading over the last decade. But new studies reflect major problems for the nation and for California in gaining quality education. Among the priorities identified in these studies are better teaching for black and Latino students, richer and more effective programs for the upper grades, and special care for those who read superbly as well as those who read poorly or do not read at all.
The National Assessment of Education Progress found that students in general read at least as well now as they did in 1971, when the assessments were initiated. The greatest improvement was shown by minority students: The number of black 9-year-olds unable to perform rudimentary reading has fallen in 10 years from 30% to 16%. But the study also found that a 17-year-old black or Latino student on the average still reads no better than a 13-year-old white student.
Furthermore, reading scores are not going up significantly for all 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds, and only one 17-year-old out of each 20 reads at an advanced, or college, level. These findings point not only to the difficulty that schools have in keeping students interested in reading as they grow up, but also to the critical importance of trying harder to stimulate that interest.
Television competes detrimentally for youngsters' interest. The assessment found that youngsters who watch TV six or more hours each day had lower reading skills. More than one-fourth of the 9-year-olds reported watching at least six hours a day.
A separate report draws a somewhat brighter picture for California schools. Michael Kirst of Stanford University and Allen Odden of the University of Southern California found that California public schools have increased college-level classes in all areas by 34% since the state passed key reforms two years ago. Schools have used the money that accompanied the reforms to buy new textbooks, pay teachers more, lengthen school days and expand summer school. "We've turned the corner and things are getting better," Kirst said.
But California still has much to do. Although the state's high-school seniors improved their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test more this year than in the past 20 years, they still trail the national average. The state spends less per pupil than the national average. And California, with Utah, has the largest classes in the United States.
The state has made a start with legislation sponsored by state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) that reduces sizes of key high-school classes in English, mathematics, science and history. The legislation gives momentum to the education reforms that Gov. George Deukmejian signed into law two years ago.