October 4, 2012
The current issue of American Educator contains a wonderful article called, "Worlds Apart: One City, Two Libraries, and Ten Years of Watching Inequality Grow." The piece details a ten-year study of two libraries in the city of Philadelphia. What it really does, however is illuminate all of the social issues that affect literacy acquisition.
Like most modern cities, Philadelphia contains affluent areas and areas mired in poverty. Enter the William Penn Foundation, which launched a $20 million dollar program in 1996 to improve library branches. The question then became, could equally-funded libraries level the playing field for impoverished students?
Over the ten year study, researchers found that while the libraries contained similar resources, the way in which they were used was different. In the Lillian Marrero library, located in what the authors called "The Philadelphia Badlands," the adults using the library needed the computer resources to apply for jobs, educate themselves, etc. Adult patrons in this library often work long hours at low-paying jobs, yet researchers reported seeing certain patrons regularly in the Lillian Marero library. In this library, compared with the library in the wealthier, Chestnut Hill neighborhood, there was little interaction between parents and children. "In Chestnut Hill, for every hour, 47 minutes is spent by an adult reading to a child. During the same time period, not one adult entered the preschool area in Lillian Marrero."
After ten years of study, researchers noted that in the young adult section of the Chestnut Hill library, 93 percent of teens were reading at their grade level, with 7 percent reading above level. In the Lillian Marero library, students read at their age level 58 percent of the time, with 42 percent of the time spent reading down. What do these statistics mean? Does parental involvement and home environment mean that much?
Now the skeptic in me has to ask, could these statistics be skewed by the fact that library patrons, presumably people who value literacy, were being studied? Certainly, the reading levels of the general student population in both neighborhoods must be lower. I know from personal experience, that not all families in a community take advantage of all the wonderful programs offered by a library. When I bring my own children to our public library, admittedly a small library in a small community, I consistently see the same children and parents. I know this microcosm is not reflective of all the caring, involved parents in my neighborhood. So while I don't think these ten years of statistics reveal the whole story, I am impressed that the study lasted ten years. Note, ten years. This wasn't some quick fix, latest buzz-word approach to measuring student growth. It takes time to accurately measure student growth. And it takes a lifetime to develop good readers.
As literacy educators, we know that good reading must be modeled for young children. We know that literacy acquisition begins during a child's infancy with spoken words, and grows as children are immersed in print-rich environments. Children need to see the adults in their lives reading for pleasure and information. For this reason, teachers in middle and upper grades must continue the read aloud as a model for all readers.
Knowing these truths about literacy acquisition, the article left me with some questions. Even with ten years and an investment of $20 million dollars, there are large disparities between the two ecomonic groups. Do public policy decisions that aim to level the playing field go far enough? Should we be doing more for the poorest among us? Is it fair to judge the achievements of the impoverished students against the achievements of middle-class and wealthy students? Is it fair to judge their teachers equally when so many outside factors are obviously impacting students' achievement or lack thereof?