Stagnation of Reading Scores: Bad News for Equality?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that reading scores in the nations' schools are not improving


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The New York Times, in reporting the lag of improvements of elementary and middle-school reading scores behind math test results in the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress, notes that unlike mathematics which is usually left to the schools,

[r]eading achievement... reflects not only the quality of reading instruction in school classrooms, they said, but also factors like whether parents read to children and how much time students read on their own outside school. And many children in the United States are spending less time reading on their own.

A provocative survey on the history and future of reading appeared in the Annual Review of Sociology (text available through many libraries) a few years ago. Wendy Griswold,Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright of the Northwestern University sociology department, observed:

Although contemporary commentators deplore the decline of "the reading habit" or "literary reading," historically the era of mass reading, which lasted from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century in northwestern Europe and North America, was the anomaly. We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.

A major question, as recognized by the authors, is whether the apparent return of reading culture to its historically small core is further bad news for economic equality. Even or especially in the 1930s there was a strong culture of mass literacy and rigorous education even in many non-elite public schools, as obituaries of Hillary Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, remind us. The reading (and drawing) habits of the Depression produced some of the finest children's book writers and artists, like William Steig and Maurice Sendak.

The authors weren't sure whether the narrowing of the reading class would accelerate inequality.There are obviously many extremely non-readers, and struggling literati. As my friend the writer Daniel Akst argued 10 years ago, "A Corner Office Has Little Room for Books." But however true this may be in many business careers, for the 99 percent, "the reading habit" will probably remain a means of access to other undergraduate and professional school opportunities, whether or not it persists after graduation. So its early stagnation or decline should be grounds for concern.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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