U.S. Kids Lag in Reading

There's been a lot of hand wringing about how the United States is falling behind in science education. Now, it looks as though America may be losing its edge in reading and literacy, too. Six years after No Child Left Behind was signed into law—and U.S. schools began throwing resources into teaching all kinds of kids to read and read well—fourth-graders in the United States are doing no better in reading than they were in 2001, according to the results of an international reading test released this week.

Fourth-grade students from 10 countries and jurisdictions—including Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Sweden and Canada—did better than American kids, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released by Boston College. In 2001 only three countries did better than U.S. kids in reading.

Here's what's puzzling: If you believe the numbers the U.S. Department of Education churns out, the reading scores of American fourth-graders should be rising. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, known as the Nation’s Report Card, fourth-grade reading scores have improved—and not just a little. Between 2001 and 2007, according to the Department of Education, reading scores for fourth-graders jumped eight points, from 213 to 221. Eighth-grade reading scores have remained flat.

Those national scores have been hailed by supporters of No Child Left Behind as evidence that the controversial federal education reform law is working. To be sure, teachers are doing their level best to comply. To make sure kids meet the state guidelines, as the law mandates, classrooms—even in kindergarten and first grade—have adopted literacy-soaked curriculums and focused more of the school day on reading instruction, often at the expense of recess, gym and even science and social studies. The PIRLS data confirms that the hours teacher spend on explicit reading instruction is higher in the United States than the international average.

So why are American kids falling behind internationally? Maybe because school can't do everything. According to a report released last week by the National Endowment for the Arts, 60 percent of 8-to-10-year-olds report reading less than 30 minutes a day for pleasure. Almost 40 percent read less than five minutes a day. At the same time, the governments in Hong Kong and Singapore, which leapfrogged over the United States' test scores between 2001 and 2007, have launched massive public awareness campaigns touting the importance of reading in school and at home.

Anyone for a trip to the library?