Executive Perspective

Literacy Leadership: From Lynch Mob to Parade

by Paul D. Houston

 Well, here we are in the New Year. The party favors have been thrown away along with the New Year's resolutions. The wrapping paper has been recycled and the tree ornaments banished to storage. It has crossed my mind how much education resembles an overloaded Christmas tree. It is this big beautiful thing that is cut off from its roots, loaded down with so many glittering objects that its original beauty has been lost.

Every time society has a challenge, education is asked to step in. Consequently we have been inundated with add-ons to the programs and curriculum until we have become the kings and queens of small ideas. Scratch a school administrator and you will find a thousand ideas for improving schools just under the surface. And we just add them to the tree.

The problem is that small ideas, while useful, don't create a center of gravity or a force powerful enough to change things. That is one reason education has become a place where incremental improvement is the only way. The problem, of course, is that we are living in times where incremental gains aren't enough. What we need is the power of big ideas.

Cutting Excuses
The notion of universal literacy is one of the biggest ideas I have run across. Every child reading. No excuses. Of course, there isn't an educator who will not claim to believe that that is the goal. The problem is, if it is, why are such a large number of our children falling so short of it?

The reasons are many. Many of our schools are grappling with horrendous social conditions that inhibit children's learning. We are torn in a thousand directions by competing mandates. We have more reading programs than we have children to take them. Teachers aren't adequately trained to do the job and so it goes.

The problem, of course, is that these are all excuses. Good excuses, but nonetheless. And we are living in a world where these excuses aren't acceptable because to lack basic literacy skills dooms a child to a lifetime of failure and puts a huge drag on our economic and political systems.

There is no question that literacy is a gateway issue. Without it, the rest of the school day is just time passing. If you can't read you can't function in school, and without it you can't function outside of school. So if we were to do only one thing, literacy should be it. We have to open that gate wide so that children can pass through it to find their future.

The good thing about the literacy issue is that while battles have raged over which ways to deliver it—whole language or phonics, for example—virtually no one disagrees that it is important. From the conservative right to the radical left, everyone thinks all children in America deserve to be literate as a basic right. For that reason, it is a common ground issue. It is one that can bring people together. To quote President Bush, as far as issues go, "It is a uniter, not a divider." In a world where opposition to ideas is rampant, the smart school administrator should latch onto this one. It will have lots of friends and few enemies.

Total Success
People are hungering for leadership. Our profession is expected to provide it. Getting in front on the literacy issue allows the school administrator to get in front of the lynch mob and make it look like a parade. If all school leaders in America made a pledge that they would dedicate themselves to seeing that their schools and school systems focus first and foremost on literacy as the central reason for being and that they would accept nothing short of total success—all children reading by the end of 3rd grade—it would be an act of leadership the likes of which we have not seen in schools.

AASA feels so strongly about this that we have teamed up with an unlikely partner—the Education Commission of the States—to develop a Leadership for Literacy Foundation that will provide support and focus for this issue. We realize state policymakers will have to become a lot smarter about the topic so that policies that move us toward making every child literate are at the forefront of state activity. We also know that local school leaders are going to have to become much better at creating strategic actions to lead local systems toward this goal.

Beyond pledging full leadership to this issue, school leaders will need to act. It will require a series of strategic interventions in what schools do and how they do it. We are going to have to make some really tough decisions on what programs work and get rid of the ones that don't—even if they are sacred cows. We are going to have to make sure that the best teachers are placed with the hardest-to-educate children. We will have to see that principals focus their time and energy on supervising instruction and embedding best practices into their classrooms.

In short, we are going to have to act as instructional leaders—what a concept! This issue will allow us to become what we have always said we were. And that would reconnect us to our roots and clear out our branches so that our children can grow into the full possibility of their dreams. Every child reading by 3rd grade. Now there's a New Year's resolution worth keeping.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail:phouston@aasa.org