Today I'd like to call attention to an editorial, titled "WHY D.C. CAN'T READ," that appeared in Monday's Washington Post. The article is written by my friend David Nicholson, a D.C. writer who used to work at the Post's Book Review.
I first met David about three decades back when we were both attending Federal City College. We were both writers, shared interests in things like the early novels of Ishmael Reed, and loved music. David was a central figure in getting a literary mag off the ground at the school, and later was the founder of BLACK FILM REVIEW. In the years since, our ideological paths have diverged sharply, but we continue to share a deep concern for public educaton in the United States.
David's editorial makes a connection you'd think would be made more often. On the one hand we have a truly disastrous record of reading instruction in the nation's capital. As David points out:
"a third of the city's high school students drop out without graduating. An equal percentage of District adults read at or below the third-grade level."
On the other hand we have the continuing assault on library resources in the public schools. Why have so few of the thousands of people commenting on public education drawn the line that leads straight from one of these facts to the other?
David's column takes off from the case of Lynn Kaufman, an activist librarian who had started an innovative and effective reading program at Coolidge High School. A few weeks ago her position was eliminated. D.C.'s Master Plan for education requires librarians at the elementary and middle school levels (though the resources planned in the master plan are minimal at best), but there are no requirements in the plan for librarians at the High School level. As Kaufman discovered in her research, and Nicholson reports, more than half the schools in D.C, including seven high schools, have no librarian at all.
This is a national problem, not a problem peculiar to urban areas or to D.C. -- and it is a problem that has been growing. In David Nicholson's words, we inhabit a society that "is committed to a kind of industrial education that focuses on measurable outcomes."
We already have before us the measurable outcome of the assaults on school libraries. Those of us who teach in universities see the results of this problem on our campuses every day. No matter what approach to the teaching of reading one might favor, one thing is clear. You cannot solve our schools' deficiencies in reading by eliminating librarians and the libraries they build.