WASHINGTON -- Declaring that every child has the right to "excellent reading instruction," the International Reading Association -- a nonpartisan group -- is calling on school districts across the country to concentrate more resources on reading specialists, classroom teachers and supplies rather than on standardized tests.
"Classrooms have changed very little in the last 45 years," said Carol Santa, president of the International Reading Association, at a National Press Club news conference Monday. "There is still just one teacher to 25 to 30 children in a classroom. Reforms that have taken place since 1965 only tapped the surface."
To move school reform forward, the group identified 10 reading "rights" for children, among them the right to:
Access to a wide variety of books and other reading materials in classroom, school and community libraries.
Access to reading specialists for struggling students.
Equal access to technology used for the improvement of reading instruction.
But officials of the group, while putting no specific price tag on their recommendations, acknowledge that such changes could be expensive.
"We realize that there has to be a lot of investment, especially in the poorer areas, to make up for the disparity in education across the country," said Richard Long, the group's Washington representative.
The association, based in Wilmington, Del., which claims members around the world, is an independent group of literacy advocates with a strong focus on public school reading instruction.
Santa said that carrying out the group's recommendations would require support from local communities willing to give teachers and school systems the flexibility to make changes.
"We need to work from the classroom out and not from the government down -- especially in poverty-stricken areas," said Santa. "If the support is not there, then it destroys the teachers' professionalism and their heart for teaching."
She said teachers need to be afforded the freedom to teach and not be forced into narrowing their curriculum to prepare for standardized tests.
"Standardized or assessment tests should be used to identify the strengths and weaknesses of students as well as an extension of teaching in the classroom," Santa said. "If teachers scrap their whole curriculum for a month just to prepare for one test, then they become graders who teach, instead of teachers who grade."
Alan E. Farstrup, executive director of the group, said teacher training should be a constant process.
"Teachers' education should just be beginning at the university level with a degree in education and continue at the school level throughout their career," he said. "It's important that we have highly trained teachers who meet the needs of individual students in not just the elementary level, but the middle and high school level as well."
Santa said mentoring programs for younger teachers and continuous staff development can increase teacher morale and decrease burnout.
"We need to create communities where teachers are always learning new things," she said. "Teachers need to feel prepared that they can handle a wide range of situations and be able to deal with all kinds of children's needs in the classroom."
Members of the group also said reading teachers should be given the chance to help struggling students in one-on-one settings.
Specialists `a dying breed'
"Students struggling with their reading should have the right to a reading specialist," Farstrup said. "Every school should have one, but unfortunately, they are becoming a dying breed. Many states are removing them and that runs counter to their efforts of improving reading."
Members of the group also urged school districts to avoid a patchwork approach to changes in reading instruction.
"Instead of taking one or two school reforms and using them across the board, we plan on looking at what each classroom needs," said Long.