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Education Reporter

Texas and New York Officials Disturbed by Illiteracy Crisis

Officials in Texas and New York admit that literacy rates among students are dismal: 25% of Texas schoolchildren and 20% of New York schoolchildren have failed to meet minimum literacy levels.

At the Texas Education Agency's Mid-Winter Conference, Texas Governor George W. Bush announced plans to spend $65 million to improve children's reading skills. Responding to the results of statewide reading tests, Bush stated, "Nothing stands to disrupt the future quite like the crisis at hand: Too many Texas schoolchildren cannot read."

Despite the fact that Texas spent $18 billion last year on public education, the test results show that 350,000 students, or one-fourth of those who participated, failed. Nearly one-fourth of those who failed were 3rd or 4th graders. "What is shocking," Bush said, "is that there are Texas teenagers who are so illiterate they can't even figure out the word 'rut'. Think about it: We've got high schoolers well on their way to getting stuck in a three-letter word that they can't even comprehend."

In making reading improvement the top priority of his administration, the governor will set goals and keep schools accountable for meeting them. He is not interested in mandating what or how the schools teach, nor does he want to change the system. Bush plans on targeting $29 million of federal funds from the Academic 2000 program (Texas's version of Goals 2000) for kindergarten children through age four. Bush seeks $30 million in federal funds as well as another $35 million from the state legislature in an effort to quell the crisis in Texas classrooms.

New York's new state Education Commissioner, Richard Mills, has found that one in five 3rd-grade students, and two in five in New York City, cannot show minimum reading competency. If students can't read with a sense of confidence by the middle of their elementary school career, it will be hard for them to catch up and master any of the other skills they will need to compete in the world, he said.

Although Mills acknowledges the undesirable, long-term consequences of this trend, it is not apparent whether he recommends a specific course of action to increase literacy. Rather, like Governor Bush, Mills is challenging educators and families to do "whatever is necessary" to improve literacy rates.

Sean Walmsley, a professor of reading education at the State University of New York at Albany, believes that the country's attention to this basic skill has lapsed. "I think we're in a period where literacy is not terribly much valued by society as a whole," he said.

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