Almost 30 years after the landmark study A Nation at Risk, and the subsequent hundreds of billions spent trying to ramp-up children’s mastery of basic skills through Head Start, Title 1 and No Child Left Behind, American school performance is stuck in wet cement. In the United States today, the majority of low-income children and a shocking one-third of their more affluent peers are behind when it comes to one key predictor of future achievement: fourth grade reading. Only 14 percent of African-American and 17 percent of Hispanic children are deemed “proficient” readers in fourth grade as judged by the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.
Why is fourth grade so important? Because if children are not well on their way toward being confident readers by the age of 10, they will fall progressively behind in learning complex academic content. Researchers have found a nearly 80 percent correlation between being two years behind in reading at the 4th grade mark and dropping out of high school later.
But instead of meeting these pressing needs with modern approaches and new technologies, national education policy has unintentionally turned many of our schools into test-prep academies focused on standardized skill sets in a world that demands higher-level critical thinking. Policymakers also have ignored the central modernizing force of the 21st century—the creative media tools that have transformed nearly every element of life today except schools. In this policy brief, we suggest a new way to get over the early learning hump: Create a Digital Teacher Corps to unleash the untapped power of digital media to boost literacy among our most vulnerable children.
The model for this proposal is Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit civic enterprise that also receives some public funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service. We challenge U.S. foundations to create a competition for the best design for a non-profit organization focused on a specific goal: Ensure that 80 percent of all 10-year-olds are competent readers by 2020. The winning design would receive seed money to launch the Digital Teacher Corps, which would recruit and dispatch digitally proficient teachers into low-income school districts where they are most needed.