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SuperKids Interview with
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley

Georgia Bauman

Following the release of the disturbing report on the decline of reading skills in America’s youth, SuperKids' education editor, Georgia Bauman, went to the U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, to learn the administration’s perspective on the issue. Here is what she learned.

Why have reading skills declined?
Is television to blame?
What can parents and teachers do?
What role can educational software and computers play?
How can parents promote learning at home? And how can a computer help?
Are home computers likely to be the next TV?
What are the most critical skills our kids must acquire?

Super Kids: Secretary Riley, can you provide any insight as to why our students’ reading scores have not improved since the 1970s?

Education Secretary Riley: Thank you for this question. Your readers should know that it is extraordinarily important. Put simply, for students to read well they must read a lot. Like so many things we do, reading is a skill we develop by doing it. Children must know from all parts of society that reading and the intellectual discipline it involves are important and necessary.

The answer to our reading problem is quite simple. Children who read well have parents or other significant adults who promote reading, and who talk to them about their ideas and experiences.

However, we must recognize that many children come from homes and schools where reading materials are not present or plentiful, where literacy activities, such as adults and children reading together or discussing the news together, do not take place enough or at all. This fact alone goes a long way in answering your question about why our children’s reading test scores are not where they could be, and why our children are not performing according to their highest individual potential.

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When the disappointing test results were announced, you were quoted as saying, “Too many kids are spending too little time reading and too much time watching mind-numbing television.” Is television really a major factor in the decline?

It is well known that students who watch the most television daily have the lowest average reading proficiency. [But] television in itself is not the monster that kills reading ability. After all, the information and storiesprovided by television could serve as material for discussion among children and adults, and as an impetus for further inquiry. But do we use the television to these advantageous ends? It appears that we do not.

Actually, the issue is much broader than this. We need to ask: do parents and other adults, including those in schools, spend time with children in ways that promote literacy, or is children’s literacy development neglected in the crush of our exceptionally busy schedules?

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What can parents and teachers do about it?

The answer is in many ways quite simple: Make sure that students read a lot. Just as research clearly shows the decline or lack of improvement in children’s reading skills, so too it clearly shows that the more children read and are read to the better they can read and learn all other subjects.

And do we act in terms of what we know from research? That is, do we provide our children with plenty of reading material? Do we read to our children? Do we read for our own pleasure and learning? Do we encourage our children to read? Do we introduce them to the library as a source of material for lifelong learning, and to the librarian who can help them choose their own books according to their own interests? When a child has trouble reading, do we make our best effort to find out why? Unfortunately, we may not yet be doing all that can be done.

By the way, no one reading method works for all children. Teaching reading to everyone at all times through phonics alone, or subskills alone, or whole language alone, for example, will not work.

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What do you see as the role of computer technology and educational software in the school of the future?

If computer use in schools over the past decade is any indication of its use in the future, then I can only see an increased role for computers and software.According to data published by my department’s National Center for Education Statistics in the Digest of Education Statistics 1994, the percentage of students using computers at school increased by 116 percent between 1984 and 1993. In 1993, 69 percent of elementary school students and 58 percent of high school students used computers in school.

Given that schools prepare students for further schooling and work, computer use in college and the workplace is also an indicator of the role computers must play in schools. In 1993, 55 percent of undergraduates used computers in school and 23 percent of them used computers at home for school work. In the same year, 46 percent of workers overall used computers on the job. A full third of the high school graduates used computers on the job that year.

These numbers indicate to me that the computer has already become an indispensable tool for learning and working, and will remain so in the future.As for the specific uses to which computers and software are and will be put, I see at least four:

1. Computers and software are tools that provide access to the sources of information from which we learn and become educated, and to the most current information. These sources include print and graphic material as well as people; they come from the United States as well as from the world beyond our borders.

The librarians who spoke recently at the inaugural lecture series of the Department of Education’s National Library of Education predict that in 5 years libraries will not have print material in their reference sections; in its place will be computer banks, CD-ROMs, laser discs, distance learning technology, and LANs (local area networks). Our schools are preparing students for this radically changed environment in which information will reside. Indeed, one librarian referred to the Internet as the greatest revolution in the information world since the printing press.

With computer technology, students today and in the future can locate and use information resources beyond the capacity of any of their peers before them. Moreover, with a teacher’s help and then independently, they can learn to organize a vast body of information so that the chances of creating new knowledge, alone or collaboratively, are greatly enhanced.

2. Because of the ability to revise that computer technology affords, students can more easily practice skills such as writing and mathematics, even composing music and creating art.

This capacity for revision, along with the availability of a variety of software, may better accommodate individual learning styles, and allow students to perfect their work. Perhaps the fact that their creations can reach a wider audience than was ever possible will also motivate students to produce work and perfect it.

3. With computer technology, students will be able to have access, through simulation, to environments often impossible for them to experience otherwise. For example, they can create the conditions under which driving a car, piloting, and space travel take place; they can produce an environment in which they can observe and test, economically, the laws of physics in relation to certain product design features; they can simulate a variety of conflict situations and test solutions for them.

4. Computer technology, if it is made widely available in our schools, will be the great equalizer across economic classes and geographic regions, for example. It can bring a wealth of learning opportunities to students in the poorest communities, and provide them with the same means for learning that students in the richest school districts have. It can bring the New York City Library, the Library of Congress, and university libraries from around the world to students living in the smallest and most remote rural communities. It can help students who face physical disabilities and other impediments learn, do research, and communicate in a wider community.

Still, in the midst of these wonderful learning opportunities afforded by computer technology, I propose a caution: for learning to take place, computers are not enough, are not the only necessary condition. Just as a willful hand is needed to open a book in order for learning to begin, so too it is with computers: they are the access and we are the access openers, the agents of our own learning. In addition, students will especially need solid critical thinking skills in order to judge, for example, the accuracy and relevance of the enormous amounts of information available to them.

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You have said that we need to promote learning at home as well as in school. How do you propose parents do this, and do you see computers as a potential part of that?

When talking about learning, I believe a first consideration must be the conditions in which learning can take place. We know from research a couple of important things on this topic. Thirty years of research has demonstrated clearly that parents’ involvement in their children’s education is more important to the success of that child at all levels of schooling than family income or parents’ education.

Parents are a child’s first teacher. Moreover, children are in school only about 6 hours a day; this means that they rely on their parents or other significant adults for their learning during the greatest portion of their waking hours. It is crucial, therefore, to a child’s well being that his or her parents demonstrate the importance of learning by actively involving themselves in their child’s education.

Reading a book to a child counts as being actively involved in their learning; and helping them learn to use a computer, or, what is perhaps more likely, learning computer skills from children, also counts as involvement. Computer use can be another form of parent involvement, if parents use it advantageously. Families working together at a computer could become what sitting around the fireplace listening to the radio was 50 years ago: an opportunity to communicate and learn. The National Education Commission on Time and Learning recently reported that we must increase the amount and quality of instructional time for our students. The Information Superhighway will help make this possible by allowing students to connect to their schools and other sites from remote locations, including from their home.

Computers are not merely a potential part of learning at home; they may be an actual part of home learning today. Based on information from the National Center for Education Statistics, 36 percent of all U.S. students had home computers in 1993. Thirty-two percent of elementary school students and 37 percent of high school students had computers at home.

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Many people have suggested that the right software can serve this purpose because it can satisfy the entertainment function of television but teaches the children as well. Would you agree? Is software just another “mind-numbing” element entering our children’s world?

As I said about television, it’s not the thing itself that’s the monster; the important factor is how we use what is available to us. We have to focus on whether we can use television, or software, or any other “tools” advantageously, for learning.

When instructional materials are challenging, children will be motivated to learn. Software, depending on the type, provides much potential for learning. For example, encyclopedias, whether on line or on CD-ROM, provide access to important information. Having access to this information is also necessary, especially if we want to encourage youngsters to do reports.

Writing and drawing software help students learn to communicate and to develop their creative abilities. And well-designed content software_for reading, mathematics, science, and more_can provide tutorials, simulations, and drills that are individualized for each learner.

In addition, the Department of Education, as part of the READ*WRITE*NOW! Initiative launched in May, is providing on-line materials for students to read and with which to interact. It’s an important part of an educational strategy to include the use of tools that students know and need to know how to use, and enjoy using in order to further learning.

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In your opinion, what are the most critical skills our students will need in the next decade in order for them to remain competitive?

Students will need the old basic skills_the 3 Rs_and the new basic skills_collaboration, communication, and creativity. The computer is an important tool for helping children acquirethese skills. In their lifetime, students must be able to use technology as the rest of the world does_to do their job, and to learn. As I mentioned above, students will also need well-developed critical thinking skills in order to judge the accuracy and relevance of the enormous amounts of information that is and will continue to be available to them in great part because oftechnology.

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