Raising Readers

Jaime Escalante, the pioneering East Los Angeles high school teacher who died earlier this year, once said, “You do not enter the future – you create the future.”

I’m reminded of this sentiment when I consider the challenges facing American education. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, so we must ensure we’re doing the best job possible to prepare them for the future. Our work is cut out for us.

Consider this: Just one-third of America’s fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level in this year’s national reading test results. This is important because fourth-grade is when children go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” and proficiency is a key predictor of the likelihood of high school completion.

The test results also offer a window into what is happening among children in different demographic groups. For example, this year’s scores show that fourth-grade Hispanic, black and American Indian students lag white and Asian/Pacific Islander children.

This is unacceptable, and we must make national priorities of strengthening childhood literacy and closing the achievement gap, once and for all. This means summoning the necessary courage, political will and financial commitment, but it will also require us to take new, more effective approaches to old problems. Media can help.

Anyone who has recently spent time with a child knows about the importance of technology in their lives. It seems young people constantly watch TV, surf the Internet, listen to music, text their friends and play games on their “smart phones” – sometimes all at once. In fact, during a typical day, children devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using media, according to new data from the Pew Research Centers. But because young people are multi-taskers, they manage to pack 10 hours worth of content into those 7.5 hours.

Such data suggest the potential for media and technology to serve as powerful tools to teach children. This is why PBS takes a “360-degree” approach to literacy – aiming to surround all children with high-quality educational media in the home, the classroom and the community.

Our PBS KIDS Raising Readers initiative is based on the idea that anytime is learning time, which is why the project includes not only television series such as “Sesame Street” and “Super Why!,” but also online content, mobile technology and other services that help preschoolers develop their literacy skills.

Raising Readers is effective. To cite one example, recent research shows children from low-income homes who watched just two episodes of “Super Why!” improved their performance on literacy tests by almost 50 percent when compared to low-income children who didn’t watch.

Additional research demonstrates PBS KIDS’s importance in serving diverse audiences. In fact, our content reaches a higher proportion of viewers from underserved demographics, such as Hispanic and African-American households, compared to those groups’ representation in the overall population. For example, “Martha Speaks,” an animated series that focuses on helping children boost their vocabularies, is most frequently watched in homes where the head of the household identifies his or her origin as “Hispanic.”

Our commitment to Hispanic families is also reflected by our PBS KIDS Island website, which helps preschoolers build their reading skills. The site offers instructions in both Spanish and English, which is helpful for parents who use the site’s extensive tracking features to measure their child’s progress.

PBS’s 360-degree approach also takes us into classrooms and daycare centers, where we offer educational video, interactive games and other content. Studies show preschoolers who use classroom content based on series such as “Sesame Street” and “Super Why!” are better prepared for kindergarten than children who do not. Notably, almost 40 percent of the preschoolers who participated in this study come from homes where Spanish is spoken.

PBS also helps teachers and daycare providers increase their effectiveness in the classroom. This includes providing hundreds of free training courses to teachers and caregivers.

Indeed, strengthening literacy and closing the achievement gap in the United States require a partnership between everyone – parents, teachers, community leaders and even media provider like PBS. As Jaime Escalante reminded us, we make our own futures, so if we want our children to have a bright tomorrow, we must begin creating it for them today.

Paula A. Kerger is PBS’s president and chief executive officer.