The most fascinating aspect of the piece was its sense of alarm — even shock. There was even something faintly "stop the presses" about the combination of headline and lead paragraph.
The venue was the Arts section of The New York Times on Nov. 19. Along the top of the front page ran the headline: "Study Links Drop in Test Scores to a Decline in Time Spent Reading." My first thought was: They had to do a study to find that out?
Here's the lead: "Harry Potter, James Patterson and Oprah Winfrey's book club aside, Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills."
Okay, now where have these people been for the last 20 years or so? Living under a rock? Have these trends just now begun to surface?
I can remember such things being evident when I first started teaching 37 years ago. And it was even more obvious when I worked for the city as a supervisor in the Common Pleas Court system — and this was among recent college graduates asked to write evaluations of certain parts of the trial division.
This new study came from the National Endowment for the Arts — I imagine that's why the story made the Times Arts section and not, say, the education pages — and, according to reporter Motoko Rich, was based "on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Departments and the Census Bureau, as well as other academic, foundation and business surveys.
"After its 2004 report, 'Reading at Risk,' which found that fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, the endowment sought to collect more comprehensive data to build a picture of the role of all reading, including nonfiction."
In his preface to the new report, poet Dana Gioia, who also happens to be chairman of the endowment, described the new data as "simple, consistent and alarming."
Although reading scores have been improving among elementary-school children, they have been flat for middle-school students and declined slightly among high-schoolers.
The article continued: "These trends are concurrent with a falloff in daily pleasure reading among young people as they progress from elementary to high school, a drop that appears to continue once they enter college. The data also showed that students who read for fun nearly every day performed better on reading tests than those who reported reading never or hardly at all."
No suggestions were made for remedying the situation. In fact, the one official quoted seemed to think the study wasn't nuanced enough, and that the reading young people are doing — though that wasn't identified in any way — suits him just fine.