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Perhaps you, like me, were shocked to read that one of the nation’s most influential literacy experts and a longtime champion of “whole language” reading instruction, Teachers College’s Lucy Culkins, has rewritten her curriculum to embrace phonics. As The New York Times put it, “After decades of resistance, Professor Calkins has made a major retreat.”

Many critics now blame the adoption of whole language reading instruction and its successor, “balanced literacy,” by many education colleges and school districts as major contributors to disparities in reading scores along socioeconomic lines. As one article headline puts it: “How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers.”

Of course, it’s hard not to read the rather breathless coverage of the “reading wars” in the Times or The Washington Post and not wonder whether disputes over language instruction have become yet another battleground in the current debates over expertise. It’s no secret that a sizable share of the population has come to doubt professional advice (for example, over school lockdowns) and no longer accepts expert opinion as intrinsically trustworthy and reliable.

Since proficiency in reading is crucial to academic success, the fact that 65 percent of the nation’s fourth graders are less than proficient and that 35 percent are reading below a basic level is a horrendous scandal. By eighth grade, the situation remains largely unchanged, with only 34 percent proficient and 27 percent below basic. To make matters worse, between 2017 and 2019, rates of reading proficiency declined.

Surprisingly, controlling for race, poverty and special education and English-language learner status, children in Florida, Texas and Mississippi perform better than those in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey or New York.

Not surprisingly, but no less disturbingly, rates of proficiency in history and geography are even lower than those in reading, and gaps across various socioeconomic variables are wider.

If this nation is to close gaps in incarceration, college graduation and adult employment and income, we simply must reduce these disparities and raise achievement over all.

In their 2022 book, Can College Level the Playing Field? Higher Education in an Unequal Society, the eminent economist Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, president emeritus of the Spencer Foundation, make a compelling argument that differences in levels of college preparation—rooted in inequities in family income and wealth, early childhood education, parental resources, neighborhoods, K-12 schools, and enrichment and developmental opportunities—represent the major hurdle to advancing equity in higher education outcomes.

Those gaps aren’t insurmountable. Selective institutions could admit substantially more talented students from financially disadvantaged homes. But, as Baum and McPherson note, that isn’t enough to truly move the needle on social mobility.

The broad-access colleges that serve the vast bulk of students from lower-income homes could also do more to mitigate inequalities by adopting evidence-based best practices including intrusive advising, corequisite remediation, structured degree pathways and seamless transfer policies.

But instituting these best practices requires public policies that significantly reduce the funding gap between selective and less selective institutions.

In the authors’ view, the best policy prescriptions is not free college for all (which will disproportionately benefit more affluent families) or expanded online learning (with its mixed record of student success, especially among disadvantaged students), but, rather, improving quality at broad-access institutions, strengthening academic and career advising, prioritizing need-based financial aid, covering the nontuition expenses of low-income students, and providing financial incentives to those institutions that are most successful in graduating low-income students with high-value degrees and reducing time to degree.

I wholeheartedly agree. I also favor other initiatives that will help institutions address the needs of the new student majority of first-generation college students, community college transfer students, adult learners, students with disabilities and students who commute, work full-time and serve as family caregivers.

  1. Take onboarding more seriously. Many undergrads, and not just first-generation students, are unfamiliar with college’s terminology, expectations and requirements. As a result, many rely on wrongheaded or misleading advice from peers. The answers are straightforward: use the new student orientation more purposefully and offer for-credit courses to better prepare students for academic and postgraduation success.
  2. Expose students from entry onward to major and career options. For better or worse, most undergraduates are vocationally minded and seek a higher education that will lead to a meaningful career, often in applied fields that four-year institutions in the past largely ignored. Twitter may poke fun at seemingly impractical majors that appear to pander to the naïve and directionless, for example, in brewing, esports, food studies, hip-hop studies, peace education, sports management and viticulture. But colleges and universities need to do a better job familiarizing students with and preparing them for entry into the real employment growth fields, such as applied mathematics, arts and museum management, biomedical engineering, cybersecurity, data science, financial technology, game design, health administration and other medicine-related fields, industrial automation, risk management, robotics, social entrepreneurship, social media, and sustainability.
  3. Place a greater emphasis on basic academic skills. Colleges and universities need to do much more to strengthen students’ written and oral communication skills. One or two courses in rhetoric and composition are grossly inadequate. For all the talk about writing across the curriculum, we need to do more, which will require much more substantive feedback.
  4. Take more responsibility for helping students develop essential life skills. A narrowly academic education isn’t enough. Students need more opportunities to acquire “adulting” skills, including ways to manage stress, formulate and stick to a budget, build a résumé, apply for jobs, resolve conflicts, behave effectively in professional and online settings, and navigate intimate relationships.
  5. Rethink requirements to ensure that they provide the desired skills and knowledge. As more and more students pursue vocational or pre-professional majors, I think it would make sense to shift from gen ed requirements in the arts, humanities and social and natural sciences that are narrowly disciplinary to approaches that are more inclusive and that focus more on methods and conceptual frameworks that are applicable across many domains.
  6. Create more mentoring opportunities. We live in an unusually age-segregated society, and students would benefit from more interactions with those who are from a different generation and who can introduce them to distinct perspectives and differing experiences. Supervised research, intensive seminars and study courses, practicums, and mentored internships and service learning can provide those opportunities.
  7. Expand access to experiential learning. To blur the boundaries between college and career, integrate real-world and transferrable skills into classes and give students more opportunities to acquire industry-recognized credentials.
  8. Adopt wraparound, 360-degree student supports. Data-driven, proactive advising. One-stop support centers. Learning centers in math, data, science, foreign languages and writing. Expanded peer tutoring. Supplemental instruction sections for high-DFW courses.

All of these measures would help. Yet, as Baum and McPherson point out, without a greater attention to precollege preparation, such efforts are likely to have only a limited impact. Many of the policy recommendations to reduce that gap that the authors suggest will sound familiar. Institute child allowances to reduce the number of children growing up in extreme poverty. Expand access to high-quality preschool. Invest more resources in underfunded schools that serve the most low-income students. Better train high school counselors.

However, as Baum and McPherson acknowledge, an emphasis on gaps in precollege preparation runs the risk of letting higher educational institutions off the hook. This shouldn’t be a matter of buck passing or redirecting blame.

This is why I think colleges and universities need to assume much more responsibility for precollege preparation. Successful models exist:

  • Afterschool programs like Columbia’s philosophy and neuroscience in the schools initiatives that give doctoral students opportunities to lead special afterschool seminars.
  • Saturday academies like those offered by the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History that provide academic enhancements for free.
  • The summer enrichment programs in the humanities sponsored by the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom project.
  • Research and mentoring opportunities like the Mellon Foundation–funded Summer Undergraduate Research Programs.
  • UTeach, in which undergraduates serve as teacher aides in neighboring schools.
  • OnRamps, a statewide teacher training, curriculum development and guest lecturer initiative in Texas that supports improvements in teaching in high-needs schools.

Many institutions, of course, already have modest outreach programs, but token initiatives are no longer sufficient. Such programs need to be taken to scale.

I understand the objections: that colleges and universities lack expertise in many of the challenges facing K-12 schools. That there is something patronizing about intruding or trespassing on K-12 turf. That such initiatives are performative and do not fundamentally transform the structure of opportunity.


Here’s my reply: reducing preparation gaps requires an all-hands-on-deck response. If our colleges and universities are truly committed to equity, they need to regard precollege preparation as one of their critical responsibilities.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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