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James Love Barksdale offers living proof that all Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aren't cocky young upstarts faking their way to success. This consummate Southern gentleman, known for his folksy sayings and[…]

Everybody thinks it’s easy to teach reading.

Question: What’s wrong with the American education system?

Jim Barksdale: Well I’ve gotten very interested since the mid-90s in trying to solve one of America’s most intractable problems, and that is the core education issue is children who can’t read, or are not what we call functionally literate.  There’s a very predictable research phenomenon that children who can’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade stand very little chance of participating in the American dream.  They don’t graduate from high school.  It results in early teen pregnancies, and crime, and many other social ills.  Plus it doesn’t . . .  These children just don’t have a chance.  It also, if you look at it from an altruistic or . . .  Excuse me, from a non-altruistic basis just from a pragmatic, economic basis, it is an enormous drain on the American economy.  These children are not likely to grow up to be productive adults.  By that I mean they will take more in tax dollars to support than they will give back in tax dollars to support others.  And it’s just a great social issue.

Everybody thinks it’s easy to teach reading.  It’s actually quite hard.  There have been over 100,000 studies done on how to teach reading; and yet we still don’t have an effective model in poverty children and in lower socioeconomic school districts on how to do it, or we would have done it.  Reading scores haven’t changed since the ‘60s.  We’re still a nation that has over a 25 percent illiteracy rate.  That’s a sin in this age with the resources of this country.  But it isn’t because people aren’t trying.  It’s because they don’t know how.  And we’re going to make that model available, and I hope change the lives of millions of children and make them better adults, and make the whole society improved by it.  Those are the kinds of things that, to me, are investments that you can make as opposed to just charitable gifts to people.  Everybody wants better schools.  Everybody wants their children to do better in school.  Everybody wants to be more giving, and everybody wants a better life for their fellow citizen; but what are the specific, effective programs that work?  And we look for those and try to invest in them.

And I wanted to do something that had not been done before.  I was going to find a way that you could actually teach children the skill of reading at an early age, regardless of what their home life was; regardless of how good or bad their teachers were; regardless of how poor they were; regardless of whether others cared about them; regardless of whether the principles were any good – all the reasons we give for why we can’t change children’s lives.  I was gonna see if I couldn’t come up with a way through time and money, and we’re working very hard on that in Mississippi.

Recorded on: 7/5/07