NPR is reporting that today is Reading Rainbow’s last day on the air, after twenty-six years. This is, obviously, very sad.
What’s startling and perhaps more sad is part of the reason the show’s broadcast license is not being renewed:
The show’s run is ending, Grant explains, because no one â€” not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting â€” will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.
Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading â€” like phonics and spelling.
Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read â€” but that’s not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.
“Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read,” Grant says. “You know, the love of reading â€” [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read.”
Linda Simensky, vice president for children’s programming at PBS, says that when Reading Rainbow was developed in the early 1980s, it was an era when the question was: “How do we get kids to read books?”
Since then, she explains, research has shown that teaching the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority.
“We’ve been able to identify the earliest steps that we need to take,” Simensky says. “Now we know what we need to do first. Even just from five years ago, I think we all know so much more about how to use television to teach.”
Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space â€” the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.
Now, I haven’t watched PBS in a long time, and it’s been even longer since I watched children’s programming. But when I was a child, PBS was the only TV station we were allowed to watch. I learned a lot from PBS shows – from learning to count in Spanish on Sesame Street to learning about math in Square One (I still sing “one thousand times one million, that’s one billion” to myself when necessary) to the enormous amount I gleaned from Bill Nye the Science Guy and 3-2-1 Contact and Wishbone and, yes, Reading Rainbow.
I don’t really object to educational TV teaching phonics or reading skills. Goodness knows our educational system often needs as much reinforcement as possible, especially when parents aren’t around to help. But once children learn to read, they need encouragement to read. Having the skills does not guarantee that children will learn to love books – I remember an NEA survey from a couple of years ago that says that only 50% of Americans read one book in the past year for pleasure. Half. That’s horrifying – an excellent step toward illiteracy, should a totalitarian government ever appear.
Television does well to encourage kids to turn off the TV and grab a book. Knowing how to read does not mean you’ll actually read anything. Shows like Reading Rainbow and Wishbone (at least, back when I watched them) encouraged me to find stories elsewhere, not just on the screen. They also encouraged me to read books with my parents – and we know from research that one of the major indicators of a child’s educational success is whether or not their parents read with them. We are much poorer as a country when we focus on the mechanics, to the detriment of the joy of discovering human culture.