Pushing for literacy through public policy
2009 Researcher of the Year
Timothy Shanahan, Researcher of the Year in the social sciences. “All teaching methods are controversial,” he says.
Photo: Kathryn Marchetti
Now in its second year, the Researcher of the Year Award highlights the accomplishments of UIC scientists. The $3,500 prize goes to researchers in four categories: basic life sciences, clinical sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and social sciences and the humanities.
Timothy Shanahan says only two jobs in America don’t require literacy.
“Chicken gutting and zipper sewing,” he says. “Technology killed some jobs, and economics did the rest.”
Shanahan, professor of education and director of UIC’s Center for Literacy, is a nationally known literacy expert who measures his work by its power to spur action, preferably legislative.
He also knows how teaching and reading affect individuals.
Shanahan began his career as an inner-city reading tutor, then taught first grade in a public school.
Since then, he’s served on national advisory panels, chaired a federal project for family reading, and presided over the 85,000-member International Reading Association.
He was a member of the Clinton administration’s National Reading Panel, whose findings contributed to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
“Five billion dollars into reading education,” he says. “That’s a major action.”
Shanahan has chaired other national panels on hot issues. His studies of early literacy and second-language learning found that phonics and first-language teaching are advantages but not panaceas.
“All teaching methods are controversial,” he says. “Politicians want accountability from schools, while schools are working harder than ever. Schools want a ticker-tape parade, while politicians keep saying, ‘Schools were better when I was a kid.’”
Locally, Shanahan founded and directed the Chicago Reading Initiative, which places reading specialists in low-achieving public schools.
He founded the Center for Literacy in 1991 to develop and evaluate literacy programs. It began with Shanahan and an assistant. The center now has a $3 million budget and 65 employees who offer services to state agencies, parent education in Head Start programs, a library for preschool teachers and other resources.
Shanahan still directs the center, where he spends much of his time analyzing national panel reports on education and synthesizing the data to inform policy decisions.
He wasn’t always attuned to education. As a high school student in Detroit, Shanahan felt his time was better spent on political campaigns and his job as a short-order cook. He dropped out as soon as possible.
He still managed to graduate from the University of Detroit at age 21. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Delaware and began to concentrate on literacy on a larger scale.
“Literacy levels in the U.S. are as high as they’ve ever been. They haven’t been this high since the ’70s,” Shanahan says.
“But we’re falling behind every year in high-school graduation rates. We’re now 18th, behind countries like South Korea and India.”
About a third of U.S. dropouts are Latinos who leave school to work, Shanahan says. He established Project FLAME, a family literacy program, to help Latino parents encourage English literacy among their children.
“There are 30 or 40 languages being spoken in some Chicago schools,” Shanahan says. “All these teaching methods are not as helpful to second-language kids. They’re small advantages.
“Obviously the real advantage is English, which brings more income, which leads to more advantages.”
Other Researcher of the Year winners
Joel Brown: game theory, evolution and the ecology of fear
Judith Cook: fighting myths, misperceptions about mental illness
Luke Hanley: Uisng ingenuity to get grants, improve technology