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Presidents volunteer help to combat literacy crisis

It was an unlikely and impressive sight: four presidents of the United States and a famous army general painting houses in a Philadelphia slum.

The occasion was a national summit promoting volunteerism, including President Clinton's call for an army of volunteer tutors to teach literacy to the estimated 40 per cent of American nine-year-olds who fall below the US Department of Education's level for their age. And the presence of Mr Clinton, General Colin Powell and former presidents Carter, Ford and Bush attracted national attention to the issue.

But looming behind the pomp and ceremony was this unanswered question: In a country with a compulsory education system that costs billions of dollars a year, why aren't all those children learning how to read in school?

"Volunteerism is a good thing, of course. It's nice that people pitch in and help their neighbours, and Americans like to believe that they do that more than anybody else in the world. Maybe that's true," said David Frum, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and author of the book What's Right, "but we're being invited not to see the real story."

Mr Clinton and the summit's organisers hope to cover up the failure of the nation's schools and other public institutions, Mr Frum said.

"In a way, President Clinton is a beneficiary of government's incompetence, " he said. "The government is so incompetent that it's become the normal state of affairs that schools don't teach. You almost feel a little naive to suggest that schools should be teaching kids to read."

Among other things, the president promised to mobilise a million tutors to teach three million third-graders (aged eight to nine) how to read. Running the programme, which fulfils one of Mr Clinton's election campaign promises, will cost the federal government an estimated Pounds 1.7 billion over five years.

Using the occasion to lambast the schools is easy but simplistic, said Gary Marx, spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators.

"The fact is, some of the same people who make those statements are the people who don't support providing some of the help that children need, such as sufficient government funding and other educational resources," he said.

Mr Marx blamed social and economic conditions for literacy problems. Students whose parents do not read to them at home are slow to learn, he said.

"This is beyond the schools' control, yet some people will say, 'Well, I'm not sure I'll get involved in that, because the government will take care of it for me,'" he said.

But education experts do not think that the use of volunteers will eliminate illiteracy, either.

"The idea of volunteer tutors is a fine idea. It will probably make some contribution," said Robert Slavin, an education researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "But there's no chance in a billion that it will solve the problem."

He said the nation needs to focus on retraining teachers, making the curriculum consistent and providing professional tutoring to those students who experience the greatest difficulty.

"The idea that volunteers alone will solve the problem is not even numerically possible, because the number of children failing is too large," Mr Slavin said. "This is not to criticise individual teachers. The problem is the system in which they find themselves and the support they have."

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