Reading Rainbow is making a comeback

Many of Reading Rainbow’s biggest fans were likely too old to make a lot of noise when the show was cancelled in 2009. They already knew about and loved reading and the show was more of a fond memory; who knew it was still on, anyway? Well, its current fans did. Those kids were too young to do much about it. Now Reading Rainbow, led by host LeVar Burton, is looking to make a big comeback. What can you do with $5 million? LeVar Burton says he can foster a love of the written word in a lot of children who need it. This time, though, he won’t be using television. Instead, he wants to put Reading Rainbow on tablets, phones, video game systems, computers, and, most importantly, the classrooms that need it most.

How do we know LeVar Burton can pull this off?
After tiring of the process of wooing Silicon Valley investors, Burton and his business partner decided to try a method they had more experience in for raising the necessary funds: “viewers like you.”

They set a goal on Kickstarter for $1 million and allowed 35 days to reach it, unsure if the usual 30 days would allow enough time. It turns out that 11 hours was long enough to get to the million mark. With that in mind, they quickly adjusted with a “stretch” goal of $5 million, which they are well on their way towards meeting.

You might be thinking, how do we know LeVar Burton can pull this off? Sure, he’s a great host, but making apps and other digital content is something else entirely. You may or may not know that Burton and company have already developed a Reading Rainbow iPad app, which has been received incredibly well. That app is the #1 educational app in the App Store and has been selected for countless awards in its short lifespan. They have also created an equivalent Amazon Kindle Fire app.

they knew they could make this into a success if only they had the financial resources.

Unfortunately, making apps is difficult and expensive. It takes staff and expertise that the Reading Rainbow crew cannot afford. This is why they turned to the Kickstarter campaign; they knew they could make this into a success if only they had the financial resources.

What exactly is the plan here? With $1 million, they promise to:

  • Adapt their existing digital materials specifically for classroom use, with teaching guides, per grade level content, and similar materials.
  • Give these away to 1500 classrooms that cannot afford it.
  • Make Reading Rainbow available as a subscription service on the web.

If they are to reach the $5 million goal, here’s what to expect:

  • Apps for iPhone, Android phones, and Android tablets. (They haven’t ruled out Windows Phone.)
  • Support for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One, PS4.
  • 7500 classrooms get free access to Reading Rainbow.

So, why bother? Just for fun? To allow kids to have the same fond memories that today’s adults and young adults had? Burton stresses a greater purpose.

According to him, 1 in 4 children in the USA will grow up illiterate. I should mention that I’ve yet to see a valid citation for that statistic, something noted by other skeptics on StackExchange. It is likely a reference to functional illiteracy, which refers to people whose ability to read and write is so poor that they can do little more than handle basic sentences; this can apply to people who speak a language other than English and therefore are literate, but not functionally literate in the USA. I decided to vet further.

Between 21% and 23% of American adults performed at the lowest level of literacy.

The National Adult Literacy Survey found that between 21% and 23% of American adults performed at the lowest level of literacy, meaning they were often unable to “identify a piece of specific information from a brief news article” or perform other basic literacy tasks like finding the “time or place of a meeting on a form.” Being deficient in these skills predicted harrowing life outcomes like poverty and imprisonment. Common apparent causes were attending poorly funded schools and not owning books.

This also relates to the reason Reading Rainbow was cancelled in the first place. While the announcement from the show’s home station, WNED Buffalo, stressed the relatively high costs of repurchasing the broadcast rights of the show, many others attributed blame elsewhere. NPR wrote at the time that a change of philosophy was the real factor:

[Head of content at WNED John 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 — like phonics and spelling.

Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids howto read — 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 — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read.”

That’s a tough call to make, at least in the abstract. To focus on the “how” or the “why?” It comes down to the causes of illiteracy. While we can say underfunded and poorly performing schools may be deficient in teaching the “how,” we also can feel pretty confident that a kid motivated by the “why” will be able to figure it out. Of course, we don’t have to choose one or the other.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, LeVar Burton was asked that question. Which do you choose – how to read or why to read?

I wish I knew. What I do know is that a sustainable society needs both. You need to teach your children how to read, and you need for them to love to read. If you want free, independent thinkers, people who can discern for themselves, people who want to actively participate in a democracy, you want them literate.

He concluded, “for me, literacy means freedom.”

This Reading Rainbow revival has not been met with unanimous praise, however. The Washington Post published an editorial beckoning readers to think twice before donating to the reincarnation of Reading Rainbow. The author, Caitlin Dewey, levels several criticisms of varying legitimacy:

  • She insinuates that the show was originally cancelled because it wasn’t all that effective. A claim that Burton says is, well, “bull-.” (you fill in the rest.)
  • The new version of Reading Rainbow is a for-profit company that exists because Burton bought the rights to the show. This is all true. She says this undermines the charitable aims and rhetoric of the Kickstarter campaign.
  • Having an app for iPad currently and first developing a web app before other options precludes the ways at-risk youth are likely to access the Internet.
  • Donating to a profit-driven company takes away attention and needed funds from charitable groups with similar goals and less star power.

A few of these are questionable. The reasons why the show was cancelled, for instance, are complicated and drew criticism when they happened in the midst of a major economic recession. The concern that access will only be possible via iPads, Kindle Fires, and desktop browsers appears to be one that will be alleviated shortly as the campaign rapidly approaches the $5 million goal. Dewey pointed out that lower-income individuals tend to surf the web via cell phones due to the high costs of computers and broadband Internet.

On the other hand, there is something to the critique that the charitable feel of this campaign and the fact that Reading Rainbow is now a private company are at odds. It is far from impossible for a private company to act for the common good and it is also far from rare for non-profits to become quite greedy. Nonetheless, time will tell as to how Reading Rainbow 2.0 can manage these competing goals. My impression is that while they will be donating to the pre-defined number of at-risk schools, they will rely on individual subscriptions and purchases from better-off schools for their money.

Dewey also points to the Children’s Literacy Initiative and First Book as charities that are trying to do the same thing. They are definitely worthy of your donation and if Charity Navigator is any indication, you will not have any reason to worry about your dollar going to the right place.

One thing Reading Rainbow is trying to do that is unique is the same thing that made it impressive when it debuted. In the 1980s, it was noteworthy that there was something on TV that could encourage kids to, well, turn away from the TV and read a book. Now, TV doesn’t feel like the same threat that the Internet does, which is why Reading Rainbow wants to be in those places.

About the profit vs. non-profit issue, Burton has this to say:

the idea that Reading Rainbow was free when it was on television is really a mischaracterization of the way PBS works. There may have been no immediate costs to the consumer, but it wasn’t free. It was paid for by the government, and by viewers like you. So grab a Swatch, and find out what time it is!

In the end, he seems to put your money where his mouth is:

whether you donate to this campaign or one on a local level, it doesn’t matter to me. The best thing you can do is read with a child and help to foster that love. At the end of the day, if you don’t donate to this campaign, I’m not mad at you. I’m not! But if you agree that literacy in America is important, and that if we have a populace that loves to read and can educate itself because it can read, if you believe that that’s good for our country, than [sic] do something to promote that value. 

If you want to see Reading Rainbow come back in 21st century style, you can donate to the campaign here. If you’d rather donate to your community’s groups that promote literacy and readership, you have LeVar Burton’s blessing. Whatever you do, you should think about how we can use our abundant technology to make everyone smarter.

Tags: Android Apple Tv Charity Fire Tv IPad IPhone Kickstarter Kindle Levar Burton Literacy Reading Rainbow Roku Xbox Xbox One

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