Sixty-four percent of young black male fourth-graders eligible for the National School Lunch Program read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yes, you read that correctly. Two out of every three. And they are not alone. Forty-two percent of their young white male counterparts in fourth grade on school lunch programs, 59 percent of young Latino men, and 41-percent of Asian male fourth-graders were functionally illiterate.
Thanks to the efforts of the school reform movement — and the accountability efforts contained in such measures as the No Child Left Behind Act — those percentages for them (and for their female counterparts) are lower than they were in 2000 (back then, 77 percent of black male fourth graders who were functionally illiterate). But still, 21 million young men and women (or 33 percent of all students served by American public education) are functionally illiterate. They are not likely to get the intensive reading remediation they need to become successful in school. They will ultimately drop out of school and dive into poverty and prison.
For those of us who are as concerned about preserving and building up the moral and social fabric of our society, a populace incapable of reading the Bible, the Koran and The Republic – and understanding the concepts of civil society that they helped to foster — is one that will be ill-equipped to play their parts in society as moral people engaged in improving the world. They are less likely to be able to play sophisticated, thoughtful roles in discussing issues that face our communities and thinking through ideas that make or break civilizations.
Now, more than ever, we will need everyone — especially our churches and impromptu community leaders — to take on the challenge of overhauling American public education and improving literacy for all children. Our economy and our society cannot afford not to do so.
By now, you already understand that the challenges that come with the advent of the knowledge-based economy in which what one knows is more-important than what they can do with their hands, makes the ability to read proficiently (and the skills one gains from reading and learning to read) more important than ever. Blue-collar work, in particular, has become blue-collar work more-complex and knowledge-based than ever; factory workers have to be able to understand trigonometric equations in order to ensure that products are shaped properly and fit together upon assembly, and think through abstract concepts in order to work on their own. And the highest-paying blue-collar positions, including elevator installers and repairmen (who, on average, make $67,950 a year), require strong math and science skills which can only be gleaned by those who are proficient in reading. The low levels of literacy, along with the lack of math and science skills, is one reason why the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for high school dropouts remain at 14 percent, higher than the rates for those who have attained high school diplomas and some form of higher education.
When one is illiterate, Plato’s Republic looks like a jumble. And so does the rest of life. (Photo courtesy of Bookstruction.net)
But illiteracy is not just an economic problem. When a child can’t read, they will also struggle to navigate through school and life. The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in more-complex mathematics including word problems and algebra, as well as abstract concepts in science. This doesn’t mean that a strong reader will be equally skilled in math or science, but poor readers tend also to fail in math and science too.
The capacity to deal with abstract concepts is not just critical for understanding studies in school. Abstractions are at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule — or do unto others as you would want others to do to you — are formed from the complex interplay between ideas and morals. Abstractions are also at the heart of the various discourses we have each and every day about matters mundane and critical. An adult with strong literacy and math skills (including algebra), for example, can understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about fiscal policy. A plumber who has read The Canterbury Tales can also move up socially, converse with executives, play his part as a leader in his community, and even pave a path for his children to continue along into middle class society.
Abstract concepts, in short, are one of the building blocks of life and society, from running businesses, to participating in politics, to even keeping families on the straight and narrow. And literacy is the key to working with those materials of the mind and life. A child who struggles to read is one at risk of becoming an adult unable to participate meaningfully in society.
But literacy isn’t just the key to understanding the world and navigating through life. As discussed earlier this month on the Dropout Nation Podcast, literacy is a tool in helping kids developing the executive functions they use in life. Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills. Children with strong reading skills in the early grades tend to also have good social habits (including the executive function of self-control), while those are struggling with reading tend to have disciplinary problems. A third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more-likely to end up engaging in the kind of aggressive behavior that leads to suspension and expulsion; in fact, low literacy in third grade is predictive of school discipline issues two years later in fifth grade.
This makes sense. Children struggling in reading may be illiterate, but they aren’t stupid. They realize that they are falling behind their peers, but they are not yet capable of telling anyone that they cannot read in any meaningful way. So kids acts out, looking for ways to either get attention from the adults around them. Especially since they cannot just skip out of school and eventually dropping out.
The social consequences of illiteracy bear themselves out over time, especially in America’s criminal justice systems. We already know that high school dropouts made up 40 percent of all first-time inmates in state prisons in 1999 (and when one adds GED recipients, former dropouts whose economic attainment after receiving the certificate is often worse than that of dropouts, even higher than that). As Princeton University researcher Bruce Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington pointed out in their 2004 study, young black men high school dropouts had a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34.
And the men who sit in America’s prisons often tend to not only lack the capacity for self-control and good behavior needed to survive outside prison walls, they usually lack the literacy skills that can help them take steps towards turning their lives around and being able to take steps towards avoiding future prison sentences. The American prison inmate had scores in print and prose literacy that were between 18 and 22 points lower than the average American adult outside prison walls, according to the U.S. Department of Education in its 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (the gap in math literacy between the average inmate and the average American adult was 34 points).
All in all, literacy is critical to society. And yet, in American public education, the instruction and curricula needed to ensure that all children can read, write and add is neglected. We know that four out of every ten children entering kindergarten will need some form of specialized reading instruction and remediation no matter what their parents do at home, yet such remediation is almost non-existent. Few university schools of education (which educate most of our teachers) do a proper job of teaching aspiring students how to address reading. Just 11 of 71 ed schools surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2006 taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction; later studies by NCTQ of ed schools in states such as Texas have shown that the problem is even worse than first thought.
Meanwhile, as Dropout Nation discussed last month, state laws, teacher contracts and the low quality of school leadership means that few districts or principals are using value-added data based on student performance to identify high-quality elementary teachers with strong competency in reading instruction. As a result, kids in the early grades are often assign teachers who cannot address their reading deficiencies and may not be able to help advance the reading skills of kids whose literacy skills are at basic and even proficient levels.
For our poorest children, who are often subjected to the worst public education has to offer, the consequences of low-quality reading instruction and curricula can be seen in their communities plagued by economic poverty, social decay and struggles to participate meaningfully in civic society. What the nation’s urban failure factories and suburban centers of mediocrity do to these children is essentially violate the old African lesson about teaching people to fish. A child who cannot read also cannot succeed, much less survive.
But the consequences aren’t just limited to the poor alone. One out of every five fourth-grade white and Asian boys who are not eligible for federally-subsidized school lunch reads Below Basic proficiency, while 43 percent and 41 percent of their black and Latino male counterparts are functionally illiterate. Many of these children are attending schools in suburban districts that are perceived to be doing well in improving student achievement; 28 percent of fourth-graders attending suburban schools read Below Basic proficiency. A society cannot remain prosperous, vital or moral when at least a fifth of children from middle class households are reading at levels of functional illiteracy. One would dare say that when a society allows for so many of our kids to be functionally illiterate, it isn’t moral at all.
The systemic reform of American public education is critical to improving literacy. But we cannot wait for slow reform. It will also take a community effort, especially by churches, to take on the fierce urgency of improving literacy and spur more progress in helping kids become successful in reading.
As Dropout Nation pointed out this past December, some churches and religious leaders, including Roman Catholic archdioceses and Allen A.M.E. Church in New York City led by former congressman Floyd Flake, have become powerful players in the nation’s school reform movement. But far too many churches, including wealthy black churches and white churches in suburbia, have been far too willing to simply provide mentoring programs and rent space to charter schools instead of actively participating in overhauling the instruction and curricula children — especially the kids who sit in their pews — receive every day past Sunday. They have forgotten the admonition from the Apostle James that faith without works is dead and useless; they have also forgotten what the Catholic Church has learned long ago: That an educated populace is one that will help them remain strong, healthy and vibrant.
This isn’t to say that education equals faith: Economist Friedrich August von Hayek was right when he declared that higher levels of education usually equal more differentiation in views and beliefs. But churches cannot be pillars of their communities, in fact, cannot even remain in existence, if the people in their pews cannot comprehend a verse in the Book of Malachi.
Every church, especially those in the poorest and majority-minority communities served by dropout factories, should provide reading tutoring as part of their ministries. They should go further and even start their own schools as the Catholic Church did nearly 150 years ago. While undertaking these efforts won’t be easy, they aren’t difficult to do. Particularly in the case of black churches, the very people who can help with these capacity issues — including accountants, lawyers and other professionals — already sit in the pews. Churches can also partner with school operators and even take advantage of the emergence of digital learning and other technologies. And churches can even come together as coalitions to start schools and launch community-wide literacy programs.
And churches aren’t the only ones that need to play their part. The good news is that we have seen organization such as 100 Black Men launch charter schools, and grassroots organizations such as D.C.’s Grassroots Education Project launch reading remediation programs. But this isn’t enough. As we have seen in the late 20th-century with the civil rights movement, there are plenty of men and women who can come together and serve as impromptu leaders for school reform. Starting a reading group, even in one’s own apartment complex or neighborhood, can go a long way toward stemming childhood illiteracy.
Making sure every child can read is not only an economic imperative, but also a moral one. And no one can stand on the sideline as illiterate children slide into the abyss.