In my home town of Detroit, children do not have the right to be taught to read. Judge Stephen Murphy recently ruled in Gary B. v. Snyder that the Constitution does not guarantee kids have the right to become literate when they attend school. While the judge agreed that, “When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury—and so does society," he did not feel literacy was specifically part of what is a citizen’s equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.
So here’s the thing. We make kids go to school. Many states, now including Michigan, will retain children who do not pass third grade reading assessments. And yet, little attention is given to remedying the reasons so many children struggle.
The failure to produce literate citizens is huge, not just for the kids whose future employment prospects are dim, but for creating the foundation of a democratic society. In the state of Michigan, just 44 percent of the third-graders who took the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress passed the exam. In the Detroit public school system, the percentage of third graders deemed able to read is far lower. In 2015, only seven percent of Detroit eighth graders were proficient in reading.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “Every demographic of students has seen a slide in third-grade literacy. White students, for instance, saw a 6.5 percentage point drop, from 58.2% proficient in 2014 to 51.7% in 2016. That compares with black students, who declined 3.3 percentage points, from 23.2% to 19.9%; Hispanic students, who declined 5.2 percentage points, from 37.2% to 32%, and Asian students, who declined 6.3 percentage points, from 69.7% to 63.4%. Meanwhile, low-income students (those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), declined 6.2 percentage points, from 35.3% to 29.1%; while higher-income students declined 6.4 percentage points, from 66.8% to 60.4%.”
If you think this problem is unique to Detroit, it is not. In 2016, Chicago Public Schools reading scores dipped slightly with barely one in four students able to read at grade level. Overall 32 million adults in the United States cannot read above a third-grade level, and almost half of Americans cannot read well enough to comprehend health information. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read.
If you think this problem is unique to children of color or children living in poverty, it is not. The number of children who struggle to learn to read because of dyslexia and related learning disabilities is significant. These students benefit from instruction that focuses on phonics as well as the more popular whole language approach that has been in vogue since the 1980s. Kids with dyslexia have a harder time learning to read because they struggle to make the connection between sounds and letters. For these learners, lists of sight words to memorize don't cut it. Interestingly, a phonics-based approach is better for all kids when they begin to learn to read. The Wilson Reading System is one example of a program that is successful teaching these children who are struggling to learn to read, and it can also be used for whole class instruction for typical learners.
All of this begs the question of who is failing here. Could kids be more successful in becoming literate if changes were made to the way reading is taught? Would they learn better if rote memorization were not shoved down their throats in kindergarten and preschool programs? Would it help if they were read to from an early age? Would the techniques that are successful for children with dyslexia help all children become better readers?
And the greater question: why does it matter? American history shows us that denying slaves and women reading instruction was a way to oppress them. Limiting access to information and participation in voting kept these populations from participating in government, accessing their rights, and achieving socio-economic success and power. We express shock over the oppression of women in less developed societies, and yet we allow a significant number of children in our schools to graduate barely being able to read. Whether the cause is parents who were poor students themselves and lack the resources to help their children or poverty or learning disabilities, we have to do a better job teaching our children to read.
Without the ability to read adequately, more and more citizens rely on what they hear on cable to inform them about is happening. Fewer citizens bother to vote. After Trump won the Nevada primary in February of 2016, he said, “I love the poorly educated." It was a huge applause line he repeated often at his rallies. I never understood why people cheered when he said it. Those who are “poorly educated” and barely literate have been cheated out of what is the right of every child attending school. It’s time we started feeling ashamed that our country continues to turn out poorly educated citizens who can’t read a newspaper or enjoy a book.
If we truly loved the poorly educated, we would find better ways to teach them to read.