Reading Science Denial and Racism’s Impact on Educational Equity for African-American Students

If strong reading skills are the foundation of all academic success, then African-American students are at a severe disadvantage, argues Kareem Weaver, member of the NAACP Oakland Branch’s Education Committee, in this webinar for the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE).

In the webinar, Weaver explains that despite the 2000 National Reading Panel’s reading research concluding that students require direct, explicit instruction grounded in the science of reading, many schools are failing to provide this instruction due to lack of teacher training and support — particularly in schools and classrooms with high populations of historically underserved African-American students. Watch the webinar on-demand to hear Weaver discuss how:

  • The debate over reading philosophy has left key pillars of reading acquisition, especially critical for historically underserved African-American students, untaught
  • Expectations of African-American students impact the timing and tenor of interventions that could prevent reading problems
  • Perceptions of intellectual capacity create a lens through which learning differences are interpreted by educators
  • Racism and bias within school systems influence policy and practices and create a tolerance for failure

Watch the excerpt above and review some of the key points highlighted below for a preview of this provocative and thought-provoking webinar. In it, Weaver explains best practices behind the science of teaching reading and how failure to provide evidence-based instruction is making educational equity impossible for African-American students.

Educational Equity Is Possible, According to Reading Research

 Weaver points out that there is scientific consensus around best practices for delivering reading instruction to students. He also highlights a statement from the American Federation of Teachers stating that when those practices are followed and students are provided intensive, early instruction by skilled educators, 90% of all children, including those with learning disabilities, can learn to read well.

But, Weaver argues, that is not the reality we live in. Reading science denial and social, political and racial biases prevent students, particularly African-American students, from receiving high-quality reading instruction that follows the structured literacy approach that reading research recommends and that most students require in order to learn to read well.

Elements of Structured Literacy Programs Built Upon the Science of Reading

 If teachers were to follow the science of teaching reading and build an evidence-based structured literacy program, Weaver argues that this could prevent the racial bias that contributes to educational inequity for African-American students.

How? According to reading research, effective K-3 reading instruction must include explicit and systematic core classroom instruction around five key elements: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Racism, Weaver says, needs oxygen to persist. Basing reading instruction around explicit, systematic and evidence-based practices prevents educators from injecting their own assumptions, even unintentionally, about where students should start and what students are capable of, and limits the possibility of discrimination and exclusion in instruction.

Weaver also details additional elements of effective reading instruction. These include:

  • Instructional materials aligned to research
  • Appropriate reading assessments
  • Timely, intensive interventions
  • High-quality professional development

Follow the Science of Teaching Reading to Support African-American Students

Schools and districts must provide African-American students with the same opportunities to achieve academic success as other children, and this starts with reading instruction grounded in the science of reading. Watch the full on-demand, hour-long webinar for insights into how educators can address the persistent issues around racism and reading science denial that make educational equity impossible and contribute to the achievement gap for African-American students.

Video Transcript

Let’s jump right into it. I like to begin presentations with the end in mind and I want to start with this quote from the American Federation of Teachers, which really captures the essence of this presentation and what we want everyone to know. It’s straight forward and should give hope to every child, parent, teacher, principal and community and even employers with the reading new research. Actually, but even more importantly than being new is the fact that we finally have both scientific and research consensus about how to get kids reading. Over 90% of all kids, including many that are now classified as learning disabled, can read well with intensive early instruction delivered by skilled educators. So you’ve got to give AFT credit for their willingness to stand on the science and research because to say all kids can learn without hedging in this charged social, political, racial environment and actually mean it says a lot about their worldview.

The fact is we’re a long way from having all kids but a handful be able to read well. And in those situations under duress, we find out what we truly believe. This data is stressful. There’s no doubt about it. But AFT in this example is choosing to ground its belief in the research and the science so they can responsibly make that statement because they understand and can even list the elements of an effective reading program. These pillars of early literacy that you see in front of you, the phonemic awareness, the phonics, the comprehension, the vocabulary and the fluency. Most of the so-called reading wars were about narrow views on these pillars. We need all of them to be given consistent time, and to be given consistent attention in regular core classroom instruction. But just as important is the phrase explicit, systematic, core classroom instruction.

We at the NAACP are saying, and we appreciate CORE for providing this platform is that racism needs oxygen. Having explicit, systematic instruction in the core classroom sets off the supply of oxygen by limiting some common tendencies. When we take things step by step from the beginning and in a systematic way, we avoid assumptions about where kids should start or what they’re capable of. We’ll talk more about this later, but it reduces the impact of adult learners biases, keeps us from discriminating intentionally or not. And considering all the variables that impact student learning it’s even more important to limit the impact of those things by starting at the beginning and just walking through the standards.

And of course this also includes a strong writing component. But as you see these elements listed here, the most effective curriculum, meaning that these curricular actually help the highest percentage of kids become strong readers in a well matched curriculum that fits the context of the school and the community. But these curricula embed these elements, it includes a strong writing component but also has these things and some popular programs actually, now that have been in use around the country are starting to adjust to include all these pillars. But that last item, I just want to take a moment to look at that last item. It’s high quality PD is really important. You really can’t expect teachers to know what they haven’t been taught.

And frankly the same goes for administrators who are supposed to help teachers grow by giving them feedback. High quality PD is critical. It’s one of components of a effective reading program. And you might hear these elements called evidence-based or research-based practices or scientifically-based reading practices. There’s lots of different acronyms that we use for these things and taglines for these things. But today, let’s just use the short hand of structured literacy to describe what we’re talking about. And actually, that’s important because it turns out that most kids actually require a structured approach.

This infographic really synthesizes the research well. It’s embedded in that statement by AFT, is the word if. Yeah, over 90% of kids can learn and read well. Yes we leveraged a structured approach that included all those elements. The challenges we face are so consuming, conditions and dangers that we can see are real from the distractions of the reading wars that emphasize one pillar over another to conditions that make it hard for parents just to maintain, the teachers to teach, to make it hard for students to learn. The impact of these things on our students’ families and schools are really difficult to measure, but it often does produce stress and crises. So AFT again, they’re providing perspective with which the NAACP agrees , regardless of the politics of it all. We have to understand that parents want us to start with three things.

Kids say, teach them how to read and get them college and career ready. There are other important things, don’t get me wrong, but it starts there. And if we can’t do that, of course there will be various reactions both internal and external. So yes, these things are challenges and we see them. But what’s missing is the reality that there are also things we cannot see, things that lie beneath the surface. And today we want to touch on some of these things and even get into the deeper waters if you will.

So, let’s start with racism and reading science denial. A lot of definitions of racism. We’re going to use one created by Dr. Audrey Smedley of VCU. It’s helpful here in our context because it’s focused on practices and beliefs. She says that racism is essentially when we act like there’s a causal link between physical inheritance and intellect. So a popular societal belief is that kids are born smart, they’re born kind of smart, maybe kind of dumb and dump. Well, that’s a popular belief. It’s not often articulated, but it’s there. So the credit in that context and even more so the blame for student outcomes is at least partly assigned so this, to what they’re inheriting.

So if one has that view you’re unlikely to construct or you’re likely to construct an archetype for success and for failure. And it’s likely that that archetype is centered on race but also leverage other characteristics to interpret reality.