Blog Post

It is Time to Shift the Focus to Our Mutual Enemy – Illiteracy

Scholars in public and charter schools across the nation are teetering on the brink of a COVID academic cliff. The conversation is no longer about a summer slide but of a pandemic pit many of our children will not rebound from without focused, strategic, and coordinated effort. A yawning literacy gap persists and is expanding for children from historically marginalized groups, as well as for some of our children who are forced to navigate the war zone of poverty daily. Why is that the case?

The stark reality is underscored by the anguished echoes of those wounded by systemic racism and classism from the past. COVID-19 has outlined the white elephant in the front room in bold strokes of reality that cannot be ignored by citizens and decision makers of our state and nation who are committed to making wrong things right. Fallout from the pandemic puts our most economically vulnerable children at risk for seismic opportunity gaps they will not recover from unless we act collectively with vision and boldness, and with the science of reading and evidence-based practices paving the path ahead.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created incalculable academic collateral damage. This is the time to ensure that we are investing in the future of our country by prioritizing the needs of hardworking educators who shape the future of our children. Literacy must serve as the compass they leverage expertly and press into the hands of every scholar, equipping them to successfully grapple with the challenges we confront today and the new dilemmas we will be challenged by in the future.

Collectively, we must resolve that regardless of race or class status literacy will lead the way. A united, resolute commitment will put a crucial piece of the puzzle into place. By unlocking literacy, we unlock readiness for the workforce and success for a lifetime for children and adults. Gallup recently published a study that indicates that if every adult in the greater Houston metropolitan area could read at a sixth-grade level, the accomplishment would drive billions of dollars in funding—for just one metropolitan city alone. Everyone wins when literacy leads the way.

I hope that all states will recognize that compulsory attendance is an empty expectation for parents, and that the promise of college readiness is smoke and mirrors unless literacy is a protected social right and expectation every family can count on for their children. Families need a new social contract our country honors and delivers on. I believe in the promise of public schools to support and sustain our democracy, and foundational to that promise is literacy success for all.

Superintendents, you have the right to demand that universities produce teachers and leaders who are apprenticed to operate as diagnostic and prescriptive practitioners of the science of reading. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently stated that teacher preparation programs across the nation are making some progress in preparing teachers to use the most effective methods when teaching kids how to read. However, is that progress fast enough? For example, in my home state, according to the NCTQ, in general, Texas programs are stagnating. As a result, Texas’s national ranking (the average score of its 57 traditional programs) has dropped from 12th in the nation to 21st in the new edition of the NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review. What will you communicate to those leading colleges of education about what you expect from newly graduated educators entering your system? Will they be equipped to move the needle where literacy is concerned in your district?  What about the same expectations for those preparing teachers through alternative certification programs?

Future teachers, you have the right to invest in universities that will equip you for success instead of maintaining philosophies that ultimately harm the children you are called to serve. Why should you pay tuition for poor preparation programs? And citizens, why should your tax dollars be invested in universities that fail to prepare teachers to help our scholars succeed at their first job, which is learning to read? We should elevate expectations so that universities act with a sense of urgency to reinvent how not only teachers but also leaders are prepared to apply the science of reading. It is unconscionable to set leaders and teachers up for ineffective professional practice when we can equip them with evidence-based practices.

Local communities have the right to demand that universities apprentice superintendents and administrators to responsibly scale the science of reading in their districts. Examples exist and provide evidence that it is possible to transform systems, even for those challenged by the impact of poverty. Those examples prove that children can learn to read at advanced levels regardless of race, social status, or dialect or language they are loved in.

I want to challenge you to advocate for literacy success for all within your realm of influence until the science of reading is the norm and not the exception across our country. I want to challenge you as a concerned citizen to do your part to ensure that children with the condition of dyslexia are identified early and receive treatment. Early identification of reading disabilities and swift and effective intervention is the treatment that prevents a descent into functional illiteracy. Scaling the work of literacy responsibly creates a safety net that keeps children from plummeting into the school-to-prison pipeline.

We are a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that fact is underscored by functional illiteracy. Of adjudicated youth, 85 percent are functionally illiterate. Of prison inmates, 45–50 percent have dyslexia. Thus, the First Step Act was established by the Trump administration to screen inmates for dyslexia. What if the first step was early identification as a complement to identifying inmates whose recidivism decreases dramatically if they learn to read?

Who sits in those prisons? People from historically marginalized groups who are dealing with the effects of systemic racism and classism. They are the people whose parents could not afford therapy and whose districts did not offer evidence-based intervention services. On average, states across the nation invest three times more taxpayer money to incarcerate an individual than to educate a child. Squandered human potential becomes explicit at the intersection of functional illiteracy and incarceration. We can collectively clear a pathway to a promising future for our most precious treasure — our children. They are waiting in the wings and should be prepared to take their place at the table of hope we prepare for them as moral allies.

This is the moment to embrace a vision of becoming the most literate country in the world. All children must be equipped to read in the language of power, write in the language of power, and express their ideas in the language of power. The seeds of change are in our hands, and we will reap a rich harvest by cultivating the proven science of reading. When children are taught the English language in a structured, systematic, explicit, and cumulative way, access to words can positively transform their future. It is possible to scale the work of literacy responsibly as a moral imperative in a twenty-first-century knowledge economy. This is a moon shot worth reaching for and demanding with a united vision. If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can teach our children to read!

Dr. Tracy Weeden is the President/CEO at Neuhaus Education Center, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting reading success for all by providing evidence-based professional development to educators, information and resources to parents, and direct services to adult learners

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