Blog Post

The Biggest Threat to Our Democracy: Illiteracy and the Science-Deniers Who Contribute to it


Kareem WeaverBy Kareem Weaver, Member of Education Committee, NAACP, Oakland Branch

It turns out that we know exactly why Johnny can’t read. However, instead of using the brain science and overwhelming research consensus, we’re still using strategies that reflect our own biases and theories. Johnny is left to fend for himself, and the only time he may receive the support he needs is when he reaches the point of crisis.

In 2000, the federal government responded to the country’s reading confusion by producing the seminal work in the field. The National Reading Panel’s conclusions were clear: students need direct, explicit instruction that teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Depending on your cultural flavor, one can call this Structured Literacy or the Marva Collins way, but it’s simply evidence-based practices which leverage research.

However, our educational institutions are failing to implement the Reading Panel’s findings. University training has been inadequate, forcing K-12 systems to fill classrooms with under-prepared teachers who then receive little support, training, or aligned materials. The woeful results are as predictable as the day is long.

In December of 2018, President Trump took a significant step towards reforming our criminal justice system when he signed The First Step Act. The law also includes provisions for screening inmates for dyslexia (which California’s Department of Education says is one of the main causes of low reading scores) and provides the support needed by those who have dyslexia to earn a GED.

So, here’s the rub… People shouldn’t have to go to prison to get the help they need. Uncle Sam is doing what the K-12 and educator preparation programs have failed to do.

As the law suggests, we already have the know-how to identify and help people who struggle with reading. And while not all struggling readers are dyslexic, their need for direct, Structured Literacy instruction makes dyslexic students the proverbial canaries in the coal mine; their success is a great indicator as to whether all students are being provided with effective, research-based instruction.

Frankly, it really shouldn’t take the NAACP getting involved. But, given that less than 50% of California’s students are meeting the reading standard, and the federal penitentiary is the only place they can be assured of getting help, we all need to come together to stop the madness. While educators debate the politics of reading, Johnny has literally become their political prisoner. Studies have shown that nearly 80% of inmates are functionally illiterate and 47-50% have dyslexia.

The NAACP, in Oakland, has made literacy our main educational focus. We must ensure the effectiveness of our institutions, protect our democracy, and save our children. We must have full and complete literacy, now. It’s time to stop the blaming and politicization. Let’s demand direct, Structured Literacy instruction taught by well-prepared teachers who have the materials and support they need.

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