There’s an old joke about a chemist, a physicist, and an economist stranded on a desert island with only a sealed can of food. The chemist and physicist each propose their own ideas about how to open the can. The punch line comes from the economist, who proffers: “First, assume a can opener.”

I’ve been brooding over this joke while watching “antiracism” teaching—some might call it Critical Race Theory (CRT) or social justice—take over the American education world with Omicron-like speed. Lesson plans, books, tips for in-class activities, discussion points, and curricula swamp the teachers’ corner of the Internet. The proposals come from a metastasizing number of pedagogic entrepreneurs and activist groups, some savvy newcomers, some influential veterans like Black Lives Matter at School, Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), Teaching People’s History (the Zinn Education Project), the Racial Justice in Education Resource Guide (from the National Education Association), and, of course, the current star: the 1619 Project (the Pulitzer Center). To me, all these ideas seem like the ruminations of desert-island economists. They start with an impossible premise: that the students of these recommended texts actually know how to read.

I am overstating, but not by much. A significant number of American students are reading fluently and with understanding and are well on their way to becoming literate adults. But they are a minority. As of 2019, according to the National Association of Education Progress (NAEP), sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, 35 percent of fourth-graders were reading at or above proficiency levels; that means, to spell it out, that a strong majority—65 percent, to be exact—were less than proficient. In fact, 34 percent were reading, if you can call it that, below a basic level, barely able to decipher material suitable for kids their age. Eighth-graders don’t do much better. Only 34 percent of them are proficient; 27 percent were below-basic readers. Worse, those eighth-grade numbers represent a decline from 2017 for 31 states.

As is always the case in our crazy-quilt, multiracial, multicultural country, the picture varies, depending on which kids you’re looking at. If you categorize by states, the lowest scores can be found in Alabama and New Mexico, with just 21 percent of eighth-graders reading proficiently. The best thing to say about these results is that they make the highest-scoring state—Massachusetts, with 47 percent of students proficient—look like a success story rather than the mediocrity it is.

The findings that should really push antiracist educators to rethink their pedagogical assumptions are those for the nation’s black schoolchildren. Nationwide, 52 percent of black children read below basic in fourth grade. (Hispanics, at 45 percent, and Native Americans, at 50 percent, do almost as badly, but I’ll concentrate here on black students, since antiracism clearly centers on the plight of African-Americans.) The numbers in the nation’s majority-black cities are so low that they flirt with zero. In Baltimore, where 80 percent of the student body is black, 61 percent of these students are below basic; only 9 percent of fourth-graders and 10 percent of eighth-graders are reading proficiently. (The few white fourth-graders attending Charm City’s public schools score 36 points higher than their black classmates.) Detroit, the American city with the highest percentage of black residents, has the nation’s lowest fourth-grade reading scores; only 5 percent of Detroit fourth-graders scored at or above proficient. (Cleveland’s schools, also majority black, are only a few points ahead.)

In April 2020, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of former students suing Detroit schools for not providing an adequate education. The suit cited poor facilities and inadequate textbooks, but below-basic literacy skills were the primary academic complaint. One of the plaintiffs was a former Detroit public school student who went on to community college and ended up on academic probation, in need of a reading tutor. His story is typical enough as to be barely worth mentioning—except for the fact that he graduated at the top of his public high school class. And as if this isn’t bad enough, the numbers appear likely to get worse, with the impact of Covid-19 disruptions.

The tragedy for black children and their families, as well as a nation trying to reckon with racial disparities rooted in its own history, can’t be overstated. If you want to make sense of racial gaps in high school achievement, college attendance, graduation, adult income, and even incarceration, you could do worse than look at third-grade reading scores. Three-quarters of below-proficient readers in third grade remain below proficient in high school. Before third grade, children are learning to read; after that, they are reading to learn, in one well-known formulation. All future academic learning in humanities, social sciences, business, and, yes, STEM fields depends on confident, skilled reading. “The kids in the top reading group at age 8 are probably going to college. The kids in the bottom reading group probably aren’t,” as Fredrik deBoer, the iconoclastic author of The Cult of Smart, has put it. And the absence of a sheepskin is hardly the worst of it. Upward of 80 percent of adolescents in the juvenile justice system are poor readers, according to the Literacy Project Foundation. Over 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. It’s been said that authorities use third-grade reading scores to predict how many prison beds will be needed. That meme is probably apocryphal, but the sad fact is that it makes sense.

The irony would bring tears to the eyes of Martin Luther King, Jr. Before the Civil War, most Southern states had laws forbidding slaves from reading or writing. Enslaved men and women were known to risk whippings and death in order to learn their letters, sometimes with the aid of a sympathetic white but frequently on the strength of their own determination. “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” the most famous of those readers, Frederick Douglass, promised. What would he, or King, make of an education system that leaves more than half of twenty-first-century black kids barely literate?

“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free,” said Frederick Douglass. (Everett Collection/Newscom)
“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free,” said Frederick Douglass. (Everett Collection/Newscom)

Scour antiracist education sites on the Internet, and you’ll get the distinct impression that no one in the field has grasped the implications of this reality or that educating children in any familiar sense of the term was never the goal, anyway. In fact, a number of antiracist activists and educators have been blunt about their indifference to teaching reading. What else could it mean when the chancellor of the nation’s largest school system scorns “worship of the written word” as an imposition of white supremacy? In fairness, most educators are probably simply assuming the proverbial can opener—namely, competent readers who also have considerable background knowledge, including basic facts about the world and history. Learning for Justice, for instance, recommends a fourth-grade text about a woman named Helen Tsuchiya. Though Tsuchiya was born in the U.S., the site tells us, she was moved “to an internment camp surrounded by barbed wire after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” What are the chances that the fourth-grader reading at a basic level—never mind the majority of black children who are reading below basic—will be able to decipher words like internment, barbed wire, and Pearl Harbor, much less grasp their significance enough to facilitate comprehension? Progressive educators are not only failing to factor in the sad truth about students’ reading ability but also overlooking the fact that American students do even worse in geography and history than in reading.

Another lesson plan for elementary and middle school students, this one recommended in the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 portal, reveals a similar chasm between politicized pedagogical fantasy and student reality. “In this unit, students learn to identify underreported stories of migration, and what is missing from mainstream media representations of migrants’ experiences,” the plan reads. “They analyze nonfiction texts and images, practice identifying perspectives in media, and synthesize their learning to form a new understanding of migration. In their final project, students communicate how their perspective on migration has grown or changed through a creative project, original news story, or existing news story edited to provide a more holistic picture of migration.” The lesson’s unspoken purpose is to impress students with the putatively anti-immigrant slant of American news. But an elementary schooler probably doesn’t know what the “mainstream media” is and is even less likely to have read any of it. Basic readers will have difficulty deciphering words like migrant or immigration. (Unless they have family there, they also won’t know the location of Syria or Sweden, two of the immigrant countries mentioned in the lesson plan—there’s that geography problem again.) The same obstacles are bound to trip up the typical middle schooler; remember, 68 percent of eighth-graders can’t read proficiently. This is not education but indoctrination: teachers are being told to foist an opinion worthy of debate on ill-informed children, while denying them the capacity to evaluate it critically.

Social-justice educators would doubtless object that the catastrophic literacy rates of black students are solid proof of the structural racism and teacher bias that they’re intent on fighting. They would rightly observe that reading scores correlate with parental income and education; black children tend to come from less affluent and less educated homes, a fact at least partially tied to historical racism. But evidence that racial disadvantage should not be an obstacle to literacy is there for anyone who bothers to look. Nearly 60 percent of black children in New York City charter schools read proficiently; that’s true for only 35 percent of those in district schools. (And 80 percent of the kids in New York City charters are economically disadvantaged.) Unless someone can prove that district teachers are more racist than those at charters—an unlikely theory—it would seem that charters simply do a better job of teaching kids to read. The differences between states also point to a pedagogical, rather than white-supremacist, explanation for racial discrepancies. People might reasonably predict that poor Southern states would have lower overall reading scores than more affluent states in the Northeast, and they’d be right. But the Urban Institute has developed a nifty interactive chart that lets us compare states adjusting for race and poverty (or other variables). The counterintuitive results show that Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation and one with a dreadful racial history and an equally dreadful education record, is turning things around. The state is now more successful at teaching disadvantaged black children to read than top-ranked and affluent Massachusetts and New Jersey.

These successes are no mystery, but they do require a quick history of the nation’s long-simmering “reading wars.” For at least a generation now, American educators’ preferred approach to reading has been known as “whole language.” Whole language encourages teachers to do “shared” and “interactive” reading with children, to sight-read words that they’ve seen before, and to guess, with the help of illustrations and intuition, when they encounter an unfamiliar word. The guiding assumption is that reading is a natural process and teachers should just guide kids toward literacy. Children don’t need direct instruction to read any more than they need instruction to learn to talk.

Charts by Alberto Mena
Charts by Alberto Mena

But over recent decades, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and data-driven educators have reached a consensus that this is not what makes Johnny read. The beginning reader needs, first of all, to “de-code.” To accomplish that, teachers must systematically impart “phonemic awareness.” The shorthand for this approach is “phonics”—that is, the relation between the letters on the page and the sounds of speech. Children learn to blend those sounds, or phonemes, together into syllables, which they then combine into words. With practice, the process becomes fluent, even automatic, freeing up the bandwidth for a fuller comprehension of the meaning of the words. One example from journalist Emily Hanford, who has done some of the best work on reading science, succinctly captures the problem when children are not taught to decode. Hanford interviewed a group of adolescents reading at a third-grade level in a phonics-oriented class in a Houston juvenile detention center. She asked 17-year-old DeShawn what he is learning in his class. “Like ‘ph.’ It’s a ‘f,’ like physics,” DeShawn explained. “I never knew that.”

Though whole language has been failing many millions of schoolchildren like DeShawn (and some unknown number of middle-class kids whose parents can afford to spend money on private tutors to teach the decoding skills that their children should have learned in school), educators have been loath to give up their dreams. So they introduced a (supposedly) new approach with the benign-sounding name “balanced literacy.” In theory, balanced literacy blends the two methods of whole language and phonics; in practice, phonics gets short shrift. Few ed schools or teaching programs show student teachers how to teach phonics in the defined, logical progression necessary for students to catch on to the complexities of the English language. Basement-level reading scores haven’t budged.

Chart by Alberto Mena

Still, signs of change are evident. In 2013, legislators in Mississippi provided funding to start training the state’s teachers in the science of reading; I’ve already noted their encouraging results. Other states, including Florida, Colorado, and Tennessee, are gesturing toward taking reading science more seriously. And David Banks, New York City’s new schools chancellor, canceled his predecessor’s dismissal of the “white worship of the written word.” Teachers have been “teaching wrong” for 25 years, Banks said. “‘Balanced literacy’ has not worked for Black and Brown children. We’re going to go back to a phonetic approach to teaching.”

The good news comes with some cautions: first, for reasons no one understands, a significant minority of children will learn to read competently without getting any direct instruction in how to sound out words; their success continues to have the unintended consequence of providing balanced literacy supporters cover for their otherwise disastrous results. Second, phonics needs to be taught systematically from kindergarten through third grade; no one should expect solid results with a random sprinkling of “phonemic awareness” here and there, the practice in most balanced literacy classes. Third, learning how to decode is not everything; to become proficient readers, children also must know what words mean. They will, in other words, need to develop a rich vocabulary and varied background knowledge. Finally, intelligent teaching methods are not a panacea for racial and income disparities; no matter how well black children are taught to read, white children are still more likely to grow up with educated parents, which means that they will be hearing more vocabulary words, more complex language, and more useful information about the wider world. This problem can be solved over time but only if more disadvantaged kids are given the chance to pass on the benefits of their own literacy to their children.

The reading emergency should be the primary focus for educators, especially those in a position to help black children. Yet a growing number of school districts are interviewing prospective teachers, even those for elementary school, fixated on one question: “What have you done personally or professionally to be more antiracist?” The best answer to that question would be: “Teach black children how to read.” Better yet, change the question to “What’s the best way to teach reading?” and we might see some real racial progress.

Top Photo: Racial gaps in third-grade reading scores offer a window onto everything from college graduation rates to adult income levels. (imageBROKER/Jim West/Newscom)


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